Friday, October 8, 2010

Baxter’s Procrustes

Charles W. Chesnutt (1858–1932)
From Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays

In 1899 the Rowfant Club of Cleveland, an exclusive association of book collectors, issued a deluxe limited edition of the story collection The Conjure Woman, which had been written by city resident Charles W. Chesnutt and published earlier that year by Houghton, Mifflin. The author himself hoped to join the club and three years later applied for membership, only to be denied because “one or two members thought the time hadn’t come” for admitting black members to their ranks.

So Chesnutt did what any self-respecting author would do when confronted by such an injustice: he wrote a story satirizing the members of the club. Published in 1904, “Baxter’s Procrustes” would prove to be one of his most successful stories and is still considered among his best, in large part because Chesnutt’s mockery is, for the most part, even-tempered; in biographer William L. Andrew’s words, although the club’s “vulnerable idiosyncrasies” are tenaciously exposed, “the satiric underthrust is deftly made but well concealed indeed.”

The Rowfant Club’s members must not have been too offended by Chesnutt’s riposte; in 1910, they reconsidered their decision and admitted him as the first African American member of the club. (A century later, the club still exists, but it remains resolutely men-only.) Helen Chesnutt, in her biography of her father, recalled the pleasure he took in “Saturday nights at the Rowfant Club. . . . There he basked in the warm rays of friendship for which his lonely heart had yearned in the days of his youth in North Carolina.” Over the course of the next decade, he delivered lectures on Alexander Dumas, George Meredith, and other literary figures.

But there’s a delightful coda to this real-life happy ending: in an assessment of “Baxter’s Procrustes,” Chesnutt scholar Charles Duncan relates that, in 1966, the Rowfant Club itself reprinted the story in a limited edition of 150 copies. Understanding fully the irony of publishing a rare collector’s edition of a story mocking collectors of rare editions, the author of the book’s introduction admits that Chesnutt delivers “a soft-spoken ribbing of all whose hearts belong more to the physical world of rare tomes than to their spiritual and intellectual contents.”

Notes: Procrustes is the name of a mythical highwayman who tied victims to a bed, fitting them to its length by stretching them or cutting off their legs. Thus, something is Procrustean if it is senselessly made to fit some arbitrary standard. Joseph Jefferson, entioned in the first paragraph, was a famous American actor of the late nineteenth century. Doublures, referred to twice in the story, are ornamental linings on the inner side of a book cover.

*   *   *
Baxter’s Procrustes is one of the publications of the Bodleian Club. The Bodleian Club is composed of gentlemen of culture, who are interested in books and book-collecting. It was named, very obviously, after the famous library of the same name, and not only became in our city a sort of shrine for local worshipers of fine bindings and rare editions, but was visited occasionally by pilgrims from afar. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.


Anonymous said...

A good example of fine art not aging. A century old, and the fine edge of the weapon is not yet dulled. Years ago I wanted to read poems by a campus author and the university library only had one uncut copy copy in the Poetry Room. I did not draw the conclusion that this poet must be very fine, only that the library didn't feel it worth its while to invest in an additional copy. Never have read the poems.

Carl Weitman said...

In addition to everything else, Charles Chesnutt was a humorist with a proclivity for wordplay, and he himself was a collector of fine bindings.

Then consider that Baxter means baker, and consider the word "crust" inside the word Procrustes: Baker's Crust = Fine Binding.

Also consider that Chesnutt was spoofing himself in this short story, with regard with both interests and personal quirks.

None of this is meant to take anything else away from the story or its implications.

Alexa🐺Penn said...

Thank you so much for introducing me to such an articulate and sensitive writer. I had never heard of him and I should have having been active during the civil rights movement. This story is composed so similarly to Henry James - closely written and tight, moving with slight changes to the final outcome. How hard it has been for some people in history with no one to champion them. Well, Chestnutt has done this beautifully. Looking forward to reading more :]

Alejandro Jenkins said...

I encountered this story by chance many years ago, in college. It has since remained one of my personal favorites. It isn't just a satire on book collecting. It's a subtle and enigmatic work of art, in which the attack on book collectors serves as a framing device. Baxter's pessimism, the terrifying conviction that it would be better not to exist, is clearly at the heart of the story, though so lightly approached. It's also intensely American in its preoccupation with the frontier between the life of the mind and simple snobbery. Indeed, one can see the story as part of an American comedic tradition that stretches to the TV sitcom _Frasier_, and beyond.