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What is a cracker-barrel sage?

Context:

The influence of many years spent in America talking to (and often down to) Americans also gave his performance a kind of Barnum quality: Hitchens the cracker-barrel sage selling snake oil dressed up as urgent verity.

Does it originate in the article The Cracker-Barrel Sage by F.P. Wortman or does it pre-date that?

And what actually is a cracker barrel, for that matter?

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2 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

By calling Hitchens a "cracker-barrel sage", the writer is (for some reason) connecting naturalized-American Hitchens to the American tradition of small-town, post-Civil-War authors and humorists, most famously Mark Twain but also (now almost forgot) writers like Bill Nye (no, not the Science Guy, the other one) and Artimus Ward.

Although cultured Americans aware of the phrase's origins might interpret it that way, I think these days most people treat it as synonymous with barstool philosophy, a generally disparaging phrase meaning simply home-spun commonplace wisdom, without the depth and non-intuitive subtlety one might expect from more informed and considered arguments.

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Re-reading it, I think you're right. Barnum (unfairly imo) has a connotation of deceit, and snake oil outright denotes it. I think the writer is saying Hitchen could just sucker us ignorant American rubes. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, I always say. –  Malvolio Dec 19 '11 at 7:11
    
@Malvolio I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment and didn't think the tone of the article was appropriate. I didn't even think there was any merit to the arguments presented so I didn't link it. Just wanted to understand the cultural context of that particular expression. –  z7sg Ѫ Dec 19 '11 at 16:30
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Best as I can tell, a cracker barrel is exactly what it sounds a like: a barrel of crackers (although I imagine it was more of a crate than a true barrel). As a foodstuff that was easy to manufacture in bulk, difficult to make at home, and nonperishable, it would have been one of the few commercially produced edibles in rural homes between the Civil War and WWI. The empty barrel was (at least proverbially) used as the desk and platform for the town-squares in small towns of the American Mid-West and South and became something of a metonym for them and their way of life.

By calling Hitchens a "cracker-barrel sage", the writer is (for some reason) connecting naturalized-American Hitchens to the American tradition of small-town, post-Civil-War authors and humorists, most famously Mark Twain but also (now almost forgotten) writers like Bill Nye (no, not the Science Guy, the other one) and Artimus Ward.

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Presumably, this is the same barrel as is found in "cash on the barrelhead". –  Peter Shor Dec 18 '11 at 18:16
    
That would be my first guess, yes, but the other option is that in urban groceries (where shopping every day was an option and crackers would be sold in smaller packages) it would be a pickle barrel (since the city dweller was less likely to invest the time in pickling his own cucumbers and would just buy them one at a time out of the barrel at the front of the store). –  Malvolio Dec 18 '11 at 18:26
    
You're saying it's something like a humourist's soap-box then? If it could be used to Mark Twain then it's neutral/positive, however, here it appears to be an insult. Is that all in the context? –  z7sg Ѫ Dec 18 '11 at 20:13
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@z7sg: A "cracker-barrel sage" would be somebody in a small town who sits on an (empty) cracker barrel and dispenses miscellaneous wisdom to any interested passersby. I would assume that it's generally an insult. –  Peter Shor Dec 18 '11 at 21:40
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