Invisible Ink: No 177 - George McCutcheon


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The Independent Culture

Whimsy is hard to pull off. In the wrong hands it becomes fey and cloying. When it's done well it can create a loyal, lasting audience, as Terry Pratchett will tell you.

George Barr McCutcheon was born in 1866 in Lafayette, Indiana. His father had not received an education but recognised its importance and encouraged his sons to write. George's younger brother, John, became a celebrated cartoonist at a time when you could still make a decent living at that career. George preferred books and plays, and wrote about 50 novels that I can track down.

A gently romantic satirist, he penned six volumes set in the fictional Eastern European kingdom of Graustark, a few of which have now turned up online thanks to Project Gutenberg, the copyright-free publishing endeavour. The first Graustark novel was written in a single draft at around 1,000 words a day, and feels like it. The series is somewhat trying.

But after he had started these, McCutcheon wrote a book in 1902 that took on a life of its own and has remained popular ever since. It has been filmed at least seven times. Brewster's Millions is an ageless satire about a young man who is left a fortune on the condition that he spends part of it within a set time in order to inherit the full amount. The conditions of the will stipulate that he can't gamble it away or donate it to charity, and is not allowed to tell anyone what he's up to. Brewster quickly finds that spending a huge amount of money is harder than he thinks, and there's a race at the end to get rid of the last remaining coppers before the time runs out, in a sort of fiscal version of Around the World In Eighty Days.

McCutcheon, who died in 1928, repeatedly returned to the notion of kingdoms built away from the modern world. The strangest of these is undoubtedly West Wind Drift, in which the passengers aboard a modern ocean liner are shipwrecked on a desert island. They build homes, establish a government, create and enforce their own laws. Although there's little hope of rescue, they remain courageous through the years that follow. It's impossible to categorise – being romantic, exotic, naive, delicate, and more than slightly sinister. McCutcheon's output was phenomenal, but these two are the ones to read, as the rest have dated painfully and are – altogether now – out of print.