Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vol. IV: Literature of the Republic, Part I., Constitutional period, 17881820
Ben Franklin and Pomposo Keimer
By Mason Locke Weems (17591825)
[The Life of Benjamin Franklin. Revised Edition. 1835.]
BEN was naturally comic in a high degree, and this pleasant vein, greatly improved by his present golden prospects, betrayed him into many a frolic with Keimer, to whom he had prudently attached himself as a journeyman, until the Annis should sail. The reader will excuse Ben for these frolics when he comes to learn what were their aims; as also what an insufferable old creature this Keimer was. Silly as a booby, yet vain as a jay, and garrulous as a pie, he could never rest but when in a stiff argument, and acting the orator, at which he looked on Cicero himself as but a boy to him. Here was a fine target for Bens Socratic artillery, which he frequently played off on the old pomposo with great effect. By questions artfully put, he would obtain of him certain points, which Keimer readily granted, as seeing in them no sort of connection with the matter in debate. But yet these points, when granted, like distant nets slyly hauling round a porpoise or sturgeon, would, by degrees, so completely circumvent the silly fish, that with all his flouncing and fury he could never extricate himself, but rather got more deeply entangled. Often caught in this way, he became at last so afraid of Bens questions, that he would turn as mad when one of them was poked at him, as a bull at sight of a scarlet cloak; and would not answer the simplest question without first asking, Well, and what would you make of that? He came at length to form so exalted an opinion of Bens talents for refutation, that he seriously proposed to him one day that they should turn out together and preach up a new religion! Keimer was to preach and make the converts, and Ben to answer and put to silence the gainsayers. He said a world of money might be made by it.
On hearing the outlines of this new religion, Ben found great fault with it. This he did only that he might have another frolic with Keimer; but his frolics were praiseworthy, for they all leaned to virtues side. The truth is, he saw that Keimer was prodigiously a hypocrite. At every whipstitch he could play the knave, and then for a pretence would read his Bible. But it was not the moral part of the Bible, the sweet precepts and parables of the Gospel that he read. No verily. Food so angelic was not at all to the tooth of his childish fancy, which delighted in nothing but the novel and curious. Like too many of the saints nowadays, he would rather read about the witch of Endor, than the good Samaritan, and hear a sermon on the brazen candlesticks than on the love of God. And then, oh dear! who was Melchizedeck? Or where was the land of Nod? Or, was it in the shape of a serpent or a monkey that the devil tempted Eve? As he was one day poring over the Pentateuch as busy after some nice game of this sort as a terrier on the track of a weazle, he came to that famous text where Moses says, Thou shalt not mar the corners of thy beard. Ay! this was the divinity for Keimer. It struck him like a new light from the clouds: then rolling his eyes as from an apparition, he exclaimed, Miserable man that I am! and was I indeed forbidden to mar even the corners of my beard, and have I been all this time shaving myself as smooth as an eunuch! Fire and brimstone, how have you been boiling up for me, and I knew it not! Hell, deepest hell is my portion, thats a clear case, unless I reform. And reform I will if I live. Yes, my poor naked chin, if ever I but get another crop upon thee and I suffer it to be touched by the ungodly steel, then let my right hand forget her cunning.
From that day he became as shy of a razor as ever Samson was. His long black whiskers whistled in the wind. And then to see how he would stand up before his glass and stroke them down, it would have reminded you of some ancient Druid, adjusting the sacred mistletoe.
He even proposed to him to get shaved. Keimer swore outright that he would never lose his beard. A stiff altercation ensued. But Keimer getting angry, Ben agreed at last to give up the beard. He said that, as the beard at best was but an external, a mere excrescence, he would not insist on that as so very essential. But certainly, sir, continued he, there is one thing that is.
Why, sir, added Ben, this turning out and preaching up a new religion, is, without doubt, a very serious affair, and ought not to be undertaken too hastily. Much time, sir, in my opinion at least, should be spent in making preparation, in which, fasting should certainly have a large share.
Ben assured him that it was entirely a mistake. He had tried it often, he said, and could testify from his own experience that he was never more healthy and cheerful than when he lived on vegetables alone. Die from feeding on vegetables, indeed! Why, sir, it contradicts reason; and contradicts all history, ancient and profane. There was Daniel, and his three young friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who fed on a vegetable diet, of choice; did they languish and die of it? Or rather, did they not display a rouge of health and fire of genius, far beyond those silly youths who crammed on all the luxuries of the royal table? And that amiable Italian nobleman, Lewis Cornaro, who says of bread, that it was such a dainty to his palate, that he was almost afraid, at times, it was too good for him to eat; did he languish and die of this simple fare? On the contrary, did he not outlive three generations of gratified epicures; and after all, go off in his second century, like a bird of Paradise, singing the praises of temperance and virtue? And pray, sir, continued Ben, wheres the wonder of all this? Must not the blood that is formed of vegetables be the purest in nature? And then, as the spirits depend on the blood, must not the spirits secreted from such blood be the purest too? And when this is the case with the blood and spirits, which are the very life of the man, must not that man enjoy the best chance for such healthy secretions and circulations as are most conducive to long and happy life?
Ben, still unwilling to give up his point, thought he would make one more push at him. What a pity it is, said he, with a sigh, that the blessings of so sublime a religion should be all lost to the world, merely for lack of a little fortitude on the part of its propagators.
This was touching him on the right string; for Keimer was a man of such vanity, that a little flattery would put him up to anything. So after a few hems and has, he said, he believed he would, at any rate, make a trial of this new regimen.
Having thus carried his point, Ben immediately engaged a poor old woman of the neighborhood to become their cook; and gave her off-hand, written receipts for three-and-forty dishes; not one of which contained a single atom of fish, flesh, or fowl. For their first days breakfast on the new regimen, the old woman treated them with a tureen of oatmeal gruel. Keimer was particularly fond of his breakfast, at which a nice beef-steak with onion sauce was a standing dish. It was as good as a farce to Ben, to see with what an eye Keimer regarded the tureen, when entering the room, in place of his steak, hot, smoking, and savory, he beheld this pale, meagre-looking slop.
As there was no answering this, Keimer sat down to the tureen, and swallowed a few spoonfuls, but not without making as many wry faces as if it had been so much jalap; while Ben, all smile and chat, breakfasted most deliciously.
Yes, bread, sir, continued Ben, pleasantly; the bread of life, sir; for where do you find such health and spirits, such bloom and beauty, as among the honest-hearted Irish, and yet for their breakfast, dinner, and supper, the potato is their teetotum; the first, second, and third course. In this way, Ben and his old woman went on with Keimer; daily ringing the changes on oatmeal gruel, roasted potatoes, boiled rice, and so on, through the whole family of roots and grains in all their various genders, moods, and tenses.
Sometimes, like a restive mule, Keimer would kick up and show strong symptoms of flying the way. But then Ben would prick him up again with a touch of his ruling passion, vanity; only think, Mr. Keimer, he would say, only think what has been done by the founders of new religions: how they have enlightened the ignorant, polished the rude, civilized the savage, and made heroes of those who were little better than brutes. Think, sir, what Moses did among the stiff-necked Jews; what Mahomet did among the wild Arabsand what you may do among these gentle drab-coated Pennsylvanians. This, like a spur in the flank of a jaded horse, gave Keimer a new start, and pushed him on afresh to his gruel breakfasts and potato dinners. Ben strove hard to keep him up to this gait. Often at table, and especially when he saw that Keimer was in good-humor and fed kindly, he would give a loose to fancy, and paint the advantages of their new regimen in the most glowing colors. Ay, sir, he would say, letting drop at the same time his spoon, as in an ecstacy of his subject, while his pudding on the platter cooleday, sir, now we are beginning to live like men going a-preaching indeed. Let your epicures gormandize their fowl, fish, and flesh, with draughts of intoxicating liquors. Such gross, inflammatory food may suit the brutal votaries of Mars and Venus. But our views, sir, are different altogether; we are going to teach wisdom and benevolence to mankind. This is a heavenly work, sir, and our minds ought to be heavenly. Now, as the mind depends greatly on the body, and the body on the food, we should certainly select that which is of the most pure and refining quality. And this, sir, is exactly the food to our purpose. This mild potato, or this gentle pudding, is the thing to insure the light stomach, the cool liver, the clear head, and, above all, those celestial passions which become a preacher that would moralize the world. And these celestial passions, sir, let me add, though I dont pretend to be a prophet, these celestial passions, sir, were you but to stick to this diet, would soon shine out in your countenance with such apostolic majesty and grace, as would strike all beholders with reverence, and enable you to carry the world before you.
Such was the style of Bens rhetoric with old Keimer. But it could not all do. For though these harangues would sometimes make him fancy himself as big as Zoroaster or Confucius, and talk as if he should soon have the whole country running after him, and worshipping him for the Great Lama of the West; yet this divinity fit was too much against the grain to last long. Unfortunately for poor Keimer, the kitchen lay between him and his bishopric: and both nature and habit had so wedded him to that swinish idol, that nothing could divorce him. So, after having been led by Ben a very dl of a life, as he called it, for three months, his flesh-pot appetites prevailed, and he swore, by his whiskers, he would suffer it no longer. Accordingly, he ordered a nice roast pig for dinner, and desired Ben to invite a young friend to dine with them. Ben did so: but neither himself nor his young friend were anything the better for the pig. For before they could arrive, the pig being done, and his appetite beyond all restraint, Keimer had fallen on it and devoured the whole. And there he sat panting and torpid as an anaconda who had just swallowed a young buffalo. But still his looks gave sign that the ministers of grace had not entirely deserted him, for at sight of Ben and his young friend, he blushed up to the eyelids, and in a glow of scarlet, which showed that he paid dear for his whistle (gluttony), he apologized for disappointing them of their dinner. Indeed, the smell of the pig, he said, was so sweet, and the nicely browned skin so inviting, especially to him who had been long starved, that for the soul of him he could not resist the temptation to taste itand then, oh! if Lucifer himself had been at the door, he must have gone on, let what would have been the consequences. He said, too, that for his part he was glad it was a pig and not a hog, for that he verily believed he should have bursted himself. Then leaning back in his chair and pressing his swollen abdomen with his paws, he exclaimed, with an awkward laugh, Well, I dont believe I was ever cut out for a bishop! Here ended the farce: for Keimer never after this uttered another word about his new religion.