Friday, June 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 59: Charles W. Chesnutt, Baxter’s Procrustes (#41)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "Baxter’s Procrustes" (1904) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays:

"Procrustes," besides sounding like a vaguely disreputable political position, is the name of a Greek mythical figure who dwelled on a major Greek road and would invite travelers to stay the night; only he so desired things to fit perfectly that he would stretch people out to fit the bed or cut off their legs until they fit. (If he ever cut off too much and then had to stretch but stretched too much, etc., we could say Greek myths also gave us the "eight hot dogs, six hot dog buns" problem.)

So when we read about a club named after the Bodleian and committed to books--thought they also have an excellent pipe collection--we might have some inkling that these are people who have a Procrustean allegiance to form: as long as the square peg fits into the hole, it doesn't really matter what the peg is made of. We get this idea not just from the title, but from a number of hints along the way:
[the club's collection of book-related artifacts includes] a paperweight which once belonged to Goethe, a lead pencil used by Emerson, an autograph letter of Matthew Arnold, and a chip from a tree felled by Mr. Gladstone.
That is, no actual books.
With light, curly hair, fair complexion, and gray eyes, one would have expected Baxter to be genial of temper, with a tendency toward wordiness of speech.
Surprise, surprise--he ain't so genial; and even the perfectly-pleased-with-himself narrator notes there's some slippage between what's on the outside and what's on the inside.

So when Baxter is asked to give his poem "Procrustes" to be made into a book, and everyone pays attention to the form of the book rather than the contents, Baxter either gets his revenge, proves his point, or plays a joke by getting a blank book printed up. And no one will check because, like all great collectors, they want to keep the book in "mint in box" condition. But then, the joke is on him: even after his trick is revealed, the book club decides that this is a fine situation, since all they care about is the outside of the books. As the president of the club notes,
To the true collector, a book is a work of art, of which the contents are no more important than the words of an opera.
So here's a story where everyone goes away happy or at least goes away. Baxter played his joke; and the club is fine with their narrow interest in externals. Which is probably why the LoA header quotes some people on how the satire here is deft and underplayed and gentle and soft-spoken.

Of course, the elephant in the smoking room here is race, a topic on which Chesnutt has thought and written quite a lot. 

(Sidenote: There's a conservative charge that liberal identity politics is really racist because we won't allow race to be forgotten; that, for instance, we read Chesnutt as dealing with race because we won't let a black man not talk about race. As a liberal, the real problem I see is not that we read race into the work of a black man who wrote extensively on race relations and--ahem--wasn't allowed into a book club because of his race; the problem is that we give white men a pass on this topic. Memo to people: Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Steinbeck, etc., all wrote about race. And, yes, the fact that the book club that Chesnutt wanted to and eventually did join still doesn't accept women raises the necessary issue of sex/gender, which is pretty notable here by its absence. Do these smokers read or even acknowledge books by women?)

It's easy to read this as ribbing a certain sort of pseudo-book lover; but people who care more about the externals than the internals is also clearly an issue of race for Chesnutt. If you've read Chesnutt's delicious Marrow of Tradition, this might call to mind the separation in the train car by race, which means that all the upper-class blacks have to mix with lower-class blacks, even though they have more in common with the upper-class whites. 

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