Salvation through Primary Sources

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The social science students of Davidson often find themselves reading secondary sources to understand a critical evaluation of a fundamental document or theory. In fact, up until the assigned reading for February 11, the previous articles for Disasters of the American Gilded Age were not artifacts, but rather materials distorted to reflect the opinions of the author. Father Peter Pernin’s account in The Great Peshtigo Fire: An Eyewitness Account varies from these other readings because it serves as a participant’s reaction to an event he survived.

Through his descriptive discourse, one is reminded of the tragically humane aspect of disasters. It is less emotionally unsettling, and therefore more difficult to understand the extent of the disaster, by reading about “five acres of stores, offices, factories, hotels, and homes had been destroyed, and many hundreds of people were dead” in a secondary source than to read about “charred carcasses of horses, cows, oxen, and other animals” and “the bodies of the human victims- men, women, and children- had been already collected and decently interred-their number being easily ascertained by counting the rows of freshly-made graves” as phrased by Father Peter Pernin (Rozario, 72; 263).

This data is not without bias or personal opinion, which emphasizes the advantages of reading more impartial reflections by secondary source authors. One undergoes a spiritualistic experience by reading Pernin’s article. Eli describes the literary eloquence of Pernin’s account in his post and how this style “elegantly describes what must have been a horrifying experience for everyone involved”. Aside from the repetitive calls to God, the flamboyant symbol of the hellish fire taking all those who did not bathe themselves in the river is manifested as Pernin writes, “At the same moment I heard a splash of the water along the river’s brink. All had followed my example. It was time; the air was no longer fit for inhalation, whilst the intensity of the heat was increasing. A few minutes more and no living thing could have resisted its fiery breath” (257). Pernin expands on the baptizing characteristics of the river as he continues a few pages later, “I came out of the river about half past three in the morning, and from that time I was in a very different condition, both morally and physically, to that in which I had previously been” (259).

Fortunately, the religious qualities of “The Great Peshtigo Fire” are blatant enough that one can choose interpret the work omitting or including them. The reader’s and secondary source’s decision to interpret the primary source at will reiterates the importance of returning to the original data. In this way, the source being reflected on is not limited to the analysis of a third party.

I think Cronon would have appreciated Pernin’s account because, despite it’s artistic approach, he does not distinguish the humans from their  environment. Pernin describes the animals’ foreshadowing of and reaction to disaster equal to the humans’. Additionally, he intertwines natural and anthropogenically-induced causes of the Peshitgo Fire, blaming the final  product of a dry season and ignorance.

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