Editor’s Easy Chair, by George William Curtis

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Dr. Tanner's fast

It was the opinion of a shrewd stage-driver, whose route was from a small railway station to a hamlet high in the hills, that during the winter the hamlet, as he expressed it, was “about as tame and doesile a place as you could see.” The city of New York, during this summer, has deserved the same description. What may yet befall we know not, but up to this time the chief excitements have been the fasting of Dr. Tanner and the arrival of the obelisk from Egypt. What Dr. Tanner seeks to prove, except that eating three times a day is superfluous, when eating may be omitted altogether for forty days, is not apparent. He must be mentioned, indeed, cautiously, for he may have succumbed before this Magazine is issued, or even printed. But the future explorer of the news of this day will be interested to know that a man has undertaken to eat nothing for forty days, and to subsist upon water only. His endurance, of course, is a public spectacle. He is watched day and night. The Herald newspaper is said to have placed a body of reporters about him, four of whom hold him constantly under survey. He walks and drives, and reads and talks, and, so far as appears, drinks water only. It is an illustration of the remarkable power of human endurance; and should he be successful, he will have demonstrated that it is possible for the body to hold out forty days without food.

There is always to be borne in mind the unfortunate horse which his owner was teaching to live upon a straw a day, but which died just as the experiment was about to succeed. In this case, however, the doctor starves himself, and he can be prevented from pushing his experiment even to his own death only by the forcible injection of food. But it is not clear that society can rightfully inject food into one of its members who, without harm to others, declines to take it. If the doctor can survive forty days foodless, it will be interesting to know how many more he might have survived, and whether food is perhaps unnecessary. This last conclusion would throw a flood of light upon the bread-and-butter question. Political economy would rock to its foundations, and the laborer upon the New England hills would smile at Mr. Atkinson’s demonstration that his wages for a day would move from the West, a thousand miles away, all the grain and meat that he consumes in a year. If Dr. Tanner should enable that laborer to say, “I don’t consume none,” Mr. Atkinson would surely forgive the grammar.

There seems to have been little interest among scientific men in this feat of Dr. Tanner. They have possibly decided that it is a trick, and that it is wrong to encourage public humbug. As the medical faculty never uses bread pills to cure disease, it is perhaps entitled to scoff at Dr. Tanner’s proposition to support life on water. The newspapers, however, give daily copious accounts of the details of the doctor’s condition, and of all that occurs; and if it should turn out, after all, that this is the beginning of an insidious attack upon agriculture, eldest of arts, designed to end in the abolition of food altogether, the minute accounts of its first approaches will be both valuable and entertaining reading. Whether the doctor himself would be in that case regarded as a benefactor of the race would depend upon the point of view. If the need of dinner should disappear, what would not follow? For if the end of the elaborate machinery of government is to get twelve men into the jury-box, the purpose of the vast and complex industry of the world is to provide everybody with a daily dinner. Viewed as the inception of a movement to abolish dinner, Dr. Tanner’s fast becomes very important.

Just as we go to press, Dr. Tanner triumphs, and begins to eat heartily, gaining rapidly in weight.

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