Title: Sun-Down Papers
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: April 11, 1840
Publication information: Hempstead Inquirer 11 April 1840: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00305
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Samanthe Braswell, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen
cropped image 1
SUN-DOWN PAPERS.—[No. 4]
FROM THE DESK OF A SCHOOLMASTER.
Amidst the universal excitement which appears to have been created of late years, with regard to the evils created by ardent spirits, it seems to have been forgotten that there are other, and almost as injurious kinds of intemperance.1 The practice of using tobacco, in any shape, is one of these. Not only does the custom contribute to the discomfort of company, but it is, in itself, a fruitful source of ill to those that use it.
This is sufficiently shown by the fact, that the first taste of it almost invariably causes sickness and nausea.2 Our young men, however, entertain an idea that there is something very manly in having a segar stuck in the corner of their lips; or a round ball of sickening weed that a dog would not touch, rolling in their mouths. Boys, like monkeys, are generally ambitious of apeing their superiors; and many a poor fellow has voluntarily undergone hours of misery in learning how to smoke or chew, in order that he might perfectly acquire these noble accomplishments, and assume the attributes of manhood.3 There is something very majestic, truly, in seeing a human being with a long roll of black leaves held between his teeth, and projecting eight or ten inches before him. It has been said by some satirical individual, that a fishing-rod is a thing with a hook at one extremity, and a fool at the other: it may with much more truth be affirmed, that a segar, generally has a smoky fire at one end, & a conceited spark at the other. Weak, and silly indeed, must be that youth, who thinks that these are the characteristics of manhood, they are much oftener the proofs of empty brains, and a loaferish disposition.4
Custom may, and does, enable some people to become so habituated to these things, that they produce no very evident evil. But it is still not less the cause that they do produce evil. They weaken the strength of the nervous system; they alternately excite & depress the powers of the brain; and they act with constant and insidious attacks upon the health. There may be instances where these effects do not follow: for there are some men who have such horse like constitutions, that if they were to eat the shovel and tongs, these would not sit heavily on their stomachs; nor would a blacksmith's hammer be able to shatter their nerves. These are exceptions to the correctness of my assertions with regard to the evil effects of tobacco; but facts and the experience of medical men will bear me out in saying that they are generally true.
The excessive use of tea and coffee, too, is a species of intemperance much to be condemned. It is astonishing that people can consent to take twice a day, three or four gills of a hot liquid into their stomachs, to destroy its tone and impair its legitimate powers. And not only for this; for it would not be so bad if it was pure water merely; but it must be infused with a bitter and unpleasant shrub—and to crown the climax of absurdity, it must have a lump of sugar to take away the bitter taste, and a spoonful of milk to destroy its insupportable hotness.
Into what ridiculous lengths can people be led by fashion! Hot drinks of this kind are fatal to the teeth, deleterious to physical strength, the cause of impure blood, and the means of producing many a head-ache, many a pale face, and many an emaciated body.
In conclusion, I would remark, that I am not one of those who would deny people any sensual delights, because I think it is a sin to be happy, and to take pleasure in the good things of this life. On the contrary, I am disposed to allow every rational gratification, both to the palate, and the other senses. I consider that we were placed here for two beneficent purposes, to fulfil our duty, and to enjoy the almost innumerable comforts and delights which he has provided for us. But the pernicious things I have mentioned are not worthy the name comforts: long habit may have caused them to be regarded as such by some people; but nature, and experience, and enlightened reason, all go to prove their injurious effect.
1. Whitman was critical of various forms of intemperance, which is evident in this publication. These types of sentiments were very popular in the various temperance movements that swept through the country during the nineteenth century. Liquor was the most common vice that temperance movements sought to eradicate. However, Whitman wanted to use this editorial to discuss other habits that he found dangerous to young men. Whitman’s personal background as a son of an alcoholic likely influenced his views on this subject. For more information about Whitman’s personal background as it contributed to his beliefs about intemperance, see Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999). For a contemporary nineteenth-century view of the temperance movements of the time, see James Shaw, History of the Great Temperance Movements of the Nineteenth Century (Cincinnati: Walden and Stowe, 1875). For a more recent history of the nineteenth-century temperance movements, see Elaine Frantz Parsons, Manhood Lost: Fallen Drunkards and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003). [back]
2. Whitman republished this article in the April 28th issue of the Long-Island Democrat and revised this sentence to begin, "This is sufficiently proved by the fact . . . ." The only known copy from the Hempstead Inquirer is missing part of paragraph two and all of paragraph three. In this transcription, we have collated the partial editorial from the Inquirer against the reprinted version in the Democrat, as well as consulted Herbert Bergman's transcription, where he calls the differences between the two versions, "minor: a word change . . . and two marks of punctuation" (Herbert Bergman, et al., eds., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Journalism [New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 1998], 1: 488). For an image of the reprinted article as it appeared in the Long-Island Democrat, click here. [back]
3. The concept of "manhood" used here is significant because the definition of what constituted "manhood" was drastically changing during this time. Young men were aspiring to climb the social ladder of American cities and therefore were often easily persuaded to try activities with their fellow men, such as drinking and smoking (as well as other behaviors such as frequenting brothels). Since this editorial is written with young men in mind, it is important to note that Whitman was again using his writings to warn them about the dangers associated with drinking and other forms of intemperate behaviors. Whitman is adding to the discourse of the drunkard’s narrative popular at this time. For more information on the discourse associated with nineteenth-century drunkard narratives, see: Elaine Frantz Parsons, Manhood Lost: Fallen Drunkards and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003). [back]
4. Here Whitman gives a negative connotation to a "loaferish disposition" by associating it with the consequences of developing intemperate habits. This contradicts some of his later thoughts on the subject of loafers where he praises the naturalness and free-spirited nature of loafers. For instance, seven months after writing this he wrote, "How I do love a loafer . . . he belongs to that ancient and honourable fraternity, whom I venerate above all your upstarts, your dandies, and your political oracles" ("Sun-Down Papers—[No. 9] From the Desk of a Schoolmaster," Long-Island Democrat, November 24, 1840). [back]