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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Abraham Lincoln’s Favorite Game

In The Blotting Book by E. F. Benson, one of the characters, a lawyer who manages another character’s estate, visits his club one evening.  While others there engage in various types of exercise, or play games, he prefers to sit back and relax.  I was intrigued by the mention of Bagatelle, so I did a little research.  I’m not sure if E. F. Benson played Bagatelle, but his fellow English author Charles Dickens was fond of the game, and so was a certain American statesman you might have heard of.  His name was Abraham Lincoln.

Perhaps I’m going out on a limb with my title, but a newspaper cartoon from 1864 depicts the American Presidential race that year in terms of a game of Bagatelle.  As Lincoln leans over the table, preparing to make his shot, he assures his running mate, Andrew Johnson, that he’ll do his best on The Union Board.  “I can do no more,” he asserts.  Johnson encourages him, “Hurrah for our side, go ahead Old Abe!  Oh ain’t he bully on the Bagatelle!”  Other important national characters are there, including Democratic nominee George McClellan, who sits atop a crumbling Chicago “Peace” platform that Lincoln has just nudged with his foot.  His running mate George H. Pendleton retorts, "O see here.  We can’t stand this!  Old Abe's getting in all the pots on the board.”  Others, such as Representative Vallandigham and Union general Ulysses S. Grant, also comment on the game.  Of course, the artist uses the game as a paradigm for commenting on the ongoing Civil War, and how that will impact the presidential election.

We all know how the Civil War turned out.  President Lincoln won reelection thanks largely to the soldiers’ vote, in a year when both major political parties were divided over whether the Union should continue the war, or allow the South to withdraw.  What I hadn’t known was that Lincoln was an aficionado of Bagatelle, or even what the game was.

In “Curbing My Addiction,” I discussed my worries that my love for physical books was getting out of hand, and so I was reading an e-book on my computer for the first time.  One of the pluses, I found, was the ability to instantly research any term I didn’t recognize.  Unlike some other terms however, Bagatelle wasn’t that easy to research.  This was due to the fact that how one played the game varied by region, and also the rules of play evolved with time.  Some variants of the game better resemble pinball or pachinko, and some articles suggest that the game is related to miniature golf.  Finally, I found a nine-minute video that explained a version called Victorian Bagatelle, and this helped me understand a lot of the dialogue in the Abraham Lincoln comic. 

Perhaps it wasn’t important to learn about Bagatelle, as few people play it anymore.  (It seems that a few clubs in England still do).  But it was interesting to learn about this game that many seem to have forgotten, and enhances my understanding of the era in which Benson’s novel is set.  I would never have put down a physical book to look up Bagatelle, but because I was reading it on the computer, and could easily jump to the Internet and look the term up, I embarked on a journey that left me with a better understanding of Abraham Lincoln, American history, and life in England in the early twentieth century. 

I’ll be attending the World Fantasy Convention in England later this year.  Interestingly, the convention is being held in Brighton, where The Blotting Book is set.  I don’t know about you, but I think it’d be a hoot to play a game of Bagatelle there with another fan of E. F. Benson.  Even if, unlike Old Abe, I can’t get in all the pots on the board.

Dragon Dave

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