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Thursday, October 12, 2006

A funny story that's not so funny

Reading the paper from 100 years ago provides a valuable history lesson every day. It is a shame that I started this project so late in life, as it has put a lot of disparate things in a new perspective, from economics to sports to politics to culture.

The Oct. 12, 1906 NYT reports on "Brewster's Millions, a dramatization of George Barr McCutcheon's story...was played for the first time at the Taylor Opera House last night..."

Proving once again that history starts when you were born, the only "Brewster's Millions" I am/was familiar with was the Richard Pryor adaptation in 1985. However, the novel was written in 1902, the first play was in 1906 and the story has been set to film six (yes, six) times (Wikipedia entry).

One (the only?) lesson I remember from my college American Literature class was something the professor said one day: "There are only two types of stories: either a stranger comes to town, or someone goes on a trip." On a certain level, the statement is true - the "trip" can be physical, mental, or a combination of the two. The "stranger" can be physical, cultural, or anything. Sometimes statements are too general to mean much, but in this case I think the characterization is true.

That said, there would seem to be infinite possible variations on the two types of stories, and yet I suppose some stories are just too good to not be re-created over and over (that, or modern writers are too lazy or untalented to come up with better stories).

Here's the plot outline according to the NYT:
Brewster's grandfather, after leaving Brewster's mother badly, leaves him a million. The mother's brother, a wealthy miner, dies and leaves $7,000,000 to Brewster only upon the condition that he spend legitimately the million the hated grandfather had willed to him. He must tell no one what he is doing, but must dispose of the money logically, without unnecessary waste. Giving it away to libraries, for building churches, or anything of that sort is "barred:" the watchword is "spend."

Brewster enlists a bunch of friends in a partnership to assist him in getting rid of the money , and his enforced secrecy makes many a laughable situation.

He finally succeeds in cleaning up his financial house, takes receipts for every cent, and wins the uncle's legacy.


The lesson is important because money in an of itself is not that important. Yes money might be a store of value, but it's main role is as a means of exchange. The exchange of the efforts of one person for the efforts of another person. The cruel intentions of the wealthy uncle is for Brewster to convert the life efforts of the grandfather, represented in $1 million, into nothing; to reduce the legacy of the grandfather to nothing.

This, as it turns out, is not an easy thing to do. This is because the money itself represents effort but when it is used in a transaction for a good or service, that good or service represents human effort. It is a tricky thing to spend money on things that have no inherent value (not a nod to the labor theory of value folks).

While the story might be funny on the surface, and definitely Pryor made it seem funny, the story is not funny at all. It is the intentional annihilation of the legacy of the efforts of one man in vengeance. The uncle's "bribe" of $7 million, which represented in part or whole his accumulated life efforts, is traded for the destruction of the accumulated life efforts of the grandfather. The uncle was unable to exact his vengeance in life and so outsources the vengeance to his nephew. In that light, it seems to be that the story is not funny at all.

Indeed, the squandering of any inheritance is egregiously disrespectful of the individual who bequeathed. I might admit that unintentional squandering is less morally repugnant than the intentional flavor. Yet, in my mind, the recipient of a legacy owes the deceased more than the conversion of a lifetime of effort into a few trips to Las Vegas and a new car.

As I said, I didn't realize the story was that old. Yes, you can learn something new every day.

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