January 11, 2013

"Knife and Forkiana" 1861 (USIH Primary Source Reader)

This Northern article contains ideas on human equality, transcendentalist ideas about self-reliance and organized religion, and also references Southern secession, the tension over Fort Sumter, as well as the rumors and misinformation confounding Northern and Southern papers at the time.


From the Boston Evening Transcript, Boston, MA on January 14, 1861:

Knife and Forkiana.

"Will you take fish, or oysters?" said the landlady.  Thank you; I don't care if I do; it is hard to choose between them.  But, did it ever occur to you, what a lesson we might learn from fish? "Why yes," said Miss Pallas, "I have read of 'books in the running brooks;' and I have heard 'sermons from stones;' so I can imagine lessons in fishes."  There is the trout, and the oyster; can there be a greater difference than that which exists between their conditions.  The one is of symmetrical form, beautiful in color, graceful in motion; is quick, alert, sagacious; the very dandy of fishes; he is a denizen of the mountain brook, as wild, free and dashing as himself; he inhabits an element so pure and transparent, that he flashes through it like a meteor through space; he is "noble game." 

Grave senators, reverend clergy, profound philosophers, keen witted lawyers, delight to inveigle him; they handle him delicately, view him admiringly, and exult over his capture, as the Palmetto men probably would over the capture of Fort Sumter; but whoever heard of one of these dignitaries raking for an oyster?  He, poor mudsill of piscine society, without form or comeliness, hidden in a rough shell; (which, like many another forbidding exterior, envelopes a rich treasure,) imbedded in slime and ooze; incapable of motion, save to turn his jaws to the advancing or the retreating tide; seeing no society, save goggle-eyed, idiotic looking jelly fish, or recalcitrant retrograding crabs; torn from his humble home by the ruthless tooth of an oyster rake, (not the only rake that has invaded peaceful and happy homes,) thrown carelessly into a scow, thence shoveled into a cart, thence dumped into a cellar; can anything be less desirable, to our views, than such an inglorious career? Yet, when brought to the table of the final arbiter, man,--he don't accord the preference to either (leastways I don't) but enshrines both in the chief place in his esteem (estomac, I was going to say.)  The moral to be deduced is this,--be content with your lot, whether lofty or lowly; we shall all, one day, be equal, if we act well the parts assigned to us here.

"That last clause smacks somewhat of the drama," said the quiet individual.  And is therefore inadmissible in this connection, I supposed: but Shakespeare is quoted more freely than Paul, in some pulpits; and I don't know why green room parlance should not be tolerated in a lay sermon.  "why, you don't mean to say that you  have been giving us a sermon?" said Pallas.  Why may not a man illustrate the truth in a homely way, even if he be not a preacher? Truth dwells (not lies) at the bottom of a well, and why may not I fish it up, with a rude oaken bucket; as well as your Andover graduate, with all the patent appliances.  I am sorry to say there is too much exclusiveness in this matter.  The haughty captains of the regular church militant say, in effect--"you must enlist in our companies, we will have no bush fighting, in the christian warfare, you can't be allowed to resist the devil on your own hook, your rough leather hunting shirt of a good conscience is insufficient. (Note--Somebody will say that "leather conscience" is an apt comparison, but no matter.)  You must put on the whole armor of God, which is only furnished at our armory.  (Note again--Somebody will say "our armory is the Bible;" well then it is only the clink of our busy hammers that should be heard closing rivets up.)  You must sign our compact, you must subscribe to the thirty-nine articles; it is of no avail that you live up to the standard described in the 15th Psalm; a moral life won't save you; you must be with us, or against us." Who is to be judge?

"But," said the landlady, good soul, "did you never hear your minister point out the folly of self righteousness?" Whether he did so or not, I have heard of that, where most of us have probably heard it, at a mother's knee; and if a mother's prayers and teachings, testified to an enforced by the example of her daily life and conversation, could have an effect proportioned to their faithfulness, I should long ago have ranked among the elect.  But don't, for goodness sake, don't dodge the question, (which I find is a common failing among professing Christians).  What I contend for is this--that a man may, solitary and alone, so far as human society is concerned, undergo that change of heart, and experience that peace of mind, which the world cannot give, but which is popularly supposed to be the result of what are termed revivals, whether on a large or small scale; that he may see his Saviour walking on the waves of a tideless sea, like that blue expanse which glitters beyond the pillars of Hercules; as well as behold him in the guise of a storm king, treading the surges of a Bay of Fundy tide of periodical excitement.  I maintain that a man may be a sincere and devout Christian, without making a public parade of his principles; that he may stand afar off, and say, Lord, be merciful to me a sinner--instead of crowding to the front, and ostentatiously putting dust on his head; that he may cherish a lively sense of gratitude to his Redeemer, every day of his life, without taking pains to let his neighbors know it, once in two months.  "Why don't he do so, then?"  How do you know that he don't?  Because a man don't commit his conscience into the keeping of his minister, to be regulated, as he would entrust his alarm clock to a priest of Chronos, to be tinkered, are we to infer that he sets no value on it, and don't care whether it strikes the alarm at the right moment, or not; or, worse yet, shall we say he has not got any?  

A loss of self-reliance seems to be one effect of the primal curse.  We seem to share the sentence of the serpent, "Upon thy belly shalt thou go," not stand upright.  In religion, as well as in fashion or politics, the many must submit to the dictation of the few.  The Bible tells us that the Creator made man in his own image.  It also tells us that he made him a little lower than the angels.  It further tells us that he is to live forever, and has an opportunity afford him, of passing his prolonged existence in the company of those superior beings, and in the presence of his Creator.  We feel that we are endowed with reasoning powers.  Now does it look reasonable, that such finished productions, or rather a vast majority of them, should be left destitute of a knowledge between good and evil, especially when they are bidden to make their choice between the two?  Some men are created with superior intelligences?  Yes, I know they are: and so too, some mugs and pitchers are made of finer clay than others; but one sort will hold just as good ale as the other; and neither will prevent it from turning sour, if circumstances tend that way.  The style of religious government nowadays, puts one in mind of the feudal system, when the word of the chief was law to his vassals; none presumed to question, none durst disobey.  From his impregnable castle he issued mandates, whence there was no appeal.  

So now, the spiritual adviser makes his pulpit a sort of ecclesiastical Ehrenbreitstein; his word is law, there; since nobody can have the hardihood to reply "in meeting," he illustrates the dogma of Free Speech, to his own satisfaction; he is monarch of all he surveys.  Oh, yes! such talk is flippant, sophistical, irreverent, and all those things; but don't be too fast.  I have a great respect for many of those gentlemen, as individuals; but, as parts of the iron system to which they belong, one is apt to lose sight of their individuality.  I dare say that many of them find themselves in the condition of U.S. Army officers of Southern origin; bound by oath to support the Constitution, they must turn their guns on their friends, or else resign.  I only wish they would exercise a little more clarity sometimes, in speaking of those who don't agree with them, some of that charity which suffereth long, and is kind; which speaketh no ill of its neighbors, etc. 

If they would only graft their "church charities" upon some such stock as that, they would realize the somewhat Quixotic idea, yelept[?] gilding the sunbeam or painting the lily.  By the bye, we are told that some parts of the South are, or soon will be, in a starving condition; this may be a canard, like the stories circulated at the South, about us, but I don't think Republican papers would lie: so, how would it pay, to take up a contribution for the purpose of sending our exciteable brethren something to eat.  A ship load of provisions entered the harbor of Charleston, Savannah or Mobile, might quell angry passions as effectually as a load of warlike stores.  It would be heaping coals on fire on the heads of the chivalry, ("if thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat" and they, being fire-eaters would doubtless appreciate the attention.  Anyhow, it would be killing two birds with one stone.


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