Title: Sun-Down Papers
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: March 14, 1840
Publication information: The Hempstead Inquirer 14 March 1840: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00303
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Samanthe Braswell, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen
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SUN-DOWN PAPERS.—[No. 2]
FROM THE DESK OF A SCHOOLMASTER.
I have two acquaintances; one is named TOM; the cognomen of the other is HOMER, which I generally abbreviate into HOM. My two acquaintances were both born and bred in the city; they both were sent to good schools; both had good masters; both were taken among good company; both are tolerably good looking; both dress neatly and near the fashion; both are tall men; both exhibit frock coats; both wear straps to their pantaloons; both part their hair on the left side; and neither has whiskers. And yet no man can differ more from my friend HOM than does my friend TOM. Nature never produced animals with qualities more opposite than theirs. One is the Torrid Rone; the other is the Frigid.1 If, as people say, every object upon earth has its exact opposite somewhere or other, then must TOM have been intended as a set off against HOM.
For the latter is a man of open, generous, and frank disposition. In his manners he is bluff and hearty; his voice has a full rich tone, and his laugh sounds like a discharge of small artillery. He is liberal to extravagance; without any mincing or affectation in his manners, and is a total despiser of any thing in the shape of pride, or arrogance, or superciliousness, or effeminacy. No foppish pastime ever finds favor in his eyes; but, on the contrary, he is an admirer and a practiser of manly and youthful sports, known to our fathers in times by-gone—quoits, and ball, leaping, and running, and wrestling. He is proficient, both in music and in dancing. In the water, he can swim like a fish; and on horseback, he sits as easily as if he were part of the animal itself. My friend HOM is, at the same time, very much of a gentleman in his manners. Particularly towards the ladies he is invariably polite, good-humored, and obliging. With all his other fair qualities, HOM is a fast friend; he is very young, to be sure, but he knows his place, is modest and unassuming, and with strangers would never pass for the wild, boisterous, hearty, rough-and-tumble, fine honest fellow that he really is.
Now all that my friend HOM is not, my friend Tom BEPRIM is. None of the characteristics which I have been describing could ever be able, slowly or secretly, to creep into TOM's disposition. He is a man, all of forms and ceremony; one who walks and talks, and sleeps and eats, and loves and hates, by rule. With him, that which has the least share in arranging the concerns of life, is the heart. Indeed, I sometimes question whether he knows that there is any such thing as the troublesome little substance, which, in my breast, and in the breast of all the young that I ever knew, so often makes itself painfully or pleasantly felt. TOM does every thing by rule. His principal reading is such books as the "Laws of Etiquette," and "The Youth's Guide to Polite Manners.2 He is excellent authority in those little matters of behavior, which, among some people, form what they call 'good breeding.'3 Tom is very precise in all his movements. He is precise in the motion of his eyes; he is precise in the motion of his tongue; and precise in the motion of his hands and feet. He never in his life was guilty of a loud laugh. He dances like an automaton; and though he goes through the figures in a more ungraceful manner than any person that I ever saw, yet he never misses a step, never brings down his foot in a wrong position, and never puts out the set by any negligence or ignorance of his own. The most ludicrous sight that I ever saw, was one of which TOM figured in at an exhibition ball. The dancing master had arranged the sets for a fancy cotilion, in the figures of which, as they were somewhat new, he had spent some previous time in drilling those who were to take part. It seemed, however, that the drilling was not quite sufficient. The music struck up, but directly the gentlemen and their fair partners became confused and out of place. The music went on, but the dancers stopped still; all but TOM, who, with features solemn as a mummy, and arms hanging at his sides, kept moving on, taking the steps in their proper places; and doing every thing as seriously as if he had been sentencing a criminal to the gallows. The whole of the persons had stopped, and stood gazing at him; but TOM, not the least alarmed, kept moving on, 'solitary and along,' until he had finished every jot and tittle of his part of the performance4
When I meet HOM in the street, he always grasps my hand, and salutes me by my first name. But when I come across Tom, I never presume to call him 'TOM,' I should as soon think of kissing the Queen, or pulling the Sultan by his beard; or asking a broker to lend me money at a reasonable per centum per annum. No: When I meet TOM BEPRIM, I always call him Mr. BEPRIM. And he always misters me in the same manner. I always know exactly the mode in which he is going to advance, exactly the moment in which to extend my hand, and exactly the words which are about to issue out of his mouth. He always pulls off the thumb and first finger of his glove, and gives you the thumb and first finger of his hand to shake. I believe that if, by an accident, he should violate this custom of his, it would afterward go nigh to break his heart.
Among the thousands of intelligent beings who exist about us, there are many who resemble in some degree, either HOM or TOM. How many there are who make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of all sensible people by their attempts at ultrarefinement in their demeanor! Above all, between intimate friends, what is the use of so much punctilio and careful observance of shadows! For our life is but a breath, and let us enjoy it with some zest. Let us, with those we love, live as with ourselves alone. A few more journeyings of the sun, and the old will no more be dwellers upon earth; and we, who are young, will then be old, and in the sear and yellow leaf. Why not, then, enjoy what there is to enjoy, without the trammels and cramps of ceremony? For he who is wise passes on through the garden of life, and carefully avoids, as far as in him lies, all that may be dangerous or cumbersome; and he is careful never to give up the unpretensive reality of comfort, for a glittering and flimsy bubble.
1. While the original text reads "Torrid Rone," Whitman probably meant to contrast the "Torrid Zone" with the "Frigid." The Oxford English Dictionary defines a "rone" as an obsolete term for "A strip of uncultivated land which serves as, or follows the line of, a boundary...," last used in the 16th century. Bergman, et al, in The Complete Journalism vol. I, transcribes the word "Rone" as "Zone." The terms “Torrid Zone” and “the Frigid” refer to the geographic phenomenon of different climates around the tropics (Torrid Zones) and zones around the north and south poles (Frigid Zones). There were references to these zones as early as the mid-eighteenth century and they continued to be discussed in geographic journals, books, lectures, poems, and magazines. One such publication was an instructional guide for children that discussed the different zones in a geographical manner while at the same time asking the children to think of characteristics of inhabitants within these different zones (see Reverend J.L. Blake, A Geography for Children: With Eight Copperplate Maps and Thirty Woodcuts, [Boston: Richardson, Lord, and Holbrook, 1831]). Another such publication that discussed these zones and possible characteristics of people who lived in them was also aimed to educate. In this publication, the Superintendent of public schools in New York wrote, “The object of this temperate zone in being given by God, is to make the people happy” (Nineteenth Annual Report of the Directors of the New-York State Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, to the Legislature of the State of New-York, for the Year 1837, [New York: Mahlon Day, 1837], 48). [back]
2. When Whitman mentions the book called ‘Laws of Etiquette,’ he is most likely referring to The Laws of Etiquette: Or, Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society by an unnamed author whose alias was “A Gentleman.” This conduct manual, published in 1836, was based on European advice manuals and aimed to instruct young American men to act properly in society. While it is unclear exactly what publication Whitman was referring to, the reference to the “Youth’s guide to Polite Manners” could be related to the 1833 publication of William Andrus Alcott’s The Young Man’s Guide. Behavior manuals such as these signified a change in American society that forced young men to learn moral lessons from books rather than their families as they navigated the public spaces of burgeoning cities on their own. For more information on the heightened publication of moral guides during the early nineteenth century, see: Dallett C. Hemphill, Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America 1620-1860, (Oxford University Press, 1999). [back]
3. The term “good breeding” was understood by nineteenth-century Americans to mean good manners as an expression of a natural character. In the sentimental culture of this time, it was important to show outward expressions of an inside character that was untarnished by motive or intent. Although Whitman did not use this specific term, his character Hom is a “natural aristocrat” who had good manners and was able to navigate social spaces naturally without trying. In Whitman’s view, traditional European aristocracy and “good breeding” in a familial context was not as important as a man from any class expressing a natural sense of good manners. Being polite in social situations was a trait to be desired according to contemporary advice manuals, periodicals, sermons, and letters to sons and friends. Many advice manuals quoted William Scott’s definition of good-breeding from his 1817 publication of Lessons of Elocution which explained that good-breeding was “the result of much good sense, some good nature and a little self denial, for the sake of others, and with a view to obtain the same indulgence from them” (p. 72). In this editorial Whitman is being critical of advice manuals that encouraged the instruction and cultivation of good manners because people should express these characteristics “naturally.” There were also popular literary characters at this time who expressed the characteristics of a “natural aristocrat,” such as James Fennimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo from the Leather-Stocking Tales. For more information on this concept of a natural aristocrat, see: Jason Stacy, Walt Whitman’s Multitudes, (New York: Peter Lang, 2008). [back]
4. The phrase "solitary and alone" is associated with Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1852). He used this phrase in his 1837 "expunging speech" made to show support for his fellow Democrat, Andrew Jackson, as he was censured by the United States Senate for attempting to remove federal deposits from the Bank of the United States. Benton announced his proposal to expunge the censure of Jackson from the congressional records to the Senate by stating, "solitary and alone I set this ball in motion." Whitman’s use of this phrase shows his support for Andrew Jackson's crusade against the federal bank. See: The United States Magazine and Democratic Review Volume 1 (1838), 83. [back]