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Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Western Pasttime

In Cow-boys and Colonels: Narrative of a Journey Across the Prairie and Over the Black Hills of South Dakota (1887), Baron Edmond Mandat-Grancey describes his many adventures while traveling the American West. For example, while staying in a hotel in Custer, South Dakota, he encounters practitioners of a bizarre American ritual.
After dinner, I go out to smoke a cigar: rows of smokers with their feet raised are already at their post, still I manage to find room on a wooden bench.

Hardly am I seated there, when one of my neighbours rises, draws from his pocket a formidable bowie-knife, and comes up to me brandishing the weapon. Monsieur de M's adventure comes to my mind at once. Has he sworn to make me quit the country? I clap my hand on the stock of my revolver, determined to sell my skin as dearly as possible, but my suspected aggressor looks at me so good naturedly that I at once lay down my arms. He approaches nearer, and, without saying a word, gives me a gentle push, carries away a large piece of the plank on which I am sitting, and then, resuming his own seat, commences cutting it up into chips. I am immediately reassured, and all the more on looking around and finding all the rest busy at the same kind of work: this is whittling, and these are the whittlers.

Whittling is a special malady of the American brain, developed particularly in the West, where there are few men who do not manifest these symptoms. Its diagnosis consists in an irresistible desire to take in the left hand a piece of wood, and to reduce it to morsels of the size of a match by a gentle and regular movement of the right hand armed with a pocket knife, a razor, or a bowie-knife. The indulgence of this propensity sometimes facilitates, but more frequently replaces, conversation, according to temperament; but the predisposition — quite as imperious as the passion for opium among the Chinese — is no more easily explained than a taste for olives, or dominoes, or rancid bacon, or why Schiller could not get on with his work without the smell of rotten apples under his nose. It seems that at Washington formerly they used to deliver to each senator or deputy, at the commencement of their sitting, a little block of cedar and a pen-knife, furnished by the questorship for this purpose: they had found this to be the most effective remedy for preserving the arms of the chairs, which, formerly, never lasted out a session. . .
When the Baron mentions "Monsieur de M's adventure," he is referring to the Marquis de Mores, a French nobleman who settled in South Dakota and established a large ranch and meat-packing facility. The Marquis was more or less challenged to a duel by a fellow South Dakota rancher, Theodore Roosevelt.

As far as the physician-poet Friedrich von Schiller and his rotten apples, this stems from an incident Goethe wrote about. Goethe had paid a visit to Schiller and finding him not at home, waited in his office. He noticed a terrible smell coming from his desk and discovered that one of its drawers was full of rotten apples. Schiller's wife explained that he required their decaying scent in order to be able to write.

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