Years ago — A story about a story
“Ben was a diligent collector of many things worth collecting as well as of a few things not worth it.”
t that point in the novel The Caxton Club, it becomes apparent that the fictional Caxton Club and the older one in Chicago had features in common.
Published in 1902, The Caxton Club was part of Thomas Y. Crowell’s Golden Hour Series, a collection of short, no-frills novels for young people, available for a mere 50 cents. The author, a long-time magazine editor, was Amos R. Wells, author of some 90 volumes, most of them collections of Sunday School lessons. His fiction has largely been ignored by those reference books, which bother to pay attention to him.
The pattern of the story should be familiar to any reader of series books for boys. Arthur Colton, son of the banker in Gardner, OH, is a pale and listless lad. His father thinks a printing press will snap him out of the apathy he has fallen into after a bout with scarlet fever, and buys him the top of the line: the biggest Ben Franklin press a boy could handle. Mr. Colton is excited about it, but his son is still bored. His problem is not a lack of expensive toys, but the fact that he’s never had a friend his own age.
Mr. Colton realizes he’s made a mistake, and introduces Arthur to Ben Earle, the real hero of the book. Ben prints his own newspaper when there’s time and paper to spare in the newspaper office where his father works. Ben’s interest in the press makes it look better to Arthur, who is soon printing his own newspaper. Ben introduces him to Casper, another local boy who prints, and they form a club, which is nearly named the ABC Club, or the Scribblers, or The Typos. It is Ben, of course, who chooses to honor the first English printer by calling it The Caxton Club.
After examining the thrill of learning to print, and getting it right, the book moves into the basics of club fiction. An undesirable is rejected for membership (he swears and smokes, obviously undesirable in any Caxton Club) and this involves the club in new scrapes. The rejected boy’s father owns the newspaper where Ben’s father works, and also has a political patronage job as postmaster. In this capacity, he is able to yank the second class mailing permit from each of the Caxtonians’ newspapers.
Then Ben’s sister tries to join. The idea of allowing a girl into so manly a club is appalling. Besides, she doesn’t print anything. After she prints a newspaper, she is immediately voted in, however, thus anticipating the real Caxton Club by three-quarters of a century.
The four Caxtonians form a single paper, which qualifies for second-class mailing privileges, and this paper starts to attack local political matters. Ben is falsely accused of stealing stamps from the postmaster, who also fires his father. Arthur is nominated for the presidency of NAPA, the National Amateur Press Association, and goes to Boston. After a trip to look over the new typesetting machines available in Boston newspaper offices, the club attends to Arthur’s campaign. The postmaster’s son has also come to Boston, and works against them. The campaign escalates and nearly brings about the death of a club member at the hands of the postmaster’s son.
All is resolved in the end, and I do believe the postmaster’s son gives up cigarettes and is allowed to join the club. Gardner, OH is at peace again, which is a pity, since it prevented The Caxton Club from spinning off into a series. The book itself, at a bare 104 pages, is too short by half. There could have been many more printerly adventures, and a longer look at the amateur press publications at the turn of the century. For a man who made his name as a Sunday School writer, Wells steers clear of any great moral lessons to be learned from it all; his concern seems to have been to show how a commendable hobby and a group of good friends can do something worthwhile. He must’ve had Chicago’s Caxton Club in mind all along.
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