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3:AM Cult Hero: George Barr McCutcheon

By Robert O’Connor.


George Barr McCutcheon was born in Indiana, and spent his childhood moving around Tippecanoe County, as his father took on many jobs. His father had little formal education, but stressed the value of literature and encouraged George and his younger brother John to write. John later became an influential political cartoonist and a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

They both attended Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, where George was roommates with George Ade. He eventually became the editor of the Lafayette Daily Courier and wrote The Wired End, a serialized novelette that satirizes life on the Wabash river.

His first novel was Graustark, published in 1901. It’s the story of how an American accidentally meets the princess of Graustark. He travels to its capital, Edelweiss and becomes mixed up in the political drama between it and its neighboring state Axphain.

It may have been inspired by Anthony Hope’s similar tale, The Prisoner of Zenda and its fictional country Ruritania, published seven years earlier. Like Ruritania, Graustark is placed in an ambiguous spot on a map – and its location moves as the books go on. Graustark was a huge success, just as Zenda was. McCutcheon wrote five more sequels, but was always frustrated by its success, since the books overshadowed his other works.

However, his second book, which is not a Graustark novel, has become famous due to its adaptation to the stage and later to film. Brewsters Millions, which came out a year after Graustark, is about an ordinary man who inherits a million dollars from his grandfather, but is offered seven million by an eccentric uncle. However, to get the seven million, he has to spend every cent of the million he earned from his grandfather and have no assets or goods except the clothes on his back by the time the year is up. Lawyers are present to see that the letter of the will is followed.

The book was adapted into a play that premiered in 1906, and has been adapted into a film nine times, with one version directed by Cecil B. DeMille and another with Richard Pryor in the title role.

McCutcheon’s books were about ordinary people stumbling into extraordinary circumstances, and through their good character are able to succeed. He was not above gentle satire and general silliness, though.

MORE: Article, “Our Land, Our Literature” series at Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry, Muncie, Ind. // Works, Project Gutenberg // “SERIAL SYSTEM HURTS OUR NOVELS; And Too Many American Writers Want to Own Automobiles Says George Barr McCutcheon” by Joyce Kilmer, New York Times Magazine, Aug. 1, 1915 // Inventory of papers, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas – Austin // McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #31 (2009) had a Graustark story in it, “Feast and Villains” by John Brandon

First posted: Thursday, March 24th, 2011.

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