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About this Item

Title: Sun-Down Papers

Creator: Walt Whitman [unsigned in original]

Date: September 29, 1840

Whitman Archive ID: per.00307

Source: Long-Island Democrat 29 September 1840: [3]. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: This piece is unsigned. However, Emory Holloway identified Whitman as the author of "Sun-Down Papers" in The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1921) 1:32–33 n2. Scholars have continued to support Holloway's claim, including Herbert Bergman in Walt Whitman, The Journalism. Volume I: 1834–1846 (New York: Peter Lang, 1998). The Whitman Archive editors agree that the style and content of this piece are consistent with other known Whitman works of this period.

Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Jason Stacy, Kevin McMullen, and Brett Barney

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From the desk of a Schoolmaster

I think that if I should make pretensions to be a philosopher, and should determine to edify the world with what would add to the number of those sage and ingenious theories which do already so much abound, I would compose a wonderful and ponderous book. Therein should be treated on, the nature and peculiarities of men, the diversity of their characters, the means of improving their state, and the proper mode of governing nations; with divers other points whereon I could no doubt throw quite as much light as do many of those worthy gentlemen, who, to the delight and instruction of our citizens, occasionally treat upon these subjects in printed periodicals, in books, and in publick discourses. At the same time that I would do all this, I would carefully avoid saying any thing of woman; because it behooves a modest personage like myself not to speak upon a class of beings, of whose nature, habits, notions, and ways, he has not been able to gather any knowledge, either by experience or observation.

Nobody, I hope, will accuse me of conceit in these opinions of mine own capability for doing great things. In good truth, I think the world suffers from this much-bepraised modesty. Who should be a better judge of a man's talents than the man himself? I see no reason why we should let our lights shine under bushels.1 Yes: I would write a book! And who shall say that it might not be a very pretty book? Who knows but that I might do something very respectable?2

And one principal claim to a place among men of profound sagacity, by means of the work I allude to, would be on account of a wondrous and important discovery, a treatise upon which would fill up the principal part of my compilation. I have found out that it is a very dangerous thing to be rich. For a considerable time past this idea has been pressing upon me; and I am now fully and unalterably convinced of its truth. Some years ago, when my judgement was in the bud, I thought riches were very desirable things. But I have altered my mind. Light has flowed in upon me. I am not quite so green as I was. The mists and clouds have cleared away, and I can now behold things as they really are. Do you want to know some of the causes of this change of opinion? Look yonder. See the sweat pouring down that man's face. See the wrinkles on his narrow forehead. He is a poor, miserable, rich man. He has been up since an hour before sunrise, fussing, and mussing, and toiling and wearying, as if there were no safety for his life, except in uninterrupted motion. He is worried from day to day to preserve and take care of his possessions. He keeps horses; and one of them is by him. Look at the miserable brute, (the horse, I mean.) See how his sides pant. I warrant me, the animal has no rest for the soles of his feet.

I don't know when I have been more pleased than I was the other day by an illustration which a friend of mine gave of the trouble of great wealth. Life, said he, is a long journey by steamboat, stagecoach, and railroad. We hardly get fairly and comfortably adjusted in the vehicle that carries us for the time being, when we are obliged to stop and get into another conveyance, and go a different road. We are continually on the move. We may sometimes flatter ourselves in the idea of making a comfortable stop, with time enough to eat our dinner and lounge about a little; but the bell rings, the steam puffs, the horn blows, the waiters run about half mad, every thing is hurry-scurry for a moment, and whizz! we are off again. What wise man thinks of cumbering up this journey with an immense mass of luggage? Who, that makes pretensions to common sense, will carry with him a dozen trunks, and bandboxes, hatboxes, valises, chests, umbrellas, and canes innumerable, besides two dirty shirts in the crown of his hat, and a heavy brass watch that won't keep time, in his waistcoat pocket?

This is, in all sincerity, a true picture of the case. People groan, and grieve, and work, to no other purpose than merely their own inconvenience. And when at last they arrive at the grand stopping place for their travels here, and start on that mysterious train we all go with sooner or later, they find that the Grand Engineer admits no luggage therein. There is no freight car to the Hidden Land. Money and property must be left behind. The noiseless and strange attendants gather from every passenger his ticket, and heed not whether he be dark or fair, clad in homespun or fine apparel. Happy he whose wisdom has purchased beforehand a token of his having settled satisfactorily for the journey!


1. Matt. 5:15 KJV: "Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house." [back]

2. Whitman biographer Gay Wilson Allen calls this sentence "extremely ambiguous," but only "half facetious" with "more truth than [Whitman] realizes." See Allen, The Solitary Singer (New York: New York University Press, 1955), 38, and Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: Song of Himself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 48. [back]


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