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About <em>Sun-Down Papers</em>

In the summer of 1836, seventeen-year-old Whitman took a job as a schoolteacher in rural Long Island.1 He continued in this capacity until the spring of 1841 and changed locations seasonally throughout these years.2 Whitman taught classes of up to eighty students from ages five to fifteen for nine hours per day. The teaching assignments were for three-month terms and, like many schoolteachers during the early nineteenth century, Whitman boarded with the families of his students. His charges remembered him as both "careless of time and the world, of money and of toil" and as "always musin', and writin'" (Loving 1999, 38). Starting in the winter of 1840, Whitman published a series of editorials entitled "Sun-Down Papers, From the Desk of a Schoolmaster" in three different rural Long Island newspapers, the Hempstead Inquirer, the Long-Island Democrat, and the Long-Island Farmer.

The "Sun-Down Papers" have been portrayed as "oppressively moral" (Allen 1955, 37), "sentimental" (Stovall 1974, 29), "didactic" (Loving 1999, 46), and "prudish" (Reynolds 1995, 74). These assessments are largely accurate, as, indeed, the essays offer an extended exhortation against affectation and consumerism. The first four "Sun-Down" essays present Whitman's critique of pretense in the working class. Essays six through eight establish Whitman's vision of beauty, purity, and wholesomeness. In these three pieces, the Schoolmaster turns from a criticism of worker consumerism to a celebration of the unaffected mechanic. Essays nine and ten present a subtle blueprint of a "loafer" republic where this unaffected beauty ruled the day. By 1855 when Whitman wrote "I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass," he had been thinking about loafing for a long time.

While there are ten "Sun-Down Papers" in all, the fourth in the series was printed in two different newspapers with slight variations and, after, the series continued with number 6. A number 5 has never been found, and it is not clear whether the reprinted number 4 was counted as the fifth "Sun-Down Paper," or whether the skip in the sequence was an error. Also, there are two essays labeled "No. 9," the second of which is labeled here "No. 9 bis" to denote the second from the first, following the labeling method employed by Herbert Bergman in The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Journalism, Volume 1: 1834-1846. Finally, essay number 10 is designated with the Roman numeral "X" in the original version, but, for stylistic consistency, the Arabic numeral ten is used in the index below.


Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Cultural Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1955).

Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974).

David Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

Walt Whitman, The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Journalism, Volume 1: 1834-1846, ed. Herbert Bergman (New York: Peter Lang, 1998).


1. This introduction is adapted from Jason Stacy, Walt Whitman's Multitudes: Labor Reform and Persona in Whitman's Journalism and the First Leaves of Grass, 1840-1855 (New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2008), 23-27. [back]

2. East Norwich (Summer 1836), Babylon (Winter 1836-37), Long Swamp (Spring 1837), Smithtown (Fall-Winter 1837-1838), Little Bay Side (Winter 1839-1840), Trimming Square (Spring 1840), Woodbury (Summer 1840), Whitestone (Winter-Spring 1841). [back]

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