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  • The Business Clerk as Social Revolutionary; or, a Labor History of the Nonproducing Classes
  • Michael Zakim (bio)

Walt Whitman printed an insolent picture of himself on the frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. It was a déclassé portrait of urban insouciance and cheap clothes that marked the poet, in the words of the New York Tribune, as one of that "exemplary class of society . . . irreverently styled 'loafers.'" In fact, Whitman was quite explicit about his identity as a loafer: "I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass," he wrote at the beginning of the poem that later became known as "Song of Myself." It was one of those rhetorical provocations that gave his poetics such cultural resonance, as Whitman conspicuously sought to turn the tables on a favorite expression of moral censure employed by the better classes at midcentury.1

In fact, the age abounded in loafers. There were literary loafers, Yankee loafers, French loafers, genteel loafers, common loafers, and country loafers, among others, the latter observed by Nathaniel Hawthorne at the Brighton Cattle Fair "wait[ing] for some friend to invite them to drink." Nevertheless, loaferism was essentially a metropolitan phenomenon, haunting the city's sidewalks, wharves, museums, and parks, and serving [End Page 563] as a ready epithet for anyone needing to hurl an insult. The young New York conservative George Templeton Strong thus ascribed the worst tendencies of democracy, "so called," to the loafer, while the Southern Literary Messenger accused him of no less than advocating "the sublime doctrine of social equality." Loafers were known for cursing without shame and for smoking cigars. They cared little for the law and exhibited a marked disregard for public life in general. They were eccentric, if not impudent, in their personal habits. They had a weakness for billiards and bar-rooms and were maddeningly self-satisfied, if not philosophically reclusive. And they wore stand-up collars that were, more often than not, covered in stains.2

The stream of invective was not without a consistent logic. The loafer's omnipresence in American conversation—that is, the wide currency accorded to accusations of personal indolence—was testimony to an emerging labor problem: a crisis in the meaning of industriousness that had been provoked, aptly enough, by an industrial revolution. As someone "whose aim is to get through the world with as little energy as possible," the loafer offered a conscious rebuke to the ambitious, striving, self-perfecting tendencies of the day. "The only real employment [End Page 564] intended for man was to eat and sleep," the Ladies Companion caustically observed in an essay on the subject in 1837, "and the Loafer's principle and practice on the matter, were in unison." And yet, as the New-York Daily Times also noted, the loafer was deeply implicated in the forward march of progress. "In a barbarous state of society loafers were, without doubt, scarce; in fact, their very existence is doubtful." This was in marked contrast to the present day, when their numbers "increase with hundred-fold rapidity beneath the benignant influence of civilization." Loafing, it consistently followed, was no less than "the consummation of all industry."3

The fact is, "the real employment intended for man" had become an open question in the age of capital. That was why the talking classes fretted incessantly about Americans becoming "impatient of hard work out of doors" in these years. And that was why Henry Ward Beecher opened his best-selling Lectures to Young Men with a sermon on "Industry and Idleness" that warned of a "pestilent sediment" forming under society's foundations, a class of sluggards who preferred to sleep late rather than wield a plough. Beecher's rhetoric was characteristic of a nationwide trope regarding the ruinous effects of ease and opulence in an era when commercial ambition seemed to have infected everyone. Even Hunt's Merchants' Magazine expressed apprehension over the ethical fallout from such flush times. "The lottery of life has begun; live to-day, and let wealth or bankruptcy come to-morrow." The problem was especially acute in America where the plough had never just been a...


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