American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

While Shoddy’s on the Brain

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shoddy
To mark Maine’s ignoble defeat of the Gay Marriage law, here’s a song from another era, about another war that extended “from Gulf to Maine” (the war stretches even further today). As partial explanation of what’s meant by the chorus — and why it pertains to the present moment — here are some passages from an article by E. P. Whipple in The Atlantic Monthly (1871). The article begins in the Civil War, with the profiteers who grew fat on government money:

Soon came the cry from the camps that cheats at home were thriving on the miseries of the volunteers; that the soldier starved in order that the contractor might feast; especially that the defenders of the nation, hurrying from their homes to insure safety to the homes of their plunderers, were so sleazily clothed that they were literally left naked to their enemies and a word of ominous and infamous significance, a word in which is concentrated more wrath and wretchedness than any other in the vocabulary of the camp, the word shoddy, flew into general circulation, to embody the soldiers’ anathema on the soldiers’ scourge.

Then Whipple continues:

But it seems to us that a word of such ill repute should not be confined to one class of offences, but should be extended to follies, errors, vices, and policies which, though they boast of softer names, illustrate the same essential quality. For what is the essential characteristic of shoddy clothing? Is it not this, that it will not wear? In its outside appearance it mimics good cloth, but use quickly reduces it to its elemental rags. Now; it might be asked, have we, in our experience during the past ten years, been deceived by no other plausible mockeries of reality than shoddy uniforms? Have we not all, more or less, been wearing shoddy clothing on our minds and consciences? … The essential mischief of this shoddy clothing for the popular mind is due, in a great degree, to the name it assumes. It eludes the grip of thought by calling itself common sense. If its object were to distinguish itself thus from real sense, its modesty might be commended; but when its purpose palpably is to point the finger at all clear perception and sound thinking, its impudence merits the rod.

And more:

The meaning of common sense, then, is plain; but how often do we use the term as a cover for common nonsense, the nonsense which one mind has in common with others; or, what is worse, as a convenient phrase to impart dignity to any narrow opinion or obstinate misjudgment or foolish crochet, which we may personally pamper and pride ourselves upon, and thus give to our private whim the character of a universal belief. This shoddy common sense is the most detestable of all forms of nonsense.

— Detestable thinking certainly won yesterday.

“Shoddy on the Brain” is not exactly “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In denouncing the profiteers, it more or less dismisses the aim of stamping out slavery. Or anyway, it dismisses the notion that this is the actual aim. But after two editorial verses, the song veers elsewhere.  The song itself is shoddy! Ending in a church, in marriage.

Anyway, for me today, shoddy is indeed on the brain.

The image comes from the Library of Congress American Memory website, from the collection America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets. I found the Whipple article in a second collection: The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

November 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm

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