Highlights from Recent Reading

Johnnie (who fell dead at his desk a few years later) was a laconic guy whose method of complimenting me on a piece of writing was to say, “You got a constipation of ideas and a diarrhea of words.”

from Low Man on a Totem Pole, by H. Allen Smith


About the grammar in this book. It is, without question, atrocious. Grammar is a thing I never learned and like most other human beings, I have nothing but contempt for anything I don’t know. I play the typewriter strictly by ear and when the tune sounds all right to me I’m satisfied with it.

from Life in a Putty Knife Factory, by H. Allen Smith


I began parting my name on the side at an early age when I first started getting by-lines on newspapers. Ever since, I have been accused by many drunks and a few moderate drinkers of being affected and vain—a charge which I deny by citing that I neither say eyether or nyether. It was almost essential that I decorate up my Smith name with something fancy at the end. I can agree that when a man named Archibald F. Throcklepidgeon begins calling himself A. Fieldstone Throcklepidgeon, he might be motivated by affectation and vanity; but when a Smith decorates himself up front he has reason and justice on his side. If he goes around calling himself Joe Smith or Jim Smith or Harry Smith he’s likely to run into embarrassments. As it is, half the time when I’m introduced to someone merely as “Mr. Smith” the party of the second part always says, “What’s your real name?” A Smith without a feather in his nomenclatural cap generally has one hell of a time getting a check cashed, and the way those hotel clerks look at you when you register as man and wife!

from Life in a Putty Knife Factory, by H. Allen Smith


“If I ever get rich,” he told me that afternoon of the long talk, “I’m going to buy a yacht and call it the Great White Also. When I was in elementary school, back in Ithaca, I came upon a line in my geography which said,

The Arctic is inhabited by the brown bear, the black bear, and the great white also.

“It worried me. At home I asked about the Great White Also. The family let me go on believing that a Great White Also was some horrible, child-eating beast, and whenever I misbehaved they used to tell me that the Great White Also would get me.”

from Life in a Putty Knife Factory, by H. Allen Smith


Hitchin is a small town of roughly 30,000 souls on the River Hiz. Although the locals now pronounce this as “His,” the letter z was once a contraction of the dental sibilant “tch” sound and so the real name is, phonetically, “Hitch.” (This is rather like the “y” in “Ye Olde Worlde Pub.” Fifteenth century printers, such as Caxton, did not have the Anglo-Saxon letter “thorn”—which looked like a lower-case b and p imposed upon one another and sounds like the “th” in, well, “thorn”—so they replaced it with a “y.” “Ye” was always meant to be pronounced “the.”

from Three Men in a Float, by Dan Kieran


The election of Abraham Lincoln threw the whole South into a ferment; everywhere men looked into the faces of their fellows and asked what must be done, for truth demand that it be told that the fearful alternative of secession had not suggested itself to the minds of thousands. The convention of border States seemed to promise much, and Arkansas fully expected to be represented there. Conservative men were in favor of trying every thing save the fearful remedy of separation. On the other hand, the advantages of direct trade, the greater security of slave property, the boundless wealth of the South when released from dependence on the North were insisted upon, and when it was intimated that peaceable secession was impossible, it only produced a laugh of scorn; the idea of Northern mechanics, brought up in workshops, unskilled in horsemanship and the use of fire-arms, endeavoring to cope successfully with those accustomed to the saddle and the use of the rifle from childhood, was not to be mentioned or heard with gravity. The latter class, however, were at first largely in the minority; men who by honorable industry had acquired a competency, and even wealth, thriving mechanics, rising pubic men, prosperous merchants, and well-to-do farmers were fearful of a change which at best would not bring increased prosperity, and might bring ruin. But men largely indebted at the North, to whom a severance might bring an easy release; planter nominally wealthy, but really bankrupt; broken-down politicians, and such men only as had nothing to lose, whom nothing but a revolution or a rebellion could bring to the surface and give a bad prominence, were in favor of following in the path in which South Carolina had led.

The proof of this is found in the fact that most of the seceding States were hurried out of the Union without even the semblance of the forms of law: Missouri, by the famous Pineville Convention, and Arkansas by a convention of which two-thirds of the members were elected by the votes of Union men—our county, Washington, with the largest voting population in the State, sending the whole delegation, four in number, by a Union vote of from nineteen hundred to twenty-one hundred, out of a voting population of twenty-five hundred, or a majority of from four or five to one. Indeed, this body at its first meeting rejected the ordinance of secession by a two -thirds vote; but on being called together again, under the influence of threats, promises, false telegraphic dispatches, false charges against the Government, and all the appliances which traitors know so well how to use, the fatal measure was carried, and the State hurried into the whirlpool of treason and ruin. …

Thousands, it is true, were indignant at the act of the Convention, but the fact that the treasury and arsenal were in the hands of the secessionists, that the power of the Confederacy was pledged to maintain the position the State was forced unjustly to assume and the significant fact that Arkansas regiments were sent east of the Mississippi, and Texas and Louisiana troops brought into Arkansas, prevented any open resistance on the part of the loyal men of the State. When an individual or a people have determined upon a false step, a plea of justification is never wanting; hence the election of Mr. Lincoln was made the pretext for charging upon the North all manner of intended injustice to the South. Abolition, coercion, negro equality, subjugation became watchwords with the favoreers of secession; and when any one ventured to urge that it was unjust to charge upon Mr. Lincoln a policy that he had not yet indicated, that it would be better to wait for his acts instead of condemning him in advance, the charge of Black Republicanism was the usual retort.

Indeed, so well was the public mind prepared on these matters that, when the President’s inaugural was issued, in the eyes of many it contained the obnoxious sentiments above-mentioned; which fact a circumstance, which occurred on the day that it was telegraphed to us, will illustrate. Just after leaving the telegraph office I stepped into a store, where I found quite an excited party discussing the policy presumed to be set forth in the Inaugural; among them was a State Senator from one of the rural districts, who, addressing me, said he supposed “that I was now satisfied, from the President’s own words, that he was a favorer of negro equality.” To which I replied, “that I did not so read it.” “What!” exclaimed he, “does he not quote the language of the Constitution that all men are created equal?” In answer to this, I said: “The Constitution contains no such language as that which you have attributed to the President”; which caused a look of astonishment from the bystanders who were of his way of thinking, and regarded him as an oracle, on political matters at least; he then repeated his assertion, upon which I remarked that the language quoted by the President was to be found in the Declaration of Independence. “Well,” said he, “it is all the same thing.” “With this difference,” said I; “that the Constitution has the force of a law, while the other is a declaration of rights, and has no binding force whatever.” As there was no reasonable reply possible to this, he began to indulge in a style of remark in which wounded pride and personal spleen were so mingled that I felt that further reply was not only useless, but might also prove injurious; but from that time I knew that the evil eye was upon me.

Soon after the assault upon Sumter I encountered, in the telegraph office, a physician, a man of some influence, then engaged in raising a military company. He charged the North with plunging us into a war destined to produce untold suffering; when I remarked that the South could not justly blame the North for the war, since she had provoked it by striking the first blow, and that we could no more expect the North to submit to such an insult that we could bear a similar one ourselves. On this he flamed out in language most bitter and threatening, intimating that such sentiments would no longer be tolerated, but that popular violence would be employed against those who took the liberty of expressing such views; and this, in the existing state of public feeling, the very worst elements ready for an explosion the moment a spark fell or direction was given to the popular rage, was by no means an idle threat, or to be lightly regarded.

from Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove, by William Baxter (1864) This was a long quote, but I thought it gave a very different perspective on the Civil War and also showed that there is nothing new under the sun.

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