Lord Timothy Dexter is a Philosopher
I might as well throw conventional wisdom out of the window, because nothing’s going as planned: I’m an unemployed college senior, majoring in Studio Art. I'm choosing to search for jobs the summer after I graduate, which my parents find to be a fascinating decision. About all that’s certain right now is that I’m in need of guidance. At other points of uncertainty in my life, I have turned to autobiographies for inspiration. It’s comforting to read how the people I find most interesting were just as insecure and confused in their early years as I am now. Not only that, but autobiographies tend to dispense words of wisdom that I often find helpful when I’m going through a hard time.
In Bossypants, Tina Fey helped me navigate the hellish, postmodern institution that is high school. In My Life and Dreams from My Father, I learned from past U.S. presidents the importance of empathy and hard work. From Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc., I discovered the joys of working in groups with smart, talented people.
And so now I find myself turning to another autobiography: A Pickle For The Knowing Ones: or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress, written by Lord Timothy Dexter. The title immediately piqued my interest, and I saw that it had been reprinted no less than eight times. The inscription on the first page didn’t disappoint either: “By Timothy Dexter, First in the East, First in the West, And the Greatest Philosopher In the Western World.”
Which sounded promising. Who better to get advice from than the Western world’s greatest philosopher? So I checked out the book. Hopefully I can find in this man’s life some inspiration for my own.
But hope turned immediately to confusion: the book opens with “IME the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it and so Let it goue.” Why capitalize seemingly random latters? Why misspell every second word? Surely this must be an elaborate ruse on Dexter’s part: He couldn’t possibly think that America was spelled “A mericary” (I did think, for a moment, that this was a form of Shakespearean Olde English, but a quick internet search did not seem promising). I was fascinated by its mysterious, modernist construction, but I didn’t dare attempt to figure it out, not on a first read-through.
I had another little scare when I saw that there was no punctuation throughout the book: the entire autobiography is one run-on sentence, which again caused me to — foolishly — doubt Dexter’s competence, but I turned to the last page, where, lo and behold, there was one page that consisted entirely of punctuation marks — there were scores of commas, periods, question and exclamation marks: “I put in A Nuf here and thay peper and solt it as they plese,” reads the explanation.
I thought to myself; this man is a genius. There’s no other way to cut it. Even the likes of James Joyce wouldn’t have been brave enough to attempt a grammatical structure this anarchical and avant garde. Any concerns or hesitations I had were gone: as far I was concerned, Lord Timothy Dexter was going to be my shaman. In the time of alcohol-fueled haziness that is senior year, he would be a giant glass of water.
My most pressing questions were about how he became successful; if he was a Lord, he must have had money — how’d he get it? This is a matter of dire importance to the studio art major who’s about to graduate without a job. It turns out his Lordship was actually born into a relatively poor family in Malden, Massachusetts, in the year 1747. He started out by training as a leather dresser, a decent job to have at the time, but certainly not a position of wealth. That came later — not through tanning cow hides, but through marrying a woman named Elizabeth Framingham, who was really rich.
The marriage came as a shock to the elite wealthy circle that the Framinghams were party to, as Dexter was but a lowly leather dresser, and not that well-educated to boot. He was described as obnoxious, crass, and selfish, and how he managed to convince Elizabeth into taking his hand in marriage remains a mystery; some people just get what they want.
Well, that’s a relief. For a second I was worried that I’d have to support myself financially with an art practice, which would have been a nightmare. The takeaway here is pretty clear: I should just marry a really rich person — and I am taking suggestions (side note: liking Seinfeld is a huge bonus).
Dexter was just getting started. He took his wife’s money and, through a series of extraordinarily shrewd investments, amassed an enormous fortune. I mean, I expected nothing less from the Greatest Philosopher in the Western World, but the ways in which he achieved this are simply astounding. To the average person on the street, these successes might look daft, idiotic, and nothing other than sheer coincidence. But you and I know better.
Like many geniuses who came before him, Dexter was a social outcast: everybody hated him. They thought he just married Framingham for her money, so that he could sneak into the elite echelon of 18th Century New England social circles. There was more to it than that: He was often called loud, abrasive, demanding, and attention-craving by his contemporaries. They called him an uneducated imbecile, when really they were terrified of his intellect and jealous of his adroit business dealings. To this end, they often tried to lead him astray, proposing certain investments that didn’t make any sense in the hopes of ruining him (this is often like the times my roommates encourage me to go out to a bar on a Tuesday night).
The Boston eccentric remained unfazed, however, and always found a way to turn those situations around in his favor. Like the coal shipments, for example. Some malicious associates encouraged and eventually convinced Dexter to take his fleet and deliver 300 tons of coal to Newcastle, England. The problem? Newcastle was the coal capital of northern Europe at the time. Everyone predicted a disastrous outcome for Dexter’s little expedition: This was to be the event that finally embarrassed him into losing everything.
They were wrong.
When the fleet arrived in Newcastle, there just so happened to be an enormous strike at the coal mines, and people were desperate to get their hands on their mean source of heating. Dexter sold everything at an enormous premium, and when the ships came back he was an even wealthier man than he was before.
Now, you might be thinking, surely that was an accident? After all, there was no way Dexter could have possibly known about the strike, and he should in fact have lost it all. Perhaps you’re right, but I don’t think so. Because this kind of “coincidence” didn’t just happen once — it happened again, and again, and again.
Another time, Dexter rounded up all the stray cats he could find in Massachusetts and shipped them all off to the Caribbean, an entirely inexplicable business move that astounded even his most jaded critics. You might have guessed what happened next: when the ships pulled in, there was a massive rat infestation on several of the islands, and the locals paid handsomely for the furry felines. This had some of Dexter’s enemies hissing, but he didn’t mind — indeed, he lapped it all up. This was Lord Timothy Dexter’s world; they were just living in it.
You might think that sending ships chock full of winter mittens to the lush tropical islands of the West Indies is a dumb move, but that’s because you’re not Timothy Dexter. Somehow, bizarrely, the gloves made it just in time for Chinese merchants passing through to buy them for an upcoming Siberian expedition.
Dexter snapped up 340 tons of whale bone simply because it was cheap, and for a while it looked like the locals had finally caught their Moby Dick. This was it! This was the one thing that’d make him blubber. But then, out of nowhere, corsets became the latest fashion craze — and guess what they’re made out of! Yet again, Dexter saw a fat return.
If you don’t believe me, I’ll just let Dexter tell you himself:
“How Did Dexter Make His Money ye says bying whale bone for staing for ships in grosing three houndred & 40 tons --- bort all in boston salum and all in Noue york under Cover oppenly I told them for my ships they all laffed so I had at my oan pris I had four Counning men for Rounners thay found the horne as I told them to act the fool I was full of Cash I had nine tun of silver9 on hand at that time --- all that time the Creaters more or less laffing it spread very fast here is the Rub --- in fifty days they smelt A Rat --- found where it was gone to Nouebry Port --- spekkelators swarmed like hell houns --- to be short with it I made seventey five per sent --- one tun and halfe of silver on hand and over.”
I’m not sure how to take advantage of all this information, however. Perhaps I could try rounding up all the cats in Chestnut Hill and shipping them to the Caribbean, but I feel like that’s illegal in this day and age. The other main takeaway from these curious anecdotes is that I should buy low and sell high, but I’ve been hearing that from my roommates in the Carroll School since freshman year. Oh well. I think I’ll just stick to marrying the really rich person.
But as with any relationship, in the words of my therapist, “you’ve got to have an exit plan.” And boy, did Timothy Dexter have one of those. I’ve only been ghosted once in my life, and it wasn’t the best experience (Alexa Johnston how could you), so I can only imagine how Dexter’s wife felt when, after thirty-something years of marriage, he claimed she was a ghost while she was still alive and well. Yes, you read that right: he declared her to be a phantom, not only in his widely read autobiography, but also in ads and letters in the local newspaper.
“NOW TO ALL ONMEST MEN, to pittey me that I have bin in hell 35 years, in this world, with the gost— A woman I maried,” Dexter writes (again, we’re seeing more of his cryptic, layered style). This is, all moral and ethical issues aside, an absolutely savage way to end a relationship — I feel like if I pro-level ghosted someone this way via an op-ed in The Heights, someone named Chad would pop out from around a corner and give me a hearty dap.
Ever wondered what your funeral would like? So did Timothy Dexter. But unlike you, he actually went and did something about it: he faked his own death. Over 3,000 people showed up to his funeral at his princely mansion in Newburyport, largely out of curiosity. After all, he was quite well known, notorious even.
It pleased him to see such a big turnout, but he became very angry to see that many people were laughing — including his wife when he’d claimed she was a ghost. So he did what only Lord Timothy Dexter would do: reveal his very-much-aliveness to the crowd by getting into an enormous argument with her, which escalated to the point where he started caning her.
Dexter would go on to actually die a quieter death a few years later — but not before cementing his legacy by publishing his widely popular memoir, A Pickle For The Knowing Ones: or Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress.
I know what you’re thinking: that’s a nonsense title. A Pickle For The Knowing Ones? What’s the pickle? Is it kosher-dill style? Who are the Knowing Ones, and what is the predicament that they find themselves in? Why essentially repeat “plain” with “homespun?” And who’s wearing that dress? Maybe these are the pickles that the knowing ones are supposed to figure out. It’s a confusing title, but it’s also one that’s just a little too easy to write off.
And that’s because maybe there’s more to all this than meets the eye: If you look past the lack of punctuation, the misspellings, and the nonsensical philosophical pronouncements, there’s a message here, and it’s one that seems fitting for 2017. Timothy Dexter rose from nothing to become a figure of extraordinary wealth and influence, and he did so in the most unusual and inexplicable fashion. He was described by his contemporaries as loud-mouthed, brash, boastful, and rude. He found himself to be an unwelcome outsider in his social setting, a status that both infuriated him and left him feeling deeply insecure. He had many critics—powerful ones at that—who did their best to quell his rise, but they all failed. He made shocking, ludicrous plans that defied conventional wisdom by all somehow working out in his favor. He failed upwards, again and again and again, and he did it with a sneer on his face, and when he was done, he wrote a best-selling book about it.
Does he sound familiar?
Just when you thought the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave couldn’t possibly have a precedent, that he had to be some kind of anomaly, along comes the Greatest Philosopher in the Western World. I don’t loathe any man sufficiently to compare him to Donald Trump, but let’s face it: Lord Timothy Dexter is asking for it. America will be searching for years to come as it pieces together the extraordinarily complex puzzle that was the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and it was one that had many fragments—racial hatred, a deep distrust in media outlets, to name a few—and I think Dexter’s way of life (his philosophy, if you will) has something to do with it too: Sure, a lot of his success had to do with luck, astounding luck, there’s no doubt about it. But maybe there’s something to blazing your own trail; maybe sometimes it works.
Dexter and Trump did just that — they carved out unique paths in their universes, even if they did so in crass and ignorant ways. What if I can do the same? And, perhaps more importantly, what if I can do it without being a craven human being? What if you can do it and be a good person? What if choosing to be an art major doesn’t have to be a foolish choice, and is instead the opening act of a successful, Liam-carved career path?
After all, if these men can do it, why not me?