Wednesday, August 8, 2012

"Baxter's Procrustes" by Charles W. Chesnutt, Library of America

Photos: Charles Chesnutt in 1898, and his library in his Cleveland home at 64 Brenton Street in, I'm guessing, the mid- to late-1800s.  Both are from his Wikipedia site, as is the rest of this paragraph, which creates pause:  "Chesnutt was born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Andrew Chesnutt and Ann Maria (née Sampson) Chesnutt, both "free persons of color" from Fayetteville, North Carolina. His paternal grandfather was known to be a white slaveholder and, based on his appearance, Chesnutt likely had other white ancestors. He claimed to be seven-eighths white, and identified as African American. Given his overwhelming European ancestry, Chesnutt could "pass" as a white man, although he never chose to do so. In the 19th century and in many southern states at the time of his birth, Chesnutt was considered legally white. Under the one drop rule later adopted into law by the 1920s in most of the South, he would have been classified as legally black because of having some known African ancestry."  Check out Chesnutt's Wikipedia page for other interesting things about an interesting guy during interesting times.  A talented and creative author could not make up the "one drop rule."

I subscribe to weekly Library of America emails, each of which highlight a short story, short novel, article, or other piece of writing that the Library of America has collected in a volume of that author.  I own a couple of these, and can say that they are worth the price--though a high price it is.  I didn't say I could afford it; I just said each was worth it.

I have fallen literally a year or more behind on these weekly emails, and so, as a new self-directive of finishing what I've already started, I have (hopefully permanently) decided to read each and every single one of them that have backlogged.  I have written about these before, somewhere.  A continually popular blog entry has been "Paste," by Henry James, which you can read on my blog here.  This one entry has gotten more pageviews than most of my Stephen King blogs, for reasons I cannot begin to tell you.

So the story for Week #41 is "Baxter's Procrustes" by Charles Chesnutt.  The blurb about the history of this story is interesting.  It seems that the author, an up-and-coming short story writer, essayist, novelist and journalist at the time (circa 1900; story published in 1904), was quite the bibliophile and wanted to join an elegant and elitist book club in his home city.  This club has a smoking room, a pipe room (each new member must offer a different type of pipe already in the club's collection), a library, and its own small publisher, which produces a limited edition (of usually fewer than 150 copies) of very expensive, high end books.  These copies are given to the members, or auctioned, and often go for very high prices, which is the goal to begin with: the club does not collect or produce or discuss cheap books.  At any rate, Chesnutt, the author, got turned down for admittance into this club, solely because he was African-American.

He did what any decent writer would do when pissed off at something: he wrote about it, with extreme derision.  By making fun of such clubs, and of its members, he was, of course, also making fun of himself, as he very much wanted to be a member.  He was okay with this.  In the end, he was admitted into this club a few years later, and the club even made a limited edition of his own work, including this story, which made the self-appreciated irony come full-circle.

The story is old enough to be found for free on the internet.  The one I get is here.  It is worth reading, and only thirteen short pages.  Skip the following paragraphs if you're going to read it, but come back after you have.

The story is purposely written in high-falutin' language, as that's the point of the mockery.  The men basically sound like everyone you've ever heard in any Masters class, or in a philosophical meeting (I have a philosophy degree, and I often sound like that, very professorial, so I would know!), or in any self-appreciated group of self-appreciated men and women who think they're brilliant and who are very happy with their self-perceived brilliance.  (Now that I say this, I realize this song is probably about me.)

So this member of such a club, Baxter, who disdains such clubs, and such members, and who has joined this club, apparently, so he can disdain it, and its members, is nominated to be the writer of the next limited edition.  He writes poems that are basically disdainful of everyone and everything, and apparently they're very good, and everybody knows this because nobody has read them.  That's how you know they're of the highest literary quality, because nobody reads them, and nobody understands them.  (There's an odd, and small, amount of truth to this.  I'm thinking now of James Joyce.)

Being the disdainful guy that he is, he pulls a ruse.  He submits a manuscript for the printing.  As usual, the members keep them wrapped, and don't read them, and soon the expectations are so high that the extra copies sell well at auction, and nobody opens them and reads them because that would immediately lower their value.  There is ironic truth to this: A baseball card set, say 1980 Topps, is worth much more in the unopened factory box than it is in an opened factory box, and the least valuable set is one in which the collector has put together, one card at a time, from yard sales, dealers, etc.  It's still all the same cards, and the condition may hypothetically--but never in reality--be the same as an unopened box, but the unopened box has the, shall I say, virginal quality of never having been opened, so the quality of the cards inside is guaranteed to be in the best condition--if indeed the set is in there at all.  And you're the owner of something that no one else--including you--has ever opened and fully seen.  It's a control, power and pride thing, I guess, on a low scale.  And, as the quality of the baseball card is often more important than the actual player on it, so is the case with limited edition books: the quality of the book is often more important than the quality of the writing in it.

To emphasize this last point, Baxter, as it turned out (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) submitted a blank manuscript, but has made a helluva great-looking and high-quality book.  The members (the story is told by a club member responsible for publishing to the group a critique of the book) are so enamored by the quality of the book itself, and its monetary value, that they never open it, even the guy who was supposed to give a critique of it.  Yet he gave the critique, and answered questions about the book, by utilizing what he knew of Baxter's other writing, and beliefs, and attitude, and mixing all that in with a high dose of intellectual-sounding jabberwocky, so that he came across as a very sophisticated critic and genius, without having ever opened the book.  (Again, those of you who've been in upper-level classes in high school or college know how very easy this is to do.)

Finally, a visitor to the group picks up a book that Baxter brought to read from (the author is obligated to read from his work to the group after the critique and accolades have died down) and opens it--and realizes that the well-made book is completely empty inside.  There's an uproar, of course, and Baxter offers to return everyone's money, or to produce an actual collection of his poems, which really do exist.  Everyone gets his money back, but then another curious thing happens: most of the members throw their copies into the fire, or return them with angry notes inside to the author (thereby ruining the book's quality)--and soon there are but a handful of copies left.  Because of the scarcity, and the very high-level quality of the book itself, plus now the infamy surrounding it, the book skyrockets in value, so that those who still own them have suddenly made a huge profit, if they'd ever sell it, which they wouldn't because it's now so infamous and valuable--and just as empty as before.

A really creative, ironic and very true story, when you think about it.  It's got real-life applications everywhere.  Highly recommended, and kudos (I guess) to the real-life club that published a limited-edition mockery of itself.  But, then, that shows the extreme self-appreciation I mentioned before.  Well, whatever.


  1. Fascinating how the book in question was believed to be so valuable based on it's appearance, but once the ruse was revealed suddenly gained popularity and value from now being a rare commodity albeit still just an empty book.

    I think a similar philosophy can apply to people in general. Finding little value in actual content but rather in something (or someone) untarnished or great-looking. The pretty outer shell may distract from what's really void of substance.

    Interesting blog!

    1. Thanks, Diane. I agree; the story is very much an extended metaphor about people, about how many are seen as valuable just by their outside shell, and how their inside, if you will, is not only not judged as part of the overall essence of the person, but isn't even considered relevant enough to open to begin with!

      Or, put another way: Who's got the better chance of getting a book published right now, one of us, or one of the "stars" of Jersey Shore?

    2. This is a subject matter I am all too painfully familiar with, but I'll save my angry rant for my own blog entry. Of course, the "stars" of the Jersey Shore would get a book published. It's already happened. And these "stars" are all miserable people, mind you. But society would rather read about their drunken asinine behavior than something worthy of reading which I firmly believe you or I (or just about anyone with writing skills) can produce. It's the sad state of things. I believe those of us who were not "lucky" enough to have these ascetically pleasing attributes have to fight twice as hard with lesser results all the time. It's not a bad attitude, it's just the way it is. Am I bitter much? You betcha.

    3. Indeed so. Anyone else find it interesting and brave that in a severely racist time, a man who looked white (and who would therefore be safer, one would assume) refused to hide his racial background? And can you believe that there was actually a "One Drop Rule" passed by local and national supreme courts?