On loafers

Did Walt Whitman attend Reverend William Patton’s 9 March 1852 lecture on loafers at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York? The somewhat derogatory term had been in circulation for at least a decade, and Whitman, not yet the poet of Leaves of Grass, had already used it in his journalism. But Patton put a torque on the word that would probably have stuck in Whitman’s mind, if he had been in attendance.

Patton gave a conventional etymology and definition. The word loafer “was supposed to be derived from the German laufen (to run). . . . A feature of the loafer’s character is unwillingness to work; he loves idleness.” But when Patton elaborated his idea of the loafer, he prefigured some of Whitman’s imagery. The loafer, he said,

would wonderfully enjoy Eden, where fruits grew without cultivation, and he would have nothing to do but enjoy himself. The probability is, if he could have directed his own creation, he would have had himself made a vegetable, not an animal, and that he should be planted in a deep soil.

In his 1855 poem, Whitman would write

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass.

The poem’s narrator goes on to consider the spiritual meanings of grass, again and again, until at last he seems to become one with it:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

Patton told his audience that the loafer was “a poetical, transcendental philosopher, believing in the beauty of life per se.” Such a belief was expected to sound ridiculous; at lecture’s end, Patton reminded his listeners that idleness was the devil’s plaything and exhorted them to “Be a street sweeper, be a scavenger, if need be, but do not be a loafer.” But a poet might have listened with a contrary and selective ear, and taken the mockery as a compliment.

Patton seems to have devoted the bulk of his speech to a catalog of the

various characters of loafers—the youthful and adult vulgar loafer; the musical loafer, who is generally a brawny Swiss or Italian; the fashionable loafer, a very exquisite and highly finished variety; the wealthy and retired loafer; the military and naval loafer, . . . ; the political loafer . . . ; the aristocratic loafer . . . [and] the “ecclesiastical loafer.”

According to Patton’s complaint, the loafer is everywhere, because he “adapts himself to the most contradictory circumstances of wealth and poverty, ignorance and education.” In Whitman’s hands, of course, the range of identities available to the loafer-poet would become a boast:

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.

Under dogs

About a year ago, I wrote an entry about the mid-nineteenth-century New York City custom of dog slaughter. The city offered fifty cents for every stray turned in, and the roundup seems to have struck everyone as a bit gruesome. The other day, while looking for a caricature of a divorce lawyer, I stumbled across this cartoon of protesting dogs in the 27 May 1852 issue of Joseph A. Scoville’s humorous weekly The Pick, and I couldn’t resist printing it out from the microfilm. (Alas, the divorce lawyer’s caricature must have been in an issue that wasn’t microfilmed. According to a 1930s-era bibliography, two libraries in the world then had paper versions of The Pick for 1852, so there’s a chance that the caricature I was looking for—and an unscratched version of this one, for that matter—still survives.)

The “Porter” in the caption must have been William T. Porter, editor of the sporting and humor magazine The Spirit of the Times, who presumably took the dog-friendly position on the issue.


Last night I turned a couple of old articles into HTML. In 2002, in “The Undertaker’s Art, Exhumed” I raved about L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. (To the left is the poster designed by Jerzy Flisak for the 1970 movie, which starred Alan Bates and Julie Christie.) And in 1997, back when I thought I was going to be a more conventional kind of scholar, I wrote an essay about Frank O’Hara and D. W. Winnicott, which Marjorie Perloff didn’t much like.