by: Charles W. Chesnutt
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. The Bodleian has entertained Mark Twain,
Joseph Jefferson, and other literary and histrionic celebrities.
It possesses quite a collection of personal mementos of
distinguished authors, among them 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. Its library contains a number of rare books, including
a fine collection on chess, of which game several of the members
are enthusiastic devotees.
The activities of the club are not, however, confined entirely to
books. We have a very handsome clubhouse, and much taste and
discrimination have been exercised in its adornment. There are
many good paintings, including portraits of the various presidents
of the club, which adorn the entrance hall. After books, perhaps
the most distinctive feature of the club is our collection of
pipes. In a large rack in the smoking-room--really a superfluity,
since smoking is permitted all over the house--is as complete an
assortment of pipes as perhaps exists in the civilized world.
Indeed, it is an unwritten rule of the club that no one is
eligible for membership who cannot produce a new variety of pipe,
which is filed with his application for membership, and, if he
passes, deposited with the club collection, he, however, retaining
the title in himself. Once a year, upon the anniversary of the
death of Sir Walter Raleigh, who it will be remembered, first
introduced tobacco into England, the full membership of the club,
as a rule, turns out. A large supply of the very best smoking
mixture is laid in. At nine o'clock sharp each member takes his
pipe from the rack, fills it with tobacco, and then the whole
club, with the president at the head, all smoking furiously, march
in solemn procession from room to room, upstairs and downstairs,
making the tour of the clubhouse and returning to the smoking-
room. The president then delivers an address, and each member is
called upon to say something, either by way of a quotation or an
original sentiment, in praise of the virtues of nicotine. This
ceremony--facetiously known as "hitting the pipe"--being thus
concluded, the membership pipes are carefully cleaned out and
replaced in the club rack.
As I have said, however, the raison d'etre of the club, and the
feature upon which its fame chiefly rests, is its collection of
rare books, and of these by far the most interesting are its own
publications. Even its catalogues are works of art, published in
numbered editions, and sought by libraries and book-collectors.
Early in its history it began the occasional publication of books
which should meet the club standard,--books in which emphasis
should be laid upon the qualities that make a book valuable in the
eyes of collectors. Of these, age could not, of course, be
imparted, but in the matter of fine and curious bindings, of hand-
made linen papers, of uncut or deckle edges, of wide margins and
limited editions, the club could control its own publications.
The matter of contents was, it must be confessed, a less important
consideration. At first it was felt by the publishing committee
that nothing but the finest products of the human mind should be
selected for enshrinement in the beautiful volumes which the club
should issue. The length of the work was an important
consideration,--long things were not compatible with wide margins
and graceful slenderness. For instance, we brought out
Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, an essay by Emerson, and another by
Thoreau. Our Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was Heron-Allen's
translation of the original MS in the Bodleian Library at Oxford,
which, though less poetical than FitzGerald's, was not so common.
Several years ago we began to publish the works of our own
members. Bascom's Essay on Pipes was a very creditable
performance. It was published in a limited edition of one hundred
copies, and since it had not previously appeared elsewhere and was
copyrighted by the club, it was sufficiently rare to be valuable
for that reason. The second publication of local origin was
I have omitted to say that once or twice a year, at a meeting of
which notice has been given, an auction is held at the Bodleian.
The members of the club send in their duplicate copies, or books
they for any reason wish to dispose of, which are auctioned off to
the highest bidder. At these sales, which are well attended, the
club's publications have of recent years formed the leading
feature. Three years ago, number three of Bascom's Essay on Pipes
sold for fifteen dollars;--the original cost of publication was
one dollar and seventy-five cents. Later in the evening an uncut
copy of the same brought thirty dollars. At the next auction the
price of the cut copy was run up to twenty-five dollars, while the
uncut copy was knocked down at seventy-five dollars. The club had
always appreciated the value of uncut copies, but this financial
indorsement enhanced their desirability immensely. This rise in
the Essay on Pipes was not without a sympathetic effect upon all
the club publications. The Emerson essay rose from three dollars
to seventeen, and the Thoreau, being by an author less widely
read, and, by his own confession commercially unsuccessful,
brought a somewhat higher figure. The prices, thus inflated, were
not permitted to come down appreciably. Since every member of the
club possessed one or more of these valuable editions, they were
all manifestly interested in keeping up the price. The
publication, however, which brought the highest prices, and, but
for the sober second thought, might have wrecked the whole system,
was Baxter's Procrustes.
Baxter was, perhaps, the most scholarly member of the club. A
graduate of Harvard, he had traveled extensively, had read widely,
and while not so enthusiastic a collector as some of us, possessed
as fine a private library as any man of his age in the city. He
was about thirty-five when he joined the club, and apparently some
bitter experience--some disappointment in love or ambition--had
left its mark upon his character. 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. But
though he had occasional flashes of humor, his ordinary demeanor
was characterized by a mild cynicism, which, with his gloomy
pessimistic philosophy, so foreign to the temperament that should
accompany his physical type, could only be accounted for upon the
hypothesis of some secret sorrow such as I have suggested. What
it might be no one knew. He had means and social position, and
was an uncommonly handsome man. The fact that he remained
unmarried at thirty-five furnished some support for the theory of
a disappointment in love, though this the several intimates of
Baxter who belonged to the club were not able to verify.
It had occurred to me, in a vague way, that perhaps Baxter might
be an unsuccessful author. That he was a poet we knew very well,
and typewritten copies of his verses had occasionally circulated
among us. But Baxter had always expressed such a profound
contempt for modern literature, had always spoken in terms of such
unmeasured pity for the slaves of the pen, who were dependent upon
the whim of an undiscriminating public for recognition and a
livelihood, that no one of us had ever suspected him of
aspirations toward publication, until, as I have said, it occurred
to me one day that Baxter's attitude with regard to publication
might be viewed in the light of effect as well as of cause--that
his scorn of publicity might as easily arise from failure to
achieve it, as his never having published might be due to his
preconceived disdain of the vulgar popularity which one must share
with the pugilist or balloonist of the hour.
The notion of publishing Baxter's Procrustes did not emanate from
Baxter,--I must do him the justice to say this. But he had spoken
to several of the fellows about the theme of his poem, until the
notion that Baxter was at work upon something fine had become
pretty well disseminated throughout our membership. He would
occasionally read brief passages to a small coterie of friends in
the sitting-room or library,--never more than ten lines at once,
or to more than five people at a time,--and these excerpts gave at
least a few of us a pretty fair idea of the motive and scope of
the poem. As I, for one, gathered, it was quite along the line of
Baxter's philosophy. Society was the Procrustes which, like the
Greek bandit of old, caught every man born into the world, and
endeavored to fit him to some preconceived standard, generally to
the one for which he was least adapted. The world was full of men
and women who were merely square pegs in round holes, and vice
versa. Most marriages were unhappy because the contracting
parties were not properly mated. Religion was mostly
superstition, science for the most part sciolism, popular
education merely a means of forcing the stupid and repressing the
bright, so that all the youth of the rising generation might
conform to the same dull, dead level of democratic mediocrity.
Life would soon become so monotonously uniform and so uniformly
monotonous as to be scarce worth the living.
It was Smith, I think, who first proposed that the club publish
Baxter's Procrustes. The poet himself did not seem enthusiastic
when the subject was broached; he demurred for some little time,
protesting that the poem was not worthy of publication. But when
it was proposed that the edition be limited to fifty copies he
agreed to consider the proposition. When I suggested, having in
mind my secret theory of Baxter's failure in authorship, that the
edition would at least be in the hands of friends, that it would
be difficult for a hostile critic to secure a copy, and that if it
should not achieve success from a literary point of view, the
extent of the failure would be limited to the size of the edition,
Baxter was visibly impressed. When the literary committee at
length decided to request formally of Baxter the privilege of
publishing his Procrustes, he consented, with evident reluctance,
upon condition that he should supervise the printing, binding, and
delivery of the books, merely submitting to the committee, in
advance, the manuscript, and taking their views in regard to the
The manuscript was duly presented to the literary committee.
Baxter having expressed the desire that the poem be not read aloud
at a meeting of the club, as was the custom, since he wished it to
be given to the world clad in suitable garb, the committee went
even farther. Having entire confidence in Baxter's taste and
scholarship, they, with great delicacy, refrained from even
reading the manuscript, contenting themselves with Baxter's
statement of the general theme and the topics grouped under it.
The details of the bookmaking, however, were gone into thoroughly.
The paper was to be of hand-made linen, from the Kelmscott Mills;
the type black-letter, with rubricated initials. The cover, which
was Baxter's own selection, was to be of dark green morocco, with
a cap-and-bells border in red inlays, and doublures of maroon
morocco with a blind-tooled design. Baxter was authorized to
contract with the printer and superintend the publication. The
whole edition of fifty numbered copies was to be disposed of at
auction, in advance, to the highest bidder, only one copy to each,
the proceeds to be devoted to paying for the printing and binding,
the remainder, if any, to go into the club treasury, and Baxter
himself to receive one copy by way of remuneration. Baxter was
inclined to protest at this, on the ground that his copy would
probably be worth more than the royalties on the edition, at the
usual ten per cent, would amount to, but was finally prevailed
upon to accept an author's copy.
While the Procrustes was under consideration, some one read, at
one of our meetings, a note from some magazine, which stated that
a sealed copy of a new translation of Campanella's Sonnets,
published by the Grolier Club, had been sold for three hundred
dollars. This impressed the members greatly. It was a novel
idea. A new work might thus be enshrined in a sort of holy of
holies, which, if the collector so desired, could be forever
sacred from the profanation of any vulgar or unappreciative eye.
The possessor of such a treasure could enjoy it by the eye of
imagination, having at the same time the exaltation of grasping
what was for others the unattainable. The literary committee were
so impressed with this idea that they presented it to Baxter in
regard to the Procrustes. Baxter making no objection, the
subscribers who might wish their copies delivered sealed were
directed to notify the author. I sent in my name. A fine book,
after all, was an investment, and if there was any way of
enhancing its rarity, and therefore its value, I was quite willing
to enjoy such an advantage.
When the Procrustes was ready for distribution, each subscriber
received his copy by mail, in a neat pasteboard box. Each number
was wrapped in a thin and transparent but very strong paper
through which the cover design and tooling were clearly visible.
The number of the copy was indorsed upon the wrapper, the folds of
which were securely fastened at each end with sealing-wax, upon
which was impressed, as a guaranty of its inviolateness, the
monogram of the club.
At the next meeting of the Bodleian, a great deal was said about
the Procrustes, and it was unanimously agreed that no finer
specimen of bookmaking had ever been published by the club. By a
curious coincidence, no one had brought his copy with him, and the
two club copies had not yet been received from the binder, who,
Baxter had reported was retaining them for some extra fine work.
Upon resolution, offered by a member who had not subscribed for
the volume, a committee of three was appointed to review the
Procrustes at the next literary meeting of the club. Of this
committee it was my doubtful fortune to constitute one.
In pursuance of my duty in the premises, it of course became
necessary for me to read the Procrustes. In all probability I
should have cut my own copy for this purpose, had not one of the
club auctions intervened between my appointment and the date set
for the discussion of the Procrustes. At this meeting a copy of
the book, still sealed, was offered for sale, and bought by a non-
subscriber for the unprecedented price of one hundred and fifty
dollars. After this a proper regard for my own interests would
not permit me to spoil my copy by opening it, and I was therefore
compelled to procure my information concerning the poem from some
other source. As I had no desire to appear mercenary, I said
nothing about my own copy, and made no attempt to borrow. I did,
however, casually remark to Baxter that I should like to look at
his copy of the proof sheets, since I wished to make some extended
quotations for my review, and would rather not trust my copy to a
typist for that purpose. Baxter assured me, with every evidence
of regret, that he had considered them of so little importance
that he had thrown them into the fire. This indifference of
Baxter to literary values struck me as just a little overdone.
The proof sheets of Hamlet, corrected in Shakespeare's own hand,
would be well-nigh priceless.
At the next meeting of the club I observed that Thompson and
Davis, who were with me on the reviewing committee, very soon
brought up the question of the Procrustes in conversation in the
smoking-room, and seemed anxious to get from the members their
views concerning Baxter's production, I supposed upon the theory
that the appreciation of any book review would depend more or less
upon the degree to which it reflected the opinion of those to whom
the review should be presented. I presumed, of course, that
Thompson and Davis had each read the book,--they were among the
subscribers,--and I was desirous of getting their point of view.
"What do you think," I inquired, "of the passage on Social
Systems?" I have forgotten to say that the poem was in blank
verse, and divided into parts, each with an appropriate title.
"Well," replied Davis, it seemed to me a little cautiously, "it is
not exactly Spencerian, although it squints at the Spencerian
view, with a slight deflection toward Hegelianism. I should
consider it an harmonious fusion of the best views of all the
modern philosophers, with a strong Baxterian flavor."
"Yes," said Thompson, "the charm of the chapter lies in this very
quality. The style is an emanation from Baxter's own intellect,--
he has written himself into the poem. By knowing Baxter we are
able to appreciate the book, and after having read the book we
feel that we are so much the more intimately acquainted with
Baxter,--the real Baxter."
Baxter had come in during this colloquy, and was standing by the
fireplace smoking a pipe. I was not exactly sure whether the
faint smile which marked his face was a token of pleasure or
cynicism; it was Baxterian, however, and I had already learned
that Baxter's opinions upon any subject were not to be gathered
always from his facial expression. For instance, when the club
porter's crippled child died Baxter remarked, it seemed to me
unfeelingly, that the poor little devil was doubtless better off,
and that the porter himself had certainly been relieved of a
burden; and only a week later the porter told me in confidence
that Baxter had paid for an expensive operation, undertaken in the
hope of prolonging the child's life. I therefore drew no
conclusions from Baxter's somewhat enigmatical smile. He left the
room at this point in the conversation, somewhat to my relief.
"By the way, Jones," said Davis, addressing me, "are you impressed
by Baxter's views on Degeneration?"
Having often heard Baxter express himself upon the general
downward tendency of modern civilization, I felt safe in
discussing his views in a broad and general manner.
"I think," I replied, "that they are in harmony with those of
Schopenhauer, without his bitterness; with those of Nordau,
without his flippancy. His materialism is Haeckel's, presented
with something of the charm of Omar Khayyam."
"Yes," chimed in Davis, "it answers the strenuous demand of our
day,--dissatisfaction with an unjustified optimism,--and voices
for us the courage of human philosophy facing the unknown."
I had a vague recollection of having read something like this
somewhere, but so much has been written, that one can scarcely
discuss any subject of importance without unconsciously borrowing,
now and then, the thoughts or the language of others. Quotation,
like imitation, is a superior grade of flattery.
"The Procrustes," said Thompson, to whom the metrical review had
been apportioned, "is couched in sonorous lines, of haunting
melody and charm; and yet so closely inter-related as to be
scarcely quotable with justice to the author. To be appreciated
the poem should be read as a whole,--I shall say as much in my
review. What shall you say of the letter-press?" he concluded,
addressing me. I was supposed to discuss the technical excellence
of the volume from the connoisseur's viewpoint.
"The setting," I replied judicially, "is worthy of the gem. The
dark green cover, elaborately tooled, the old English lettering,
the heavy linen paper, mark this as one of our very choicest
publications. The letter-press is of course De Vinne's best,--
there is nothing better on this side of the Atlantic. The text is
a beautiful, slender stream, meandering gracefully through a wide
meadow of margin."
For some reason I left the room for a minute. As I stepped into
the hall, I almost ran into Baxter, who was standing near the
door, facing a hunting print of a somewhat humorous character,
hung upon the wall, and smiling with an immensely pleased
"What a ridiculous scene!" he remarked. "Look at that fat old
squire on that tall hunter! I'll wager dollars to doughnuts that
he won't get over the first fence!"
It was a very good bluff, but did not deceive me. Under his mask
of unconcern, Baxter was anxious to learn what we thought of his
poem, and had stationed himself in the hall that he might overhear
our discussion without embarrassing us by his presence. He had
covered up his delight at our appreciation by this simulated
interest in the hunting print.
When the night came for the review of the Procrustes there was a
large attendance of members, and several visitors, among them a
young English cousin of one of the members, on his first visit to
the United States; some of us had met him at other clubs, and in
society, and had found him a very jolly boy, with a youthful
exuberance of spirits and a naive ignorance of things American
that made his views refreshing and, at times, amusing.
The critical essays were well considered, if a trifle vague.
Baxter received credit for poetic skill of a high order.
"Our brother Baxter," said Thompson, "should no longer bury his
talent in a napkin. This gem, of course, belongs to the club, but
the same brain from which issued this exquisite emanation can
produce others to inspire and charm an appreciative world."
"The author's view of life," said Davis, "as expressed in these
beautiful lines, will help us to fit our shoulders for the heavy
burden of life, by bringing to our realization those profound
truths of philosophy which find hope in despair and pleasure in
pain. When he shall see fit to give to the wider world, in fuller
form, the thoughts of which we have been vouchsafed this
foretaste, let us hope that some little ray of his fame may rest
upon the Bodleian, from which can never be taken away the proud
privilege of saying that he was one of its members."
I then pointed out the beauties of the volume as a piece of
bookmaking. I knew, from conversation with the publication
committee, the style of type and rubrication, and could see the
cover through the wrapper of my sealed copy. The dark green
morocco, I said, in summing up, typified the author's serious view
of life, as a thing to be endured as patiently as might be. The
cap-and-bells border was significant of the shams by which the
optimist sought to delude himself into the view that life was a
desirable thing. The intricate blind-tooling of the doublure
shadowed forth the blind fate which left us in ignorance of our
future and our past, or of even what the day itself might bring
forth. The black-letter type, with rubricated initials, signified
a philosophic pessimism enlightened by the conviction that in duty
one might find, after all, an excuse for life and a hope for
humanity. Applying this test to the club, this work, which might
be said to represent all that the Bodleian stood for, was in
itself sufficient to justify the club's existence. If the
Bodleian had done nothing else, if it should do nothing more, it
had produced a masterpiece.
There was a sealed copy of the Procrustes, belonging, I believe,
to one of the committee, lying on the table by which I stood, and
I had picked it up and held it in my hand for a moment, to
emphasize one of my periods, but had laid it down immediately. I
noted, as I sat down, that young Hunkin, our English visitor, who
sat on the other side of the table, had picked up the volume and
was examining it with interest. When the last review was read,
and the generous applause had subsided, there were cries for
"Baxter! Baxter! Author! Author!"
Baxter had been sitting over in a corner during the reading of the
reviews, and had succeeded remarkably well, it seemed to me, in
concealing, under his mask of cynical indifference, the exultation
which I was sure he must feel. But this outburst of enthusiasm
was too much even for Baxter, and it was clear that he was
struggling with strong emotion when he rose to speak.
"Gentlemen, and fellow members of the Bodleian, it gives me
unaffected pleasure--sincere pleasure--some day you may know how
much pleasure--I cannot trust myself to say it now--to see the
evident care with which your committee have read my poor verses,
and the responsive sympathy with which my friends have entered
into my views of life and conduct. I thank you again, and again,
and when I say that I am too full for utterance,--I'm sure you
will excuse me from saying any more."
Baxter took his seat, and the applause had begun again when it was
broken by a sudden exclamation.
"By Jove!" exclaimed our English visitor, who still sat behind the
table, "what an extraordinary book!"
Every one gathered around him.
"You see," he exclaimed; holding up the volume, "you fellows said
so much about the bally book that I wanted to see what it was
like; so I untied the ribbon, and cut the leaves with the paper
knife lying here, and found--and found that there wasn't a single
line in it, don't you know!"
Blank consternation followed this announcement, which proved only
too true. Every one knew instinctively, without further
investigation, that the club had been badly sold. In the
resulting confusion Baxter escaped, but later was waited upon by a
committee, to whom he made the rather lame excuse that he had
always regarded uncut and sealed books as tommy-rot, and that he
had merely been curious to see how far the thing could go; and
that the result had justified his belief that a book with nothing
in it was just as useful to a book-collector as one embodying a
work of genius. He offered to pay all the bills for the sham
Procrustes, or to replace the blank copies with the real thing, as
we might choose. Of course, after such an insult, the club did
not care for the poem. He was permitted to pay the expense,
however, and it was more than hinted to him that his resignation
from the club would be favorably acted upon. He never sent it in,
and, as he went to Europe shortly afterwards, the affair had time
to blow over.
In our first disgust at Baxter's duplicity, most of us cut our
copies of the Procrustes, some of us mailed them to Baxter with
cutting notes, and others threw them into the fire. A few wiser
spirits held on to theirs, and this fact leaking out, it began to
dawn upon the minds of the real collectors among us that the
volume was something unique in the way of a publication.
"Baxter," said our president one evening to a select few of us who
sat around the fireplace, "was wiser than we knew, or than he
perhaps appreciated. His Procrustes, from the collector's point
of view, is entirely logical, and might be considered as the acme
of bookmaking. 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. Fine binding is a desideratum, and, for its cost, that of
the Procrustes could not be improved upon. The paper is above
criticism. The true collector loves wide margins, and the
Procrustes, being all margin, merely touches the vanishing point
of the perspective. The smaller the edition, the greater the
collector's eagerness to acquire a copy. There are but six uncut
copies left, I am told, of the Procrustes, and three sealed
copies, of one of which I am the fortunate possessor."
After this deliverance, it is not surprising that, at our next
auction, a sealed copy of Baxter's Procrustes was knocked down,
after spirited bidding, for two hundred and fifty dollars, the
highest price ever brought by a single volume published by the
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