Title: Sun-Down Papers
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: November 24, 1840
Publication information: Long-Island Democrat 24 November 1840: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00313
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Kevin McMullen, and Jason Stacy
cropped image 1
SUN-DOWN PAPERS.—[No. 9]1
From the Desk of a Schoolmaster
How I do love a loafer!2 Of all human beings, none equals your genuine, inbred, unvarying loafer. Now when I say loafer, I mean loafer; not a fellow who is lazy by fits and starts—who to-day will work his twelve or fourteen hours, and to-morrow doze and idle. I stand up for no such half-way business. Give me your calm, steady, philosophick son of indolence; one that doesn n't swerve from the beaten track; a man who goes the undivided beast. To such an one will I doff my beaver.3 No matter whether he be a street loafer or a dock loafer—whether his hat be rimless, and his boots slouched, and his coat out at the elbows: he belongs to that ancient and honourable fraternity, whom I venerate above all your upstarts, your dandies, and your political oracles.
All the old philosophers were loafers. Take Diogenes for instance.4 He lived in a tub, and demeaned himself like a true child of the great loafer family. Or go back farther, if you like, even to the very beginning. What was Adam, I should like to know, but a loafer? Did he do any thing but loaf? Who is foolish enough to say that Adam was a working man? Who dare aver that he dealt in stocks, or was busy in the sugar line?
I hope you will not so far expose yourself as to ask, who was the founder of loafers. Know you not, ignorance, that there never was such a thing as the origin of loaferism? We don't acknowledge any founder. There have always been loafers, as they were in the beginning, are now, and ever shall be—having no material difference. Without any doubt, when Chaos had his acquaintance cut, and the morning stars sang together, and the little rivers danced a cotillion for pure fun—there were loafers somewhere about, enjoying the scene in all their accustomed philosophick quietude.
When I have been in a dreamy, musing mood, I have sometimes amused myself with picturing out a nation of loafers. Only think of it! an entire loafer kingdom! How sweet it sounds! Repose—quietude,—roast duck,—loafer. Smooth and soft are the terms to our jarred tympanums.5
Imagine some distant isle inhabited altogether by loafers. Of course there is a good deal of sunshine, for sunshine is the loafer's natural element. All breathes peace and harmony. No hurry, or bustle, or banging, or clanging. Your ears ache no more with the din of carts; the noisy politician offends you not; no wrangling, no quarrelling, no loco focos,6 no British whigs.7
Talk about your commercial countries, and your national industry, indeed! Give us the facilities of loafing, and you are welcome to all the benefits of your tariff system, your manufacturing privileges, and your cotton trade. For my part, I have had serious thoughts of getting up a regular ticket for President and Congress and Governor and so on, for the loafer community in general. I think we loafers should organize. We want somebody to carry out 'our principles.' It is my impression, too, that we should poll a pretty strong vote. We number largely in the land. At all events our strength would enable us to hold the balance of power, and we should be courted and coaxed by all the rival factions. And there is no telling but what we might elect our men. Stranger things than that have come to pass.
These last hints I throw out darkly, as it were. I by no means assert that we positively will get up and vote for, a regular ticket to support the 'great measures of our party.' I am only telling what may be done, in case we are provoked. Mysterious intimations have been thrown out—dark sayings uttered, by those high in society, that the grand institution of loaferism was to be abolished. People have talked of us sneeringly and frowningly. Cold eyes have been turned upon us. Overbearing men have spoken in derogatory terms about our rights and our dignity. You had better be careful, gentlemen. You had better look out how you irritate us. It would make you look sneaking enough, if we were to come out at the next election, and carry away the palm before both your political parties.
1. There are two editorials labeled "No. 9" in the "Sun-Down Papers." The second appeared in the 6 July 1841 issue of the Long-Island Democrat. [back]
2. Webster's dictionary (1846) defines "loafer," from the German laufer, a runner and from laufen, to run, as "an idle man who seeks his living by sponging or expedients" (Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1846], 975). The way in which Whitman uses the verb "to loaf" in this essay was first used only two years before, in 1838, according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online. Whitman also used the term "loafing" in an editorial published in the Brooklyn Evening Star on October 10, 1845, but in a more critical manner (see Bergman, et al, eds., The Journalism, vol. I [New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 1998], 222). For an analysis of the ways in which Whitman visually portrayed himself as a "loafer" in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass see Matt Miller, "The Cover of the First Edition of Leaves of Grass," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 24:2-3 (Fall 2006/Winter 2007): 85-97 and Ted Genoways, "'One good shaped and welding man:' Accentuated Sexuality and the Uncertain Authorship of the Frontispiece to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass," in Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays (Lincoln, NE: The University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 87-124. [back]
3. Whitman here means to tip his hat. [back]
4. Diogenes of Sinope (412–323 BCE), founder of the Cynic school of philosophy. [back]
5. "Tympanums" in this case is a synonym for eardrums. [back]
6. Loco focos were a faction of the New York Democratic Party. The ideologial founder of the Loco focos, William Leggett (1801-1839), advocated for free trade, and an end to tariffs and monopolies as a means to improve the economic and social status of working-class artisans. While the Loco Focos were ostensibly a rival faction to Tammany Hall, the base of operations for the New York City Democratic Party, they were largely incorporated into the Party after Leggett's death. See Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 235 and Carl Degler, "The Locofocos: Urban 'Agrarians'," Journal of Economic History 16 (1956): 322–33. A "loco foco" was also an early form of match which could be ignited when rubbed along a rough surface. [back]
7. Whitman could be referring here to the British Whigs of the Glorious Revolution, who overthrew King James II in 1689. Or, more plausibly, he could be conflating the British Whigs with the American Whig Party (a rival to Whitman's Democratic Party) and saddling them with their British namesake as a way to imply their anti-democratic tendencies. [back]