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"Sun-Down Papers.—[No. 3]"

image 1image 2image 3image 4cropped image 1 For the Hempstead Inquirer



Among those things calculated to depreciate mechanics,1 none is worthy of greater reprehension than the effort to be fashionable, or what is sometimes called 'living genteelly.'2 The endeavors of working-mens' families to keep up what they call town style in their furniture, dress and general appearance, have made hundreds to feel the bitter pangs of insult, the mortification of being dunned, the fever of anxiety; and, in cases not a few, have brought on bankruptcy and ruin. How many of those who are lost to that keen sense of self-respect, and that noble feeling of independence which always mark the true gentlemen, can lay their falling off to the perplexities which this mad notion for a shadow had led them into! Among the intemperate, what numbers there are, whom the extravagant ideas of children or wives, have sent along the path that leads to disgrace and death!

And the ambition to be fashionable is in itself, without counting the consequences, one of the greatest torments that a mechanic can be subject to. It makes him ashamed of his calling; and is totally at war with every thing in his proper habits, and his legitimate sphere of life. He seeks to hide what he is, and apes the manners of those whom he foolishly supposes to be his superiors, merely because they are of no use in the world, have small and soft hands, and never bend themselves down to the practice of vulgar industry or labor. And when he goes among such individuals, he often has to content himself with a subordinate rank. His income does not enable him to equal them in appearance; and as his time is occupied in labor, he cannot acquire that hundred little refinements which are necessary to acquitting one's-self with credit in that society whose good will he is so anxious after. So that the effort to move in 'fashionable' company involves the loss to a workingman of all personal dignity, and much of his comfort; it is generally a risk to his peace of mind, a danger to his estate, and a variance with all those duties which appertain to one in his station.3

And is there such great pleasure and so immense an amount of gratification met with among those called genteel, that all these dangers are overbalanced? Let us see how rational are these coveted delights. I think it will be acknowledged by all sharp observers of society, that the amusements, the customs, the methods of passing time, and the conversation of this patrician order so much besought, are such as are in general neither healthy, nor eminent for sense or morals. The dissipation and miserable vanity of the ton, the puerile conceitedness of the dandy, and the empty heartlessness of the fashionable female, are topics which have employed the pen of the moralist 'many a time and oft.'4 A working man's family, therefore, in its emulation after the style of those above them in riches and conventional breeding, runs a dangerous race after what is not only not worth the having, but what is pernicious and vile.


1. Most references to the term "mechanics" in the early nineteenth century were associated with workers in a master-journeyman-apprentice system (see Charles Quill, The American Mechanic [Boston: Perkins and Marvin, 1838]). Whitman’s use of the term "mechanics" in 1841 refers to someone who is "young, employed, and impressionable" (see Jason Stacy, Walt Whitman’s Multitudes [New York: Peter Lang, 2008], 30). Whitman is writing to young men who he felt were in danger of turning to putting their well-being and livelihood in jeopardy by attempting to live outside of their means. [back]

2. The phrase "living genteelly" refers to living a wealthy, affluent lifestyle. Karen Halttunen explains the "genteel performance" as "a system of polite conduct that demanded a flawless self-discipline practiced within an apparently easy, natural, and sincere manner" (Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982], 93). The "act" of living genteelly generated anxiety for middle-class nineteenth-century Americans since the act of genteelly decorating homes and parlors with fashionable items could be a façade rather than natural expressions of affluence or moral excellence. [back]

3. The term "fashionable" is used here to indicate choices of appearance and consumable goods that a majority of middle- and upper-class Americans conspicuously consume as a marker of social class. Whitman criticized "fashionable" consumption in many of his writings. For example, he discussed how he had found that "it is a very dangerous thing to be rich" in another editorial titled "Sun-Down Papers [No. 7] From the Desk of a Schoolmaster," published in the Long-Island Democrat on September 29, 1840. He also critiqued fashionable elements of American culture in "Sun-Down Papers [No. 9] From the Desk of a Schoolmaster" in the Long-Island Democrat published on July 6, 1841, by writing that, "It makes us disdain to be hemmed in by the formal mummeries of fashion...all pleasures of dollars and cents are dross those of loving and being loved." Karen Halttunen explained that, "In the view of American moralists, the middle-class pursuit of fashion was not merely a ridiculous pretension; it was an act of hypocrisy" (Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982], 63-64). [back]

4. The phrase "many a time and oft" was a popular phrase during the mid-nineteenth century that meant "repeatedly." This phrase is derived from Act 1, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: "SHYLOCK: 'Signior Antonio, many a time and oft / In the Rialto you have rated me / About my moneys and my usances: / Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, / For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.'" Shakespeare was extremely popular in the nineteenth century amongst all classes; therefore, many who read the Hempstead Inquirer would have understood the reference. For more information about the widespread popularity of Shakespeare in ninteenth-century American popular culture see: Lawrence W. Levine, "William Shakespeare and the American People: A Study in Cultural Transformation," The American Historical Review 89, no.1 (Feb. 1984): 34-66. See also: Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988). [back]

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