Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living 9780691244693, 9780691244716

What Thoreau can teach us about working—why we do it, what it does to us, and how we can make it more meaningful Henry

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Table of contents :
Preface: Economy
1 Resignation
2 Clocking In
3 Manual Work
4 Machine Work
5 Funny Business
6 Meaningless Work
7 Immoral Work
8 Compensation
9 Coworkers
10 Fulfilling Work
Conclusion: The Business of Living
A Selective Chronology of Thoreau’s Work Life
Illustration Credits
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Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living
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He n ry at Wor k


Joh n K a ag Jonat h a n va n Bel l e

Pr i nce­t on U n i v e r si t y Pr e ss Pr i nce­t on & Ox for d

Copyright © 2023 by John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle Prince­ton University Press is committed to the protection of copyright and the intellectual property our authors entrust to us. Copyright promotes the pro­gress and integrity of knowledge. Thank you for supporting ­free speech and the global exchange of ideas by purchasing an authorized edition of this book. If you wish to reproduce or distribute any part of it in any form, please obtain permission. Requests for permission to reproduce material from this work should be sent to permissions@press​.­princeton​.­edu Published by Prince­ton University Press 41 William Street, Prince­ton, New Jersey 08540 99 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6JX press​.­princeton​.­edu All Rights Reserved Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Kaag, John J., 1979– author. | Belle, Jonathan van, author. Title: Henry at work : Thoreau on making a living / John Kaag, Jonathan van Belle. Description: Princeton : Princeton University Press, [2023] | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2022034985 (print) | LCCN 2022034986 (ebook) | ISBN 9780691244693 (acid-free paper) | ISBN 9780691244716 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Thoreau, Henry David, 1817–1862—Philosophy. | Work—Philosophy. | BISAC: LITERARY COLLECTIONS / American / General | BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Labor / General Classification: LCC PS3057.P4 K33 2023 (print) | LCC PS3057.P4 (ebook) | DDC 818/.309—dc23/eng/20221220 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2022034985 LC ebook record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2022034986 British Library Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data is available Editorial: Rob Tempio and Chloe Coy Production Editorial: Natalie Baan Text Design: Heather Hansen Jacket Design: Chris Ferrante Production: Erin Suydam Publicity: Carmen Jimenez and Maria Whelan Copyeditor: Hank Southgate Jacket illustration by Abby McBride This book has been composed in Miller Printed on acid-­free paper. ∞ Printed in the United States of Amer­i­ca 10 ​9 ​8 ​7 ​6 ​5 ​4 ​3 ​2 ​1

To Kath, my coworker in the task and joy of life —­John Kaag To Zuriel, the trea­sure I found at Strawberry Creek —­Jonathan van Belle

I do not say that John or Jonathan w ­ ill realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. ­There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star. —­henry david thoreau, the l ast par agr aph of walden

Con t e n ts

Preface: Economy · ix 1 Resignation



Clocking In



Manual Work



Machine Work



Funny Business



Meaningless Work



Immoral Work


8 Compensation


9 Coworkers



Fulfilling Work

Conclusion: The Business of Living

153 175

A Selective Chronology of Thoreau’s Work Life · 181 Acknowl­edgments · 185 Bibliography · 187 Illustration Credits · 193 Index · 195

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you ­don’t write a two-­million-­word journal by the age of forty-­ four by sitting on your hands. Yet Henry David Thoreau, whose journals clock a word count of two million, or 1,200,000 more words than the New King James Bible, has a reputation as a loafer and a layabout. So we ask you: What do you imagine when you imagine Thoreau? Is your Thoreau a nature-­worshiping naturalist? A radical abolitionist? A solitude-­seeking survivalist? A fraudulent freeloader? ­There are many Thoreaus, but one of ­those Thoreaus has been overlooked: Thoreau the worker. Thoreau is not often considered a worker, but he was, in fact, among the most diligent and reflective. Work is at the root of Thoreau’s philosophy. It is at the root of Walden, Thoreau’s best-­known book, which narrates his two-­year stay in a ­little pond ­house that he built in the woods of Concord, Mas­sa­chu­setts. The construction of the 150-­square-­foot Walden Pond ­house stands out as the most famous, if not exactly the first, of Thoreau’s many ­labors in the woods. “Economy,” the first chapter in Walden, clinks and clanks with work details. With a borrowed axe, Thoreau cut down “arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber,”1 and he shingled the ­house with “imperfect and sappy shingles made of the first slice of the log.”2 He dug a cellar into “the side of a hill sloping to the south.”3 He brought “two cartloads of stones up the hill from the pond in my arms” to lay the foundation for his chimney.4 Thoreau even assisted in the forging of his door latch. For his bed, he upcycled a decades-­old cane frame from a Chinese sofa-­bed, nailing on legs and stretcher bars. All told, he savored this construction 1. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 39. 2. Ibid., 47. 3. Ibid., 43. 4. Ibid.

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work: “I made no haste in my work, but rather made the most of it.”5 Why rush a good ­thing? The Walden build was not Thoreau’s first construction proj­ect. With his f­ ather, John, himself a hard worker throughout his life, with two failed grocery store businesses ­behind him, Thoreau moved a h ­ ouse they purchased to a new location; Thoreau helped lay the foundation for the “Texas House,” as it was called due to its new location on Texas Street. How many phi­los­o­phers have built ­houses and laid foundations? Once the pond h ­ ouse was finished, the real work began: the work of writing. Thoreau, by his own admission, went to Walden Pond to work, and work like his life depended on it, ­because, he argued, it did. T ­ here is a reason we call a writer’s work a corpus, a body or memorial to the thinking he or she has left ­behind. Ellery Channing, Thoreau’s friend and fellow Transcendentalist, called Thoreau’s pond h ­ ouse a “wooden inkstand” due to Thoreau’s intense productivity ­there.6 In that stay of two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau completed two drafts of his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a 117-­page draft of Walden, and vari­ ous iterations of vari­ous essays, including “Re­sis­tance to Civil Government,” which became “Civil Disobedience.” That first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, was a sales disaster, by the way. Why? In the opinion of many, Thoreau had overworked it. Indeed, one must be careful not to emulate Thoreau-­the-­worker too exactly, since by many mea­ sures he overworked himself, but his short and industrious life provides lessons that should not be lost on us.

 5. Ibid., 41. 6. William Ellery Channing, Thoreau the Poet-­Naturalist: With Memorial Verses (Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902), 230.

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Thoreau lived through a pivotal transition in American economic history, a moment when the meaning of l­abor underwent radical revision. His own immediate ­family was not wealthy; indeed, at many points, they ­were positively poor. The economic stability that they managed to secure in the 1820s stemmed from a graphite mine in New Hampshire that Thoreau’s u ­ ncle Charlie discovered. At that point, Thoreau’s ­father and u ­ ncle went into the pencil-­making business, a suitable profession for a young man who would become Amer­i­ca’s chosen son of lit­er­a­ture. Thoreau’s was a childhood of hard knocks, typical of boys from working families. He was “thrown from a cow” as a nine-­ year-­old child. ­Whether he was actually riding the beast or simply tangled with it remains a question. He was sent out to cut wood at a similar age and ended up losing a toe from the task. By the age of twelve, he could construct makeshift shelters in the rain. By sixteen, he built his first boat, named Rover, which he sailed up and down the Concord River. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s ­great mentor and friend, Thoreau laid a cellar floor and built fences, a barn room, closet shelves, and a drain. Thoreau also took care of Emerson’s kids and Emerson’s ­brother’s kids (for a short stint in Staten Island while trying to kickstart a writing ­career in New York City). Once, while Emerson was off lecturing in Eu­rope and Thoreau was helping Lidian, Emerson’s wife, tend the Emerson kids in Concord, ­little Eddy, Emerson’s son, asked Thoreau to be his ­father. In perhaps an ill-­advised letter to Emerson, Thoreau wrote, “[Eddy] very seriously asked me, the other day, ‘Mr. Thoreau, w ­ ill you be my f­ ather?’ . . . ​So you must come back soon, or you w ­ ill be superseded.”7 7. Henry David Thoreau to Ralph Waldo Emerson, November 14, 1847, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 1, 1834–1848, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2013), 314.

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Thoreau’s role as nanny and tutor was one he had played before, while still a student at Harvard, with the c­ hildren of Orestes Brownson, a preacher, writer, and ­labor activist, a flamethrower who advocated the elimination of banks and hereditary wealth. Thoreau also taught in classrooms. His ­career trajectory, early on, aimed at teaching, yet as with many of us and our “­career trajectories,” this may have been more by default than by desire. With his big b ­ rother and best friend, John Jr., Thoreau resurrected Concord Acad­emy, the private school he and John attended in their youth ­under the tutelage of Phineas Allen. ­Under the more progressive tutelage of the Thoreau ­brothers, students took nature walks, held discussions, and learned practical skills. One of their more famous pupils was Louisa May Alcott, author of ­Little ­Women. But the Thoreau ­brothers’ term as educators was to be short-­lived. John’s health declined, so, only four years ­after starting, the two men left the torch of Concord Acad­emy to be carried by o ­ thers. Yet sometimes one ­career trajectory leads to another. It was that teaching at Concord Acad­emy that serendipitously led to Thoreau’s main income-­generating work: surveying. The subject of surveying was taught in the Concord grammar school, but Thoreau’s ­career as a surveyor began, like many ­things, as a byproduct. As Thoreau scholar Jeffrey S. Cramer writes, “In 1840 Thoreau purchased a combination leveling instrument and circumferentor. His intention was to introduce surveying in the school he and his b ­ rother John ran, to give the study of mathe­matics a more practical and concrete application. This led to a lifelong source of income as a surveyor, and he made more than 150 surveys in the Concord area.”8

8. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, Cramer’s note, 17–18n95.

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Surveying ­wasn’t enough work for Thoreau. He had side hustles. Thoreau was also a bit of an inventor; he in­ven­ted a machine that ground out a finer-­grained graphite than that found in the premier Eu­ro­pean pencils. “I have as many trades as fin­gers,” said Thoreau.9 Magically, despite a life of woodchopping, carpentry, masonry, and graphite grinding, Thoreau kept all ten of his fin­gers (the same, of course, cannot be said about his toes). All told, Thoreau was no sluggard. Even when walking, Thoreau recommends working: the work of rumination. “You must walk like a camel,” he writes in his essay “Walking,” “which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.”10 He put his own camel advice into practice. As author Robert S ­ ullivan writes, “­Every day [Thoreau] walked for four or six hours and wrote several thousand words, starting with notes in pencil in the field, which ­were transferred and expanded on, using ink, in his journal.”11 Walking is not alone in being leashed; Thoreau leashes all leisure to action: “What is leisure but opportunity for more complete and entire action?”12

 So why, then, would the American journalist Charles Frederick Briggs, writing a contemporaneous review of Walden for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, compare Thoreau to Diogenes 9. Ibid., 56. 10. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 247. 11. Robert ­Sullivan, The Thoreau You ­Don’t Know (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 207. 12. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, December 13, 1841, in The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 1:293–294.

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and St. Simon Stylies, two ­actual dolittles, the first living out of a large wine cask and the latter on a column fifty feet tall (neither of ­these “homes” w ­ ere built by their occupants, but ­were “found objects”)? Why would Thoreau, who busied himself with scribbling, surveying, building, nannying, collecting botanical specimens, and other­wise occupying his time with a scattershot of odd jobs, including menial ones such as shoveling manure, have a reputation as the go-­easy guru of uncluttered time and New ­England Zen? If you think of Thoreau as antiwork, maybe that is ­because Thoreau questioned why we work. He interrogated the employer and employee. He called our l­abor contracts Faustian bargains. He claimed that “men ­labor ­under a ­mistake.”13 In this way, Thoreau made philosophy practical, even urgent. He walks us through the joys and risks of resignation, the rhythms of the workday, the often-­laughable promises of labor-­free techno-­utopias, and yes, the eternal philosophical question, “How much do I get paid?” Now, Thoreau is rarely considered a hard worker, but even less is he considered an economist. Yet in the older and more holistic sense of “moral and po­liti­cal” economy, he was most certainly an economic thinker. Recall that the first chapter of his cherished work, Walden, is in fact entitled “Economy.” The intensity of his work life matched the intensity of his thinking about work. He gave work a good Socratic grilling. Why do we do it the way we do? What do we hope to gain from it? What does it do to us? In the 1830s, as Thoreau came of working age, the American economy was becoming something of what it is t­ oday: a mechanized, whirring, stock-­speculating, commodity-­gorged, money-­obsessed monster. Thoreau watched this evolution 13. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 3.

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with something between awe and horror. He spent his boyhood on the banks of the Concord River and was thrilled to see the barges of freight slowly making their way from h ­ ere to ­there. Sometimes the bargeman would bring Thoreau on board, and for a day he, too, could be a captain of commerce. What slowly came to terrify Thoreau, however, was the siren call of modern capitalism, its lure of excess and ease of living. Of course, nothing about working in our con­temporary economy is easy (and Thoreau never shirked a challenge), but what was wrong with work in Thoreau’s day and our own, among other t­ hings, was the way that so much coveting and mindless efficiency produced so much alienation and nihilism. If this sounds hyperbolic, just ask yourself how many times you go to work and ­don’t want to. Or spend the money from your paycheck to fill the tank of your car to drive to your office, which you silently wish to burn to the ground. Or how you flirt with suicide when you work a seventy-­hour week and discover that you only have the money to pay off the interest on your credit card. Or how, despite working hard or “working smart,” you feel poor all the time. You get the point. Thoreau opens Walden with a strident critique of this economic model by attempting to remind us what the word “economy” used to mean. “Economy” evolved from the Greek root oikos. Oikos had three interrelated senses in ancient Greece: the f­amily, the ­family’s land, and the f­ amily’s home. ­These three, taken interchangeably, constituted the first or fundamental po­liti­cal unit in the ancient Greek world, especially in the minds of Greece’s hereditary aristocrats, for whom ­family and heritage mattered more than all other affiliations. The f­ amily, then and thereafter, was viewed as the state in miniature, with its rules of order and its exemplars (of moral strength or moral incontinence). The point of being eco­nom­ical was to “keep ­house.” Thoreau, knowing his Greek, loving puns and etymologies, and being a

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punctilious writer, was quite deliberate in the choice of “Economy” as his title for the longest chapter in Walden. By living in his spartan l­ ittle pond h ­ ouse, his oikos, and getting that ­house in order, as it w ­ ere, Thoreau meant to help o ­ thers get their ­houses in order—­and, ­house by ­house, ­family by ­family, give new life to society. The dry title of this first chapter hides a pun with a deep purpose, one that whispers, “This is a book about a ­house, a s­ imple one on a pond, but also a not-­so-­simple one, a disordered one, orbiting the Sun.” Instead of bank accounts and stock portfolios, the economy was meant to support the cultivation and maintenance of a home, in its most intimate and edifying sense: the ability to dwell in the world as a flourishing ­human being. Now, at this point, we can imagine the objections: “My bank account does support my home and my ability to flourish.” But the objection misses Thoreau’s point: a job might fill your bank account and allow you to pay your mortgage and to go on three-­day vacations ­every three months, but it might also squander the majority of your life, even deform your life, a life that seems better spent in the deliberate fashioning of a good home. Take this as literally or as figuratively, as broadly or as narrowly, as you like. It is true in any case. Thoreau believed that a certain type of work allows us to inhabit the world in a way that makes us feel, makes us actually, “at home.” That is the goal of Thoreau’s economy.

 Thoreau was not alone in rethinking modern capitalism or the meaning of modern l­abor in the nineteenth ­century. Karl Marx, the most famous philosopher-­economist of the time, was interested in precisely the alienation of l­abor that Thoreau tried to resist. In the United States in the first half of the nineteenth ­century, bands of utopian thinkers began to form

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communities that allowed their members to find meaningful and sustaining work. Thoreau’s purpose at his pond ­house could be confused with the purposes of ­these contemporaries, but ­there was a significant difference. While Thoreau’s intellectual compatriots, especially the Transcendentalists, experimented with communal living—­for example, George Ripley’s Brook Farm (1841–1847) and Amos B ­ ronson Alcott’s Fruitlands (1843–1844)—­T horeau experimented with the opposite: solitary living. The scholar Michael Meyer notes this contrast, adding that Thoreau’s “two-­year retreat to Walden Pond was his response to the communal efforts of the Transcendentalists.”14 Thoreau visited Brook Farm on one occasion but de­cided against joining. In a letter from Ripley to Ralph Waldo Emerson, meant to persuade Emerson to join Brook Farm, you can find sentiments similar ­those in Thoreau’s work: Our objects, as you know, are to insure a more natu­ral ­union between intellectual and manual ­labor than now exists; to combine the thinker and the worker, as far as pos­si­ble, in the same individual; to guarantee the highest ­mental freedom, by providing all with l­abor, adapted to their tastes and talents, and securing to them the fruits of their industry; to do away with the necessity of menial ser­ vices by opening the benefits of education and the profits of l­ abor to all.15

Why so many experiments in the business of living? What was in the air that drew so many thinkers to reconsider the 14. Michael Meyer, introduction to “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience,” by Henry David Thoreau, Penguin Classics (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 12. 15. George Ripley to Ralph Waldo Emerson, November/December 1840, in Writing New E ­ ngland: An Anthology from the Puritans to the Pre­sent, ed. Andrew Delbanco (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2001), 274.

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nature of work and life? Why that explosion of new forms of “home economics,” communal or solitary? In part, it was the feeling of rootlessness that many workers in the United States ­were experiencing at the time: the migration to cities in the Industrial Revolution destroyed ­family farms and tight-­knit communities, and it left many ­people unmoored and unable to hold themselves together. A more pointed reason for ­these experiments, and for Thoreau’s interest in economy-­as-­homemaking in par­tic­ u­lar, might be related to the fact that the national oikos of Thoreau’s time was split in two. Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, given eleven years ­after Thoreau’s last day in his Walden Pond home, and four years ­after the publication of Walden, confronts the essential fears of Amer­i­ca’s antebellum period: “ ‘A ­house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half ­free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—­I do not expect the h ­ ouse to fall—­but I do expect it w ­ ill cease to be divided. It ­will become all one t­ hing or all the other.”16 Unlike his friend Emerson, Thoreau was an abolitionist well before it was trending. Thoreau identified and targeted the inherent tensions of his society well before they precipitated the national meltdown we call the Civil War. Thoreau felt his country devolving into a nation of slave auction blocks, driven by immoral and insatiable commercial cravings. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, enacted four years before the publication of Walden, required all slaves to be returned to their ­owners, even if the escapee lived in a f­ ree state. Effectively, t­ here w ­ ere no more ­free states. The h ­ ouse was all one cruel t­ hing now—­a ­house of bondage, where no one could feel at home. The federal 16. Abraham Lincoln, “House Divided Speech,” in Lincoln on the Civil War: Selected Speeches (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 21–22.

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act saddled the federal government with its enforcement, making Washington, DC, the national slave-­catcher. Years before the Fugitive Slave Act, Thoreau had spent his famous night in jail for refusing to pay a tax to a government he saw as morally suspect on many fronts, not least of which being its unjust war against Mexico. By his act of defiance, Thoreau bucked the heedless expansionism and the moral laziness underwriting the economy of his day. Out of his brief incarceration, Thoreau wrote one of the most influential po­liti­cal essays of all time, “Civil Disobedience,” a work that profoundly inspired Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., among many ­others. Gandhi employed his own modified version of civil disobedience, Satyagraha, to end the British exploitation of the Indian oikos. And Gandhi’s reclamation of the Indian economy depended, in Thoreauvian fashion, on reclaiming the meaning of individual work. The spinning wheel, memorialized on the national flag of India, is a reminder to get to work, and that only through your own ­labor can you build a home, ­either personal, national, or cosmic. Consider one of the most striking acts of civil disobedience in history, Gandhi’s power­ful 24-­day, 240-­mile “Salt March” or “Salt Satyagraha,” in which tens of thousands of nonviolent marchers w ­ ere harassed and arrested by the British authorities for attempting, simply, to collect and sell salt. The Salt March recalls a line in the “Economy” chapter of Walden: “Fi­nally, as for salt, . . . ​to obtain this might be a fit occasion for a visit to the seashore.”17 That is exactly what Gandhi did, walking to the coastal village of Dandi, to the salt flats on Dandi’s shore. British rulers had given themselves the salt mono­poly and combined it with a burdensome salt tax. Despite the easy availability of 17. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 62.

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natu­ral salt deposits on vast stretches of India’s coasts, it was a criminal offense to acquire salt in any way other than buying it from the colonial supplier. Gandhi reached his hands down into the salt-­rich mud of the shore and lifted it, and thus disobeyed the law of the world’s most power­ful empire. “With this,” he said, holding up that l­ ittle, innocuous handful of earth, “I am shaking the foundations of the British Empire.”18 Gandhi, like Thoreau, understood the potency of personal change and accountability when it came to work—­change and accountability at the fundamental po­liti­cal unit: you. Gandhi wrote, “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies pre­sent in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. . . . ​We need not wait to see what ­others do.”19 Thoreau’s “Economy” asks us to change the American ­house, if not the global ­house, by changing ourselves, putting ourselves in order. Think globally, act locally. This is home economics at all po­liti­cal levels. To “live deliberately”—­not merely a personal motto, but a social one—­exhorts us to wake up and examine clearly what everyday choices we make, in our home first and foremost, but not only ­there.

 In a recent interview, Laura Dassow Walls, who wrote Thoreau’s definitive biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, told us that “Economy” forces us to “face how our own choices 18. Gandhi, “Chapter 6: Mahatma Gandhi and Responses,” in Sources of Indian Tradition, 3rd ed., ed. Rachel Fell McDermott et al., vol. 2, Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 366. 19. Gandhi, The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964), 12:158.

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support a monstrous social and material substructure that underwrites our alienation from both nature and each other.”20 Thoreau articulated the crisis of modernity, but also, and just as importantly, provided the beginnings of a solution or, at the very least, of a way of working through the difficulty. And the solution must be made individually, by way of cooperation, for the sake of humanity. If you consider Thoreau a man constitutionally opposed to cooperation, it is time you reconsider. Thoreau’s pond ­house was always an open ­house. “I would gladly tell all that I know . . . ​and never paint ‘No Admittance’ on my gate,” he writes.21 As Robert ­Sullivan reports, “On August 7 of the first year [of Thoreau’s life at Walden], the Concord Freeman, a local paper, covered the annual meeting of the ­women in Concord who ­were against slavery, a meeting convened on the anniversary of the freeing of the slaves in the West Indies. The meeting was held at Thoreau’s ­house at Walden.”22 As a worker and home economist, Thoreau understood the necessity of cooperation and hospitality for improving our lives. We need o ­ thers and we need to be good to o ­ thers. “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate ­handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”23 In any pursuit of ours, we must account for what economists call “negative externalities,” or ­those effects that damage third parties. Think of industrial waste flowing downstream into salmon habitat: the factory may pay nothing for the deadly damage it does to countless o ­ thers. This deeper accounting of our lives is at the 20. John Kaag, “Thoreau: The Wild Child at 200,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 7, 2017, https://­www​.­chronicle​.­com​/­article​/­thoreau​-­the​-­wild​-­child​ -­at​-­200. 21. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 16. 22. ­Sullivan, Thoreau You ­Don’t Know, 162. 23. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 5.

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heart of “Civil Disobedience,” when Thoreau writes, “If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.”24 Thoreau learned hospitality from his m ­ other, Cynthia, who operated the Thoreau home as a boarding ­house. But he also learned good h ­ ouse­keeping from another w ­ oman, Lydia Maria Child, an abolitionist and an activist for the rights of ­women and Native Americans. Child’s modest how-to manual, The Frugal House­wife: Dedicated to ­Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, first published in 1829, opens with a passage that presaged Thoreau’s desire to improve life and “improve the nick of time”: “The true economy of ­house­keeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing be lost. I mean fragments of time, as well as materials. Nothing should be thrown away so long as it is pos­si­ble to make any use of it, however trifling that use may be; and what­ever be the size of a ­family, ­every member should be employed e­ ither in earning or saving money.”25 This might sound miserly and profoundly out of tune with Thoreau’s supposed disregard for pecuniary ­matters. “Supposed,” however, is the right word: Thoreau was quite interested in money, but only insofar as it could tally the true cost of ­things. His chapter “Economy” is composed of lists of figures, such as food and construction costs. T ­ hese accounting figures are, in part, spoofs of the house-­pattern books popu­lar in Thoreau’s time, but ­there is a serious purpose, an aquifer ­under the 24. Henry David Thoreau, “Re­sis­tance to Civil Government [Civil Disobedience],” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, 153. 25. Lydia Marie Child, The American Frugal House­wife: Dedicated to T ­ hose Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (Garden City, NY: Dover Publications, 1999), 3.

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dry details. The messages of Thoreau and Child are in perfect chorus: “Waste not, want not.” For Thoreau, this is not only personal advice, but communal. If we do not waste, o­ thers do not want. As Thoreau tallied them, the necessities of life, the ­things truly precious to an individual or f­ amily, actually cost preciously ­little.

 It should be said that being “at home” with t­ hese necessities of life is key to fashioning a meaningful life work. As Child put it in an often-­overlooked section of the Frugal House­wife centered explic­itly on philosophy, All of us covet some neighbor’s possession, and think our lot would have been happier, had it been dif­fer­ent from what it is. Yet most of us could obtain worldly distinctions, if our habits and inclinations allowed us to pay the im­mense price at which they must be purchased. True wisdom lies in finding out all the advantages of a situation in which we are placed, instead of imagining the enjoyments of one in which we are not placed.26

True wisdom indeed, and painfully difficult to gain. One of the ways to achieve this wisdom is to slowly, intentionally, and methodically work with what you already have. “The most characteristic mark of a g ­ reat mind,” Child wrote, “is to choose some one object, which it considers impor­tant, and pursue that object through life.”27 Marie Kondo’s The Life-­Changing Magic of Tidying Up reached blockbuster status by way of a similar intuition. When we choose some object, end, or aim, 26. Ibid., 106. 27. Ibid., 105.

Pr eface [ xxv ]

and when we actually attend to them, we find that we have often been missing them at home and at work, where we spend most of our lives. We find that we ­haven’t paid attention to the immediate and intimate qualities of our lives, or worse, the meaning of our lives. Thoreau never valorized sheer drudgery. He d ­ idn’t encourage us to “be Zen” about work and chores that should bore us to death. He encouraged us to live deliberately in light of economic forces, of the forces that ­will make a ­house a home—­ and genuinely our own. The ­Great Pandemic has highlighted the fluid bound­aries of the home and the workplace. Now, in what some call “The ­Great Resignation,” many ­people are not returning to the office. W ­ e’re staying remote or simply resigning, if remote is not an option; many of us have staked our pond h ­ ouses and now, perhaps, we fi­nally mean to live deliberately. Ask yourself: Are you squandering what is absolutely precious, the time that you still have? Might it be that the paramount “business” skill is refusing to busy yourself with fruitless business? Do you covet the farms and mansions owned by the Joneses of your neighborhood? If so, have you acknowledged the prices they have paid for owning them? Notice that you have friends at your modest fire, a roof over your head, and stars above, and say a ­little prayer to the minor deities of work and home economy. Notice, too, as you read, that Thoreau never pretends to have all the answers, or even most of the answers. “I desire that t­ here may be as many dif­fer­ent persons in the world as pos­si­ble; but I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his ­father’s or his ­mother’s or his neighbor’s instead.”28 Your own way must include your 28. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 68.

[ xxvi ] Pr eface

own view of success. “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of the ­others?”29 Thoreau can be your coworker, but he would never want to be your boss (nor, we ­will safely assume, would you want him for a boss—or maybe you would, as a replacement for your current one). Henry at Work ­will proceed, as Thoreau often did in his writing, anecdotally and personally: we chatted with our fellow workers, our neighbors, our friends, and asked them about their daily grinds. Their desires, insights, and accounts helped shape this book and our thinking about Thoreau and the nature of modern work. It is, in effect, a braided narrative that tries to wed our own histories to Thoreau’s, in order to show just how impor­tant Henry’s life and thought might be for understanding the jobs of ­today. Most of us for most of our time must work, yet many of us ­don’t want that at all. We want something ­else, perhaps something impossible. Thoreau, of course, has been accused of elitism: it was easy for him to run off to his pond home, to study philosophy, but only ­because he was born into a certain socioeconomic class and could afford to. Similarly, this book might be regarded as elitist: only ­those with enough time, money, and education w ­ ill have to the chance to read this book, which amounts to saying that it takes a certain amount of privilege to “make like Thoreau.” Yet the cohort who can purchase and read books often have jobs that need to be reevaluated and reworked in all sorts of ways. Hopefully, this fact attracts them—­attracts you—to what Thoreau tells us about work. Of course, ­there are workers who w ­ on’t have the time or the means to read this book, and we think that is a shame. But what is truly a shame is the fact that we live in a system of l­abor in which workers 29. Ibid., 18.

Pr eface [ xxvii ]

­ on’t have the time or the means to read any book. Or worse, d one in which it is assumed that they lack any such inclination to do so. That is a system that Thoreau routinely tried to dismantle. Maybe it is time to work on an economy of living, which is what Henry David Thoreau worked on so long ago. Maybe some of us can spend a ­little time and energy in ­those long-­ago woods to watch Henry at work.



in the late eigh­teenth c­ entury, Henry’s grand­father built what is now a top attraction in downtown Concord.1 ­Today it is called the Colonial Inn, a large Georgian structure dating back to 1716. Thoreau’s grand­father built the easternmost section of the inn. At the back of the inn, where he laid the first foundation stone, is now a small, dimly lit place called The Village Forge Tavern, or “The Forge.” On the walls and from the ceiling hang bellows, yokes, and a variety of old farm equipment, most of which modern-­day Concordians could not identify, much less use. At the center of the Forge is a long oak bar, and b ­ ehind the bar is a tall, wiry man named Lawrence. Much of this chapter was written at Lawrence’s place. “This is a ­great job,” he said one night. Wealthy entrepreneurs and tech salesmen from Bedford, Concord, and Lexington are known to frequent the Forge, order overpriced drinks, and forget to tip the bartender. The man­ag­er thinks that he is ­doing Lawrence a ­favor when he gets extra hours and forgets to give him time off. Lawrence has two kids and a big extended family. And he w ­ ill tell you that he needs the money. Lawrence runs the bar at the Forge, usually single-­handedly. “It’s a good job,” he said again, as if to remind himself. “But I’m g ­ oing to quit as soon as I can. I have other dreams. I’m ­going to buy a piece of land up in Vermont and start a farm. Sell some produce. But what I r­ eally want to do is set up a frisbee golf course.” Lawrence, like so many modern workers, dreams of resigning. Permanently. 1. This chapter is adapted from John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle, “What Thoreau Can Teach Us about the ­Great Resignation,” Fast Com­pany, November 11, 2021, https://­www​.­fastcompany​.­com​/­90695132​/­what​-­thoreau​-­can​-­teach​ -­us​-­about​-­the​-­great​-­resignation.

R esignation [ 3 ]

“A foolish consistency is the hob­goblin of ­little minds.”2 Thoreau, the quin­t es­s en­t ial jack-­o f-­a ll-­t rades, translated Emerson’s words into a way of life. Making a living no longer means making a single choice about what job you perform. ­Today, the trick is to move from one professional position to another—in other words, to resign at the right time. Thoreau charted this way. Of course, resignation can be understood in more dramatic registers, e­ ither as the w ­ holesale willingness to opt out of the rat race of modern capital or as the protest against work conditions that demean or devalue. Thoreau understood resignation in all of ­these ways, as the freedom to try his hand at new tasks, as the refusal to bow to Mammon, as the rejection of a profession’s questionable moral standing. In a book about Henry the worker, it is strange to begin with a discussion of Henry the resigner. In other words, it is strange to begin with the end of work, but Thoreau believed, more strongly than any other, that, as the saying goes, “­Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” This is hopefully the case with resignation, a fact that is quickly dawning on a growing number of modern workers. Amer­ i­ca, at least, is giving up. Collectively, w ­ e’re putting in our two weeks. We tender our formal farewell. “­We’re in the ­middle of a ­Great Resignation,” reports Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge. “Employees have had the time and space to think about what r­ eally m ­ atters to them and ­there are plenty of options, so it’s no surprise resignation rates are through the roof.”3 2. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-­Reliance,” in Self-­Reliance and Other Essays, ed. Stanley Applebaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1993), 24. 3. Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta, “Worried about the ­Great Resignation? Be a Good Com­pany to Come from,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, August 4, 2021.

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We’ve tasted the freedom of remote work and refuse to return to business as usual. As Ars Technica recently reported, “All across the United States, the leaders at large tech companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are engaged in a delicate dance with thousands of employees who have recently become convinced that physically commuting to an office ­every day is an empty and unacceptable demand from their employers.”4 This sounds revolutionary, but it’s not: Thoreau would have recognized it clearly. It is rather tempting to think that we are the first to do anything, but this is the temptation of salience, the desire to believe that our unique experience in the pre­sent is the only one that actually m ­ atters. We are not the first to resign and surely not the last.

 The year was 1837, and Henry David Thoreau gave up. In this long-­ago year, two stars crossed: Thoreau graduated from Harvard, and the Panic of 1837 sparked a ­great economic depression that lasted ­until the ­middle of the next de­cade. Coming home to Concord, Mas­sa­chu­setts, the new grad hustled for a job in an employment drought, soon getting, then quitting, a teaching position for reasons that deserve to be discussed . . . ​ ­later. A ­ fter quitting, Thoreau, still hopeful for a teaching position, scrabbled for vari­ous gigs—­a scrabble plagued by recurring bouts of tuberculosis. He had his first publishing success in November of 1837: an obituary for one Anna Jones, an eighty-­ eight-­year-­old Concordian. Come March 1838, Thoreau was proposing a getaway to his older ­brother and best friend, John Thoreau: “I have a proposal to make. Suppose . . . ​we should 4. Samuel Axon, “Big Tech Companies Are at War with Employees over Remote Work,” Ars Technica, August 1, 2021.

R esignation [ 5 ]

start in com­pany for the West and ­there ­either establish a school jointly, or procure ourselves separate situations. . . . ​ I think I can borrow the cash in this town. T ­ here’s nothing like trying.”5 A version of such a getaway came and ended in May 1838. On May 2, with a loan of ten dollars and a letter of recommendation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau went job hunting, without John, in Maine. Fifteen days ­later, Thoreau returned home. No job. Less than one month ­after his Maine job search, Thoreau opened a private school at the Thoreau f­amily ­house in Concord. Thoreau’s four-­student school soon doubled to eight, so Thoreau got John to join the faculty. In t­ oday’s terms, Thoreau’s school might be classed as an “alternative school.” The b ­ rothers Thoreau allowed students thirty minutes of recess, rather than the traditional ten; they took field trips with vocational aspects, such as trips to a printing press. Unfortunately, in 1841, due to John’s own tuberculosis, the ­brothers closed their small school. On January 11, 1842, twenty-­five-­year-­old Thoreau lost John, not to tuberculosis, but to a tetanus infection from a very slight razor cut to his fin­ger. Life is always that precarious, despite its seeming stability. The loss would make ­every January for the remaining twenty years of Thoreau’s life a dark season inside. In May of 1843, Thoreau moved to New York, to Staten Island, to chase his literary dreams, and he had modest success as a f­ reelance writer, but his New York dream floundered, then flopped. ­After only seven months, he returned home to hunker down and get himself into some sort of order, but in April of 1844, Thoreau and his friend Edward Sherman Hoar accidentally set three hundred acres or more of Concord woods ablaze. The Concord Freeman reported, “The fire, we understand, was 5. Henry David Thoreau to John Thoreau, March 17, 1838, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 1, 1834–1848, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2013), 37.

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communicated to the thoughtlessness of two of our citizens, who kindled it in a pine stump.”6 That, perhaps, was the final combustible straw. Starting on July 4, 1845, a few days shy of his twenty-­eighth birthday, Thoreau gave up, opting for a life of resignation. As the nation celebrated In­de­pen­dence Day, Thoreau embraced his own, walking the two miles from Concord to the shores of Walden Pond. He would stay ­there for two years, two months, and two days. It is easy to interpret Walden as Amer­ic­ a’s first environmentalist manifesto—­and ­there is something to this—­ but we should remember that Thoreau’s attempt to “get back to nature” was si­mul­ta­neously the attempt to get away from the cap­ i­tal­ist rat race that defined his culture. T ­ here is a difference—an absolute gulf—­between “just making a living” and getting a life or truly living. This is the abiding message of Walden. The frenetic busyness of modern life should never be confused with the essential business of living. H ­ uman life is precious b ­ ecause it is so ephemeral and fleeting. ­People die of lockjaw, or tuberculosis, or the flu, or a pandemic—­and it is best not to waste the tragically ­little time we are given. For Thoreau, life was best spent constructing a ­simple ­house of his own making, tending his beans and melons, and leading ­children through the huckle­ berry patches surrounding Concord. Being a ­great resigner entails reclaiming life, or rather making a conscious choice about what to re­spect and where to tap meaning.

 It should be said that ­there are dif­fer­ent reasons to quit a job—­Thoreau was pretty much familiar with all of them. The 6. As excerpted in The Walden Woods Proj­ect, “The Thoreau Log. 1844,” accessed February 19, 2022, https://­www​.­walden​.­org​/­log​-­page​/­1844​/­.

R esignation [ 7 ]

simplest reason for quitting is that you simply c­ an’t go on. Maybe you just a­ ren’t particularly good at the task at hand. ­There i­ sn’t shame in this—or at least not much; the true shame comes in not being able to admit it to yourself. As a teenager, Thoreau aspired to become the most famous poet in Amer­i­ca. This was simply not to be. His talents lay elsewhere, and while he never entirely gave up poetry, he largely moved away from the form. Maybe you physically c­ an’t go on in a job. Again, it is better to recognize this as quickly as pos­si­ble and listen carefully for another calling, even if that calling is a period of recuperation. Thoreau’s routine bouts with tuberculosis ­were more often than not the cause of him cutting short a job. Health and fate have a way of making resignation rather easy. And that is usually for the best. T ­ hese reasons to quit or opt out a­ ren’t particularly philosophical, but they are impor­tant, since many of us fail to acknowledge the natu­ral limitations that make certain jobs untenable. The philosophically in­ter­est­ing cases of resignation turn on a ­matter of choice, in the recognition of a question Thoreau echoes throughout his writing: “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”7 If our work is “about” the wrong ­things, then so too is our life, and that is more than enough reason to quit. Other­wise, it is very pos­si­ble, as Henry puts it in Walden, to reach the end of life and discover that you ­haven’t actually lived. Thoreau witnessed the rise of a consumer-­based, surplus economy, which also meant that he watched money take on unpre­ce­dented importance. He is very clear about what he thinks of one’s industriousness being exclusively “about” money. Thoreau never believed what many of us do—­that the 7. Henry David Thoreau to H.G.O. Blake, November 16, 1857, in ­Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Wendell Glick (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 100.

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highest-­paying jobs are ­those that should be kept for life, at all costs. More often than not, they should be held up, scrutinized, and abandoned, since they keep one from fully living. Since we w ­ ill talk about meaningless work, compensation, and immoral work l­ater in this book, let us focus on the meaning of resigning from what ­today is called “making a good living.” In Walden, Thoreau’s perspective on economy stems from his reading of the Greeks, but also, as Robert Richardson suggested many years ago, from his reading of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in which he finds “a fundamental premise that it is not gold or silver, but productive l­ abor that is the real basis of wealth.”8 Ask yourself what you actually produce in your workday. A product, an idea, a blueprint, a well-­adjusted student, or nothing at all? If the answer seems unsatisfying or non­ex­is­tent, Thoreau would suggest that it may be time to take flight. Smith held that “­every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, con­ve­ niences and amusements of ­human life.”9 Thoreau disagreed. Necessities might be one t­ hing, and he argued that each of us should have some ability to supply them for ourselves, but modern amusements w ­ ere never particularly motivating for Thoreau the worker. In contrast to Smith, Thoreau writes, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of ­things which he can afford to let alone.”10 Thoreau was not romanticizing poverty, but noting that our desires and monetary aspirations often create adamantine chains—­golden handcuffs—­that bind us 8. Robert D. Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 167. 9. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Books I–­III, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1986), 133. 10. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 79.

R esignation [ 9 ]

to soul-­sucking work. “Again and again I congratulate myself on my so-­called poverty,” wrote Thoreau in the twilight of his life.11 This was not the self-­aggrandizing remarks of an ascetic saint, but rather a very honest reflection of a person whose desires never outstripped his means, and who realized the power of money to warp our lives. Thoreau continues, writing, “I was almost disappointed yesterday to find thirty dollars in my desk which I did not know I possessed, though now I should be sorry to lose it.”12 Having money breeds the desire to keep and accumulate money, to allow our consumerist urges to grow in accord with our ledgers and many times to slip into debt, what the Romans would call subjecting yourself to aes alienum, turning your life over “to someone ­else’s money.” One can always declare bankruptcy, but that is surprisingly rare, much rarer than working oneself to the bone in order to get back into the black. That is positively common. We are not writing from some privileged point of view, but from the fires of firsthand experience. We have both worked jobs that we loathed in order to pay off debt that we should have never incurred. And we have both prayed to avoid succumbing in the pro­cess (how dismal to die on a job that is killing you). And we have both delayed resigning jobs on the basis of trying to make ends meet, or worse, for the sake of maintaining a lifestyle we had grown accustomed to. Jonathan’s first job out of college involved sweeping a parking lot at six in the morning, followed by parking cars in that lot for other busy workers. “Parking” is too ­simple a term; Jonathan’s employer required that he maximize space in the lot, which meant parking cars creatively into snug and 11. Henry David Thoreau, February 8, 1857, in The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 9:245. 12. Ibid., 9:245–246.

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perilous configurations. E ­ very morning, he negotiated the stress of squeezing someone’s BMW into a jigsaw puzzle of Land Rovers and Cadillac SUVs—­and ­every eve­ning, with the office workers returning, the same horrible ballet, but in reverse order. It was a daily game of nightmarish Jenga with extremely expensive game pieces. Interestingly, life-­altering crises often have the ability to jolt us out of our nine-­to-­five schedules, but more importantly they give us the courage to reprioritize our financial lives and put our jobs (and their expendability) into perspective. Thoreau went to Walden, at least in part, b ­ ecause his b ­ rother died in his arms: one could be retired without warning, so it was best to be industrious about the right ­t hings while ­there was still the chance.

 Let’s fast-­forward to t­ oday. “The ­Great Resigners” of our con­ temporary economy are the c­ hildren of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the young adults of the ­Great Recession, and now the adults of the Global Pandemic. They have learned, in hardship, lessons similar to ­those learned by the Greatest Generation during the ­Great Depression: be as self-­sufficient as you can, b ­ ecause the ship of state, always listing, is liable to keel over. The G ­ reat Resigners have grown up u ­ nder the swaying sword of climate change, so self-­sufficiency also means sustainability, personally and globally. ­We’re emphasizing a set of DIY rights to that end: the “Right to Dry,” that is, the right to hang dry your laundry; the “Right to Repair,” the ­legal push to allow the repair of old broken iPhones and such, rather than buy new (to patch and darn our wares); even the right to grow vegetables in your front yard, still prohibited in some

R esignation [ 11 ]

places. Thoreau, two hundred years ago, saw the seeds of real liberty in such self-­sufficiency. Thoreauvian self-­sufficiency is not isolation, nor “rugged individualism,” but ­simple and deliberate living to optimize good living. This is Amer­i­ca’s Thoreauvian Turn. With better and better Internet infrastructure, improved administrative automation, cloud storage, and so forth, permanent remote work is now v­ iable for millions of Americans. We got our taste of freedom during the pandemic, when many of us renovated our homes and tended our gardens (some of us discovered permaculture!). Quarantine put a new priority on the home. Many of us, no longer bound to the business plaza, the office block, migrated to the geography of our desiring, to put the home where the heart truly is, often ­after searching in our RVs and renovated vans; fleets of van-­lifers circulated through Amer­i­ca’s National Parks and old cobwebbed Main Streets. Now ­there is, one might say, a new “stay-­at-­homestead” movement. ­We’re trying to stay remote en masse. We’ve staked our pond ­houses, and now we mean to live deliberately—or at least that’s the dream. We can hear the critics now: the G ­ reat Resigners a­ ren’t ­great; ­they’re just lazy. Maybe. When Thoreau fi­nally succumbed to the disease that plagued his life, his dear friend Ralph Waldo Emerson reflected “that I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all Amer­i­ca, he was the captain of a huckleberry-­party.”13 This may be the case, but it strikes us as slightly unfair. A ­ fter all, the c­ hildren who followed U ­ ncle Thoreau through the huckleberry patch w ­ ere in fact Emerson’s ­children. Thoreau chose berrying with the Emerson kids over 13. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Thoreau,” Atlantic, August 1862, https://­www​ .­theatlantic​.­com​/­magazine​/­archive​/­1862​/­08​/­thoreau​/­306418​/­.

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the international travel of their famous ­father. Life is a ­matter of choice and perspective. It is all too easy to let our traditional professional lives mask this essential fact. The ­Great Resignation is a resignation from the industrial model, the brick-­and-­mortar model, the office-­factory model. That model, of course, is far from razed, but it has been doused in an accelerant. Who w ­ ould’ve thought that leafy ol’ Thoreau would meet us in the digital age? Perhaps he has always been waiting for the industrial one to lose steam. As you took your final commute away from the business plaza and office park, we hope you glanced in the rearview mirror to see that office block sink below the horizon. As you heard your GPS guiding you away, perhaps your own guidance system could be heard to say “get away and ­don’t look back” or “where, exactly, is my Walden Pond?”

 Caveat qui relinquio: ­Those who choose to resign run the risk of being criticized as being quitters, losers, and cynics.14 It turns out that ­there is something to this last charge, but Thoreau helps us see that it should be a mark of distinction rather than derision, that is, if cynicism is properly understood. At certain points of his life, Thoreau was arguably the first, and most thoroughgoing, American cynic. And t­ here is, truly, at least a ­family resemblance between the cynicism of ­today and the philosophy that he developed in the 1840s. Thoreau was, for example, no friend to the liberal elitist win­dow dressing of New E ­ ngland. He attended Harvard, but only begrudgingly, and the snobbery of academe grated on this son of a pencil 14. This section on Thoreau and cynicism adapted from John Kaag, “Thoreau’s Cynicism, and Our Own,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19, 2017, https://­www​.­chronicle​.­com​/­article​/­thoreaus​-­cynicism​-­and​-­our​-­own.

R esignation [ 13 ]

maker. He quickly de­cided that universities, even the best ones, might teach “all of the branches [of learning]” but “none of the roots.”15 Deep education, the lessons that actually stick, should prepare one for meaningful work, and lessons and ­labor should in turn be practical, hands-on, and best learned in the world beyond the classroom walls. It should already be clear that Thoreau harbored a not-­so-­private suspicion, deeply cynical, of the modern l­abor force. When Thoreau escaped in 1845 to Walden Pond, two miles from his native Concord, Mas­ sa­chu­setts, it was, at least in part, in search of that sort of education, far from the world of commerce, farming, and modern economy. Thoreau’s resignation into the woods was a quest to embody that most Emersonian of ideals: self-­r eliance. Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and fourteen years his se­nior, had also taken issue with the high intellectual culture of Harvard and Cambridge, as well as the pull of power­ful economic forces, and he argued that t­ here was often a high price of admission to modern institutions and organ­izations: the freedom to exercise one’s autonomy. Thoreau’s apparent separation from society was an attempt to “live deliberately, to front the essential facts of life,” to see if he “could not learn what it had to teach.”16 The point of his two-­year experiment with s­ imple living was to see what life could be like without the corrupting forces of social conventions and traditional politics. All of this is consonant with cynicism’s long history. But as one looks more closely at that history, and at Thoreau, it becomes clear that modern cynics truncate, or pointedly misunderstand, the full scope of cynicism as a school of thought and 15. As quoted in John Albee, Remembrances of Emerson (New York: Robert Grier Cooke, 1901), 22. 16. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 88.

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Thoreau’s rendition of it. Just as a spoiler: ­there is no harm in resigning—­quite the opposite, in fact. The first Cynic, Diogenes of Sinope, epitomized the ideal of simplicity that Thoreau sought to revive in the nineteenth ­century. At Walden, Thoreau lived in a ten-­by-­fifteen-­foot boarded cabin; Diogenes had done him one better, living in an overturned barrel, clothed only in rags. He stood against another school of philosophy, Epicureanism, which, in its distorted modern form but not in its ancient original one, espouses that the meaning of life could be grasped in the opulence of civilization. The Cynics, and Thoreau, too, wanted to know what life would be like without societal constraints, but also, and more impor­tant, without the trappings of material wealth. ­Today, many so-­called cynics are also self-­reliant cap­i­tal­ists. Their suspicion of big government and institutional control is rooted in the sense that ­those agents cheat ­people out of the riches to which they are entitled. Of course, this idea would have been anathema to Diogenes and Thoreau, who would have believed that our age has erred grievously in confusing material wealth with ­human prosperity writ large. According to legend, Diogenes would sit in his barrel and bark at wealthy pedestrians (“cynic” comes from the Greek word kynikos, meaning “doglike”). Thoreau took a slightly more subtle approach to criticizing modern capitalism, but only slightly. “Economy,” remember, is Thoreau’s spirited critique of modern materialism. The term “economy,” Thoreau reminds his readers, was not originally about what one possessed as surplus, but rather where, or, more specifically how, one lived. It is about a ­house, a dwelling: that is all. At Walden, by divesting himself of life’s excesses, Thoreau attempts to relearn what goes into making a place for oneself and appreciating the priceless ­things—­virtue, beauty, peace—­that money ­c an’t buy. “Most of the luxuries, and

R esignation [ 15 ]

many of the so called comforts of life,” he attests, “are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”17 ­Today, “making a living” often has nothing to do with life itself, but rather, and disturbingly, with its deferral, a sacrificing of the pre­sent moment for the sake of ­future wealth. Thoreau knows that oikos has another meaning beyond dwelling or home; it can, and often does, refer to a cage. Thoreau’s apparent escape to the outskirts of civilization might look as if it anticipates the separatist mindset of many modern cynics, but it d ­ oesn’t. As Robert Richardson noted some thirty years ago in his biography of Thoreau, his “venture was in no sense a retreat or withdrawal. He himself thought of it as a step forward, a liberation, a new beginning.”18 Cynicism maintains its distance from society in order to gain a critical vantage point on social ills, but also, and just as impor­tant, to reevaluate what is, at once, most personally significant and universally true about life. This is what resigning from work can and should mean, not just in some cases, but in all.

 Let’s think about what you actually get back when you resign your station in modern society, a station that has become almost coextensive with your job. When confronted with the question “What do you do?,” what would you answer if you had the chance to do something ­else, or to do anything you wanted, or to do nothing at all? This is the situation that Diogenes once confronted, and we can learn something impor­tant from his response. One day, the Cynic was asked who he was. 17. Ibid., 14. 18. Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, 153.

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This question almost always was answered in reference to a person’s city of origin, just as most of us identify with a par­tic­ u­lar profession or office space. “I am a mailman.” “She is a professor.” “They work for the IRS.” And so on. Instead of giving the scripted answer, Diogenes provided a revolutionary one: he did not come from any par­tic­u­lar polis or city-­state, but rather from the cosmos at large; he was the first cosmopolitan. This is not unlike Thoreau’s refusal to participate in—or pay taxes to—­a nation whose policies he could not sanction (in this case, Thoreau refused to support the Mexican-­American War). In a barrel, in a shanty shack, in a prison, in the ­middle of nowhere—­you get the very real sense that, existentially speaking, you are not bound to any par­tic­ul­ ar po­liti­cal locus or mode of ­labor. That can be quite isolating, but also liberating, and ultimately—­rather surprisingly—­unifying. Resigning from the roles that you often play gives you the freedom to assume other, wider affiliations (or not to assume any affiliations at all). That is one of the perks of resignation. Diogenes said he was a citizen of the cosmos at large—­a cosmopolitan in the most literal sense. Thoreau, too, at the end of Walden, celebrates the universal man and ­woman in spring’s cosmic renewal. This is the other, largely forgotten, side of cynicism: the suspicion of all t­ hings or­ga­nized gives way to the belief that h ­ uman beings are, in fact, deeply and universally related—­tied together not by conventions, like jobs, but by nature. Institutions may be corrupt and corrupting, but the true danger of societal constraints is that they isolate ­people and place false bound­aries between cultural groups and socioeconomic strata. On one side of cynical resignation, then, is the critical, or negative. On the other is hope—­hope for a community that transcends any par­tic­u­lar provincial loyalty. Cynicism downplays our traditional attachments to religion, economics,

R esignation [ 17 ]

and politics. In so d ­ oing, it f­ rees us to realize the bonds that exist beyond ­those self-­imposed borders of the usual forms of employment.

 Thoreau led a life of ­great resignation, but ­there is one moment that stands out, which we have only glossed over and deserves real consideration: the case of Henry vs. Deacon Nehemiah Ball. Nehemiah: a name forged in the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament. The deacon, an esteemed figure of the Puritan establishment in Concord, did not disappoint. Thoreau, having recently graduated from Harvard, had been hired as a schoolmaster at the Center School for $500 a year, making him one of the best-­paid educators in town. This was, by some accounts, Thoreau’s dream—­the chance to educate the youth so as to secure his country’s moral destiny. It sounds overblown, but this is prob­ably what Thoreau thought about his job. But in the second week of his employment, the deacon came for a visit. He sat with growing disapproval—­the students just w ­ eren’t obedient enough—­and at the end of the class, he instructed Thoreau to administer corporal punishment. Before his altercation with the deacon, Thoreau refused to whip his pupils, and the news of his permissive approach to pedagogy had spread through the Concord community. The deacon’s command was a test: How far would Thoreau go to keep his job, albeit an immoral one? Thoreau protested. The schoolmaster insisted. And then Thoreau did something that has confounded scholars for more than a ­century. He chose a handful of students—­accounts vary from just two students to more than a dozen—at random and beat them. The next day Thoreau returned to class and announced that he could no longer teach: his conscience would not allow it.

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But just wait a moment. What was this demonstration of whipping his students? Was it one of brutality, one of shame, one of protest? We are not sure, but it says, we believe, something impor­tant about immoral work. Thoreau came to see that the immorality of many professions stems from the command-­ and-­control structure of institutions. Thoreau was only following ­orders; he supposedly w ­ asn’t responsible for t­ hese beatings; he was just a part of a system that systematically disadvantaged (read: oppressed) its youn­gest members. In following ­orders, Thoreau made himself complicit, made himself the torturer, and demonstrated the sheer random injustice of it all. T ­ here are no heroes ­here. Thoreau was, in fact, responsible, and he knew it. So did the ­children whom he beat. But he did something that many immoral workers never do: he quit and he never looked back. From all accounts, he became a stellar teacher and a stellar worker, both in the practical sense of teacher and worker, and, more importantly, in the moral one. Sometimes we resign our position and lose a paycheck, but gain the peace of mind to sleep at night, and regain our self-­respect. A final word about Nehemiah Ball. In a recent conversation with an emeritus professor of philosophy from a prestigious university, we asked him why a person like Thoreau would quit the position he had at the Center School, so soon ­after being hired. The professor paused for a long moment, long enough for all of us to think about the immorality of corporal punishment. The professor had dedicated his life to studying Thoreau. This was ­going to be good. He took a breath: “Many ­people think they need a job. Many jobs require you to have a boss. And most bosses are ass­holes. Old Nehemiah was one of them.”19 And 19. Robert Gross provides a much more mea­sured (and prob­ably fairer) assessment of Deacon Ball. Ball was a staunch believer in education, a sincere and very hardworking man, who came to sit on the school committee who oversaw classes. It was his job to see how young instructors w ­ ere faring in the classroom,

R esignation [ 19 ]

sometimes that is more than enough reason to leave and never look back.

 As we w ­ ere writing this chapter and considering how to end it, we came across a post on LinkedIn that, we believe, does the job. Daryan Rahimzadeh, a former Google employee, and, according to his profile, a “Woodworker, Dog Dad, Aspiring Inspirer,” wrote about his own resignation from Google. We reached out to Daryan and asked if we could use his post in its entirety, which he happily agreed to (to the benefit of us all). ­After 5+ years in a variety of roles in the recruiting and staffing world at Google, I’m excited to announce . . . . . . ​nothing. Yup. Nothing. I left Google last week ­after 18 months of burn-­out, two re-­orgs, several dif­fer­ent roles, shifting per­for­mance expectations, four dif­fer­ent man­ag­ers, all of this amidst my own personal stuff I had ­going on. When I looked at 2022, I knew I ­couldn’t do it again. I looked at what I wanted to do next, what I wanted to accomplish this year and the only ­thing that came to mind was: Nothing. That’s not entirely true, but that’s how I felt. ­After 5 years of relatively strong per­for­mance, I started to strug­gle in my role. I asked for help and tried to figure out “Why and he observed that Thoreau’s students ­were, in fact, unruly. Again, it was his job to instruct Thoreau to institute appropriate punishment. This says nothing about Ball’s character and every­thing about punitive education practices in the nineteenth ­century. The point, however, prob­ably stands: Thoreau quit his job when it encouraged him to violate his conscience. See Robert A. Gross, The Transcendentalists and Their World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 461.

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­can’t I do this?” I leaned on colleagues, man­ag­ers, leaders, coaches, therapists, psychiatrists, and while many of them ­were ­great listeners and supportive, no one r­ eally had any answers for me. I was depressed and burnt-­out. I ­don’t ­really have an agenda ­here, but I would like to share the biggest t­ hing I learned about m ­ ental health/well-­ being this past year, which seems kind of obvious in hindsight, but I wish I had heard it more clearly before: No one w ­ ill do it for you. You have to do it yourself. And that is HARD to hear when ­you’re depressed. I so desperately wanted a man­ag­er or HR or Sundar himself to send me an email with a silver bullet, some program or role or announcement that would change every­thing, and then all of a sudden I’d be back to crushing it. And ­every morning, I’d find: Nothing. If ­you’re waiting for someone to come and save you, please hear me when I say that someone is YOU. You ­don’t have to do it alone, please, talk to someone, talk to every­ one. Hell, talk to me, I’ll listen. Seriously. DM me. But it does need to be YOU that does it—­whatever IT is. Leaving a job, ­going part-­time, ­going back to school, ending a relationship, moving back home, seeing a therapist, getting on medi­cation, what­ever IT might or might not be. I was hesitant to post anything about this h ­ ere b ­ ecause I thought “well that’s not very professional.” The thought about what ­OTHERS think about me, my work, ­career, ­etc. has always driven my decision making. I’m not d ­ oing that anymore. I’m working on getting my soul back. I’m working on putting the “being-me” into “my well-­being.” And you know what’s more impor­tant than you being well? Nothing.20 20. Used with permission from Daryan Rahimzadeh himself.


Clocking In

thoreau clocked his workday at Walden Pond in the following way: “For the most part, I minded not how the hours went. The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is eve­ning, and nothing memorable is accomplished. . . . ​My days w ­ ere not days of the week, bearing the stamp of any heathen deity, nor w ­ ere they minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock.”1 ­Today most of us are fretted by the ticktock, ticktock: Time to wake up. Time to shower. Time to go. Time to clock in (not too early, not too late). Time to work. Time for a short break. Time to work again. Time for lunch. Ticktock. Time to pretend to work, ­because ­you’re flagging. Time to count the minutes. Ticktock. Time is money. The clock is ­after you, a crocodile that devours your adult life. If you look ­under the front flap of Thoreau’s writing desk, you ­will find thousands of pencil marks where he sharpened his pencil in his own good time. This was the only type of clocking in that Thoreau could endorse. It was simply the documenting of an intention to get to work. What Thoreau did at his small desk was completely up to him, but the notches on its frame said, “Ready, set, go.” And he was off, but never r­ unning against someone ­else’s clock. Our days are numbered, but must our hours and our minutes be numbered too, so mechanically? We talk about time “on the clock” and “off the clock.” The boundary is often fuzzy. Employers and employees debate ­whether or not the commute to work counts as time “on the clock” or not. The task of life is, in Thoreau’s words, “to improve the nick of time.” T ­ here is no shame, then, in having a work schedule. But “clocking in” was something that Thoreau could never abide. “Clocking in,” or 1. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 109.

Clock ing In [ 23 ]

making oneself accountable to a boss or overseer or “higherup,” ran directly ­counter to the Transcendentalist ideals that governed much of Thoreau’s life. It was a means of reducing the hours of a ­human life into something fungible, indistinguishable, and, ultimately, an exchange of your nonrefundable time for nickels and dimes. What is the price of a h ­ uman life? The clocks in the factories of the industrial revolution ­were used to calculate it to the penny. And this, in the end, was the prob­ lem. “Nothing can be more useful to a man,” Henry chided, “than a determination not to be hurried.”2

 The word “economy” has both the most artificial and most natu­ral connotations. On the one hand, it is the simplest of words, relating to the h ­ ouse­hold (specifically, the care of the ­house­hold), as we explored previously; on the other, it means all the luxuries of modern life. It is this tension that makes the first chapter of Walden so absurd yet also so trenchant. Economy has always been the ­grand question of animate existence—­both ­human and nonhuman—­but over the last three hundred years, a minor flash of time in the life of the cosmos, it has become increasingly artificial, out of time with the natu­ral ebb and flow of daily life. The trick, for Thoreau, was always to improve his time, l­ imited as it turned out to be. For most of ­human history, a day of sound economy began with the rising of the sun and ended at dusk. But the dawn-­ to-­dusk rural work schedule was giving way during Thoreau’s childhood to work schedules divorced from daylight and creeping into the dark. The mills that surrounded his town 2. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, March 22, 1842, in The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 1:342.

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of Concord extended the workday into the darkness of night; bells and horns would ring to sound off the hours and minutes of productive ­labor. Thoreau was not impressed. Work, Thoreau held, should sustain our bodies and elevate our spirits, not crush and deflate us. Thoreau thought about the hours of the day as a naturalist sensitive to the risings and fallings of our physical energies: ­there was a time to work the fields, a time to think and write, a time to cook and clean, a time to prepare and build, a time to go to bed. T ­ hese times stuck more closely to the bone of biological necessity, necessities steamrolled by the demands of modern consumerism and capitalism. A careful account of Thoreau’s time at Walden allows us to see Thoreau fashioning a workday in accord with the weather, the light, the draw of the natu­ral order. It is a reminder that work is always the h ­ uman response to conditions that are beyond our control, a desire to coincide with the log­os, or order, of the cosmos. This is supported directly by Thoreau’s reading of the Stoics, another set of ­great philosophical workers, a fact that ­will come to light in his serious meditation on time and the nature of ­labor. For the Stoics, as for Thoreau, the truly good life requires that we live in sync with the rhythms of natu­ral necessity. Fighting what you cannot change, such as your need for an occasional rest, is self-­defeating. As we have seen, Thoreau witnessed the beginnings and the growth of the Industrial Revolution, which is to say that he might be among the first Americans to understand the con­temporary phrase “time is money.” So he would have also understood the converse, that wasting time may be tantamount to stealing money. Consider the concept of “time theft,” other­wise known as time and attendance fraud, which refers to money given to somebody to do some work that is then “stolen” by that somebody in the form of not working. A ­little fudging of the time card, or the time sheet, or the time log

Clock ing In [ 25 ]

can be a criminal m ­ atter, but it is more often settled by termination of employment. Big fudging may be a dif­fer­ent ball of choco­late. In ­either case, time theft, and the miserliness of all the time-­keepers keeping very close track, is often a r­ ecipe for paranoia. Am I stealing when I space out for seven minutes? Did I accidentally write the wrong time on the time sheet? What if they bring in a forensic accountant? What if they play back the security footage? Surely the cameras caught a violation in the duration of my leaning and looking blankly into the air. Nature, and management, abhors a vacuum, so while on the clock, you must render the right amount of ser­vices. Daydream at night, ­after work, if you must. Thoreau was familiar with strict schedules from his time at Harvard, and he came to despise them. President Josiah Quincy oversaw the College with an iron fist, instituting a “Scale of Merit,” which was often tied to how quickly pupils could complete their recitation. Quincy’s “Scale of Merit” represents another scourge of life on the clock: micromanaging. As Thoreau wrote in “Civil Disobedience,” “That government is best which governs least.”3 We would like to add: that man­ ag­er is best who manages least. Quincy was the king of micromanaging. Speed and accuracy w ­ ere the watchwords of his regime; the boys at Harvard w ­ ere ranked against each other by way of ­those two unforgiving metrics. Monetary awards ­were given out to the young men at the head of the class, ahead of the proverbial clock. When Thoreau’s ­family went through financial turmoil during his ju­nior year, Henry missed an entire term, time lost and never regained. His class rank was completely destroyed. When one is on the clock, t­ here is no atoning for the disappearance of time. This is a lesson of 3. Henry David Thoreau, “Re­sis­tance to Civil Government [Civil Disobedience],” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 145.

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modern life that Henry refused to accept, and prob­ably one of the reasons he instituted an extralong recess for his students when he opened a school with his ­brother, John. But the tell-­tale clock ticks on. It’s coming for you. When Henry came to the Staten Island h ­ ouse of William Emerson as a tutor to his c­ hildren in 1843, he placed himself on another relatively strict schedule: 6:30 a.m. breakfast, lessons from 9:00 a.m. to exactly 2:00 p.m., with a half hour for lunch at precisely noon. He never explic­itly complained about the regimen, but what he did when he was off the clock—he did more or less nothing—­suggests a certain response to his working hours being mea­sured so carefully by o ­ thers. Con­ temporary micromanaging means meticulous timekeeping but also an unnecessary fastidiousness when it comes to the small tasks that are performed on a schedule. Henry gave voice to a realization that quietly dawns on so many of us: “Many ­people have a foolish way of talking about small t­ hings, and apologize for themselves or another having attended to a small ­thing, having neglected their ordinary business and amused or instructed themselves by attending to a small ­thing; when, if the truth w ­ ere known, their ordinary business was the small ­thing, and almost their ­whole lives ­were misspent, but they ­were such fools as not to know it.”4 The sad part, however, is that many of us do know it and recognize the true price of being micromanaged. We just ­can’t find a way out. Or more hopeful—we have yet to find the trapdoor. Our work lives are regimented. They follow a predictable, often inflexible schedule that follows a chronological cycle and an astronomical model: the year, the month, the week, 4. Thoreau, journal entry, October 7, 1860, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 14:104.

Clock ing In [ 27 ]

the day, the hour, and the minute are marked out in advance. Our bodies, on the other hand, are far less predictable than the relations of the sun, earth, and moon. Our health waxes and wanes, but not with lunar accuracy. As Thoreau says, “The phenomena of our year are one t­ hing, t­ hose of the almanac another.”5 The common form of time management, the lockstep of the laborer, the unforgiving nature of the time sheet, is something Thoreau continually chafed against: “They go on publishing the ‘chronological cycles’ . . . ​and the like from mere habit, but how insignificant are t­ hese compared with the annual phenomena of your life, which fall within your experience! The signs of the zodiac are not nearly of that significance to me that the sight of a dead sucker in the spring is.”6 Thoreau could tell the time of day and the exact moment of the season without any external aid; around Concord he was famous for it: when a certain flower bloomed or a certain a­ ngle of sunlight struck the ground, Thoreau just knew. He just knew where and when he was. His work was always calibrated to this natu­ral schedule. This is not to say that he went to work at exactly the same time by instinct, or that he was artificially draconian about his clocking in or out (not even close). Rather, he was aware that virtuous work, à la the ancient Stoics, had to accord or coincide with the workings of nature. More accurately, one must always be sensitive to how one’s work conditions fit with the flow of nature. In Henry’s words, “Time is but the stream I go a-­fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”7 5. Thoreau, journal entry, October 16, 1859, in ibid., 12:390. 6. Ibid. 7. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 96.

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We know what you might be thinking: starry-­eyed Thoreau has no clue about my daily planner or Zoom schedule. We want to assure you: he does; he just wants you to keep it all in perspective. When it comes time to live or work, one literally needs to feel it out: Is this the right moment for my l­ abors? This is the true wisdom of “flex time,” an arrangement that allows workers to start their days at variable times, in accord with life pressures or spurts of inspiration or simply the whim and ­will to sally forth. Take, for example, Thoreau’s position on morning work. At certain points, he abhors it: “Morning work! . . . ​What should be man’s morning work in this world? I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the win­dow in disgust.”8 Yet, in “The Bean-­Field” chapter of Walden, Thoreau is all for working in dawn’s early light: Before yet any woodchuck or squirrel had run across the road, or the sun had got above the shrub oaks, while all the dew was on, though the farmers warned me against it,—­I would advise you to do all your work if pos­si­ble while the dew is on,—­I began to level the ranks of haughty weeds in my bean-­field and throw dust upon their heads. Early in the morning I worked barefooted, dabbling like a plastic artist in the dewy and crumbling sand.9

­There is a consistency in the seemingly inconsistent reportage of morning work, and it is this: our bodies and ­wills are variable, as is the type of work our bodies and wills prefer. Some days we are up for morning work. Some days, not so much. For some of us, of course, our bodies are permanently unable to work. All of this should remind us that the real wealth in all economies is good 8. Ibid., 35. 9. Ibid., 151.

Clock ing In [ 29 ]

health. Good health requires flexibility and sensitivity. The question remains: ­Will modern employment afford it?

 Let’s step back again and dive deeper. As with the word “economy,” which we considered earlier, so too with the word “ecology”—­both come from the same Greek root, oikos, which, as a reminder, may be translated as “house, habitation, dwelling place.” But from this same root, two quite dif­fer­ent plants have grown. T ­ here is one h ­ ouse, one oikos, one earth, but we sometimes describe its order, its relations, its patterns as “ecol­ogy,” and sometimes we shift and shrink the frame to “economy.” But, in truth, t­ hese are abstractions from a wild chaos of ferns, factories, moss, merchandise, mud, gold mines, berries, ware­houses, streams, and every­thing ­else you can think of ­here on earth. Every­thing evolves together in this ­house. As the physicist Joseph Ford so succinctly framed the evolutionary pro­cess, “Evolution is chaos with feedback.”10 All of ­these organic relations overwhelm us with a dazzling complexity that we barely understand, so we simplify real­ity in order to act. But our simplifications of nature have consequences, some of which even ­whole generations fail to recognize. Thoreau understood this in a way that modern ecologists have only recently articulated fully: “[We] learn to make ­houses, but they are not so well ­housed, they are not so contented in their h ­ ouses, as the woodchucks in their holes. What is the use of a h ­ ouse if you h ­ aven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on? If you can not tolerate the planet it is on?”11 10. Joseph Ford, as quoted in James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 314. 11. Henry David Thoreau to H.G.O. Blake, May 20, 1860, in The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Walter Harding and Carl Bode (New York: New York University Press, 1958), 578–579.

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As organisms, we, for better or worse, have organic needs. We need, of course, to sleep, which is not the most profitable use of time, only necessary. You may have heard of the concept of “chronotypes,” which refers to a variation of sleeping-­waking styles. Some p ­ eople are “larks,” meaning their peak of wakefulness and activity tends to be early morning and eve­ning. Some ­people are “owls,” with peaks more in the late morning and eve­ning. ­There are also “swifts” (energies at their best in the early morning and late eve­ning) and “woodcocks” (more activated during late morning and early eve­ning). Thoreau, we think, would appreciate t­ hese avian labels, but more, he would appreciate the insight: one size does not fit all. We know, for example, that brain development during our teenage years is often harmed by early morning school schedules, schedules that conform not to the organic needs of the developing body, but to the realities of most parents’ work lives, which also start early. The kids simply must be at school before you go to work; therefore the kids must wake up and get moving too. Hustle! Even if your child’s brain chemistry is more of the owl or woodcock chronotype, it must be forced to live the lark lifestyle. T ­ hese chronotypes are subtly disadvantaged by the one-­size-­fits-­all rhythm of our work lives. Yet the cookie cutter cuts, and the clock rules. “I confess,” writes Thoreau in his essay “Walking,” “that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the ­whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together. I know not what manner of stuff they are of—­sitting ­there now at three ­o’clock in the after­noon, as if it ­were three ­o’clock in the morning.”12 Thoreau writes that he 12. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, 246.

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c­ an’t stay in his h ­ ouse “for a single day without acquiring some rust.”13 He needs to get up and go, whenever pos­si­ble, or e­ lse his body complains. “When sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour of four o ­ ’clock in the after­noon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night w ­ ere already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for.”14 Henry highlights the tides and seasons of our energies, and how our inner clocks are so frequently mismatched. “As a man grows older,” Henry writes, “his ability to sit still and follow indoor occupations increases. He grows vespertinal in his habits as the eve­ning of life approaches, till at last he comes forth only just before sundown, and gets all the walk that he requires in half an hour.”15 Some of us, the owls especially, are, well before our old age, “vespertinal,” or evening-­like, in our habits, but try telling that to our employers; “vespertinal” is not yet a medical exemption on most jobs.

 When we read Thoreau, it is impor­tant to remember that his views on ­human flourishing—­that one should be ­free to work at one’s own appointed time, for example—­often hinge on class realities of which Henry was pointedly aware. His ability to determine his own “time sheet” was a function of his willingness to go without certain modern luxuries (Henry was a frugillionaire, someone who lives richly on very ­little), but also of his general station in life as a solidly middle-­class Harvard gradu­ate. Yes, the Thoreaus might have been poor at points, but they r­ eally w ­ eren’t that poor ever. So yeah, we are a l­ittle 13. Ibid., 245. 14. Ibid., 245–246. 15. Ibid., 246–247.

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skeptical about what Henry can teach us about “clocking in,” since he managed to avoid ­doing so for much of his life. Thoreau, however, was not blind to the unsettling fact that a disproportionate amount of rushed work, micromanaged work, and meaningless work is shouldered by the most eco­ nom­ically disadvantaged in our society. It has always been that way, which is definitely not to say that this trend should con­ tinue. If he w ­ ere alive t­ oday, Henry would want to join us in fronting life’s essential facts. So ­here are the facts about clock­ ing in. Most US workers, about 75 ­percent of folks, begin their workday between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. Good for them: maybe they go to bed at a decent hour, d ­ on’t drink too much, and have Wheaties for breakfast. ­People living below the poverty line are much more likely than nonpoor folks to start work at nonstandard times. How much “more likely?” They are at least twice as likely to report to work during the 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. period, when a lot of lucky, healthy p ­ eople are sit­ ting down for their nutritious dinner of tofu and asparagus. Blacks and Latinos in the United States disproportionately take on the night shift. It d ­ oesn’t m ­ atter if they are naturally larks or owls or woodcocks or whatever—­they have to get to work between 7:00 p.m. and midnight and usually keep at it ­until dawn. Bad for them: maybe they squeeze in a few hours of sleep between parenting, watch some TV when every­one ­else is on the job, and have something other than Wheaties for dinner (which might be their breakfast). Ticktock, ticktock. It might be true, in Thoreau’s famous words from Walden, that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” but it i­sn’t like all of them have a choice in the m ­ atter.16 Many workers d ­ on’t. In Thoreau’s day, they w ­ ere called slaves; in our day, we see the subtle and not-­so-­subtle economic strings that 16. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 7.

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constrain the poor, many of whom either are recent immigrants or can trace their roots to chattel slavery in the United States. ­Those are some “essential facts” that need to be addressed as we follow Henry at work. Thoreau was and remains subversive. We w ­ on’t sugarcoat him. He encourages all of us to resist “clocking in,” in the oppressive, traditional sense of the expression, and necessarily, in the same breath, he encourages us to pull down a system that forces billions of p ­ eople into a race against the clock, a race that they ­were never meant to win.


Manual Work

“mom, why do you do it by hand?” It was a very stupid question. But her son could sometimes be very stupid. She looked up from where she was kneeling on the sidewalk outside of their modest suburban h ­ ouse. “You do it by hand ­because that is the way it is done, son.” She had a pair of orange-­handled scissors in her hand—­ the sort that you cut paper with—­and she was halfway finished with a task that would take the better part of a summer after­noon. It was ninety degrees in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Becky was edging the sidewalk—­with scissors. ­T here was something very right about her response: the only way to cut the grass with scissors is to cut the grass with scissors. Phi­los­o­phers call this a tautology, something that is true by definition, but this is an impor­tant truism of manual work: ­there are no shortcuts. To do a job by hand is necessarily sui generis, perfectly unique, and ­there is no way around it. In the fall, Becky, a w ­ oman of forty who was well shy of five-­feet tall, would take to the lawn with a small rake—­every Thursday—­ and clear the yard. In the winter, she took a small shovel and cleared the driveway. In the spring, she pulled the weeds in the garden by hand with a teaspoon. ­After several hours in the garden, it was nearly impossible to see where the soil s­ topped and Becky’s skin began. A passerby could hear her talking, as if to herself, completely immersed in the work, literally at hand. She was totally “in it.” A ­ fter the yard work was finished, Becky washed her ­family’s clothes by hand, cooked by hand, cleaned the walls (and ceiling) of her ­house by hand, washed the car by hand, washed the win­dows by hand, bathed her kids by hand, scrubbed the kitchen floor by hand (on her hands and knees). Year ­after year. We are sure ­there are countless Beckys in the world, but they are rarely given their due. Becky never hired “help,” but only taught her sons to follow her lead, and she gave them absolute hell should they ever

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devalue the sacred business of manual work. One day, the son with the stupid question tried to cover the weeds with mulch rather than pulling them out by hand with his teaspoon. His ­mother uncovered the transgression immediately. “Son,” she paused, “I am so disappointed in you.” Not as disappointed as he was in himself. The weeds w ­ ere never again simply covered up. Becky and Thoreau ­were cut of the same cloth when it came to their position on the importance of manual work. Granted, Becky’s gardening occasionally bordered on obsessive, self-­soothing stimming, but so did Thoreau’s at many points. Working with your hands, at its best, is always the attempt to get in touch with nature and with yourself—­also to be self-­sufficient, self-­reliant, self-­possessed. Thoreau’s critical evaluation of modern work grew from the same root that sprouted his pursuit of many trades. It is all ­there, hidden in plain sight, in the first line of Walden: “When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a h ­ ouse which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Mas­sa­chu­setts, and earned my living by the l­ abor of my hands only.”1 Thoreau’s two-­year stint at Walden demonstrated that only through manual work could a man or w ­ oman reestablish his or her place in the natu­ral order of ­things. Only through this work could one be genuinely self-­reliant. Yes, Emerson’s call to self-­reliance was some sort of spiritual Declaration of In­de­pen­dence, but spiritual in­de­pen­dence was always premised on being able to make good on one’s own—to cook for and feed yourself, to clothe your body, to farm the food you eat, to live simply enough that you could provide for 1. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 1, emphasis added.

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yourself. Of course, t­ here w ­ ere limits to this self-­sufficiency for Thoreau (he often came back to Concord from Walden to have his meals and do laundry). Hypocritical old Henry. But at least Henry tried, and he was not bad with a hammer or a spoon or a hoe or a needle. Becky was slightly mystified when her son became a phi­ los­o­pher, but it would have made more sense to her had she known what sort of phi­los­o­pher he wanted to become—­a Thoreauvian one. He never fully succeeded, but he read enough Thoreau to better understand his ­mother’s passion for gardening and manual ­labor. For starters, with the help of Thoreau, he came to realize that his m ­ other ­wasn’t just talking to herself when she was out in the yard, working with her hands. She ­wasn’t just conversing with herself. She was never alone in the garden.

 Something very strange, semimiraculous even, can happen when you work with your hands. Of course, it d ­ oesn’t have to happen (we ­will get to that in just a second), but it can, and for Thoreau, that is all that mattered. Our hands connect us to the world, to each other, to lives and realities beyond ourselves. We take this for granted most of the time, which is to say we fail to notice it at all. But we should pay attention, according to Thoreau. Just reach out and touch something. Feel its warmth, its spiny unfamiliarity, its beckoning intimacy. Feel that particularity against another, namely you. Feel that connection between your hand and something foreign to it. Now find a bit of physical work—­preferably a task that you are not horrible at: gardening, washing dishes, bathing the kids, hammering a nail—­and try to attend to the experience. Can you tell where the soil ends and you begin? Can you feel the warmth of

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the w ­ ater changing who you are? Can you feel the sensation of the nail being driven home? This ­isn’t exactly the same as the con­temporary fad of “mindfulness,” but it i­ sn’t far off. The meaning of this mindfulness, however, was a l­ittle dif­fer­ent for Thoreau. When we reach out and work with our hands, we come to realize that rather than being apart from nature, we are always already intimately connected, an integral part of its life and history. If one of Thoreau’s deepest desires was to “get back to nature,” to get in touch with the wildness of the world, working with your hands is a very good first step. Manual work has the potential to break down the seeming divide between self and Other. Thoreau, well versed in Hindu texts, ­especially the Upanishads, w ­ as interested in the experienced real­ity of what might be the most impor­tant Hindu tenet: tat tvam asi (“that thou art”). What did this mean for Thoreau? As he read the Bhagavad Gita on the shores of Walden Pond, he wrote, “Nearest to all t­ hings is that power that fashions their being.”2 Nearest indeed. Thoreau, along with his fellow American Transcendentalist and the Eu­ro­pean Romantics, believed that a deep participation—­a u ­ nion with—­the natu­ral world could reveal this sustaining and pervasive power. Unlike many of his Transcendentalist friends, however, Henry held that this participation was best embodied in manual work. One of the most poignant chapters of Walden is entitled “The Bean-­Field,” a drab-­sounding title for a subtly wild meditation on the metaphysical possibilities of working with your hands. “Metaphysical possibilities?” you might sigh. “Get real.” But we assure you, that is precisely what we are trying to do: Thoreau believed that “getting into” manual work could reveal an ultimate real­ity that is often overlooked in our modern life, 2. Ibid., 130.

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that each of us is sustained and intimately connected to a force that underwrites the universe. If this is getting too weird for you, d ­ on’t worry: ­there are other, more practical reasons to work with your hands, but indulge us for a moment more. “The Bean-­Field” is Thoreau’s detailed account of growing his own food at Walden, in rows of beans that, when lined up single file, would have mea­sured seven miles. It was actually too many beans for Thoreau to eat, but that is not the point. What is impor­tant is the way that Thoreau approached the task: Meanwhile my beans . . . ​­were impatient to be hoed, for the earliest had grown considerably before the latest ­were in the ground; indeed they ­were not easily to be put off. What was the meaning of this so steady and self-­respecting, this small Herculean ­labor, I knew not. I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus. But why should I raise them? Only Heaven knows. . . . ​What ­shall I learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work. It is a fine broad leaf to look on. My auxiliaries are the dews and rains which w ­ ater this dry soil, and what fertility is in the soil itself, which for the most part is lean and effete. My enemies are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks. The last have nibbled for me a quarter of an acre clean.3

“Knowing beans” usually means that you know nothing, but Thoreau could not have disagreed more. He believed that he could learn something valuable from beans, and—­this is the part that is harder to believe—­that the beans could learn something of himself. What is the ultimate meaning of this open 3. Ibid., 150.

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exchange between ­human being and vegetation? “Only heaven knows.” Thoreau is being his most sincere: the correspondence, interaction, and identification between his beans and himself was something meaningful, but in what exact way God only knows. This mystery brought Thoreau back day ­after day to the fields, protected his beloved beans from all comers (most especially the woodchucks), and attached himself, through his work with the beans, to the earth. ­There was the felt real­ity of “that thou art”—­that connection, that power, that Self. Supposing we recast our working life as sacred, we may won­der: What are the sacred ends, if any, of ­these sacraments of ser­vice? Why is work sacred? Thoreau came to love his bean rows; their presence, even their demands, which required a “small Herculean ­labor,” strengthened him and attached him to the earth. “Strength” ­here does not mean muscular strength, or mere physical endurance, though that benefit may arise from tending bean rows; rather, Thoreau’s “strength” refers to a spiritual vigor or potency, a potency for visionary life: “It is something to be able to paint a par­tic­ul­ar picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look.”4 Recently, a very good and very smart carpenter named Janice said something to us that makes us believe that Thoreau’s perspective on manual work is not a ­thing of the past. “When a nail drives tight,” she began, “or a board fits well, you just feel it. What the ‘it’ is ­here, I ­don’t know. But it’s aesthetic, almost religious.” Janice is not a “fine arts” carpenter, like one who would make a tiger maple Queen Anne ­table to be sold at Christie’s. She mostly frames h ­ ouses and replaces flooring. Thoreau would point out that m ­ atters not at all. As the 4. Ibid., 88.

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American pragmatist John Dewey (who adored Emerson and Thoreau) observed in Art as Experience, ­there is no hard and fast distinction between fine art and the menial work that we do with our fin­gers; it all has the potential to help creatures like us connect to the world and to each other. When Becky was in the garden, she was ­really in the garden, totally consumed and integrated into the landscape. And when Janice drives a nail home, she might feel like she is being attached to something ­else, something strangely familiar, something like coming home.

 Now, if all this seems too wacky to believe, let us give you a bit of historical perspective: Thoreau was not the first to think through the nature and value of field work; he took his cues from the ancient Greeks and Romans. Virgil is key h ­ ere, ­because Virgil was key for Thoreau, especially Virgil’s Georgics, his ­great agricultural poem. Thoreau loved the Georgics. Robert Richardson, in his masterful Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, writes that “Thoreau never showed much interest in the Aeneid, always preferring the Georgics. It was for him the ­great poem of Earth.”5 Virgil manages something very beautiful, something very novel in the Georgics. Phi­los­o­phers and theologians have long tried to figure out why h ­ uman beings are fated to work so darn hard, often in the fields, with their hands. Many of them have come up with dif­fer­ent models of what is called “theodicy.” A theodicy, from theos (god) and dikê ( just/justice), aka an account of God’s justice, is generally an account that squares the presence of evil or hardship with the 5. Robert D. Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 87.

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goodness of some divine presence and love. In a nutshell, theodicy always tries to explain why life (including work) sucks if ­there is God who cares about us. Virgil, in the Georgics, makes a revolutionary move in the history of theodicy: he claims that work itself, and especially manual work of the farm, is its own salvation. As the classicist Elaine Fantham writes, “Virgil introduces what is often called a theodicy, a myth to justify the incessant and arduous work of the farm.”6 Virgil wrote the Georgics before his Aeneid and a­ fter his Eclogues, or Bucolics, which ­were inspired by the idylls of the poet Theocritus, considered the first example of the pastoral poet. For his Georgics, Virgil also took inspiration from Varro’s De re rustica, Lucretius’s De rerum natura, Nicander’s Georgica, Hesiod’s Works and Days (“[I] sing a hymn to works and days through the towns of Rome”7), and so on; his intake was omnivorous. Yet it was Hesiod’s Works and Days and theodicy that most relate to Virgil’s theodicy, and thus to Thoreau’s own theodicy of work, if we may call it that. Work is hard, often painful, yet inevitable. Hesiod read punishment into this condition, as did the originators of the Book of Genesis (“Cursed is the ground ­because of you; through painful toil you ­will eat food from it all the days of your life”8). But Virgil inverted Hesiod’s punitive view; hard work, instead, is Jupiter’s good gift. . . . ​The ­Father himself hardly willed that agriculture would be easy when he called forth the field with his art, whetting ­human minds with worries, not letting his kingdom slip into full-­blown laziness. 6. Elaine Fantham, introduction to Georgics, by Virgil, trans. Peter Fallon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), xxiii. 7. Virgil, Georgics, 2:176, trans. Fallon, 33. 8. Genesis 3:17.

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. . . ​It was Jove who put deadly venom in the hissing snake, ordered the wolf to turn predator and the deep sea to surge, shook all the honey from the leaves, extinguished fire, and everywhere held back the wine that flowed fast in the streams so that, using their brains, men might gradually hammer out many skills, like searching for stalks of wheat by plowing, and so that they might strike the spark held in veins of flint. Then rivers first sensed boats of hollowed elder wood; then the seaman counted and named the stars— . . . ​then came the arts in many guises. Relentless work conquered all difficulties—­work and urgent need when times ­were hard.9

Peter Fallon translated this last line in a slightly dif­fer­ent way: “Hard work prevailed, hard work and pressing poverty.”10 Jupiter, so suggests Virgil, challenges us with scarcity, pests, blight, and venomous snakes, as spurs to actualize what waits inside us, the “spark held in veins of flint.” The golden or Edenic age of easy living actualizes no h ­ uman ascent; t­ here are no victories in Eden. This, in the standard taxonomy of theodicies, may qualify as a “soul-­making theodicy.” The highest summit of the soul is accessible only through suffering. The strug­gle of manual work is necessary for a type of accomplishment that evades, by definition, a life of leisure. Drawing Thoreau and the Georgics together closely, Richardson writes, “What is ­really celebrated in the poem is humankind’s ­whole laborious tenure and tillage of the earth. Virgil is a realist who believes in work, and in the rewards and satisfactions 9. Virgil, Georgics, 1:121–146, trans. Janet Lembke, Yale New Classics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 7–8. 10. Virgil, Georgics 1:146, trans. Fallon, 10.

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work brings. Virgil’s farmer is hardworking, this-­worldly, self-­ sufficient, and content.”11 Such is the Virgilian summit, and such are the ­simple, dignified lives out of which Roman civilization was built and fortified. Richardson matches Thoreau’s view of work with this “Virgilian work ethic,” as against the Protestant work ethic, and we would add Hesiodic work ethic, ­those being penal and pessimistic. Virgil and Thoreau hold that if we take our ­labors upon ourselves, we actualize ourselves and discover ourselves, if not invent ourselves: new facilities, new emotions, new senses, new sensitivities. Moreover, as more of us do this, the more our social worlds grow new senses and sensitivities. Virgil’s farmer is Roman greatness in miniature. Thoreau sought to become a working model-­in-­miniature of a ­great nation, meaning a just and heroic nation, whose ­free and in­de­pen­dent citizens love the land, their work, and their days—­a nation of ­people who, at last, feel at home on the earth.

 ­ here is a very old story from the Greek playwright ArisT tophanes that tells of a bearded man up in a balloon, looking down to earth, raining down philosophical advice on his neighbors below. This is from The Clouds, a pointed jab at Socrates—­the balloon dweller—­and all phi­los­op ­ hers for having their heads up in the clouds. Thoreau, more than any other nineteenth-­century thinker, attempted to tether the balloon to earth and draw it all the way to the ground. Phi­los­ o­phers had to be, according to Henry, profoundly practical, ­because practicality underwrote self-­sufficiency. “How can a man be a phi­los­o­pher,” Thoreau asked, “and not maintain his

11. Richardson, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, 88.

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vital heat by better methods than other men?”12 ­Here he uses “vital heat” as a metonym for living, and he won­ders if we can maintain life without depending on the l­abor of ­others. He is concerned with the exploitation of o ­ thers, how our lifestyles might ensnare untold numbers of ­human and nonhuman lives in unhappy ­labor. He worries that “the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day.”13 So, to get off the backs of o ­ thers, Thoreau resurrected the Re­nais­sance ideal of the Universal Man, the polymath, but a practical polymath, perfectly at home in fields, farms, and forests, alongside libraries, lecture halls, and legislatures. Note that this self-­reliance arose from Thoreau’s care for the well-­being of o ­ thers. “We do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”14 He does all of this work himself to relieve society of the burden of his needs (and wants). We (the authors) like to joke that Thoreau’s spirit animal is a Swiss army knife, but the camel is properly Thoreau’s spirit animal, a beast on which pots, blankets, bags, gourds, and other sundries are saddled—an entire ­house­hold on a hump. He asks that we try our best to carry our own ­house­holds and put our burdens on ­others as l­ ittle as pos­si­ble. Thoreau understood his economic entanglements, as a US citizen, with the vicious yields of chattel slavery and bonded ­labor. He was familiar with the l­ abor activism of Orestes Brownson. He was sensitive to the harms of industrialization: “I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing. . . . ​The principal object is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.”15 Thoreau paints t­ hese entangle12. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 14. 13. Ibid., 5. 14. Ibid. 15. Ibid., 26.

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ment in the sooty colors of his time’s most recognizable symbol of industrial pro­gress: the railroad. “We do not r­ ide on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what ­those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irish-­man, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And ­every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the plea­sure of riding on a rail, o ­ thers have the misfortune to be ridden upon.”16 ­Today, we buy into similar entanglements with exploitation. According to the US Department of ­Labor’s Bureau of International ­L abor Affairs (ILAB) 2020 report on international child ­labor and forced l­abor, 73 million ­children are “engaged in hazardous child l­abor,” a subset of the 152 million ­children engaged in child ­labor. Coffee, cocoa, sugarcane, soybeans, rice, and so on are all entangled in child and forced ­labor.17 Agriculture, unsurprisingly, is the most implicated industry. Our food, the fuel for our “vital heat,” still and often depends on exploiting the vital heat of ­others. As we do our best to get off the backs of o ­ thers, we should also, in tenderness to ourselves, take care to keep the burdens we carry as light as pos­si­ble. “When I have met an immigrant tottering ­under a bundle which contained his all—­looking like an enormous wen which had grown out of the nape of his neck—­I have pitied him, not b ­ ecause that was his all, but ­because he had all that to carry. If I have got to drag my trap, I ­will take care that it be a light one.”18 16. Ibid., 90. 17. US Department of L ­ abor, Office of Child L ­ abor, Forced L ­ abor, and ­Human Trafficking, Bureau of International ­L abor Affairs (ILAB), 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child L ­ abor or Forced L ­ abor, 2021, https://­www​.­dol​.­gov​ /­agencies​/­ilab​/­reports​/­child​-­labor​/­list​-­of​-­goods. 18. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 64.

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A light burden is, frankly, more sustainable for the average person. Only if our l­abor is light ­will we keep on course employing only the ­labor of our own hands. The temptation to substitute out, to avail oneself of another’s vital heat, grows positively with the weight of our burden. Lessening our ­labor requires, of course, a reappraisal of our expenditures. “I did not use tea, nor coffee, nor butter, nor milk, nor fresh meat, and so did not have to work to get them,” writes Thoreau.19 Yet even the lighter camel lifestyle is hard. How do you square a subsistence life with a good life? If ­either of us had to grow our own food, and c­ ouldn’t lazily browse t­ hose lurid refrigerated aisles at the grocery store, our lives would quickly become grotesque. Or so we assume, but it seems a reasonable assumption. Thoreau shows how, for many individuals such as himself, the good life may actually be camel-­shaped. First, ground-­floor ­labors may build up our poetic faculties: “Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged?”20 This “poetic faculty” is, for Thoreau, a divine faculty. Thoreau is not kidding about finding both divine poetry and plea­sure in ­these ­labors. “­Shall we forever resign the plea­ sure of construction to the carpenter?”21 This was one of the dangers of the modern age—­that it would phase out skilled manual ­labor in lieu of advances in factory manufacturing. This i­sn’t necessarily a loss in the products produced, but in the experience had in producing them. Thankfully, for Thoreau at least, manual work ­will prob­ably stick around in some 19. Ibid., 198. 20. Ibid., 44. 21. Ibid.

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form for some time: “House­work,” he reflects, “was a pleasant pastime.”22 “But ­labor of the hands, even when pursued to the verge of drudgery, is perhaps never the worst form of idleness. It has a constant and imperishable moral, and to the scholar it yields a classic result.”23 The manual work that was performed at Walden may have been for the sake of a divine life—­the good life par excellence—­ but this result is never easily realized. “The millions are awake enough for physical l­abor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life.”24 Working ­toward one’s self-­sufficiency, that is to say, t­ oward one’s in­de­pen­dence (in­de­ pen­dence at all levels), has an invigorating or waking power. ­Every man looks at his wood-­pile with a kind of affection. I love to have mine before my win­dow, and the more chips the better to remind me of my pleasing work. I had an old axe which nobody claimed, with which by spells in winter days, on the sunny side of the h ­ ouse, I played about the stumps which I had got out of my bean-­field. As my driver prophesied when I was ploughing, they warmed me twice, once while I was splitting them, and again when they ­were on the fire, so that no fuel could give out more heat.25

“No fuel could give out more heat.” No source can give one a crisper sense of being alive, of “vital heat,” even on winter days, than that of our own work. Work is sacred, yet so often desecrated, often by the division of ­labor, as Thoreau saw it (we follow “blindly the princi­ples of a division of l­abor to its extreme, a princi­ple which should never be followed but with 22. Ibid., 110. 23. Ibid., 152. 24. Ibid., 87. 25. Ibid., 241–242.

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circumspection”—­better a camel than a cog).26 ­You’re unlikely to think of work as sacred, yet perhaps that is your forfeiture. If you do not enjoy your work, if ­there is no play in it, if work is not sacred to you, then y­ ou’ve acquiesced to a desacralized form of work. “But t­ here is no realistic alternative,” we plead. “By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed,” Thoreau writes of such fatalism; thus forfeited, “the better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost.”27 Mornings, for both of us, mean h ­ ouse­work: d ­ oing the dishes, wiping down the ­counters, making tea and breakfast and clearing it up, making the beds, sweeping if needed. Since we are both married, it means d ­ oing our share, or at least try­ ing to. We w ­ ill tell you that ­there is a serious issue of salience that makes it sometimes feel like we are d ­ oing far more than our share. Salience? Yeah: since h ­ ouse­work has tradition­ ally, historically, been ­women’s work, men like us sometimes feel silently aggrieved that we have to take part, but we do, and “thems the facts,” as our grand­fathers would say. But this ­labor, mostly unnecessary, as we d ­ on’t truly need most of our clean tableware or freshly swept carpets, can take on an in­ter­ est­ing meaning if we allow it to. We try to view h ­ ouse­work like a ritual bath: a nice boost of feeling clean, but not just. In Zen Buddhism, cleaning (“Soji” or 掃除) is an opportunity for meditative practice. As Buddhist monk Shoukei Matsumoto writes, “Buddhist monks in a monastery put more time into practicing Soji than into practicing Zen meditation.”28 Zen cleaning, including Zen dishwasher-­loading, may pass muster with Thoreau, though Zen chores are likely not the sort most of us meet with. This is not compromising with chores, but an 26. Ibid., 49. 27. Ibid., 3. 28. Shoukei Matsumoto, “Soji (掃除): A Meditation on Zen Cleaning,” Ignota (blog), March  20, 2020, https://­ignota​.­org​/­blogs​/­news​/­soji.

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artistic appropriation, an elevation. Transfiguring mere drudgery into art, song, cele­bration, so much so that the act, be it cleaning tweed or mopping, becomes desirably festive, and enacted long a­ fter the outmoding of the task—­that transfiguration is Thoreauvian through and through: it elevates the hour, the day, the life in ­whole. Of course, we are not Zen masters, but on our good days, we make the attempt, and Thoreau would prob­ably say that that is enough.

 Now we arrive at the sticky wicket, the place where some readers call the bluff on this paean to the sanctity of manual ­labor. It is absolutely true that manual ­labor can be absolutely brutal and largely meaningless in certain circumstances, both par­ tic­ul­ar and systemic. Earl, John’s grand­father, who owned a garage-­sized “factory” for dyeing ­women’s hose in the 1950s, suffered daily chemical burns, drank to ease the pain, and died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of fifty-­six. Iron foundries during Thoreau’s day burned day and night, and often burned their manual laborers alive (we ­don’t ­really think about this as “machine work” since many of ­these workers used their bodies in such vigorous and skillful ways). You get the point and so do we: manual work that is not freely chosen is much more difficult to experience as meaningful, much less transcendent. ­There is yet another pitfall of manual work that deserves to be expressed, which brings us back to Becky, John’s ­mother. Becky always knew, but simply ignored the fact, that manual work takes a toll. In the summer heat, deep in the soil, her hands would break out in eczema that would climb up her bare arms and take up residence on her cheeks. She just kept gardening. De­cade a­ fter de­cade. On a particularly sweltering August day, at the age of sixty-­four, she came inside from a

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five-­hour stint in the yard. She h ­ adn’t eaten that morning and had just a cup of coffee before she went out. Her work had been that involving, that distracting, or that meaningful (we ­aren’t entirely sure which). In any event, she came in for a hot shower and let the ­water wash away her obvious communion with dirt. When she stepped out of the shower, she fainted to the tile floor—­head first—­broke her jaw, detached her ret­ ina, and suffered what would be the first of a series of strokes. ­Today, in her seventies, she lives in a nursing home and has no small trou­ble using a walker. When her son comes to visit her, it is hard for him not to ask a seemingly stupid question: “Mom, why did you have to do it by hand?” He d ­ oesn’t ask, ­because the answer is strangely clear. Becky still dreams only of gardening.


Machine Work

manual ­l abor, many think, ­ought to be phased out. Technology, sooner or ­later, but hopefully sooner, ­will make manual l­abor unnecessary. Manual l­abor w ­ ill become a hobby for ­future generations, something like building Ikea furniture with friends—a fun pastime rather than a necessity. The machines w ­ ill f­ ree us from work, pain, and hardship. Honestly, who wants to wash dirty clothes by hand anymore, or pump ­water by hand, or make fires, even in nostalgic fireplaces? Who ­really wants to embalm cadavers or inspect sewers or peel potatoes? Perhaps the end of all this toil and trou­ble is pos­si­ble. Just consider the following promise, which set the stage for Thoreau’s philosophy of work: “Fellow-­men! I promise to show the means of creating a paradise within ten years, where every­thing desirable for ­human life may be had by e­ very man in superabundance, without ­labor, and without pay; where the ­whole face of nature ­shall be changed into the most beautiful forms, and man may live in the most magnificent palaces, in all imaginable refinements of luxury, and in the most delightful gardens; where he may accomplish, without ­labor, in one year, more than hitherto could be done in thousands of years; may level mountains, sink valleys, create lakes, drain lakes and swamps, and intersect the land everywhere with beautiful canals, and roads for transporting heavy loads of many thousand tons, and for traveling one thousand miles in twenty-­four hours; may cover the ocean with floating islands movable in any desired direction with im­mense power and celerity, in perfect security, and with all comforts and luxuries, bearing gardens and palaces, with thousands of families, and provided with rivulets of sweet w ­ ater; may explore the interior of the

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globe, and travel from pole to pole in a fortnight; provide himself with means, unheard of yet, for increasing his knowledge of the world, and so his intelligence; lead a life of continual happiness, of enjoyments yet unknown; ­free himself from almost all the evils that afflict mankind, except death, and even put death far beyond the common period of ­human life, and fi­nally render it less afflicting. Mankind may thus live in and enjoy a new world, far superior to the pre­sent, and raise themselves far higher in the scale of being.”1

­ in’t that a fantastic basket of h A ­ orse­feathers? Paradise at last—­and within ten years. So goes the starry-­eyed promise of John Adolphus Etzler, a German immigrant to the United States, a civil engineer, inventor, and writer, who published this vision of paradise in 1833, in a humbly titled book: The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without L ­ abor, by Powers of Nature and Machinery: An Address to All Intelligent Men, in Two Parts. “Etzler’s Eden,” as historian of technology David F. Noble called it, mixed notions of socialism, American evangelism, and technocracy into a blueprint for heaven on earth.2 Etzler just needed some liquidity, a l­ittle cash infusion, to paradisify every­thing. Many of us have shopped big dreams around, looking for a sympathetic wallet, but Etzler takes the biscuit on this one. Like some other utopians and visionary questers, Etzler’s story ended in the tropics of South Amer­i­ca. In the 1840s, Etzler and his followers set up Etzlerian communities in the tropical south, which ­were fortified by his 1844 book, 1. Etzler excerpt quoted in Henry David Thoreau, “Paradise (To Be) Regained,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 64–65. 2. David F. Noble, The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 91.

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Emigration to the Tropical World, for the Melioration of All Classes of P ­ eople of All Nations, another modest proposal, detailing his vision of a world relieved of pain by machine work. The scheme crashed and burned. Starvation and disease killed several followers, and conflict disbanded the rest. Etzler lived to see his paradise lost, and that is how Etzler ends for us. He simply dis­appears from history at that point.3

 Before that, though, Etzler inspired, or, more aptly, aroused the disapproval of Henry David Thoreau. Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and friend, had given Henry a gift: Etzler’s Paradise within the Reach of All Men. Emerson was concerned that the rise of machine ­labor would make manual ­labor, but more importantly manual laborers, obsolete. Thoreau was deeply unconvinced. His most forceful (and hilarious) critique of the technological cure comes in his essay “Paradise (To Be) Regained,” in which Thoreau satirized our dear old Etzler and his book on paradise (a book that t­ oday would likely be published u ­ nder the title The Ten-­Year Work-­Life Solution). Trumpeting in jest the same hyperbolic clarion call of Etzler’s prose, Thoreau writes, “Let us not succumb to nature. We w ­ ill marshal the clouds and restrain the tempests; we ­will b ­ ottle up pestilent exhalations, we ­will probe for earthquakes, grub them up; and give vent to the dangerous gases; we w ­ ill disembowel the volcano, and extract its poison, take its seed out. We w ­ ill wash ­water, and warm fire, and cool ice, and underprop the earth. We w ­ ill teach birds to fly, and fishes to swim, and 3. For an account of Etzler’s life and mission, see Steven Stoll, The ­Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008).

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ruminants to chew the cud. It is time we looked into ­these ­things.”4 So says Thoreau at his most satirical. Etzler’s utopian ideal was complete hogwash to Thoreau, who suggested, repeatedly, that while we might live in the Anthropocene, this did not mean that nature would eventually succumb to the w ­ ill of man, nor, more importantly, that a nature conforming to h ­ uman prejudices would be a good t­ hing. Anthropocene, a popular twenty-first-century term, refers to the period in which ­human beings began to shape the world in fundamental ways through technology; machines, culture, and nature could no longer be disaggregated in the Anthropocene. Thoreau could never endorse Etzler’s deeply hubristic plan for the f­uture. At best, Etzler’s promise for the machine age was a mirage. But even if such techno-­social arrangements w ­ ere realizable, according to Thoreau, a question would remain: Would they be, when fully and properly accounted, better or worse for us?

 In objecting—­and openly teasing—­techno-­utopia, Thoreau was spitting into a prevailing wind. Etzler, of course, is only one of countless many who have reached for the fire of the gods by means of modern technology. Visions of a life ­free from toil have inspired (and haunted) our species for millennia. “In the beginning,” goes the Book of Genesis, we lived in a perfect garden, ­free of alarm clocks, invoices, and deadlines. We had it all. Naturally, we screwed up our cushy benefits package by violating the one and only contractual condition. Infamously, hard ­labor was our punishment. “Cursed is the ground ­because of you; through painful toil you ­will eat food from it 4. Thoreau, “Paradise (To Be) Regained,” 66–67.

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all the days of your life. It ­will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you ­will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you ­will eat your food ­until you return to the ground.”5

Some days, work does feel like God’s curse. ­There may be no profounder example of ancient work-­hatred than in this origin story of work. So it is no surprise that we imagine, nay dream, of manna falling from heaven, or of a land of milk and honey, if “milk and honey” means an ability to use our hands at work as ­little as pos­si­ble. In medieval my­thol­ogy, we find the Land of Cockaigne, where “­labor” and “scarcity” are meaningless words. In Cockaigne, the more you sleep, the more you earn. If you work, y­ ou’re arrested (who does the arresting is not specified, but presumably they should arrest themselves for working). Herman Pleij, scholar of medieval Dutch lit­er­a­ ture, describes the plentiful, though ethically and nutritionally questionable Cockaigne diet: “Roasted pigs . . . ​roam around with knives stuck in their backs”6 (for ease of carving), and “houses roofed with custard tarts, fences made of sausages, roasted geese strutting about, and grilled swallows that fly into one’s mouth.”7 Cockaigne was a medieval peasant’s heaven. Grimly facing a field of wheat ruined by a hard frost, a medieval peasant farmer might sit down, sigh, and sing of Cockaigne to lighten the gloom a ­little. The rise of the Industrial Revolution in the 1830s, however, made this self-­deceptive song of the medieval workers a proper 5. Genesis 3:17–19. 6. Herman Pleij, Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life, trans. Diane Webb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 90. 7. Ibid., 86.

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real­ity. Technology and mechanized work seemed to be on the brink of granting humanity true freedom. Thoreau, however, living but fifteen miles from the industrial mills in Lowell, saw ­things a ­little differently. All right: a lot differently. ­There is a mural in Coburn Hall at the University of Mas­sa­chu­setts, Lowell, painted during the ­Great Depression (by artists employed by the Works Pro­gress Administration) that basically says it all. ­There is a pastel painting of ­women at the looms of the factory (this is prob­ably something of Etzler’s vision), but then beneath the painting is the morose line: “All day I stand before my loom; the flying shut­tles come and go.” Using a tool like a shovel or a rake is one form of technology: you get to control where the tool goes and what you make with it. The birth of the Industrial Revolution, with the advent of mass machine work, changed that. Technology now determined the ends and means of production, circumscribed landscape and its power, and seized what Thoreau loved best: h ­ uman freedom. Fast-­forward to the twentieth ­century. Despite Thoreau’s warnings about the inhumanity of machine work, the coming generation was tempted by songs of machine pro­gress not unlike the tales of Cockaigne. Songs arose like “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” where “­there’s a lake of stew and of whiskey too, you can paddle all around ’em in a big canoe.”8 No hard ­labor t­ here. “­There a­ in’t no short-­handled shovels, no axes, saws, or picks.”9 And, to glide to the g ­ reat catharsis of the song, Big Rock Candy Mountain is “where they hung the jerk who in­ven­ted work.”10 Workers during the G ­ reat Depression and Dust Bowl, like that old medieval farmer, could sing of Big 8. Harry McClintock, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” in On the Fly! Hobo Lit­er­a­ture and Songs, 1879–1941, ed. Iain McIntyre (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018), 102. 9. Ibid. 10. Ibid.

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Rock Candy Mountain and laugh a ­little bitterly in the midst of famine. ­Today, Cockaigne and Big Rock Candy Mountain have new life in the promises of artificial intelligence, virtual real­ ity, quantum computers, nanotech, biotech, and other fruits of scientific l­abor. Our grilled swallows w ­ ill be delivered by drone (perhaps flown right into our mouths!). Our big canoes ­will be 3D-­printed in the basement. Our dreams of labor-­free lives have gone digital. Robots, we hope and fear in turn, ­will relieve our burdens. T ­ here are hundreds of bodies at this very moment that stand frozen like popsicles, to be resurrected whenever, if ever, medical science overcomes death itself. This obsession with machine-­miracles comes from a very honest, decent place: we want to wake up to a truly ­free day. We want the ultimate retirement from the necessity of work. Thoreau wanted that too, with caveats, but he thought a step further and wondered about what happens on the second day in Cockaigne, or in our second month on Big Rock Candy Mountain. A ­ fter glutting ourselves with grilled swallows and paddling our big canoe on a lake of whiskey, what next?—­next, of course, ­after the whopping whiskey hangover. What is this freedom for? What are t­ hese vacations and retirements for? What would you do in paradise? Think about it. In a letter to his friend Harrison Gray Otis Blake, Thoreau wrote, as you’ll recall, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”11 Certainly that question can be extended to its opposite case: “It is not enough to be retired. What are you retiring to?” Thoreau was no Luddite (the Luddites themselves w ­ ere not exactly “Luddites” in the now common sense, but ­were actually hard workers fighting for better l­abor conditions and not so 11. Henry David Thoreau to Harrison Gray Otis Blake, November 16, 1857, in ­Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Wendell Glick (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 100.

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much against technology as such). ­There is no evidence that Thoreau ever fire-­bombed a factory or derailed a train, though he did daydream once about taking a crowbar to Billerica Dam in defense of shad, a migrating fish. “Poor shad! where is thy redress?” he laments in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. “Armed with no sword, no electric shock, but mere Shad, armed only with innocence and a just cause, with tender dumb mouth only forward, and scales easy to be detached. I for one am with thee, and who knows what may avail a crow-­bar against that Billerica dam?”12 Thoreau understood the benefits of machinery. He in­ven­ ted a machine for forming a higher-­grade pencil lead. He did ­ride the railroads, sometimes to accompany escaping slaves as they made their way north to a more secure freedom. But Thoreau questioned our faith in technology. First and foremost, the lives of workers in Thoreau’s time, as in ours, w ­ ere often forced to conform to a mechanical pro­cess, not an organic one. Machine work meant machinelike lives. The machine needs no rest, no leisure time, no life outside of work. The machine is the ideal worker; all merely h ­ uman workers fall short of its perfect productivity. When we idealize the mechanical, it often comes at the cost of dehumanizing workers; laborers have “no time to be anything but a machine,” Thoreau complains.13 ­There is no time, no energy, no strength left to reflect on higher goals and act meaningfully ­toward them. “We saw last summer,” Thoreau writes in his review of Etzler’s book, “on the side of a mountain, a dog employed to 12. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; or, Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, ed. Robert F. Sayre, The Library of Amer­i­ca (New York: The Library of Amer­i­ca, 1985), 31. 13. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 5.

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churn for a farmer’s ­family, travelling upon a horizontal wheel, and though he had sore eyes, an alarming cough, and withal a demure aspect, yet their bread did get buttered for all that.”14 This invention, one hopes only imaginary, serves as a meta­phor for so many innovations that become enervations. Yes, your bread is buttered without any h ­ uman effort. Congratulations. But at the heart of the machine is a tormented dog.

 Which brings us back to our situation. Since Thoreau and Etzler’s time, technology has improved exponentially. Tools unimaginable to Etzler are now mere flavorless ingredients in our busy lives. Are t­ hese improvements enough for you? Do you think of yourself or your loved ones as living nearer paradise than Thoreau? We doubt that most of you do, though we hope ­we’re wrong. Some of you might now be wondering, “OK, so, should I donate my smartphone, return my smart tele­vi­sion, and sell my smart refrigerator? That d ­ oesn’t sound smart.” O ­ thers of you may be Googling images of the Amish lifestyle. “Thoreau with his throat-­beard looks vaguely Amish,” you think, and begin to pull out some red string to connect the dots. Well, maybe it is worth considering the Amish again. Seriously. Phi­los­o­phers like Thoreau have always dared us to think again, to try out radical perspectives, to listen charitably to ­those we think are “obviously wrong” or “clearly too eccentric.” Like many group names, such as Methodist, impressionist, and suffragette, the label “Amish” began as a pejorative against the community, but evolved into a neutral, or mostly neutral, label. ­These traditionalist Christian communities sometimes 14. Thoreau, “Paradise (To Be) Regained,” 68.

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refer to themselves as “Plain ­People,” an appropriate designation for a community dedicated to keeping their clothes, ­houses, and work s­ imple. It is difficult to find any historical group, of such continuity and duration, more consciously committed to Thoreau’s maxim: “Simplify, simplify.” But like any group of p ­ eople, t­ here’s a good deal of variation. What connects them, the Old Order Amish and the Beachy Amish and New Order Amish, is a life of principled practice, guided by scripture, and, in their view, the unmediated work of the Holy Spirit on each person’s heart. Yielding oneself to a higher authority, or the princi­ple of Gelassenheit, means letting God decide for us how our lives ­will go. Providence ­will provide. “Be still, and know that I am God,” reads Psalm 46:10. That stillness, tranquility, and trust express themselves in Amish beliefs about pacifism, humility, and, of course, work. Work is for the good of families and communities. It is a clear-­cut position on work’s purpose and the same position they take on technology. Some Amish communities allow telephones, but never in the home. It is not uncommon for the Amish to have a telephone in a relatively con­ve­nient communal space; the ringing should not invade the peacefulness of home life, and conversations, ideally, are always face to face. We recently received an email from a phi­los­op ­ her named Josh with a postscript that captures the prob­lem of faceless, voiceless, and bodiless conversation: “I feel obliged to also acknowledge that words do not always convey the meaning we intend them to. I hope my tone does not convey any sort of disrespect, rudeness, callousness, or lack of care. If it does, I apologize. My training in analytic philosophy has not served me well on this front.” Josh is somehow aware of a deep Thoreauvian (and Amish) insight that genuine communication is extremely fragile and our technologically advanced modes of “connecting” often leave us unmoored from real­ity and untethered from each

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other. Technology allows us to be ­free from ­others. Think of the ­self-­checkout lines at a grocery store, or the sushi tracks that circulate ­little plates of sushi on a con­vey­or ­belt, all without the bothersome social pressures of a waiter. Or think of a ­family sitting down to dinner, all silently scrolling through their social media feeds, together only perfunctorily. This is the sort of technological disconnection that MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle refers to in her book Alone Together. We are more and more alone together. I ­don’t need you becomes You ­don’t need me. Nobody needs anybody. And Thoreau was on the case a c­ entury and a half ago: “We are in ­great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing impor­tant to communicate. . . . ​As if the main object ­were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.”15 High-­speed communication is rarely meaningful communion. In one sense, yes, we are exponentially more connected to ­others ­today, but in another sense, it may be a mere cloud of hollow connections. What does this disconnection do to us? According to Johann Ha­ri, in his power­ful exploration of depression in Lost Connections, disconnection does deep damage. “You a­ ren’t a machine with broken parts,” he writes. “You are an animal whose needs are not being met. You need to have a community. You need to have meaningful values, not the junk values y­ ou’ve been pumped full of all your life, telling you happiness comes through money and buying objects. You need to have meaningful work. You need the natu­ral world. You need to feel you are respected. You need a secure ­future. You need connections to all ­these ­things.”16 So, are the Amish happier than us? Honestly, we ­don’t know. But we suspect that Thoreau is onto something in Walden: 15. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 50. 16. Johann Ha­r i, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real ­C auses of Depression—­and the Unexpected Solutions (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018), 256.

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“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious ­things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”17 Are we better off with ­these distractions? One online commenter put it this way when it comes to judging happiness or lasting satisfaction in a population: “This field is full of conflicting data, shifting methods, [and] unreplicated surveys.”18 Determining life satisfaction of a group is a complex so­cio­log­i­cal task, and one not immune from the so-­called replication crisis undermining so many past results in the social sciences. The Amish have their prob­lems too, naturally. In some cases, the prob­lems are strikingly bad (like untreated tooth decay and the appalling prevalence of Amish-­ run puppy mills), but their community gives us pause and a chance to reassess the wisdom of Walden. Thoreau would commend Amish simplicity. Thoreau was neither a pacifist, nor a Christian, nor was he, it must be said, cruel to animals, but he would most likely approve of the Amish community over and against our modern version of sociality (and our pervasive cruelties, in the form of factory farming, a system of suffering and vio­lence solely enabled by machines). Thoreau is speaking to us, not the Amish. As Jesus said to the Pharisees, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”19

 We know that this might be hard to hear, but we, as a modern society, might be very, very sick when it comes to our views of mechanized work. In the year of Thoreau’s death, in 1862, 17. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 50. 18. Scott Alexander, “Are the Amish Unhappy?,” Slate Star Codex, April 2, 2018, https://­slatestarcodex​.­com​/­2018​/­04​/­02​/­are​-­the​-­amish​-­unhappy​-­super​ -­happy​-­just​-­meh​/­. 19. Mark 2:17.

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Richard Jordan Gatling in­ven­ted the Gatling gun, a hand-­ driven machine gun that was the first to solve the prob­lem of reliability, loading, efficiency, and rapid firing. Gatling solved this technological prob­lem and thereby caused the cataclysmic prob­lem of widespread casualties in the American Civil War—­ and ­every major armed conflict since. Thoreau was no peacenik, but he would have observed that the revolution in military affairs, the integration of technologically advanced ways of killing and maiming, has serious drawbacks. In Walden, when he fretted about modern technological inventions being “improved means to an unimproved end,” he is speaking directly to the situation that Gatling created. To put this another way, the advent of certain technological advancements enables certain types of work, like the work of soldiering, and in its sheer con­ve­nience, allows us to avoid the difficult task of determining ­whether this task is actually a good one. For the soldiers who employed the Gatling gun, its use was a complete no-­brainer: kill more of your opponents, win ­battle, win war. QED. But when certain forms of technology are in­ven­ted and let out of Pandora’s box, it is extremely hard to put reasonable, ethical, humane limits on them. Perhaps you think that this example is antiquated and we have gotten over this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem of mechanized work. We are sorry to say it, but you would be wrong about that. In 2019, the US Department of Defense spent roughly $9 billion on drones and associated technologies, enough money to buy four billion used copies of Walden.20 Sure, many of ­these drones are unarmed, but enough are armed that Thoreau would worry about the moral h ­ azard that technology-­enabled warfare has created. Very improved means to very morally 20. Dan Gettinger, “Study: Drones in the FY 2019 Defense Bud­get,” The Center for the Study of the Drone (blog), April 9, 2018, https://­dronecenter​.­bard​.­edu​ /­drones​-­in​-­the​-­fy19​-­defense​-­budget​/­.

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questionable ends. We suspect that Thoreau’s principal complaint with autonomous drones, or autonomous technology on the ­whole, would be their lack of moral autonomy, a unique agency that can be held responsible. The terrible lethality of machinery is one prob­lem; the more banal daily drain of technology is another. A faceless and amoral machine comes to us as incessant robocalls, spam emails, algorithmically optimized ads, brainless “customer ser­ vice” chatbots, automatic fees, and leaks of private rec­ords. Negotiating this ambient machine world has become a necessary skill at most jobs and in many other aspects of our daily life. Tally up all the con­ve­niences and incon­ve­niences, if you can. A plus for two-­day shipping. A minus for online identity theft. A plus for instant messaging with friends and f­ amily. A minus for online sexual predators that now have instant, direct, and private access to c­ hildren. If ­we’re being honest with ourselves, we’d admit the obvious: we d ­ on’t know if the tally totals up to a net positive or a net negative. Moreover, we ­don’t know where it’s headed. Some, like Oxford phi­los­o­pher of technology Nick Bostrom, warn of serious existential dangers ahead, specifically from artificial superintelligence.21 Paradises have a tendency to go south. Of course, “technology” is too broad a category to be for or against in any serious way. Generally speaking, technology is simply a tool, which we are wielding with a ­great deal of uncertainty, even willful uncertainty. In the face of all of the technological complications of life, many of us have thrown up our hands in desperation and relinquished all responsibility for the f­ uture. Some of us take refuge in the wilderness, as a means to forget the world. We go deep prepper and 21. See Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

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stockpile freeze-­dried pasta primavera. “If it dies, it dies,” says the desperate heart. But Thoreau felt something ­else entirely: “In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”22 He did not wash his hands of the world, but looked ­toward its preservation. Despite all of Etzler’s rosy excess, at least he aimed for an improved world, and sacrificed for it, rather than lay down in the snow and die. The remedy h ­ ere is not acquiescence, but renewed responsibility for the ends that we aim for. The “chief fault” of Etzler’s book, says Thoreau, is its aim, which is merely the maximization of comfort and plea­sure. The “unimproved end” of the techno-­utopians, as Thoreau understood it, was simply a banal and homogenous high (and, just maybe, one suffused by the high of domination over ­others). A high without elevation, so to speak. Thoreau did not deny that a heaven by technological means would be, strictly speaking, heavenly. Sure, if we achieve utopia, literally achieve it, life would be utopian. But that is a trivial admission, more a repetition of words, of sounds, of echoes. “No doubt,” Thoreau admits, “the ­simple powers of nature properly directed by man would make it healthy and paradise.”23 But, of course, the key phrase in this admission is “properly directed.” How do we direct nature properly? We should ask of ­these utopian formulas what the physicist Steven Hawking asked of scientific equations: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”24 What is it exactly that breathes goodness into our arrangements and rearrangements of pistons, lightbulbs, Tesla coils, solar panels, drones, micro­waves, and 22. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, 260. 23. Thoreau, “Paradise (To Be) Regained,” 66. 24. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), 174.

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smartphones? What makes all of this worthwhile? Why work ­toward it?

 For Thoreau, what breathes fire in any utopian aspiration is love. “Love is the wind, the tide, the waves, the sunshine. Its power is incalculable; it is many horse-­power. It never ceases, it never slacks; it can move the globe without a resting-­place; it can warm without fire; it can feed without meat; it can clothe without garments; it can shelter without roof; it can make a paradise within which w ­ ill dispense with a paradise without.”25 With love, ­there is paradise. Without love, ­there is no paradise. Love is the “motive-­power of all successful social machinery.”26 Love is a prerequisite for all utopias. “Where an angel travels it ­will be paradise all the way, but where Satan travels it w ­ ill be burning marl and cinders.”27 This paean to love may sound just as fanciful as Etzler’s to technology, but Thoreau was right to think that our finite energies might be misdirected into schemes like Etzler’s that divert us from the more realistic work that we do together ­every day. Yes, we could possibly ratchet ourselves up and up technologically, beyond the solar system, boldly ­going where no species has gone before, but we s­ houldn’t forget the work of the heart that makes our ­labor worthwhile and our lives ­today not mere stepping stones for a glorious f­ uture generation. As it is, ­we’ve underworked in this essential industry. “As the mechanical forces have not yet been generously and largely applied to make the physical world answer to the ideal, so the power of love has been but meanly and sparingly applied, as yet. It has 25. Thoreau, “Paradise (To Be) Regained,” 94. 26. Ibid. 27. Ibid., 93.

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patented only such machines as the alms­houses, the hospital, and the Bible Society, while its infinite wind is still blowing, and blowing down t­hese very structures too, from time to time.”28 ­Until machines are capable of moral efforts guided by love, u ­ ntil artificial intelligence includes genuine moral wisdom and emotional richness, we w ­ ill need to continue our inward march of pro­gress, the harder kind of pro­gress. Love is thus quite pragmatic, despite what you may have heard. Thoreau worries that we are being too idle in love’s workshop: “Still less are we accumulating its power, and preparing to act with greater energy at a f­ uture time. S ­ hall we not contribute our shares to this enterprise, then?”29 Another American phi­los­o­pher, William James, writing a half-­century ­after Thoreau’s death, stated our basic prob­lem in his lecture “Pragmatism and Common Sense.” To make the point sticky, James employed a nightmarish meta­phor, as you ­will see. It is worth quoting at some length. Galileo gave us accurate clocks and accurate artillery-­ practice; the chemists flood us with new medicines and dye-­stuffs; Ampere and Faraday have endowed us with the New York subway and with Marconi tele­grams. . . . ​The scope of the practical control of nature newly put into our hand by scientific ways of thinking vastly exceeds the scope of the old control grounded on common sense. Its rate of increase accelerates so that no one can trace the limit; one may even fear that the BEING of man may be crushed by his own powers, that his fixed nature as an organism may not prove adequate to stand the strain of the ever increasingly tremendous functions, almost divine creative functions, which his intellect ­will more and more enable him to 28. Ibid., 94. 29. Ibid.

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wield. He may drown in his wealth like a child in a bath-­ tub, who has turned on the ­water and who cannot turn it off.30

The alarm d ­ oesn’t sound any louder than that. Eden, Cockaigne, Big Rock Candy Mountain—­all our childlike fantasies of ­free play and idle time—­are liable to die with us if the bathtub fills up too fast. As James’s analogy suggests, and as Thoreau bid us, we need to mature (in love, most of all), and we need to do so quickly. 30. William James, “Pragmatism and Common Sense,” in Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), 85.


Funny Business

the workday, ideally, is punctuated by a break, an oasis of personal time that dries up much too fast. Moving from machine work, our previous chapter, into meaningless work, our next chapter, is a rough transition, so we thought it would be appropriate to take a ­little break ­here, an interlude of sorts, and consider the brighter and sillier side of Thoreau on work. Sometimes, when work is at its worst—­its most exacting, alienating, rushed—we need grim humor to be honest with ­those around us, to break through all of the toxic positivity, prim professionalism, and the artificiality of a ­human animal in the strange and difficult circumstance of being on the clock. Thoreau was an absolute master of humor. Even near the end of his life, in his last b ­ attle with lifelong tuberculosis, when his Calvinistic Aunt Louisa asked if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau joked, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”1 The minutes w ­ ill pass while we are on the job; that is a certainty. But Thoreau would like to take advantage of the fullness of time even if it means simply stealing just a moment to laugh a ­little at the absurdity of it all. If time has to kill us, the least we can do is kill time in a humorous way. We speak from experience ­here. One of us worked retail for a good number of years, and, slowly, surely, ­after ­those eternities of customer ser­vice, came to appreciate the wisdom of (or rather wisdom misattributed to) the German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer: “­There are two kinds of p ­ eople in the world. Avoid both of them.” Jokes at work, some lame, some dark, helped to make the day go faster. “If you need me, hesitate to call.” “How long have I been working for this com­pany? Ever since they threatened to fire me.” In the thick of work, crude humor helps too: “Boss makes a dollar. 1. Edward Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917), 117–118.

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I make a dime. That’s why I shit on com­pany time.” If you think Thoreau was above crude humor, think again. Thoreau was a trickster, jokester, punster, almost a Mark Twain, but dry as the Sahara in his delivery; thus Thoreau’s levity, even flippancy, is commonly missed. Thoreau played Puck of Walden Pond—Puck, that “shrewd and knavish” nature sprite, to use Shakespeare’s adjectives from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Around the time of Walden’s publication, Thoreau made a list of his faults, which included “not always earnest” and “playing with words—­getting the laugh,—­not always s­ imple, strong, and broad.”2 We find perhaps one the best examples of Thoreau’s “getting the laugh” in the first chapter of Walden. “I have watered the red huckleberry, the sand cherry and the nettle tree, the red pine and the black ash, the white grape and the yellow violet, which might have withered ­else in dry seasons.”3 Thoreau “watered” the woods of Concord well. This is comic relief in all senses. Thoreau had good reason to look for a seriousness that laughs. Let’s recount some of those reasons, some we’ve already considered. From his youth to his death at the ripe young age of forty-­four, Thoreau suffered from tuberculosis. At thirty-­three, all his teeth w ­ ere gone; he thus had the pleasures of nineteenth-­century dentures. At twenty-­six, Thoreau accidentally set three hundred acres of forest on fire, a mishap that the townspeople of Concord never forgot—­and never let Thoreau forget. At twenty-­four, Thoreau lost his older b ­ rother, John, who died of tetanus. At twenty, in 1837, Thoreau graduated from Harvard; yet that year also saw the “Panic of 1837,” that economic depression previously mentioned that left few and unappealing employment options for the recent gradu­ate. 2. Henry David Thoreau, n.d., in The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 7:7–8. 3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 17.

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We pre­sent Thoreau’s low points in reverse chronological order to emphasize the onion-­like layering of misfortune in Thoreau’s life; one tear-­inducing layer peels away to pre­ sent another tear-­inducing layer. Yet through tears, laughter is sometimes pos­si­ble. Cry-­laughing can look unhinged, and sometimes it is, but sometimes the door ­really needs to be ripped off its hinges to expose the interior as it is. Short of ­cry-­laughing at work, or just flat-­out crying, we can be humorous, since humor unhinges t­ hings just enough to give some ventilation to our spirits. Jokes disrupt the predictable, permit the impermissible, and treat our dark and painful sides lightheartedly, with a refreshing burst of impropriety. Our friend Connor told us, in this vein, about work he once did for a community tele­vi­sion station in Pinole, California. His job was to rec­ord city events, like football games, parades, and city council meetings. The city council meetings ­were the driest and dreariest. “It was difficult to pay attention ­because they went on for so long,” Connor remembers. “One way our director made it easier for us was to crack crude jokes about the board members over our headsets. The game was to not laugh, which was difficult!” Connor recognized the moral delicacy of this game. “While it seemed mean-­spirited, it actually helped us do our jobs and film who we ­were supposed to be filming. If we had nodded off or become bored, ­there was a chance we would miss an impor­tant moment and get in trou­ ble for censoring someone unintentionally.” The dark joke is necessary on occasion, though we risk violating our codes of professional conduct when we venture to whisper them to the more trustworthy of our coworkers. Of all the contradictions, a dark joke is perhaps the most vital; it is our unhappy happiness. It may be that, in the history of h ­ uman survival, dark jokes deserve as much credit for survival as hope. Or, if not as much credit, at least significant credit (and more praise

Fu n n y Business [ 77 ]

than they receive). A good dark joke is handy in emergencies. Such jokes are shared in combat zones, collapsed mines, hospitals, and on and on. Their emergency value has made the dark joke perhaps the most universal of our esoteric traditions, with millions of behind-­the-­door novitiates inducted ­every minute. One can imagine a dark joke in the mouth of someone about to be executed, or someone starving, or someone lost at sea, where hope may come off as indecent, inhumane even, but not so for the high “dark” spirit of a dark joke. Dark jokes are often keys to a deeper sincerity, not only with ­others, but with ourselves and our miseries, with the dark and indistinct dissonance in our lives. Which brings us back to “clocking in,” to the mechanical timekeeper that metes out our life at work. Naturally, t­ here are ethical fine lines in the use of dark jokes, but the abuses of the dark joke s­ houldn’t condemn the genre. Neither of us, though, are worried about the genre’s ­future. The dark joke is transfigured by condemnations of it. If you put a scarlet letter on a dark joke, it makes it darker, and the darker it becomes, the more cathartic it is to unleash it; the more cathartic, the more needed. “Dark joke”—­with its sharp consonants, ­those fanged k’s—is like the phrase “pet cobra.” It is a fatal good. It is life secreting a l­ittle venom against life for the immunization of life. Henry knew dark humor. Cape Cod, his last book, published three years a­ fter his death, brims with darkness. The book began life as Thoreau’s other books began, as journal entries translated into a series of lectures at the Concord Lyceum. Like his Lyceum lectures for what would become Walden, the audience for Henry’s Cape Cod series, as Emerson reports it, “laughed till they cried.”4 4. Ralph Waldo Emerson to Henry David Thoreau, n.d., in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 4:178.

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In the opening chapter of Cape Cod, auspiciously titled “Shipwreck,” Thoreau sets the stage for his travelogue with a dry and very dark remark: “We left Concord, Mas­sa­chu­setts, on Tuesday, October 9th, 1849. On reaching Boston, we found that the Provincetown steamer, which should have got in the day before, had not yet arrived, on account of a violent storm; and, as we noticed in the streets a handbill headed, ‘Death! one hundred and forty-­ five lives lost at Cohasset,’ we de­cided to go by way of Cohasset.”5 One hundred and forty-five lives lost at Cohasset? Let’s go t­ here. Henry’s morbid humor invites our morbid curiosity, and he knows it. He veers his travelogue into an account of corpses washed ashore, tangled in seaweed, and “filled with sand.”6 It is horrible, absolutely, and nothing can be done but grieve. Thoreau does not laugh at ­these victims, nor at the families arrived to collect the bodies of their loved ones, but at us, at the onlookers, at ­those who take in the news of such events with melodramatic affectation, when, in fact, grief ­isn’t ­there. Our “deep grief ” for t­ hese one hundred and forty-five ­people lasts an hour or a day, and then ­we’re fresh again for the next tragedy. We send our “thoughts and prayers”—­and go our merry way. Thoreau pushes us to laugh at ourselves for our social pretensions around death, since laughing may be the only way we can be honest with ourselves. In Cape Cod, Thoreau uses dark humor to cut through the roots of American history, at the American origin story of virtuous pilgrims founding “a city upon a hill.” Henry and his traveling companion, William Ellery Channing, considered the pilgrim story “­under our umbrellas”7 while walking 5. Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; or, Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, ed. Robert F. Sayre, The Library of Amer­i­ca (New York: The Library of Amer­i­ca, 1985), 852. 6. Ibid., 853. 7. Ibid., 877.

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the stormy beaches of Eastham, a town at the “forearm”8 of Cape Cod (“Cape Cod is the bared and bended arm of Mas­ sa­chu­setts,” writes Thoreau, forever “boxing with northeast storms”9). The two friends read Reverend Enoch Pratt’s 1844 Comprehensive History, Ecclesiastical and Civil, of Eastham, Wellfleet and Orleans, and Thoreau, citing Pratt’s book in Cape Cod, sums up one of the lessons they learned: When the committee from Plymouth had purchased the territory of Eastham of the Indians, “it was demanded, who laid claim to Billingsgate?” which was understood to be all that part of the Cape north of what they had purchased. “The answer was, ­there was not any who owned it. ‘Then,’ said the committee, ‘that land is ours.’ The Indians answered that it was.” This was a remarkable assertion and admission. The Pilgrims appear to have regarded themselves as Not Any’s representatives. Perhaps this was the first instance of that quiet way of “speaking for” a place not yet occupied, or at least not improved as much as it may be, which their descendants have practiced, and are still practicing so extensively. Not Any seems to have been the sole proprietor of all Amer­i­ca before the Yankees. But history says that, when the Pilgrims had held the lands of Billingsgate many years, at length “appeared an Indian, who styled himself Lieutenant Anthony,” who laid claim to them, and of him they bought them. Who knows but a Lieutenant Anthony may be knocking at the door of the White House some day? At any rate, I know that if you hold a t­ hing unjustly, t­ here w ­ ill surely be the devil to pay at last.10 8. Ibid., 939. 9. Ibid., 851–852. 10. Ibid., 878.

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Thoreau mocks American opportunism, all the grubby land grabbing and privatization of wildernesses and the bringing-­ to-­heel of ­peoples and lands. The thought of all that history of grabbiness crashing down, of Lieutenant Anthony strolling up to the White House and unspooling the ­whole American enterprise, is a joke that rips the heart out of the American story. Remember, though, Thoreau’s audience at the Lyceum “laughed till they cried.” Humor can ease the pain of recognition, a pain that may other­wise trigger the instinct to look away, or worse, treat with petulant anger the painful symptom only and not the under­ lying condition. Dark jokes can help us face dark truths. The last two lines of Cape Cod speak to our need for storms, snows, and darkness to help us heal: “A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit [Cape Cod]; a light-­house or a fisherman’s hut the true h ­ otel. A man may stand t­ here and put all Amer­ i­ca ­behind him.”11 The last line, of course, is a geographic pun. Think of that: Thoreau ends his darkest book with a pun, a punchline.

 Endings, in books, jobs, and life, can be funny, even ­those not intended to be funny. The last paragraph in Walden reads, “I do not say that John or Jonathan w ­ ill realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. ­There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”12 That ending is not funny in itself, but we, the authors, find it 11. Ibid., 1039. 12. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 325.

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humorous that the two names addressed at the very end of Walden just happen to be our first names: John (Kaag) and Jonathan (van Belle). We enjoyed it so much that we made it the epigraph of this book. Obviously and unfortunately, Thoreau is not referring to us h ­ ere. Thoreau is referring to John Bull and ­Brother Jonathan, the national personifications of Britain and the United States, respectively. Still, it is hard not to hear a customized admonition in this combo of names. What’s more, Thoreau ­gently claims that neither John nor Jonathan “­will realize all this.” We ­wholeheartedly agree. We are just two random men, with our own myriad prob­lems, debts, deadlines, ­mental blocks, and work anx­i­eties. Are we awake to the day? Mostly no. But the zest of Thoreau’s work, comparable in zestiness to Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., helps us wake up a l­ittle more each day. What the novelist and critic Jay McInerney wrote of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. applies equally to Thoreau: “He is a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion.”13 If Thoreau is dark, he is also light. 13. Jay McInerney, “Still Asking the Embarrassing Questions,” New York Times, September 9, 1990.


Meaningless Work

this was the hardest chapter to write. Just thinking about it—­m eaningless work—­led us to flirt with our own moments of “quiet desperation.” But then we asked, “What would Henry do?” and we remembered that we w ­ ere not alone in this feeling, and carried on. In the winter of 1843, a year a­ fter his b ­ rother’s death, and battling a bout of ill health and apathy, Thoreau admitted, “What am I at pre­ sent? A diseased bundle of nerves standing between time and eternity like a withered leaf that still hangs shivering on its stem.”1 In a journal entry from June 11, 1855, Henry writes, “­After four or five months of invalidity and worthlessness, I begin to feel some stirrings of life in me.”2 Think about that: almost half a year of “worthlessness.” Workdays come and go, time passes on, and it is so easy to let it pass you by without making a meaningful mark. Henry, the consummate worker, the one we look to in understanding the meaning of work, often fretted about its potential worthlessness. We suspect that this fretting is at least in part what kept him on the move. We appreciate that framing meaningless work in this way sets it up as a “first-­world” prob­lem. At least most first-­ worlders get to choose which job to work and how to live with it. Many less fortunate workers are forced into meaningless l­abor, and this may be the real crisis that deserves to be addressed in a chapter like this one. We w ­ ill try our best to take it on, but we ­will also address the disturbing existential vacuum that haunts so many white-­collar workers, individuals 1. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, January 1843, in The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Elizabeth Hall Witherell, Robert Sattelmeyer, and Thomas Blanding (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 1981), 1:447. 2. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, June 11, 1855, in The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 7:417.

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who are relatively ­free to choose where to work and where to tap significance. Thoreau held that t­ here is a distinct difference between meaningful work and meaningless drudgery. Work involves a definite objective and vital interest on the part of the worker. Drudgery, on the other hand, is neither in­ter­est­ing nor directed to an end in view or i­ magined. It should be said, straightaway, that forced tasks, jobs that one is absolutely compelled to do, run the very high risk of being meaningless, for the sole reason that they are not freely chosen. For this reason alone, the question of meaningless work should come hand-­in-­hand with a question regarding social justice. Let us explain. Thoreau’s protest of slavery turned on an issue that twentieth-­century phi­los­o­pher Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty,” the freedom from direct bondage.3 But a deeper critique of slavery, one that Thoreau routinely reflected upon, revolved around the nature of work in underpinning a meaningful life. What was needed in the United States was also possibility, liberty, the ability to cultivate interests, the opportunity to set meaningful goals, and then to pursue them for the sake of happiness. This laborious pursuit is often forgotten in the tale of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but it never should be. Cast in a slightly dif­fer­ ent light, one of the central wrongs of slavery in nineteenth-­ century Amer­i­ca was that it forced millions of p ­ eople to assume a disproportionate amount of absolutely meaningless work. This is not to suggest that the lives of slaves themselves ­were meaningless, but that their work was especially difficult to make meaningful; before we hand-­wring about our own strug­gles to find meaning, that needs to be said very clearly. 3. Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

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 Another difficulty in addressing the concept of meaningless work, in addition to the fact that social and po­liti­cal forces often dictate it, is the unsettling fact that the meaning of work is subjectively felt: what might be meaningful to us (we both like to take old toothbrushes to the grouting of our tubs) might be completely meaningless to you. T ­ here might be some consensus in modern corporate Amer­i­ca that holding “meetings-­about-­ meetings” is not the best pos­si­ble use of time, but phi­los­o­ phers need to keep open the possibility that ­there might be an alternative universe in which one would find “meetings-­about-­ meetings-­about-­meetings” perfectly satisfying. Let’s hold this theoretical possibility in abeyance for a minute and return to the real world, the world of Thoreau. The meaningful work that he undertook in life was often viewed with something between fascination and contempt. The Concord farmers who ­were his neighbors often had no idea what he was ­doing, much less an inkling of why he was ­doing it. This meant that they routinely regarded his work as meaningless. “Why, one morning,” reports a Concord farmer to the author Mary Adams French, who conveys the farmer’s story in her Memories of a Sculptor’s Wife, I went out in my field across t­here to the river, and ­there, beside that ­little old mud pond, was standing Da-­ a-­vid Henry, and he ­wasn’t doin’ nothin’ but just standin’ ­there—­lookin’ at that pond, and when I came back at noon, ­there he was standin’ with his hands ­behind him just lookin’ down into that pond, and a­ fter dinner when I come back again if ­there wan’t Da-­a-­vid standin’ ­there just like as if he had been ­there all day, gazin’ down into that pond, and I s­ topped and looked at him and I says,

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“Da-­a-­vid Henry, what air you a-­doin’?” And he d ­ idn’t turn his head and he ­didn’t look at me. He kept on lookin’ down at that pond, and he said, as if he was thinkin’ about the stars in the heavens, “Mr. Murray, I’m a-­studyin’—­the habits—of the bullfrog!” And ­there that darned fool had been standin’—­the livelong day—­a-­studyin’—­the habits—of the bull-­frog!4

Silly old Henry. What a complete fool. He could have taken the time to make some well-­earned money, or fix a fence or two, or add another cord to his woodpile. But t­ here he was just ­a-­studying bullfrogs. Similar observations ­were made about Henry’s farming methods—­without fertilizer—­because manuring a field often required the hiring of unnecessary help. And then ­there w ­ ere t­ hose completely stupid holes he dug in the ice at Walden (which allowed him to be the first to develop an underwater topography of the region). The farmer ­wouldn’t have seen t­ hose holes as particularly meaningful e­ ither. But they ­were. And by the way, so was that bullfrog-­studying. In his Alcott Memoirs, a surprisingly detailed account of the life of a child in Concord, Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis, who interacted with the Transcendentalists on a daily basis, paints a portrait of Thoreau at Walden that, we think, shows the profound meaning of Henry’s “meaningless” work: He [Thoreau] was talking to Mr. Alcott of the wild flowers in Walden woods when, suddenly stopping, he said: “Keep very still and I w ­ ill show you my f­ amily.” Stepping quickly outside the cabin door, he gave a low and curious whistle; immediately a woodchuck came ­running t­ owards him from a nearby burrow. With varying note, yet still low 4. Mary Adams French, Memories of a Sculptor’s Wife (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928), 94–95.

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and strange, a pair of gray squirrels ­were summoned and approached him fearlessly. With still another note, several birds, including two crows, flew ­towards him, one of the crows nestling upon his shoulder. I remember it was the crow resting close to his head that made the most vivid impression upon me, knowing how fearful of man this bird is. He fed them all from his hand, taking food from his pocket, and petted them ­gently before our delighted gaze; and then dismissed them by dif­fer­ent whistling, always strange and low and short, each l­ ittle wild t­ hing departing instantly at hearing its special signal.5

The bullfrog might not have come out on this occasion, but it was prob­ably the second act. Studying the habits of bullfrogs, woodchucks, grey squirrels, crows, and hundreds of other creatures made pos­si­ble this fantastical Snow-­White-­ like display, which so fascinated the Alcott c­ hildren and young Frederick. For the Concord farmer, Mr. Murray, Thoreau’s gaze into nature was meaningless, but contrast this “meaningless gaze” with the “delighted gaze” of the Alcott c­ hildren, who, it is easily ­imagined, must have suddenly come alive to a fresh and lucid appreciation of the ecosystem all around them. Both of us have spent enough time in the Pacific Northwest to know that many workers occupy their days with proj­ects that might not ­matter to workers in the urban centers of the Northeast, or, for that m ­ atter, to Western neighbors who come from dif­fer­ent communities with dif­fer­ent values. Take, for example, Zuriel, Jonathan’s wife, and the director of the Portland Urban Coyote Proj­ect, who once ran a PUCP outreach t­ able at Sunday Trailways, an event showcasing the Water­house Trail in 5. Frederick Llewellyn Hovey Willis, Alcott Memoirs: Posthumously Compiled from Papers, Journals and Memoranda of the Late Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915), 91–92.

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Beaverton, Oregon, and offering entertainment, games, and, most importantly, environmental education. Zuriel’s ­table, next to the more well-known Oregon State University’s Master Gardener’s t­ able, had materials related to the coyote proj­ect: books, sightings map, brochures. A man with a more rural air s­ topped to ask what this proj­ect was all about, and Zuriel explained, “We collect and map coyote sightings in the Portland metro area to study human-­coyote interaction.” He looked at her like she was insane; he had a hard time incorporating the fact that her research involved simply collecting instances in which a person saw a coyote. “I can imagine that had to do with where he lived,” Zuriel said. “He mentioned that he saw coyotes all the time and likely lived in the more rural part of the neighborhood, which opens up into agricultural land, so the idea of reporting when he saw a coyote was laughable—­because it was so frequent and unremarkable.” As Thoreau with his bullfrogs seemed to the skeptical farmer Mr. Murray, Zuriel, to this random man, was engaged in meaningless work, spending “the livelong day—­a-­studyin’—­ the habits—of the coyote!”

 Now, it might be true that what counts as meaningful is subjective, but let’s assume that ­there is some sort of agreement on the existence of what might be called a “Level of Unacceptable Inanity” (LUI for short) beyond which a task is deemed more meaningless than meaningful. If you are having trou­ble getting your head around this idea, imagine, one day, while looking for jobs online, you found the following listings: “hand-­counting the number of pores on 10,000 oranges”; “singing the alphabet 100,000 times back-­to-­back”; “saying the same word, ‘spaghetti,’ for three years straight (and not in that

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pray-­without-­ceasing kind of way).” For most of us, t­ hese tasks would transgress the LUI, and we might do our best to avoid them on the basis of their meaninglessness. Thoreau was onto this and judged many, many tasks that he encountered in his society as potentially problematic. In “Life without Princi­ple,” Thoreau tells of “a coarse and boisterous money-­making fellow in the outskirts of our town who is ­going to build a blank-­wall ­under the hill along the edge of his meadow.”6 Why is this money-­making man ­doing this? Thoreau explains: “The powers have put this into his head to keep him out of mischief.”7 The work, in other words, was useless, except for keeping the man out of trou­ble. This boisterous wall-­building fellow asked Henry to help him; “he wishes me to spend three weeks digging ­there with him.”8 Thoreau considered his options. If I do this, most ­will commend me as an industrious and hard-­working man; but if I choose to devote myself to certain l­abors which yield more real profit, though but l­ittle money they may be inclined to look on me as an idler. Nevertheless, as I do not need the police of meaningless ­labor to regulate me, and do not see anything absolutely praiseworthy in this fellow’s undertaking any more than in many an enterprise of our own or foreign governments, however amusing it may be to him or them, I prefer to finish my education at a dif­fer­ent school.9

It is in­ter­est­ing to consider what made this job so very objectionable to Thoreau. First of all, as we w ­ ill address in our 6. Henry David Thoreau, “Life without Princi­ple,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 347. 7. Ibid. 8. Ibid. 9. Ibid., 347–348.

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chapter on coworkers, not all of them are ­great, and this boisterous one seems rather grating. Second, and more decisively, Thoreau thought it was bad enough that he was expected to mea­sure walls and fences as a surveyor, much less build them; walls w ­ ere artificial contrivances, dictated by a society obsessed with property owner­ship. Build a wall? No thank you, said Henry. I hate the pre­sent modes of living and getting a living. Farming and shopkeeping and working at a trade or profession are all odious to me. I should relish getting my living in a ­simple, primitive fashion. The life which society proposes to me to live is so artificial and complex—­bolstered up on many weak supports, and sure to topple down at last—­that no man surely can ever be inspired to live it.10

This is a dramatic claim, holding that some forms of living are so abysmal that nobody, surely, can be inspired by them. Thoreau had his limits. The way that Henry circumscribed meaningless work is instructive. Meaningless work was “artificial”; in other words, it did ­little to provide the “vital heat” of life, the necessities that Thoreau articulates at the beginning of Walden. By that standard, most extremely well-­paying jobs might also be very meaningless according to Thoreau. Similarly, jobs that reflect unnecessary complexity (­owners of factories that support the production of sequin blazers) might have questionable existential value. The task at hand was simply unnecessary, and such tasks proliferated in the modern era. Think about Article 21 of Louis XIV’s House Rules (revised in 1681): “His Majesty’s meals s­ hall be brought in thus: two of the guards ­will walk in first, then the doorkeeper, the maître d’hôtel carry­ing his staff, the gentleman who serves the 10. Thoreau, journal entry, November 5, 1855, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 8:7.

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bread, the controller-­general, the controller’s clerk, the squire of the kitchen, and the keeper of ­table settings.”11 Maybe you would love to be “the gentleman who serves the bread” or “the keeper of ­table settings.” All the pomp and circumstance of buttering Louis XIV’s bread may appeal to you. Thoreau, however, would comment that your desires w ­ ere prob­ably rather misguided and hinged on artifice and superfluity. More than anything, Thoreau avoided jobs with “weak supports,” which are difficult to be justified beyond a mere monetary accounting. As a preview to the discussion of meaningful work: each of us are given such a small amount of time in life that we are tasked with giving a good account—­what the ancient Greeks called an apologia—of the duties we perform. And Thoreau was enough of a phi­los­o­pher to believe that any good account of work requires “supports” or rational justification. Would you do meaningless work for the right price? Perhaps you already are, or perhaps it feels as though you are. How much money would be enough? Thoreau repeatedly warned that no amount of money was worth misspending your life. Henry also warned us that once-­meaningful work can slowly become meaningless, humdrum, routine, mindless. Indeed, even the most meaningful undertakings, like Thoreau’s experiment at Walden in deliberate living, can become commonplace. In deciding to resign his post in the woods, he explained, “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went ­there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a par­tic­u­lar route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.”12 11. As quoted in Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to De­cadence: 1500 to the Pre­ sent (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 288. 12. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 313.

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The experience of “getting in a rut” at work was one that Thoreau knew well, not ­because he subjected himself to so many stultifying jobs, but ­because he was almost preternaturally sensitive to the inner rhythms of life, perhaps especially his own; he was, at the very least, when life and work began to lose its zest and significance.

 In the end, what should you do in the face of meaningless work? As we already tried to explain, with the help of Thoreau: you could resign, as many of the young men and w ­ omen of Thoreau’s community began to do in the early 1850s. In 1852, Thoreau observes his withering neighborhood, once teeming with farmwork: [N]one of the farmer’s sons are willing to be farmers, and the apple trees are decayed, and the cellar-­holes are more numerous than the h ­ ouses, and the rails are covered with lichen. . . . ​ I say, standing ­there and seeing ­these ­things, I cannot realize that this is that hopeful young Amer­i­ca which is famous throughout the world for its activity and enterprise.13

Thoreau w ­ asn’t the only young person to search for a change of occupation. Much to his chagrin, he w ­ asn’t that special. He headed for Walden, while most of his peers resigned their traditional jobs around Concord and ­either went to the city in search of employment or headed West in search of some adventure. But they resigned nonetheless. The bleak scenery Thoreau described in 1852 continued well into 1853, the year another young man, Herman Melville, 13. Thoreau, journal entry, January 27, 1852, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 3:237–238.

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who had just turned thirty-­four, (anonymously) published his famous short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” which bleeds with the exhaustion and pessimism of a new generation of workers. Bartleby, the story’s titular character, is a low-­ranking copyist at a Wall Street firm. He is a good and productive employee, u ­ ntil one day when he simply gives up. To e­ very work request, Bartleby answers, “I would prefer not to.” Even to nonwork requests, Bartleby answers, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby simply numbs out. His time is spent staring at a brick wall. Eventually, Bartleby just opts out of living, d ­ ying of starvation ­because he “would prefer not to” eat. The story ends with a sigh and a whimper: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”14 In the face of meaningless work, one can sometimes flee and search for significance elsewhere. Thoreau’s description of the land and the vacant farms, however, gives us serious pause: it is morose, bittersweet, almost nostalgic for a time when Henry, and Henry alone, could criticize the daily grind of “average folk.” He ­didn’t like it so much when the farmers he once criticized de­cided not to be farmers. This would be consonant with much of Thoreau’s writings: he liked to pull the bandwagon ­until it got too heavy. Then he would turn around and complain about the load. The 1850s ­were a time of occupational flux for most of Amer­i­ca. ­People w ­ ere in search of “better lives,” which sometimes entailed abandoning their old ones. The melancholy fact about resignation, however, is that no ­matter how many jobs you quit, how many ­houses you sell, how many new coworkers you meet, you w ­ ill always only ever be yourself. As Emerson said, your “­giant” follows you wherever you go, and the g ­ iant is called “myself.”15 Now, this seriously 14. Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-­Street,” Proj­ ect Gutenberg, https://www​.­gutenberg​.­org​/­ebooks​/­11231. 15. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-­Reliance,” in Self-­Reliance and Other Essays, ed. Stanley Applebaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1993), 35.

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complicates the issue of simply leaving one job for another, or being too sensitive about the meaningless work you choose to undertake, or catastrophizing that spending a bit of time on meaningless work w ­ ill completely vitiate your meaningful life. Despite all of Henry’s bluster and seeming disgust for capitalism and “making a living” in the monetary sense of the word, a more cool-­headed Thoreauvian of the postmodern age can, we think, prevail—­and without d ­ oing too much injustice to the firebrand of Walden. Modern adult life can be, we know, insufferably boring. And we are utterly convinced that we d ­ on’t know the half of it. Neither did Thoreau. We are not bragging, but many ­people are fated to much more dull and prosaic lives than we are. They ­will never get to Walden, or find their Walden, and if they read this book, they ­will only have time for half of it, which is why we want to speak to them now. The meaningless work that you do in life does not, ever, make you a bad person, not even in the eyes of Henry David Thoreau. It ­doesn’t make your life on the w ­ hole meaningless. That is always the danger in t­ hese ­things, the moments of life, but thinking to yourself, “Shit, I would rather not do this,” is not some sin against Henry the Holy ­Father. If ­there is a “point” to Thoreau’s philosophy of work, it is that you have at least a ­little choice about how you work. Large swaths of life consist, in the main, of drudgery. Grocery shopping, bill paying, parenting—­don’t get us started. What should we do with this fact? ­Running away is not always a good option. Thinking differently about the work that you do sometimes is. We ­will just speak for ourselves. Being phi­los­o­ phers can often feel like a surprisingly pointless pursuit. You chase ­after a bunch of esoteric ideas, ­until you can pin them down on paper. Then you write something that only a handful of ­people w ­ ill read. You teach but often find yourself resenting

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the time it takes away from the very impor­tant papers that no one ­will read. And then, as the Frenchman Albert Camus says, in his The Myth of Sisyphus, the “stage sets” collapse and you are left with a question tinged with amazement and bewilderment: “Why?”16 Why bother at all? Maybe we should just quit and take up gardening our own vegetables. But then something struck us, which David Foster Wallace (whose dad was a phi­los­o­pher) said: the impor­tant choices in life consist in making conscious decisions about where to find meaning and what to think about. Think about it this way: the time you spend at meaningless work is the opportunity to reframe it in meaningful ways. For example, phi­los­o­phers might stop thinking exclusively about the g ­ rand ideas that are impenetrable for anyone but themselves and instead think on the comment the ancient phi­los­o­pher Porphyry wrote in a letter to his wife, Marcella, a comment that we think Thoreau held true: “Vain is the word of that phi­los­o­pher who can ease no mortal trou­ble. As ­there is no profit in the physician’s art ­unless it cure the diseases of the body, so ­there is none in philosophy, u ­ nless it expel the trou­bles of the soul.”17 This is no Pollyannaish finger-­wagging, just the suggestion from two relative novices that we can all transform meaningless work into something just a bit more meaningful, and just by the power of our own a­ ngles of vision. That is enough. Notice, we d ­ idn’t have to resign our posts as phi­los­o­phers, but it was pos­si­ble to turn something alienating into something meaningful. Now, this has perhaps been the weakest example in history (phi­los­ o­phers who turn philosophy into something meaningful?), but

16. Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus” and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 12. 17. Porphyry, Porphyry the Phi­los­o­pher to His Wife Marcella, trans. Alice Zimmern (London: George Redway, 1896), 76.

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we ­were just trying to make a point with which every­one could feel comfortable. So instead, let’s get real. John’s m ­ other, whom you met in the chapter on manual work, now lives at a nursing home. She ­can’t walk anymore. She also c­ an’t control her bladder (she’s OK with us telling you that). Being helped to the bathroom day ­after day is extremely monotonous and humiliating for her. This monotonous and humiliating work has no promise of improving her condition. This is end-­of-­life care. This work cannot fix anything. It does not restore anything. H ­ ere, ­there is no meaning in a promotion. ­There is no thrill of the bonus, the benefits package, or the retirement party. In ­these ­simple senses, this work is meaningless. Care work of this kind is too often undervalued. To be clear, John does not do it most days. But on the days he does, he can (if he chooses) think about the work slightly differently, about the fact that end-­of-­life care work seems the most meaningless b ­ ecause it is, ultimately, the most futile. But futile and meaningful are not opposites. Futile work can be the most meaningful to us. “­There is no remedy for love but to love more,” wrote Thoreau, expressing the futility in looking elsewhere for help when it comes to our love and caring.18 ­There may be no deeper form of deliberate living than ­here, with a loved one at the end of her life. At her best, Becky, a former teacher, transforms this humiliation into a final lesson for her adult son about the inevitabilities of life. 18. Thoreau, journal entry, July 25, 1839, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 1:88.


Immoral Work

“do you think I am a good person?” When you teach ethics long enough, a student w ­ ill eventually knock on your office door at nine in the morning—­ sometimes in tears—­and ask you this question. You are obliged to open your door and comfort them. Obviously, the answer is “prob­ably not”: most ­people would like to think that their lives follow some definite ethical guidelines, but most p ­ eople are also frequently deluded. We know this from firsthand experience. So did Thoreau. Thoreau’s life reflects moral inconsistencies and missteps—­just like our own—­but through it all he tried to align his work life with something like a moral code that can be articulated and used as some framework for the business of living. Henry would prob­ably object to creating Thoreauvian commandments to guide us on the job, but he is not around to stop us, so ­here we go: Thou shalt work “in good faith.” Thou shalt not impinge on the freedom of ­others. Thou shalt not willfully harm. Thou shalt not willfully steal or destroy. Thou shalt not put on airs at work. Sounds ­simple, right? But the simplest t­ hings in life are often the most impossible to achieve, at least in part b ­ ecause they are so damn easy to overlook. Let’s start with working “in good faith.” Thoreau was not a traditionally religious man. He d ­ idn’t go to church and worked instead of resting on the Sabbath. So working in “good faith” has nothing to do with being pious, so to speak. “Good faith” is a term that serves as a counterpoint to what the twentieth-­century existentialist phi­los­op ­ her Jean-­Paul Sartre called “bad faith.”1 Bad faith, in a nutshell, is the refusal 1. See especially part 1, chapter 2, “Bad Faith,” in Jean-­Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1956).

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to recognize your f­ree choice in e­ very act you make in life. If what is most essential to us as h ­ uman beings is freedom, as the existentialists held, then “bad faith” is telling the worst sort of lie about the very nature of who you are. A c­ entury before Jean Paul Sartre helped coin the term, Thoreau was already speaking out against “bad faith,” our almost unconscious tendency to relinquish responsibility for the way we live and the way we work. If you say that you “have to go to work,” you are speaking in bad faith. If you follow your boss’s ­orders mindlessly ­because “you have to,” you are acting in bad faith. If you join a profession or take a job solely ­because of the inertia of a situation, or b ­ ecause of the f­ amily into which you are born, you are living in bad faith. The farms that surrounded Thoreau’s Concord w ­ ere large f­ amily farms. Many of them ­were inherited from one generation to the next, which sowed the seeds of bad faith for a countless number of farmers: I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, h ­ ouses, barns, c­ attle, and farming tools; for t­ hese are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they ­were called to ­labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born?2

­These young farmers w ­ ere born with the expectation of farming. From their perspective, they w ­ ere not born into a field of possibility that they could explore at their own risk and 2. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 3.

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their own reward. They w ­ ere, from the time that they reached their teenage years, bound to the soil that their f­ athers and grand­ fathers had turned. But Thoreau’s point, consonant with the existentialists that he would inspire, was that t­ hese farmers had enslaved themselves. It is true that as soon as we are born we are pitching ­toward the grave, but according to Thoreau, we should use the intervening years to live freely. Perhaps you think that this is just about Emersonian self-­reliance, but it’s not, or at least not entirely. It is, surprisingly, about work and the task of becoming a moral agent. In 1848, Thoreau wrote to H.G.O. Blake, “It is a momentous fact that a man may be good, or he may be bad; his life may be true, or it may be false; it may be e­ ither a shame or a glory to him. The good man builds himself up; the bad man destroys himself. But what­ever we do we must do confidently.”3 Good or bad, we should have the moral courage to own our works. To assume “confident” authorship of your job might make it meaningful to you (“I take pride in my work”), but the byproduct of such owner­ship is responsibility. This is why “good faith” is a keystone in moral work. Moral responsibility is usually confused with simply following ­orders or fulfilling one’s duty, but responsibility precedes ­these acts; it is the willingness to say that you have chosen a par­tic­u­lar path. In Thoreau’s words, in an essay on Sir Walter Raleigh, “A man is not to be mea­sured by the virtue of his described actions or the wisdom of his expressed thoughts merely, but by that ­free character he is, and is felt to be, ­under all circumstances.”4 Recently, we chatted with a real-­estate mogul (a billionaire 3. Henry David Thoreau to H.G.O. Blake, May 2, 1848, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 1, 1834–1848, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2013), 369–370, emphasis added. 4. Henry David Thoreau, Sir Walter Raleigh (Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1905), 83.

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r­ eally), who admitted that he never ­really had a choice about what to become, at least not professionally speaking. “My ­father would have killed me had I left the business,” the seventy-­year-­old remarked. He had made some “good deals” in his life and some “bad deals,” but the prob­lem, as he saw it (as would Thoreau), was that he had not taken owner­ship of any of his deals. He had been living out a script not of his own making. Meaningless, perhaps, but more importantly, potentially immoral. Why? When we asked the mogul who was responsible for the deals that ­were made in his life, he paused: “I d ­ on’t r­ eally know. The business, I guess. My f­ amily? I am not sure.” The point is easier to recognize in large B2C (Business-­ to-­Consumer) companies, ­those that sell a ser­vice or product directly to consumers; most of them are filled with ASRs (Account Sales Representatives), who live the life of a worker ant, governed by sales scripts they do not write, procedures they do not endorse, and bosses they do not know. Patty, who works the floors of a large distribution center, confessed, “I have no idea who is responsible for ­doing what we do. I’m not.” This strange existential situation is at the core of modern alienation, but it opens the door to a problematic moral situation of the gravest sort, in which systems, institutions, and companies can operate without accountability. More crucially, this alienation can lead ­people to lose their sense of their own freedom in a given situation, and therefore of their own personal accountability.

 Working in bad faith is bad: it was, for the Transcendentalists, a sin against the nature of the self as a f­ ree being, and it jeopardized moral responsibility. But one can participate in jobs that are worse—­much, much worse. Thoreau recognized a type

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of work that overtly sacrificed the freedom of ­others, work that lined the pockets of overseers and bosses who perpetuated this subjugation. In the 1840s, many of ­these “bosses” ­were slave-­ holders. “The United States,” Thoreau wrote, “have a coffle of four millions of slaves. They are determined to keep them in this condition; and Mas­sa­chu­setts is one of the confederated overseers to prevent their escape.”5 In his life, Thoreau performed many jobs for ­free, but one of the more dangerous ones was participating in the Under­ground Railroad. It is the stuff of legend that the Walden cabin served as a ­waystation for runaway slaves. It’s a nice thought—­but it ­didn’t happen. The truth is less romantic and more heroic: Thoreau routinely escorted escaping slaves on the northbound trains headed for the border. He funded them, clothed them, h ­ oused them (at his s­ ister’s h ­ ouse), and sent them on their way. L ­ ittle documentation can be found of Henry’s participation in shuttling t­ hese “criminals” to freedom, save for a reflection in Walden of “one real runaway slave, among the rest, whom I helped to forward t­ oward the northstar.”6 For Henry, f­ ree work often entailed securing the in­de­pen­dence of ­others. And this work was never completed, at least not in Henry’s life: “When a sixth of the population of a nation which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty are slaves, and a ­whole country [Mexico] is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize. What makes this duty the more urgent is the fact that the country so overrun is not our own, but ours is the invading army.”7 5. Henry David Thoreau, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 208. 6. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 147. 7. Henry David Thoreau, “Re­sis­tance to Civil Government [Civil Disobedience],” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, 149.

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Slavery, at least in one sense, would come to an end with Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Thoreau, however, was prescient in predicting that other forms of forced ­labor would continue into our modern age. Indeed, signs of compelled ­labor could be found on the shores of Walden Pond.

 He lived on an acre just above Walden Pond. He had a small garden, survived off the land, and enjoyed the wild apples that still grew around Concord, Mas­sa­chu­setts, in the nineteenth ­century.8 He stayed near Walden b ­ ecause it was h ­ ere that he could be most ­free. His name was not Henry David Thoreau. Brister Freeman was a Black man, one of the original inhabitants of Walden Woods. Freeman fought in the Revolution, and afterward “declared his in­de­pen­dence through his surname.” Then, to further “establish his in­de­pen­dent identity, he bought an acre on the hill north of Walden Pond, ‘Brister’s Hill.’ ”9 ­Today, Walden is preserved as a state park and is a Registered National Historic Landmark, and so long as visitors can find parking, they come and go as they please— as did Thoreau—­but many of his neighbors ­couldn’t. Henry would want us to remember t­ hose men and w ­ omen, largely unacknowledged by history and exploited by a nation, who ­were confined to this paradisiacal corner of the earth. It was, indeed, a sanctuary, but for many of Thoreau’s companions, freedom at work was narrowly circumscribed. Their world 8. This section was adapted from John Kaag and Clancy Martin, “At Walden, Thoreau W ­ asn’t R ­ eally Alone with Nature,” New York Times, July 10, 2017, https://­www​.­nytimes​.­com​/­2017​/­07​/­10​/­opinion​/­thoreaus​-­invisible​-­neighbors​ -­at​-­walden​.­html. 9. Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 200.

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was, according to the historian Elise Lemire, the “Black Walden,” a place of not-­so-­quiet desperation.10 For consumers of conventional history, it is easy enough to fall into the impression that Thoreau was the only person at Walden, that the pond was a pristine tract of wilderness. It ­wasn’t. Walden was just beyond the bounds of civilized convention—­which meant that it was a place for exploited workers and the outcasts of modern capital. Thoreau knew this, and he willingly lived among them, ­those who had been barred from the inner life of many wealthy suburbs of Boston. The self-­imposed austerity that we often associate with Thoreau’s tree-­hugging ways was, in fact, a means of understanding ­those individuals who had to eke out a meager existence on the outskirts of society. This does not make Thoreau a saint, but it does suggest an intimate connection between Thoreau’s retreat to the woods and his ability to understand ­those suffering ­under the conditions of oppression. So who exactly w ­ ere Thoreau’s neighbors? T ­ hese individuals embodied the fraught history of race and ­labor in the Amer­i­cas. Brister Freeman’s ­sister, Zilpah White, was also a freed slave. ­After the Declaration of In­de­pen­dence was defended, she lived on the edge of Thoreau’s famous bean field, the place where he toiled for two years in the hopes of realizing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “self-­reliance,” the rare and difficult act of supporting oneself. Zilpah White did it without fanfare for next to nothing. She wove linen and made brooms for a living. Arsonists burned her h ­ ouse down in 1813. She managed to escape the fire, but her dog, cat, and chickens died. She rebuilt her home. But her life—­and life for w ­ omen like her—­didn’t have much in common with any romantic ideals of the state of nature. 10. Elise V ­ irginia Lemire, Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Mas­sa­chu­setts (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).

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And then ­there ­were the pale-­faced, redheaded citizens of Walden Woods who ­didn’t quite get to be white: the Irish. The Irish immigrants who came to the United States in the first half of the nineteenth c­ entury w ­ ere, for the most part, ghettoized in the borderlands of society. Thoreau, however, sustained long and meaningful relationships with the many Irish immigrants who came to live and work on the railroad line near Walden. Thoreau met an ailing Irish ditchdigger named Hugh Coyle and offered to show him a clean spring that ran near Brister’s Hill. But the old man was too sick to make the short trip. He, like so many Irish working poor, drank himself to death in abject poverty. This is always the flip side of modern de­cadence, the collateral damage of a system that perpetuates immoral work. We know: this is less than fun to talk about, but the fact remains that the vast majority of p ­ eople who have time to read this sort of book are not like Coyle or White or Freeman—­and so we all need to ask w ­ hether we are part of the tortures that they endured. Thoreau recognized that he had e­ very advantage; he also knew that the disadvantaged went, generally speaking, unnoticed by ­people of privilege. In other words, many workers lose their freedom in the course of the daily grind, and their work supports a much smaller number of o ­ wners and bosses who secure their own freedom by hiring ­others to do their work. This is hard to see—­even initially—­and harder to keep in view. Social justice is in no small part a m ­ atter of counteracting this myopia, of recognizing the suffering of o ­ thers hidden in plain sight. For Thoreau, what keeps the rich from understanding the plight of the poor is, in part, the fact of their richness, their stuff: not just meta­phor­ically or conceptually, but literally. It’s hard to understand the inner lives of o ­ thers if y­ ou’re always exercising your own awesome freedom—by ­going shopping or looking ­after your ­house­hold business or rushing off to parties.

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To “live deliberately,” in Thoreau’s words, was to wrest oneself from the diversions of this rat race, to understand the difference between the seemingly urgent m ­ atters of spending and acquiring and the truly significant ones of caring and thinking. “Do not trou­ble yourself much to get new t­ hings,” Thoreau instructs us. “Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.”11 To be ­free from the distractions of modern life—of the endlessly diverting display of the ordinary, social world of stuff, stuff, and more stuff—­allowed a person to focus and think. What could we think if worldly possessions d ­ idn’t occupy our thoughts? What and whom could we attend to if we s­ topped attending only to ourselves? Perhaps we could notice how many of our neighbors are struggling to eke out some semblance of freedom for themselves.

 ­ here is a very impor­tant tenet in po­liti­cal liberalism known T as the “harm princi­ple.” What this says, more or less, is that my freedom only extends to the point that it harms someone ­else. The liberty that I have with my fist ends at the tip of your nose, so the expression goes. The foregoing discussion of slavery and exploitation points to obvious violations of this princi­ ple. Thoreau’s frequent meditations on work revealed the way that many jobs involve direct physical harm: the roles of the soldier, the butcher, the hunter, and the thief. As the Mexican-­ American War raged and the Civil War loomed, men increasingly assumed all the roles at once. How many p ­ eople perished in the Mexican-­American War? It is hard to say. The more brutal and unjust a war is, the harder it is to keep track. Prob­ably north of twenty thousand p ­ eople, 11. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 319.

Immor a l Wor k [ 109 ]

most of whom died of infectious disease. What was the cause of the Mexican-­American War? That is a much easier question to answer: imperial ambition. The United States wanted to recognize the in­de­pen­dence of Texas from Mexico and to expand westward. It only took thirty-­five thousand US Army troops and another seventy-­three thousand US state volunteers. Only. That is about one hundred thousand workers, all toiling, killing, and pillaging, for the sake of what Thoreau regarded as an unjust end. What galled Thoreau—­among other t­ hings—­was the total thoughtlessness of the general population when it came to the war, the most galvanizing and unjust work program of his day, but also his neighbor’s total complicity in the “job” of imperialism. The American citizenry was paying for the conflict with their hard-­earned dollars, and, for the most part, failed to notice. You have to admit, it seems a ­little egregious, a bit disgusting: workers paid to murder and steal, compensated by unknowing citizens who ­really ­didn’t care about the immoral work they w ­ ere sponsoring. Thoreau balked at this and went to jail for a night for refusing to pay his taxes. Immoral work was at the root of his “Civil Disobedience.” Before saying a word about that, let’s try to be straight with you. T ­ oday, the US military has an annual bud­get of $777 billion (with a “b”). That money comes from, among other sources, the three-­ish trillion dollars in annual US tax revenue.12 Let’s call military spending a quarter of tax revenue, just to be safe. Now, we can call this spending the (very high) cost of security, but the number of wars waged by the United States in the twentieth c­ entury with questionable objectives and outcomes suggests that old Henry might have had a good point: killing and threatening other h ­ umans, if sanctioned by the government, 12. In Thoreau’s time, the federal government made most of its money from tariffs on goods imported into the country. The Mexican War that Thoreau protested was funded by customs duties, not income taxes.

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is a large, highly lucrative sector of the modern economy. We are not moralizing ­here, but we are pointing out that Thoreau’s criticisms regarding immoral work might resonate very clearly ­today. It is just a ­matter of facing the facts. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” was the emphatic refusal to fund a State that supported immoral work. It ­wasn’t that the State was evil, but that it employed individuals to perform immoral jobs that caused widespread harm, which was evil. The State made individuals instruments of injustice. It was, in the end, about the nature of work and Henry’s view on it. The issue of working for a paycheck, regardless of the type of work performed, ­will be addressed in the next chapter, but let us give you a preview: it i­ sn’t good. The idea that you can live off of the suffering or death of ­others should get you right in the craw and fill you with something like moral disgust. If it d ­ oesn’t, well, you can move on to the rest of the book with a sense that you have failed as a ­human being—at least in the eyes of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau’s disobedience might sound violent, but it was directed to an abstraction, not another living being: “My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her.”13 We a­ ren’t sure which Thoreau hated more—­state-­sponsored soldiering as a profession, or thieving. It’s a close one. At the level of the natu­ral order, Thoreau believed that many jobs (lumberjack, property owner, miner, factory owner) deformed the landscape and robbed the world of something vital. Referring to the farmers working the Mas­sa­chu­setts soil, Thoreau wrote, “By avarice and selfishness, and a grovelling habit, from which none of us is f­ ree, of regarding the soil as property, or the means of acquiring property chiefly, the 13. Henry David Thoreau, “Slavery in Mas­sa­chu­setts,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, 188.

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landscape is deformed, husbandry is degraded with us, and the farmer leads the meanest of lives. He knows Nature but as a robber.”14 This is, however, so abstract that it is hard to get our heads around. Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, who speaks for the trees, might make sense to our c­ hildren, but grown-­ups take it almost as a given that nature is g ­ oing to be degraded (even if Thoreau refused to accept this compromise between ethics and expediency). But what struck him, and strikes us, and what might strike you, is the poignant way in which a nonhuman being is taken from this world unnecessarily, as an act of robbery and vio­lence. For all of his backwoods bluster, Thoreau was a tender heart. He believed that work should be for a purpose, and while that might occasionally involve pain, it should never involve it unnecessarily. On a trip to Maine ­later in his life, Thoreau wrote, “But this hunting of the moose merely for the satisfaction of killing him—­not even for the sake of his hide—­ without making any extraordinary exertion or ­running any risk to yourself, is too much like ­going out by night to some wood-­side pasture and shooting your neighbor’s ­horses.”15 Much modern work is like a moose hunt.

 “I am fuckin’ killing it.” The comment slipped u ­ nder the closed door of an office, at the back of the showroom in a suburb of Boston. Jared sells cars. The trope of the immoral used car salesman is a trope 14. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 160. 15. Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; or, Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, ed. Robert F. Sayre, The Library of Amer­i­ca (New York: The Library of Amer­i­ca, 1985), 683.

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for a reason. Jared’s par­tic­u­lar a­ ngle was to sell cars to buyers who ­wouldn’t be able to make their monthly car payments. He selected his mark, for the most part, using a method of racial profiling. At some point, the driver would leave the car on the side of the road and call Jared to come tow it back to the lot. At which point, he would shine it up and resell it to another customer who was equally likely to default. He was killing it, as he said. ­Today, our friend Clancy is a practicing Buddhist who teaches business ethics, but this ­hasn’t always been the case (he’s also the world’s leading expert on the philosophy of deception and lies). As a young man, he was the type of professional whom business ethicists would hold up to their students as the sort of person never to become. Clancy worked at a jewelry store in Texas. The ­whole point of selling jewelry, he told us, was to make customers believe that they ­were actually getting a deal when, in fact, they ­were being swindled. We are sure ­there are honest salespersons in the watch and diamond business, but ­there are also workers like Clancy—­who would take in a Rolex for cleaning and swap it out with a convincing fake, who would doctor the certification of diamonds to adjust their price, who would “lose” jewelry that he was meant to repair. He was killing it. And then t­here are the infamous, yet prob­ably all-­too-­ common schemes like t­ hose that blew up the global economy in 2008. Traders greased Wall Street with a flood of toxic securities, specifically predatory mortgages bundled up nicely and tagged with a Triple-­A rating. In the words of a not-­so-­imaginary character from The Big Short, ­these assets ­were worth nothing more than “dog shit.” Worse yet, Wall Street could see the dog-­shit letters on the wall, and so they bet against t­ hese securities (“shorted” them). Presto chango, hundreds of thousands of ­people lost their life’s savings, their

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livelihoods, and their ­houses, but not before the “smartest guys in the room” made a handsome commission. They made a killing. This type of work may not be the oldest profession, but it must be very ancient, and Thoreau knew and loathed it. In 1850, news came to Concord of a shipwreck at Fire Island off the coast of New York. Margaret Fuller, friend to Thoreau and Emerson, was on board, and, ­after a horribly protracted ­battle to get to shore, died. Emerson was too infirm to make the trip, but he asked young Henry to take up the task of searching for her remains on the beach. This was the job of a writer-­thinker, so Henry traveled south immediately, only to find large groups of men making a killing off the wreckage: “I found the young men playing at dominoes with their hats decked out with the spoils of the drowned.”16 ­These young men ­were “wreckers,” essentially shipwreck vultures, grabbing up all the bits and bobs of the dead, in a sort of shopping spree. But it w ­ asn’t only the young men who played vulture: Almost ­every ­family on the neighboring main land owns a large oyster boat and such as did not chance to be on the ground at the time of the wreck—­instantly repaired thither at the time even some w ­ omen & c­ hildren taking their [provision]—­for the purpose of plunder. This they do not pretend to deny. ­There are some proper pirates among them but most do not deserve this name—­they are rather low thieves & pilferers without the spirit of pirates—­A Thorough investigation would implicate many apparently respectable ­people.17  16. Henry David Thoreau, July 1850, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 2, 1849–1856, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth, Elizabeth Hall Witherell, and Lihong Xie (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2018), 73. 17. Ibid.

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When it comes to immoral workers, the question is always and only, “How many?”

 If you are still reading a book about Henry David Thoreau on the nature of work, you prob­ably are not among the worst “killers” in our modern economy. Most of you folks belong to a special, self-­selecting population. And we love you for it. But Thoreau would urge us to avoid self-­satisfaction. It is always pos­si­ble to evaluate the way that our patterns of consumption might support businesses that “kill it,” or steal from ­those who are less fortunate. Complicity is a way of modern consumer life, but it can be resisted, just the same way that recycling resists the inevitability of climate change and mass extinction. We at least have to give it the college try. It is also pos­si­ble to be aware of the ­little indignities and injustices that somehow qualify as something worse than just “meaningless work.” It might not be the most morally problematic aspect of modern work, but it still is a prob­lem: if Thoreau encouraged us to work in good faith, to own up to our jobs and daily tasks, he would also discourage us from assuming pretensions in the workplace, pretending to be something that we are not. Thoreau loathed pretentiousness in all of its varied modern forms. The self-styled gurus and captains of late capitalism would have driven him utterly bonkers, and he would have objected on moral grounds. When we put on airs, we put on a mask that precludes genuine communication and communion, which Thoreau regarded as essential goods. And it is very easy to put on airs in certain jobs. Indeed, it is almost required.

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On the outskirts of the town of Stowe, Vermont, t­here is a store that advertises itself as a “fine wine store and fine bakery” in very fine cursive lettering. Inside, an oriental runner leads customers past refrigerated racks of forty-­dollar rosé, perfectly positioned next to jars of caviar from Rus­sia and cans of pickled fish from Finland. Beyond the racks is a ­counter, and b ­ ehind that a $13,000 espresso maker. Should you want an En­glish muffin on a Wednesday morning in this store in Stowe, Vermont, you w ­ ill be greeted by a man with a very shabby looking three-­hundred-­dollar flannel shirt that is rolled up just enough to expose his very cool sleeve of tattoos. His mustache is well-­waxed, and his black beanie sits atop a wash of red hair that is perfectly undercut. On his face rests a pair of gold aviator glasses. “We never have muffins. Never muffins. But we do have ‘cruffins,’ you know, croissants in muffin tins. But only on Tuesdays. Never Wednesdays. Our cruffins are simply divine.” The last word hangs on just long enough to let you know that you w ­ ill never, ever, in your w ­ hole pathetic life, be worthy of a cruffin. “On Tuesdays, the cruffins are h ­ ere at 9:05. They are gone in ten minutes. Ten minutes flat.” Devoured by divine beings who would never think of eating a muffin. Maybe a cup of coffee? “We ­don’t have coffee. We only have cortados, and only in the right size.” He pulls out a thimble-­sized, insulated cup. Thoreau aimed at honesty, simplicity, directness, and dignity, in his life and his work. He’d poke fun at this store in Stowe, with its haughtiness about cruffins and cortados. He’d see in ­these supposed luxuries the pursuit of superiority through false fashions and, ultimately, false lives, lives of bad faith that keep the millstones of “killing it” greased yet grinding.

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 “I think it is highly significant,” wrote Walter Harding in “Five Ways of Looking at Walden,” “that the first real surge of interest in Thoreau in the twentieth c­ entury came during the Depression years of the 1930s, when large masses of ­people—­indeed almost all of us—­were required willy-­nilly by the press of circumstances to adopt the ­simple life. We had no choice in the ­matter, but Thoreau was one of the very few authors who not only made this ­simple life bearable—he even made it appealing. A friend of mine said to me back in the thirties, ‘You know, Thoreau is the only author you can read without a nickel in your pocket and not be insulted.’ ”18 Thoreau helps p ­ eople who are other­wise chewed up and spit out by economic gristmills. He helps them to bear, even slightly enjoy, downturns into hardship. He ­doesn’t insult them. He d ­ oesn’t exploit them. If you need an example of moral work, of moral striving, as against immoral work, Thoreau is a decent model. He tried to do his best. Take the case of Michael Flannery, an immigrant from County Kerry in Ireland, who left his dear wife, Ann, and their ­children in pursuit of employment in the United States, with the goal of raising enough money to bring his ­family to this brighter shore. Flannery was Thoreau’s friend, in a time when the Irish, as mentioned ­earlier, ­were held in vari­ous degrees of contempt as ethnic and cultural inferiors. In September of 1853, Flannery participated in Concord’s annual “Middlesex County C ­ attle Show,” specifically in one of the festival’s agricultural contests, which tested one’s skill at spading, that is, shoveling. Flannery won second place in a pool of twelve competitors and received a cash prize of four dollars. 18. Walter Harding, “Five Ways of Looking at Walden,” in Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” (Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1988), 87.

Immor a l Wor k [ 117 ]

Flannery’s employer at the time, Abiel H. Wheeler, had other designs. He simply claimed Flannery’s four dollars. Wheeler felt entitled to his employee’s winnings; a­ fter all, Wheeler employed Flannery for his ­labor, and ­these four dollars ­were the fruits of Flannery’s ­labor. Thus, the prize money went to Wheeler. That is, ­until Thoreau got involved. When Thoreau got wind of this cruelty, he drafted and circulated a “subscription paper,” which is what it sounds like: a petition that ­people sign, pledging funds for a cause. It read, We, the Undersigned, contribute the following sums, in order to make up to Michael Flannery the sum of four dollars, being the amount of his premium for spading . . . ​, which was received and kept by his employer, Abiel H. Wheeler.19

Unfortunately, Concord’s generosity underwhelmed Thoreau. Most ­people ­didn’t pledge anything. ­Others pledged a pittance. In his journal entry on the subject, Thoreau speaks bluntly: To-­day I have had the experience of borrowing money for a poor Irishman who wishes to get his f­ amily to this country. One w ­ ill never know his neighbors till he has carried a subscription paper among them. Ah! it reveals many and sad facts to stand in this relation to them. To hear the selfish and cowardly excuses some make. . . . ​What a satire in the fact that you are much more inclined to call on a certain slighted and so-­called crazy w ­ oman in moderate circumstances rather than on the president of the bank!20 19. Henry David Thoreau to vari­ous recipients, October 12, 1853, in Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 2, 1849–1856, 176. 20. Quoted in Bradley P. Dean, “Thoreau and Michael Flannery,” Concord Saunterer 17, no. 3 (1984): 28.

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We d ­ on’t quite know ourselves or our neighbors u ­ ntil a moral opportunity comes along. Moral beauty, for Thoreau, is often found not at the top, with “the president of the bank,” but at the bottom, with the “slighted and so-­called crazy ­woman in moderate circumstances,” who shows generosity in all its beautiful forms, whose work is goodness and whose compensation is a better world, if only slightly.



“just d ­ on’t talk about it.” Think about it. Obsess about it. Worry about it. Count it. Horde it. Covet it. Invest it. Just d ­ on’t talk about it. “Money.” ­There, we said it. Recently an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, who ­really ­doesn’t need to ever worry about it, but ­can’t stop, asked us an honest question: “When did money become so personal or taboo? It’s like sex and death—­but worse.” We just laughed at the time, but ­there is actually an answer. Money became a m ­ atter of life and death for the majority of ­people at the beginning of the industrial revolution, at the very outset of Thoreau’s life. Mechanized production and the division of ­labor made the life of the worker calculable, and the calculation was made in dollars and cents. How much was a task worth? How long did the task take? What could this money buy on the open market? To what extent could this product sustain life? At some point in the 1830s, Amer­i­ca was divided into the haves and the have-­nots, ­those who had a surplus of money and t­ hose who did not. Our embarrassment about money ­matters, about talking cash, belies a disturbing fact—that we identify so closely with it. We are demure about what we make, place a gag order on financial details, put a lid on projections and stock options—­ and the pressure builds, as it does ­behind anything that should never be said. And then it bursts out at the most unexpected time—­a comment that violates the taboo, and then the money talk rushes out in a torrent: “46,000 a year.” “Minimum wage.” “Just tips.” “Just equity.” “Almost vested—­three more months.” We should talk about money—­but not in this way. Most of our ­silent thoughts about work circulate around the idea of

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compensation, and perhaps they should, but only if it is properly understood. Thoreau’s dear friend Ralph Waldo Emerson held that the universe operated by way of “compensation,” the vast give-­ and-­take of the universe in which ­every action has an equal and opposite reaction, e­ very decision has a corresponding consequence, and ­every boon is accompanied by a price. As a worker, one performs ser­vices or produces goods, which have an associated cost, or at least they should. Thoreau discovered, much to his dismay, that many jobs w ­ ere not valued in modern society, and therefore not compensated. If Thoreau had a principal vocation, it was as a writer. Writers w ­ ere and still are pitifully paid. And often peddle wares that no one wants. Instead of profiting from his books, he routinely had to pay for the unsold copies. A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack Rivers, a book that Ralph Waldo Emerson deemed one of “extraordinary merit,”1 flopped, and Thoreau lamented to a friend that “I have earned just a dollar a day for 76 days past.”2

 Thoreau had a choice to make, one that we all have: e­ ither he could make more money to pay for an increasing number of wants and needs, or he could match his wants and needs to the money at his disposal. Thoreau, very famously, de­cided on the latter. Many young workers make a similar decision. As young academics, the writers of this book ate banana and peanut 1. Ralph Waldo Emerson to Evert Augustus Duyckink, March 12, 1847, in The Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Joel Myerson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 317. 2. Henry David Thoreau to Harrison Gray Otis Blake, February 27, 1853, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 2, 1849–1856, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth, Elizabeth Hall Witherell, and Lihong Xie (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2018), 140.

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butter sandwiches quite happily in subsidized apartments. We drove similar beat-up cars (although we grew up a thousand miles away). And we went to school where we could—namely, where it was f­ ree or the least expensive. Let’s not romanticize it, but poverty has its uses: it grants us the ability to see what is actually necessary in life and what can be done without. It thus allows us to recognize exactly how much money we actually need—­which is surprisingly l­ittle. Thoreau’s Walden is a testament to this fact. Thoreau wrote, We are often reminded that if ­there ­were bestowed on us the wealth of Crœsus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher. Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.3

It sounds like Thoreau is sugar-­coating a dire situation, but that is not the real point h ­ ere. The point is expressed at the end of his comment: excess wealth drives us to excess, and that is almost always unhealthy. Our wants increase with our wages—­a habit sometimes called “lifestyle creep.” We grow accustomed to a certain lifestyle, to the “finer t­ hings” in life. Yet monetary fortunes very rarely correspond to genuinely good fortunes, in part ­because excessive wealth can positively 3. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 319–320.

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distract us from what Thoreau describes as the “necessaries of the soul.” What are t­ hese necessaries, exactly? Thoreau, in Walden, is quite clear: ­those ­things that bring us “warmth”: shelter, clothing, food, and love. “By the words, necessary for life,” Thoreau explains, “I mean what­ever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions, has been from the first, or from long use has become, so impor­tant to ­human life that few, if any, w ­ hether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without.”4 We know this sounds incredibly idealistic, like the words of a fasting Buddhist monk or “breatharians,” ­those who believe one can live on a diet of air and sunshine alone. You might think w ­ e’re proselytizing: “All you need is love! Money ­can’t buy you love!” Thoreau was an idealist about the value of money, but he was also fastidiously practical. He was less interested (indeed, not interested at all) in determining what he as a person was worth in purchasing power, as he was about determining with utter exactitude the money required to sustain life. Large sections of Walden read like the careful ledgers of Ebenezer Scrooge. But unlike Scrooge’s, Thoreau’s costbooks are a testament to the necessities rather than the excesses of life. H ­ ere we w ­ ill let Thoreau speak for himself at Walden, at some length, on the delicate balance of work, compensation, and the preservation of life: By surveying, carpentry, and day-­labor of vari­ous other kinds in the village in the mean while, for I have as many trades as fin­gers, I had earned $13.34. The expense of food for eight months, namely, from July 4th to March 1st, the time when ­these estimates ­were made, though I lived ­there more than two years,—­not counting potatoes, a l­ ittle green

4. Ibid., 11–12, emphasis in original.

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corn, and some peas, which I had raised, nor considering the value of what was on hand at the last date, was Rice,............................$ 1.73½ Molasses,....................... 1.73 Cheapest form of the saccharine. Rye meal,....................... 1.04¾ Indian meal,................. 0.99¾ Cheaper than rye. Pork,.............................. 0.22 All experiments which failed: Flour,............................. 0.88 Costs more than Indian meal,

both money and trou­ble.

Sugar,............................ 0.80 Lard,.............................. 0.65 Apples,.......................... 0.25 Dried apple,................. 0.22 Sweet potatoes,............ 0.10 One pumpkin,.............. 0.06 One watermelon,......... 0.02 Salt,............................... 0.03 Yes, I did eat $8.74, all told; but I should not thus unblushingly publish my guilt, if I did not know that most of my readers ­were equally guilty with myself, and that their deeds would look no better in print.5

We know that the above passage is a ­little boring, and Thoreau the poet undoubtedly intended it to be. But ­there is a reason Thoreau shares the minute financial details of his life at the Pond: he wants us to realize how l­ittle the bare necessities cost, how one can still be in the black a­ fter the necessities are met, how he made decisions about the preservation of 5. Ibid., 56–57.

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his life, how one might carefully attend to and take pride in the ebb and flow of income and expenditures that underwrite self-­sufficiency. We both had m ­ others who “kept checkbooks,” careful lists of expenses and paychecks. Of course, they worked through their checkbooks each week to make sure our families had enough, but ­these almost sacred books (heaven forbid one of them go missing) ­were ever-­expanding stories of how our families prioritized life, how we sustained ourselves, exactly how we made it on our own. We know that Thoreau w ­ asn’t perfectly self-­sufficient—­none of us are—­but his “books” at Walden indicate a sincere attempt. Two years, two months, and two days—­the amount of time he spent at Walden—is a long time. He ­wasn’t just playing around at the edges of “living deliberately,” and he came to believe that a par­tic­ul­ar orientation to money and the “soul’s necessaries” was required in combating the “quiet desperation” of modern consumerism. All of this is out of tune with the modern American dream of becoming rich and famous, but Thoreau held that this too often resembles a nightmare. “The opportunities for living,” Thoreau observed, “are diminished in proportion as what are called the ‘means’ are increased.”6 When we ask our students what they want in life, an increasing number (thank God, if ­there is a God) say that they want to find meaningful work and “make a difference in life.” We are writing this book for them. But some of our students very honestly say that they want to become obscenely wealthy and move to a big ­house on Nantucket. We are ­really writing this book for them. Thoreau has a message for ­these fortune-­seekers: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-­called comforts of life, are not only 6. Henry David Thoreau, “Re­sis­tance to Civil Government [Civil Disobedience],” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 159.

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not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”7 Let us be clear: we are not modern-­day Thoreaus; we often find ourselves pursuing the luxuries of life. But this is not to say that we are right to do so. We ­aren’t, and it is pos­si­ ble, with the help of Thoreau, to feel the gravity of the ­mistake.

 At the heart of Thoreau’s philosophy is a desire to address a deep confusion that defines our modern age, the confusion between the cost of what we want and the cost of what we need. He was routinely drawn to individuals, indeed many day laborers, who seemed to avoid this confusion entirely. Recounting a conversation with a Canadian woodcutter, Thoreau asked him if he “could do without factories.” The woodcutter replied that “he had worn the home-­made Vermont gray, and that was good.” Thoreau asked if he “could dispense with tea and coffee.” Again, yes. “He had soaked hemlock leaves in w ­ ater and drank it, and thought that was better than w ­ ater in warm weather.” Fi­nally, “When I asked him if he could do without money, he showed the con­ve­nience of money in such a way as to suggest and coincide with the most philosophical accounts of the origin of this institution, and the very derivation of the word pecunia. If an ox were his property, and he wished to get needles and thread at the store, he thought it would be inconvenient and impossible soon to go on mortgaging some portion of the creature each time to that amount.”8 In Walden, Thoreau instructs his reader ­toward “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”9 And it is surely the case that the woodcutter had already taken this approach to finances and the goods of life, 7. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 14. 8. Ibid., 143–144. 9. Ibid., 89.

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but what is remarkable is that he was able to articulate the ­actual value of money. Money came into existence not to buy the most goods pos­si­ ble, but rather to represent the necessities of life that could not easily be divided. Let us explain as Thoreau does: money, pecunia, comes from a Latin word closely related to cow (pecu); in the ancient world, ­cattle meant wealth. When you went to market to purchase something that you needed, it d ­ idn’t make sense to mortgage part of your cow in order to barter for a thread or needle. So money was in­ven­ted to represent part of the cow. Money emerged from the necessities of life and was always simply meant to procure them. That is all, according to Thoreau. Modernity has taken the idea of pecunia to its logical and fragmented end: if cow parts can be monetized, then perhaps every­thing can be monetized. Perhaps the world is ripe for total commodification. Your time, your body, and your m ­ ental health are all, in the opinion of some, up for grabs. What is your price? Thoreau saw the silhouette of this ugly question before it was fully expressed in our ­century. Indeed, he faced it squarely as he sought a proper plot for his small cabin in the woods. Walden ­wasn’t actually Thoreau’s first choice for his home; “Flint’s Pond” was. ­There was, however, a very big prob­lem with this body of ­water—­namely, it was owned by a farmer named Flint. The fact that money could supposedly buy forest, shore, w ­ ater, and sky (the sky is in the w ­ ater at New ­England ponds like this one) appalled Thoreau. “Flint’s Pond! Such is the poverty of our nomenclature. What right had the unclean and stupid farmer, whose farm abutted on this sky ­water, whose shores he has ruthlessly laid bare, to give his name to it?” Thoreau remarked with disdain.10 To love a place of beauty, and therefore call it your own, was one ­thing, 10. Ibid., 189.

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but restricting access to a natu­ral won­der on the basis of some arbitrary property claim was quite another. Who was this “Flint,” anyway? Thoreau described him straightaway: “Some skin-­flint, who loved better the reflecting surface of a dollar, or a bright cent, in which he could see his own brazen face; who regarded even the wild ducks which settled in it as trespassers; his fin­gers grown into crooked and horny talons from the long habit of grasping harpy-­like;—so it is not named for me.”11 It seems that “Flint” was so busy ­making money that he rarely had time to visit the pond that he purchased. According to Henry, he never saw it, never bathed in it, never protected it, never loved it, and never “thanked God that had made it.”12 Flint thought of the sanctuary only in terms of its “money value,” and since it had very ­little, he thought of it next to not at all. In fact, he would have drained it if he could to sell the mud at the bottom. “I re­spect not his ­labors,” Thoreau chided, “his farm where every­thing has its price.”13 This is monetization and marketization at its most nihilistic. ­There is no “compensation” for some ­things. No substitute. Thoreau shows us, in prose worthy of a prophet, the monstrosity of a man “who would carry the landscape, who would carry his God, to market, if he could get any t­ hing for him; who goes to market for his god as it is; on whose farm nothing grows ­free, whose fields bear no crops, whose meadows no flowers, whose trees no fruits, but dollars; who loves not the beauty of his fruits, whose fruits are not ripe for him till they are turned to dollars.”14 Thoreau’s attempt to escape this mentality at Walden was only partially successful. The “ice rights” to the pond w ­ ere sold to Fredric Tudor (if ­there was such a ­thing as a robber baron 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid., 190. 14. Ibid.

Compensation [ 129 ]

in New E ­ ngland, Tudor was it), who hired a hundred Irish workmen to harvest a thousand tons of ice a day in the frigid months. Thoreau viewed the workers with a mix of admiration and pity, but he despised Tudor, remarking that he had stripped the pond of its only cloak in order to cover his half million dollars with another. In Thoreau’s lifetime, Flint and Tudor’s mindset quickly became the dominant American outlook on the economy and the world at large.

 Returning to the Emersonian notion of “compensation,” it seems very clear that Thoreau was keying in on the give and take between the ­actual cost of working and the monetary benefits associated with it. In a work setting, compensation ­isn’t just about getting paid or getting more money; it is about making a calculation about what you are giving up for the salary you earn. The money that you make compensates you for your time, but it is so much deeper than that; it is often the cost of your freedom, the cost of your self-­respect, the cost of being able to sleep soundly at night. If this sounds dramatic, Thoreau would prob­ably tell you that it is. The farms that surrounded Concord in his day w ­ ere large ones. The h ­ ouses that still surround Concord are larger still (Kaag lives in one of them), and t­ here is an existential cost to living in such a place. Thoreau’s journals document the sad paradox of being rich, of making a good living, yet always feeling poor, and not just in the Buddhist sense of material desires never being fulfilled. Thoreau never wanted a large farm ­because he understood too well the amount of time and effort it took to maintain one, time and effort that could be spent on the joys of living. In his essay “Life without Princi­ple” (which might have just as easily been titled “A Life without a Job”), Thoreau writes, “The

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ways by which you may get money almost without exception lead downward. To have done anything by which you earned money merely is to have been truly idle or worse. If the laborer gets no more than the wages which his employer pays him, he is cheated, he cheats himself.”15 Notice that Thoreau refers to g ­ oing “downward.” He d ­ oesn’t mean a demotion or a layoff. He means downward in the worst way: you become less of yourself. You become alienated from yourself, hour by fungible hour. Thoreau walks us through the downward life of most work: “If you would get money as a writer or lecturer, you must be popu­lar, which is to go down perpendicularly. T ­ hose ser­vices which the community w ­ ill most readily pay for it is most disagreeable to render. You are paid for being something less than a man.”16 Thoreau makes no exception for the most “successful” among us: CEOs, industry leaders, top ­lawyers, all-­star athletes. To the contrary, to go up outwardly often means g ­ oing down inwardly. Even the glories of historical celebrity and State commemoration may be cheap compensation. As Thoreau put it, “The State does not commonly reward a genius any more wisely. Even the poet laureate would rather not have to celebrate the accidents of royalty. He must be bribed with a pipe of wine; and perhaps another poet is called away from his muse to gauge that very pipe.”17 Well, you might now ask cynically, and understandably so, was Thoreau’s job all that upward-­going and enlightened? No, it ­wasn’t. “As for my own business, even that kind of surveying which I could do with most satisfaction my employers do not want. They would prefer that I should do my work coarsely and 15. Henry David Thoreau, “Life without Princi­ple,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, 349. 16. Ibid. 17. Ibid.

Compensation [ 131 ]

not too well, ay, not well enough. When I observe that ­there are dif­fer­ent ways of surveying, my employer commonly asks which ­will give him the most land, not which is most correct.”18 For his accuracy and innovation, for his “correctness,” Thoreau was compensated with shrugs and demoralization. “I once in­ven­ ted a rule for mea­sur­ing cord-­wood, and tried to introduce it in Boston; but the measurer t­ here told me that the sellers did not wish to have their wood mea­sured correctly,—­that he was already too accurate for them, and therefore they commonly got their wood mea­sured in Charlestown before crossing the bridge.”19 So to be absolutely clear: Thoreau would have been paid more for a job poorly done, for an act of willful deception. The point of mea­sur­ing wood was not to mea­sure accurately, but to enlarge one’s profits as quickly as pos­si­ble. Without some pride in your work, money is hollow—­ helpful, but hollow. Without higher purpose in your life, money is vacuous. “The aim of the laborer should be, not to get his living, to get ‘a good job,’ but to perform well a certain work; and, even in a pecuniary sense, it would be economy for a town to pay its laborers so well that they would not feel that they ­were working for low ends, as for a livelihood merely, but for scientific, or even moral ends.”20 Pay the laborers “so well that they would not feel that they w ­ ere working for low ends.” Think about that for a moment. What would it mean to pay p ­ eople “so well” that their work seemed oriented upward to higher ends? For some, no amount of money could make their current job sparkle with purpose. Sure, they w ­ ouldn’t mind a seven-­figure compensation package, but that ­wouldn’t make the job itself feel purposeful, only extremely cushy. That is not the redemption of work, but only the toleration of it. For 18. Ibid. 19. Ibid. 20. Ibid., 350.

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some, money is irrelevant to the work. This is not to say they ­don’t need money, nor that they would not like more money, but that the money itself is not why they do the work they do. Rather, they do the work out of love—­love of country, of the craft itself, of the p ­ eople helped, and so on. Thoreau’s primary concern is with compensation in this more essential, nonpecuniary form. “For what s­ hall it profit a man, if he ­shall gain the ­whole world, and lose his own soul?”21 This Biblical warning contrasts the profits of the world with the beauty and goodness of the soul. Thoreau echoes this ancient view and, with something of his own Biblical command, puts our soul and our soul’s higher ends in the context of work: “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.”22 ­Every year, we teach introduction to philosophy, including the works of Thoreau, but also his hero Socrates, who lived about 2,300 years e­ arlier. Socrates famously (or infamously) refused payment for his ser­vices. In Plato’s Apology, the dialogue recounting the trial of Socrates by the citizens of Athens, Socrates addressed popu­lar rumors that he exchanged knowledge for money, even virtue for money. Socrates dismissed t­ hese rumors and distanced himself from a group known as the sophists, whom Socrates and Plato took to be about the worst profiteers of the ancient world, selling their skills in fast talk and fancy rhe­toric to wealthy Athenians. Socrates refused to follow suit. One day, one of our students asked a question that was prob­ably on every­one’s mind: “Why d ­ idn’t Socrates make some money if he was so smart?” Another student chimed in: “­Because his lessons ­were worthless. You know, like without any worth.” 21. Mark 8:36. 22. Thoreau, “Life without Princi­ple,” 350.

Compensation [ 133 ]

We love our students; we ­really do. And their questions come from honest places that many respectable, more tactful grown-­ups rarely visit. We are not paid that much to teach them, which means we are at liberty to set them straight: perhaps Socrates refused payment ­because his lessons ­were priceless. You know, like beyond any price. It could also be that Socrates d ­ idn’t want to be swayed by payment, by the pull of the consumer, the demands of the boss, the not-­so-­invisible hand that guides the market of ideas and products. Socrates and Thoreau often rejected the idea of being paid and so ­were often confused for being painfully impractical. This ste­reo­type about the impracticality of philosophy and the poverty of phi­los­o­phers is ancient, even pre-­Socratic. But it has to do implicitly with a refusal to be co-­opted and controlled by the forces of capital, which forever confuses the most immediate concerns for the deep and perennial ones. Thoreau learned this by heart through his reading of all the Greeks. Aristotle, Plato’s famous pupil, recounts a story about the pre-­ Socratic phi­los­o­pher Thales, who was poor and teased about how his philosophical life kept him poor. As Aristotle recounts, ­There is, for example, the scheme of Thales of Miletus. This is a money-­making scheme that is attributed to him on account of his wisdom. . . . ​For they say that when some on account of his poverty reproached him with the uselessness of philosophy, Thales, observing through his knowledge of astronomy that t­ here would be a good harvest of olives, was able during the winter to raise a small sum of money to place in deposit on all the olive presses in both Miletus and Chios, which he could hire at a low rate ­because no one was competing with him; then, when the season came, and many of them w ­ ere suddenly in demand at the same time, he hired them out on what terms he pleased and collected a

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­great deal of money, thus showing how easy it is for phi­los­ o­phers to become wealthy if they so wish, but it is not this they are serious about.23

Thoreau, like Thales, could also read the natu­ral world, but he did not wish to ply his knowledge to lease olive presses or, in Concord, to speculate in asparagus, corn, or timber. In part, this has to do with prioritizing meaning over money, but it is not that s­ implistic. It has to do, we think, with the desire to recognize what actually drives us in life, and money clouds that judgment in profound and irreversible ways. Let’s go back to Thoreau’s comment that we should not work for money but for and at something that we love. Again, a simplistic platitude. But this is somewhat better than simplistic: one word for “love” in ancient Greece, philia, meant something on the order of deep fellowship or brotherly love. Soldiers fighting together could form the deepest philia, so deep that ­under the power of this love, each would be willing to die for the other. Now, the fact is clear: while you work, you are also ­dying. Just the fact of the ­matter. But is your job the sort of job that you love in any deep way, or in the deepest way (such that you would sacrifice your life for it)? How many jobs deserve such a sacrifice? In the end, ­will you be happy with your vocational choices, or w ­ ill you find that you have sacrificed your soul (and the time you are given) for your bank account?

 A reflection on compensation would be woefully inadequate without at least a mention of the ­actual gold digger, a social climber, a speculator who risked it all for a few additional 23. Aristotle, Politics, 1:1259a, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 20.

Compensation [ 135 ]

dollars. Thoreau mentions him repeatedly with an admixture of pity and total disdain in one of his most famous essays reworked through the 1850s, first entitled “Making a Living” and fi­nally published as “Life without Princi­ple.” It is perhaps his most succinct summary of his views on personal in­de­pen­dence in contrast to the deadening forces of modern work and capital. ­After reading a story of the Australian gold rush, Thoreau wrote that he i­magined digging a hole one hundred and sixty feet deep and missing an invaluable vein by only a foot, without realizing that the trea­sure lay directly ­under his work camp. When the dig came up empty, just inches from the fortune, Henry envisioned his coworkers “turned into demons,” working day and night in knee-­deep w ­ ater, destroying the land and themselves ­until they succumbed, “­dying of exposure and disease.”24 Thoreau continues: and then t­ here is the “lucky” sap who actually finds a g ­ iant nugget of wealth. Good for him. Or not. “The man who found the ­great nugget which weighed twenty-­eight pounds . . . ​he soon began to drink; got on a ­horse and rode all about generally at a gallop,” calling out for ­people to recognize who he was, namely a very rich jackass. Then the fellow lived happily ever a­ fter and found God, or, as Thoreau accurately recounts, “at last he rode full speed against a tree and nearly knocked his brains out.”25 By most accounts, this gold miner was a waste of flesh, which, we admit, is always the danger of being ­human. “He is a hopelessly ruined man,” Thoreau writes, echoing an eyewitness.26 This is what a deeply un­balanced view of compensation begets. Obviously, ­there are even worse cases, which Thoreau was more than aware of—­like the grave robbers of Panama and Colombia. The mining industry of the Amer­i­cas, in cahoots 24. Thoreau, “Life without Princi­ple,” 354–355. 25. Ibid., 356. 26. Ibid.

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with the imperialism of the modern era, was not above excavating ancient graves filled with riches. “Speaking ill of the dead” be damned, t­ here was gold in t­ hose burial mounds and tombs. In the 1850s, Thoreau looked on as life and death ­were desecrated for the sake of a dollar, or a million of them. Henry dryly quotes the unironic advice of a tribune journalist reporting on the best way to participate in this “enterprise”: “A pick, shovel, and axe of good material ­will be almost all that is required.”27 Thoreau learned of ­these exploits from an advertisement in the equivalent of ­today’s tabloids, that told the news of the day. This invitation to would-be grave robbers came with only a very small caveat: “If you are d ­ oing well at home,” the ad read, “STAY ­THERE.” Thoreau interpreted this rather fairly: “If you are getting a good living by robbing graveyards at home, stay ­there.”28 The extra travel miles are completely unnecessary. If you rob graves for money, ­either at home or abroad, you are, Henry kindly suggested, better off dead.

 If all of this talk about losing your soul for the sake of money or compensation strikes you as ridicu­lous or overblown, let’s talk about it in a slightly dif­fer­ent way, one that is much less finger-­waggy. When you get your paycheck each month, your employer is paying you for the task that you performed, yes, but you are also being paid to incur what economists call an “opportunity cost.” An opportunity cost is the cost of all the other ­things you could have been d ­ oing, all the other opportunities that you have forgone, by spending your time at a par­tic­u­lar job. By 27. Ibid., 356–357. 28. Ibid., 357.

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working “just for the money,” you put yourself, your time, your freedom on sale to the highest bidder. We think that this is what Thoreau might mean by “selling your soul” in the course of your professional life. Our friend Frank makes north of $200,000 dollars a year as the head of HR for a large trucking com­pany. One eve­ning, over a few too many drinks, he burst into tears and through his sobbing revealed a secret that he had rarely voiced, even to himself: “Since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted to become a painter. Not an artist. You know: a h ­ ouse painter.” ­Really? Yes, r­ eally. It was something about being out­side or the sense of tangible accomplishment, or something that we still d ­ on’t ­really understand. But understanding Frank’s lifelong dreams is not the point. The point is that he had them and his six-­figure salary was put in place to hold ­those dreams at bay. Frank had accepted the ultimate give-­ and-­take of compensation, the fact that our jobs pay us to give up what is most precious: our potential. Compensation is supposed to compensate for existential opportunity costs. When Thoreau talks about the “soul,” he is at least indirectly speaking to what he regards as most essential and beautiful about each of us: our absolutely unique abilities to negotiate the possibilities of the world, to actually be in the moment in ways that elevate and elate us. He is talking about making the absolute best use of our time: that is soulful work. So, when we lose our “souls” on the job, we are losing that ability to make good on the time that we are given, to exercise our creativity, to own up to our life. ­After Frank dried his tears and explained that he was too old to resign from his HR job and too old to make a business of ­house painting, we suggested to him that he might do some painting ­after he retired, ­after he turned sixty. He looked at us like we had lost our minds: “You mean you want me to start climbing ladders and swinging around scaffolding when I am

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sixty?” It was an admittedly asinine idea. Just as asinine as the idea that we should work, make a boatload of money, so that we can enjoy it in retirement when we are on the brink of the grave. Dear Henry beat us to the punch by about 150 years: “This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the En­glishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to E ­ ngland and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.”29 One of the greatest triumphs of Henry’s working life was the series of jobs that he took on at Walden. His b ­ rother’s recent death was on his mind—­all the time. Death was near, the coast was anything but clear. And Henry worked. How many of us would work in what might be our ­dying days? Each one might be our last. Perhaps working in the right way is the only appropriate response to the impending darkness. But we ­can’t take money or fame with us at the end. Sometimes the most overused expressions are overworked simply b ­ ecause they are true. Recall that one of Thoreau’s favorite poems was Virgil’s Georgics, a paean to the proper meaning of work. And what must be one of his most cherished lines: rura mihi et rigui placeant in vallibus amnes, flumina amem silvasque inglorius—­“Let my delight be the country, and the ­running streams amid the dells—­may I love the ­waters and the woods, though fame be lost.”30 The most tragic part of a working life is coming to the very end, bank accounts filled to the brim, and discovering, in Thoreau’s words in Walden, that one ­hasn’t lived. 29. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 52. 30. Virgil, Georgics, 2:485–486, in Virgil in Two Volumes, vol. 1, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid I–­VI, trans. Henry Rushton Fairclough, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 149–151.



each of us could have written Henry at Work all by ourselves. It ­wouldn’t have been as quick, or as easy, or as fun, or as meaningful—­but we might have endured. In fact, ­there ­were seemingly compelling reasons to do so. Publishing books for thoughtful, leaf-­loving readers is a business, and the money, while not astronomical, is also not absolutely insignificant. And any positive integer, no ­matter how small, divided by half, is considerably smaller than the number itself. So too with fame and glory: coworkers always have to share the riches. Especially in modern arts and letters t­ here is also the pesky bias against working together, perpetuated by what might be called “the cult of the reclusive genius,” which openly defends the idea that writers and artists must always write in their own undiluted blood. At first glance, Thoreau seems to have launched so many solo proj­ects to easily qualify as the patron saint to genius-­loners. But first glances are almost always inaccurate, and a second look at Henry’s life at work reveals his repeated reliance on coworkers, his willingness to be a coworker, and a careful philosophical reflection of cowork at its best and worst. This is one reason why we de­cided to take up this book together.

 Thoreau was surrounded by a growing number of workspaces— from the mills in Lowell to the shipyards in Salem—­where many, many laborers worked in close proximity. Unfortunately, working in close quarters is wholly insufficient to qualify as meaningful cowork. In the words of Jamal, who drives a lift at a large ware­house, “I ­don’t know who anybody is. I just try not to hit anybody. That’s just paperwork.” T ­ here are too many offices and factories in which ­humans operate as self-­interested drones (yes, modern capitalism manages this paradox). Katherine,

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a sales representative in the “network per­for­mance management” industry, who shares the floor with a hundred other coworkers, divided into eight “buses” (the term for desk clusters), and who makes 110 cold calls a day for $28,000 a year, summed it up for us recently: “It’s humiliating when you start; ­you’re the bitch. You ­don’t even get a headset till you close a deal. The w ­ hole factory is like a fraternity. But each one of us is out for ourselves. You hit your number, or you get fired. I’m dead serious.” She took a long breath, shook her head, and let it out in one long expletive: “Sometimes corporate misses their number and the worst person from ­every bus gets fired even if the bus is amazing and so basically every­body hates each other. Shit.” This is not cowork at its best. Thoreau’s utopian friends George Ripley, who founded Brook Farm in the 1840s, and Bronson Alcott, who initiated the short-­lived experiment in cooperation at Fruitlands, both knew this and tried to form cooperatives that ran c­ ounter to this form of alienation. Their utopian work at least had rules of the road, guidelines so that the collective might actually benefit its members in practical ways. The question was an open one at the time: How do ­human beings work best together? Utopians, like Ripley and Alcott, experimented with many answers. Thoreau arrived at exactly one: we work best together when we live deliberately. This might seem to give us pitifully ­little guidance in being, or choosing, better coworkers, but it is actually pretty instructive if we watch Henry at work. In deliberate cowork, no one gets distracted or bored, no one cuts corners or cuts each other down, and no one lies or flatters. Coworkers maintain a deliberate attention and thoughtful commitment to a job well done. Henry worked in this way with his b ­ rother, John, in starting a secondary school, with

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Ellery Channing in honing their respective poetic proj­ects, with his ­father in developing innovative pencils, with Ralph Waldo Emerson in developing Transcendentalism, with Lidian Emerson in helping raise the Emerson clan, with Perez Blood in surveying the land of Mas­sa­chu­setts—­and with ice cutters, lumberjacks, fisherman, sailors, and ­lawyers in launching collective proj­ects. In all of ­these cases, the deliberate relationship between Thoreau and his coworker usually took pre­ce­dent over the discrete fruits of their ­labors. At its best, cowork becomes genuine friendship, which Thoreau thought was incredibly rare and therefore incredibly precious. ­There is a reason why romantic partners frequently meet on the job, and it i­sn’t b ­ ecause they work so much that they ­don’t have time to date other p ­ eople. It is b ­ ecause meaningful, deliberate cowork constitutes a genuine relationship between two or more p ­ eople. To cowork, in the Thoreauvian sense, is to develop a deep affinity directed ­toward a common goal (and that looks a lot like a long-­standing friendship and a flourishing relationship). This is not unlike Aristotle’s claim that ideal friendship pursues the cultivation of individuals in their pursuit of a virtuous end. In this case, the common goal is always the “good job.” When we think about our coworkers, it’s tempting to think of the folks whom we join for beers at the end of a day, the same ­people who remember to put our birthday on their calendar. Or we think of the folks who help us get raises, or cover our bits in front of the boss. Yes, t­ hese relationships might be impor­t ant in an immediate sense, but Thoreau ­gently suggested that something very impor­tant is missing. “What men call social virtues, good fellowship,” he wrote, “is commonly but the virtue of pigs in a litter which lie close together to keep each other warm. It brings men together in crowds and mobs in bar-­rooms and elsewhere, but it does not

Cowor k ers [ 143 ]

deserve the name of virtue.”1 Thoreau would have observed, following a host of thinkers from Aristotle to his friend and coworker Emerson, that “social virtues” at work can fall into one of two very unsatisfying categories. They are ­either based on profit or plea­sure. A word about profitable coworkers: before becoming a phi­los­o­pher, John held a sales job at a men’s clothing store; his closest friend and coworker was Nan, a sixty-­something, Talbots-­w earing grand­m other, who clocked him in e­ very morning, an hour before he actually arrived. A word about pleas­ur­able coworkers: on Nan’s birthday, John made her a German choco­late cake with coconut he shaved himself. This ­doesn’t sound so bad, but it actually ­isn’t that “good” ­either. If cowork consists merely in the exchange of ser­vices and pleasures, it remains painfully fragile. Nan eventually got tired of covering for the lazy kid, and the kid started getting into trou­ble. And Nan never received another choco­ late cake. The clothes got sold and the store got swept, but only in the most passive fashion. They d ­ idn’t even say goodbye to one another when Nan went to live with her son in Pittsburgh. By contrast, it is helpful to think of Thoreau and Emerson, who routinely embodied the best of cowork, which aims at elevating the business of living through their shared thoughts and their interdependent writings. Emerson was, ­after all, the one who set Thoreau on fire with his journal in October of 1837. As Emerson began to draft lectures in the coming years, Henry was his abiding companion. In 1841, Emerson wrote that Henry had “come to live with me and work with me in 1. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, October 23, 1852, in The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 4:397.

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the garden and teach me to graft apples.”2 Thoreau had ­free access to Emerson’s library in return for horticultural ser­vices, but more importantly, their exchange quickly became a meeting of the minds. Emerson’s portrait in “Self-­Reliance” of “a sturdy lad . . . ​who in turn tries all professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps school, preaches, edits a newspaper . . . ​ like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of ­these city dolls” was inspired, Laura Dassow Walls suggests so incisively, by Henry.3 This “sturdy lad” grew as a thinker and a worker in the Emerson ­house­hold, showing himself, in the words of his mentor, “to be a noble, manly youth, full of melodies and inventions.”4 It has been said before, but it bears repeating in the context of this discussion of cowork that Emerson said of his time with Thoreau, “We work together by day in my garden, and I grow well and strong.”5 From Emerson, Thoreau drew inspiration, but also, at least for a time, received unadulterated support. The two of them took over the October 1842 printing of the Dial, Margaret Fuller’s Transcendentalist periodical, editing it together (with Thoreau at the helm). While the results w ­ ere lackluster (typos and misprints abounded), the October issue, with the tacit support of Emerson, featured eight of Thoreau’s poems. It should be said that working “deliberately” with o ­ thers does not always come naturally—to anyone. ­Humans tend to be selfish, fickle ­little beasts, raised in social and economic 2. Ralph Waldo Emerson to Margaret Fuller, April 22, 1841, in The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 2:394. 3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-­Reliance,” in Self-­Reliance and Other Essays, ed. Stanley Applebaum (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1993), 32. 4. Ralph Waldo Emerson to Thomas Carlyle, May 30, 1841, as quoted in Laura Dassow Walls, Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 121. 5. Ibid.

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systems that do l­ittle to curtail their natu­ral inclinations. ­After Thoreau’s poems w ­ ere published—­and Margaret Fuller raked Emerson over the coals for allowing them to come out—­ Emerson turned on his protégé’s writing, remarking in a journal entry, “The gold does not yet flow pure.”6 Thoreau was crestfallen by Emerson’s reception. Emerson famously said that friendship turned on honesty and tenderness, but sometimes the tenderness was wanting. Other coworkers, this time Lidian Emerson, came to Henry’s aid, urging her husband to teach the young man to lecture and make a living by his wit. This never happened, but when Henry was fi­nally called to make a living at Walden, it was Waldo whom he consulted and Waldo who offered him the shoreside plot. When Thoreau’s spirits fell and he fell out of work in 1853, Emerson offered one hundred dollars to Thoreau and Ellery Channing to gather a three-­author anthology called Country Walking; cowork was always on the minds of ­these friends. Emerson’s eulogy for Thoreau is marked by the opinion that Thoreau lacked ambition, but it also reflects a deep and abiding re­spect for a man who worked by his side for many years: “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how ­great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst his broken task, which none ­else can finish.”7 Interestingly, Thoreau’s task was wholly his own, this is true, but it would have never bloomed in its par­tic­u­lar way without deliberate coworkers at the ready. The task that Thoreau undertook—to “live deliberately”—was one supported by ­others who had taken on similar work. Not only Emerson: many of 6. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman and J. E. Pearsons (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1970), 8:257. 7. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Thoreau,” Atlantic, August 1862, https://­www​ .­theatlantic​.­com​/­magazine​/­archive​/­1862​/­08​/­thoreau​/­306418​/­.

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t­ hose thinker-­workers who lived deliberately now lived only in books. Thoreau was very much aware of this and sought constant auxiliaries. For ­these auxiliaries, Thoreau turned to the deep past. The Greek poet Homer, the Roman poet Virgil, the authors of the Ve­das, and many o ­ thers helped Thoreau do the work he felt necessary. They ­were his coworkers. For Henry, history is a living proj­ect; ancient and modern truths are hardly at odds. “East” and “West,” also, should not be felt so divided. “When we read the history of the world,” Thoreau writes in his journal, “centuries look cheap to us—­and we find that we had doubted if the hundred years preceding the life of Herodotus seemed as ­great an antiquity to him as a hundred years does to us. We are inclined to think of all Romans who lived within five hundred years B.C. as contemporaries to each other. Yet Time moved at the same deliberate pace then as now.”8 Thoreau then mentions Pliny the Elder, who died in AD 79, and who, in his day, mused on the antiquity of Caius, Tiberius Gracchus, Cicero, Augustus, and Virgil. The ancients tried to imagine their own ancients, just as we do, and just as our descendants w ­ ill. “Two hundred years ago . . . ​is nearly as good as two thousand to our imaginations,” writes Thoreau, in a testament to our weak imaginations.9 When we reflect on ancient Egypt, for example, we often fail to experience the true meaning of deep time, where millennia lurch forward geologically. Yet we can unfold ­these heavy layers of time by a sustained and creative meditation on nature. With a sharper and more curious attention, we can make the lives of ­others, living and dead, more real for ourselves. Consider that Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius, Augustus, and Paul the Apostle all lived closer in time to 8. Thoreau, journal entry, December 8, 1859, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 13:16. 9. Ibid.

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us than to the construction of the ­Great Pyramid of Giza. Or consider that, when the ­Great Pyramid of Giza was completed, ­there was still a tiny population of mammoths on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. At Walden, Thoreau sometimes played with thoughts like t­ hese, which wake us up and wake up the dead too. With renewed imaginative effort, Thoreau felt himself newly alive to e­ very pre­sent moment in history. “The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit,—­not a fossil earth, but a living earth.”10 But t­ here is an equal and opposite danger h ­ ere, that of forgetting the life of the pre­sent. A major theme of Thoreau’s work is how the sacred aura of the past can be applied equally to the pre­sent moment. We tend to misunderstand the ancient worlds, and even worlds to come, in a flattering way, while discounting the sacred richness of our mere con­temporary life. ­Today is a gray blur of pure humdrummery compared to the swashbuckling and sweeping rise of the Umayyad Caliphate! What is watching Netflix in comparison to being t­ here when Scipio Africanus returns to Rome from his victory against Carthage? “How is it that what is actually pre­sent and transpiring,” asks Thoreau, “is commonly perceived by the common sense and understanding only—is bare and bald—­without halo or the blue enamel of intervening air? But let it be past or to come, and it is at once idealized.”11 The grass is always greener on the other side of history. This goes for our view of ­people too; p ­ eople in the past w ­ ere “stronger,” “more ethical,” 10. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 298. 11. Thoreau, journal entry, December 8, 1859, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 13:17.

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or “simply better.” Or so we tell ourselves, while ­those around us look pitifully ­human in comparison. “Not ­these ­people again. Oh, how I wish I lived in Edo Period Japan, with the samurai. How cool that would be!” Thoreau pushes us to wake up to the past and the pre­sent, to feel their living presence in each other. “It is the faculty of the poet to see pre­sent ­things as if, in this sense, also past and ­future, as if distant or universally significant.”12 By exercising our poetic faculties, not in the sense of writing limericks and haikus, but of spiritualizing the pre­sent world, we can see ourselves and our contemporaries as sacred. Moreover, we can work together, through all times and all regions, ­toward better lives. With a fertile imagination, Cicero and Virgil can be our coworkers (think of the poet Dante, who resurrected Virgil as a guide through the inferno)—­and coworkers we can choose for ourselves. In other words, our coworkers at the workplace are only a fraction of our coworkers. The rest are everywhere e­ lse, all around the earth and in ­every era.

 All right, enough of this high-­mindedness already. We know enough nine-­to-­fivers, who clock in for a diverse range of jobs, to realize that coworkers can make any job, no m ­ atter how lucrative or cushy, a living hell. Let’s not sugarcoat it. So we ­will confess: Thoreau was not always the most agreeable person. In fact, he could be downright disagreeable: “I o ­ ught not to forbear saying that [Thoreau] is an upright, conscientious, and courageous man, of whom it is impossible to conceive anything but the highest integrity,” writes Nathaniel Hawthorne, a friend of Thoreau. “Still, he is not an agreeable person; and 12. Ibid.

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in his presence one feels ashamed of having any money, or a ­house to live in, or so much as two coats to wear, or of having written a book that the public ­will read—­his own mode of life being so unsparing a criticism on all other modes, such as the world approves.”13 Thoreau often disliked the ­people who surrounded him, and was, himself, unlikable in turn. So what of this when it comes to coworkers? First, it seems obvious that most workers need to complain about their office mates, particularly the jerks who seem to be hired, again and again, only in your office, on your shift, in your cell block. And Thoreau gives you ample outlets for catharsis, the emotional outpouring that you crave when it comes to the ­people with whom you would never choose to work. Thoreau openly admits what you silently know: t­ hese ­people are blockheads: “A hard insensible man whom we liken to a rock is indeed much harder than a rock. From hard coarse insensible men with whom I have no sympathy I go to commune with the rocks whose hearts are comparatively soft.”14 Catharsis is one ­thing, but Thoreau also gives us a sense of what we should expect from coworkers, and it is not always obviously deliberate support and care. Sometimes working deliberately with ­others involves, nay, requires, friction. According to Emerson, Thoreau thrived on disputation, “as if he did not feel himself except in opposition. He wanted a fallacy to expose, a blunder to pillory.”15 In his eulogy, Emerson reports the words of another friend: “I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think 13. Nathaniel Hawthorne to Richard Milnes, November 18, 1854, in The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. Thomas Woodson et al. (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1987), 17:279–280. 14. Thoreau, journal entry, November 15, 1853, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 5:506. 15. Emerson, “Thoreau.”

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of taking the arm of an elm-­tree.”16 Thoreau never married, nor did he have ­children, so what­ever maturity comes by way of parenthood and a romantic pair-­bond did not come to Thoreau. Now if this makes you skeptical of Thoreau’s ability to speak to relationships between friends or coworkers, or if you find him hard to admire or even appreciate, it is likely that he would want your com­pany in his pond h ­ ouse more than he would that of a sympathizer. He would want to dispute with you, as Socrates disputed. In this re­spect, he emulated Socrates, the original canker sore, who strolled barefoot around Athens and lived in poverty, arguably voluntarily. Thoreau was a gadfly, another in a ­grand and galling tradition of gadflies. If y­ ou’ve concluded that you need no constructive criticism, no honest critiques, then perhaps the nuisance of Thoreau is not for you. If you can tolerate him, however, Thoreau pays off—­like exercise. And like any coworker worth his or her salt. Precisely that disagreeableness is what we find so seductive in Thoreau’s life and writings. Thoreau poked and prodded at all the unspoken norms of ­going along to get along. He said what you’d want to say to your bosses and coworkers, if only you had the moxie. Thoreau’s Walden, one could argue, is the original Office Space, the 1999 satirical comedy that shows a man simply relaxing against a tide of TPS reports, audits, faxes, phone calls, and the ­whole grinding apparatus of office life. Peter Gibbons, the main character in Office Space, becomes utterly and hilariously blunt with his employers, especially in his interview with “The Bobs,” two corporate “con­sul­tants” (i.e., downsizers), which results in a promotion. We laugh b ­ ecause we wish we could act with such impunity at work and just be our ­free and easy and autonomous selves. And we quietly smile when we come across such a coworker 16. Ibid.

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and remember Thoreau’s words from “Walking”: “Give me for my friends [and co-­workers] and neighbors wild men, not tame ones.”17

 Say what you ­will of coworkers, gripe about them as vigorously as you like, but you ­will never, in all your life, be rid of them. And this is definitely for the best. Thoreau lived through the first de­cades of u ­ nionized l­ abor. His work on the Under­ground Railroad is the most radical form of u ­ nion activism: e­ very worker, regardless of color or ethnicity, should be treated with more than a modicum of re­spect. Work might be the setting for a meaningful life, but it also can be the breeding ground for exploitation and oppression. Thoreau was worried about the lives of slaves, not only b ­ ecause of the horrible abuses they suffered and the indignity of enslavement itself, but also ­because of the work that slaves ­were forced to do—­and what that did to their minds and bodies. Coworkers can have your back, and not in the “get beers and make fun of the bosses” sort of way. Yes, work can be a godsend, and it often is, especially when the ATM is flashing “insufficient funds.” Idle hands are the dev­il’s playthings. But work can be excruciating, alienating, and dehumanizing. Coworkers know this without two phi­los­o­phers telling them. They know your work life better than we do. They live it themselves. Say what you ­will about them, but at crucial moments in your life, coworkers can keep you alive, or keep you from wanting to die. We are not messing around with this: coworkers can be what the German phi­los­o­pher Arthur Schopenhauer, 17. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 268.

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a con­temporary of Thoreau, called “companions in misery.”18 They, truly, help us through the toils of life. Coworkers are ­those precious though sometimes irksome fellow-­travelers who eke out life alongside us and who, at the very least, are aware of a common hardship. This common hardship might be to feel wholly alone. In the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, we hear a note on solitude that Thoreau would readily echo: Ordinary men hate solitude. But the Master makes use of it, Embracing his aloneness, realizing He is one with the w ­ hole universe.19

This may seem, on the face, a counsel for solitude, and it is in part, but read closely. Lao Tzu gestures to a profound inclusiveness that is learned from solitude. You realize you are “one with the w ­ hole universe.” Notice also that the “­whole universe” necessarily includes your coworkers, working their own daily grinds. For Lao Tzu then, and for Thoreau, you are one with your coworkers. Next time you see them, perhaps you can tell them so. 18. Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, §156, trans. E.F.J. Payne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 2:304. 19. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 42.


Fulfilling Work

“I hate my job.” “I hate my boss.” “I hate myself—at work.” “Work sucks.” This is the point where you prob­ably expect us to explain how our friend Henry can, once and for all, sort out your purpose-­driven life. Sorry—­not ­going to happen. ­There is, unfortunately, no silver bullet in finding lasting meaning in your work or in your life. At least we h ­ aven’t come across it yet. We’ve been drawn to Henry David Thoreau b ­ ecause he so consistently, with humor and compassion, warns us about the existential dumpster fires in the modern workplace. He’s like Socrates’s daemon, the l­ittle spirit voice in the old guy’s head, that tells him what not to do. At the outset of the book, we hoped to give Henry’s “dos and d ­ on’ts” of life on the job, but we fully recognize that the “­don’ts” may seem to outweigh the “dos.” Avoid immoral work, meaningless jobs, worshiping money—­avoid, avoid, avoid. But instead of thinking about Henry as a joyless finger-­wagger, think about him as putting up some useful signposts that guide us ­toward a more meaningful relationship to work. That has been the ultimate hope ­here. Now, a final few words on fulfillment and your daily toils.

 Thoreau’s magnum opus w ­ asn’t Walden, but rather the journal that he kept for more than twenty years. Sprawling, im­mense, uncategorizable—­a rough shadow of Thoreau’s presence in life and death—­the journal gives us clues about how to manage the business of living. On some days, it is clear that Thoreau did not want to write at all: entries are short or missing entirely. But he comes back, day ­after day, month ­after month, called

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back to his true vocation. For Thoreau, the choice to work on his journal was what the nineteenth-­century pragmatist William James would call “momentous.” A momentous choice is one that is singular, perfectly unique, and fitted exactly to your life. No one ­else could write Thoreau’s journal. No one ­else can do the job that you find most meaningful. T ­ here is a sense, when you work meaningfully, that you are performing a task that the universe has reserved just for you. When we teach (our chosen vocation), it ­isn’t ­because the paycheck is stellar, but rather b ­ ecause we are giving our students something that no one ­else could—­a certain style, a certain reverence for the academic material, a certain care for the subject that is uniquely ours. Meaningful work is by definition not fungible work, work that could be done just as well by someone ­else. Of course, ­there might be better teachers, but they could never teach our par­tic­u­lar classes. It should be said that momentous decisions are ­those that cannot be forgone without also forgoing an opportunity to change your life. In contrast, meaningless work almost always involves trivial decisions, t­ hose in which, in James’s words, “the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it ­later prove unwise.”1 For Thoreau, working himself out over page a­ fter page was momentous. “A journal,” Thoreau explained, “[is] a book that ­shall contain a rec­ord of all your joy, your ecstasy.”2 Paul, a small-­town pharmacist from central Pennsylvania, who nearly worked himself to death to support his ­family, used to instruct 1. William James, “The ­Will to Believe,” in The ­Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popu­lar Philosophy (New York: Longmans, Green, 1912), 4. 2. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, July 13, 1852, in The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949), 4:223.

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his employees to “put yourself in your work.” He just meant “work hard,” but Thoreau would underline the deeper wisdom of Paul’s advice: meaningful work is the sort where we place our entire selves, squarely and resolutely, and thereby find ourselves. When you open Thoreau’s journals, you find Thoreau the man, or rather his life in its vibrancy, but also in its darkness. Perhaps his journal was a rec­ord of Thoreau’s joys and gratitudes, but it was often the site of his laments and regrets. Through it all, however, his journal was a rec­ord of a life, a reflection of what a man thought was meaningful, frightful, and sacred. Work at its best leaves something of this rec­ord, regardless of one’s chosen profession. All of this is to say that meaningful work is absolutely personal. Yes, this seems so obvious as to not be worth mentioning. We can hear our students now: “Yeah, I know—when I work, I am the one ­doing the work. Obviously.” But we can guarantee you that many laborers forget themselves in the course of their working days, lose themselves, and not in some beautiful, mystical way. How many menial tasks have you performed and only a­ fter their completion realized that you had been mentally absent in the pro­cess? We ­will say a ­little bit about the necessity of immediacy in meaningful work in a second, but that is not what we are talking about ­here. It is much simpler: picking meaningful work involves seeing one’s work as self-­expressive. Thoreau felt this way with all writing, but most notably his journal, reflecting, “The best you can write ­will be the best you are.”3 Writing was the work that Thoreau held dear, but the point holds with any job of significance: the best you can paint, counsel, teach, advise, account, construct, design, lead, heal, 3. Thoreau, journal entry, February 28, 1841, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 1:225–226.

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mend, clean—is the best you are. T ­ here is an existential elision between work and h ­ uman existence, one that Thoreau was intent on highlighting. This is not just the imperative to “be all that you can be,” but rather a gentle reminder that your vocation begins with “you”; it is, ­after all, your life that you are spending at work. For Thoreau, accounting for himself was his most meaningful work. He writes in a journal entry from October 21, 1857, “Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is t­ here any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the ­actual hero, lived from day to day.”4 Back to Thoreau’s inkstand. In The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (not the general), Thoreau the character says to his interlocutor, Bailey, “Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And then the next t­ hing you know you w ­ ill be writing paragraphs and then books. And then you’ll be in as much trou­ble as I am in.”5 Humorous, in a deadly serious way, in a way that Thoreau the man could appreciate. ­Every significant act of work begins with figuratively or literally writing your name over the doorway of the task, making it your own, and then walking, jumping, sprinting, or stumbling through. In Henry’s myriad odd jobs and responsibilities, we hear a quiet, almost prayer-­ like insistence: “This is my task. This task is my own.” Owning up to the work of our lives may seem easy, but in ­today’s cap­i­tal­ist grind, it’s not. Craig, a twenty-­two-­year-­old living in Lawrence, Mas­sa­chu­setts, a salesman at Home Depot, recently made this pointedly clear: “I get high before I go work. It is just easier that way. It’s like I’m not ­there. Nobody notices 4. Thoreau, journal entry, October 21, 1857, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 10:115. 5. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), 29–30.

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or cares. I only go to work ’cause I have to.” Two weeks ­later, Craig quit his job. Thoreau, a student of Emersonian self-­ reliance, suggested that each of us has a very l­imited time on this earth to l­abor and that we must do our very best to exert ourselves, to express ourselves, in the passing of the days. At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau writes that in many books the “I” is omitted, but in his it would be retained. Walden is self-­consciously personal, narrated in the first person, b ­ ecause Thoreau believes his culture, our culture, needs a reminder: you m ­ atter. The “I” of “I work” m ­ atters. As he asks rhetorically in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “If I am not I, who w ­ ill be?”6 This “I” deserves to be cultivated.

 Let’s go slowly h ­ ere. Thoreau advocated for a certain type of individualism that is not, in any way, similar to the materialistic egoism that runs riot in our pre­sent day. The demand to own the tasks of your life and to be the author of your working life is not the license to be a selfish jerk at the office, but rather the imperative to become responsible for your vocation. Thoreau also believed that fulfilling work should help cultivate the worker as a well-­rounded person, so that he or she could participate in a well-­rounded and healthy society. We know—it sounds nostalgic, something from another age, and it is, but certain ages deserve to be reconsidered. When Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, Thomas Jefferson was still alive, as was John Adams, James Madison, 6. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; or, Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, ed. Robert F. Sayre, The Library of Amer­i­ca (New York: The Library of Amer­i­ca, 1985), 126.

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James Monroe, John Jay, and several other Founding F ­ athers. Less than ten days before his ninth birthday, young Thoreau ­would’ve heard news of the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both ­dying on the same day, July 4, 1836, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of In­de­pen­dence. Ten years l­ater, and less than a month away from his nineteenth birthday, Thoreau would have read the news about the death of James Madison, the “­Father of the Constitution.” The old revolutionaries ­were gone. And in this vacuum of leadership, the states of the ­union ­were toddling into preadolescence. Throughout Thoreau’s life, the United States was consciously and excitedly forming its “more perfect u ­ nion.” Americans looked everywhere for new models, new ventures, and new ideas. But more than anything, Americans ­were looking to grow and build, and, at the same time, they ­were working with unpre­ ce­dented vigor. One of the European powers that America looked to for inspiration was Germany. In the first two de­cades of the 1800s, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the ­brother of the famous polymath Alexander von Humboldt (whom Thoreau read extensively), designed and implemented a new academic vision for the University of Berlin, the center of German intellectual life. Essential to Humboldt’s vision was the concept of Bildung, which for its early advocates meant the harmonious growth of a mind through instructor-­guided self-­cultivation. We do not learn best by rote memorization, nor by top-­down threats, nor by micromanagement (the tactics of all too many on-­the-­job training sessions). In fact, ­those methods more often than not stifle us. Most of us learn and work best when we are allowed to take creative responsibility for our learning and our work. German thinkers from Herder to Goethe to Fichte pushed for this new emphasis on autonomy and personal growth, and all would agree with Humboldt’s claim that “the first law of true

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morality is: cultivate thyself.”7 And this way of thinking was directly imported into Thoreau’s views on meaning and work. In Thoreau’s day and in our own, the profession we hold is often determined by our education, but Thoreau held that both education and work ­were responsible for helping young men and ­women grow into well-­adjusted, full-­fledged, beautiful adults. The American university system of Thoreau’s time incorporated Humboldt’s ideas, not in e­ very detail, and not necessarily consciously, but in ways significant enough to affect the “Sage of Concord” himself, Emerson. Ideas are like organisms: with migration comes mutation. Emerson, taking the torch of self-­cultivation from the Eu­ro­pe­ans, Americanized it. His vision of Bildung was even more insurrectionary, which is appropriate for the c­ hildren and grandchildren of rebels. Emerson centered the individual even more and elevated the self even higher. The products of our l­ abor, the quality of our work, the outcomes of our efforts, are secondary to the proj­ect of becoming who we are, as the German phi­los­o­pher Friedrich Nietz­sche put it, himself deeply influenced by Emerson.8 Work is meaningful to the extent that it contributes to the flowering and empowering of the self, and not the other way around. For Emerson, Bildung is not for anything above and beyond ourselves as selves. As Jesus said of the Sabbath (“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”9), so Emerson and Thoreau might say of work. For many worker-­thinkers in Thoreau’s day, self-­cultivation and national cultivation ­were one and the same act. In the 7. As quoted in Paul Robinson Sweet, Wilhelm von Humboldt: A Biography (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1978), 1:84. 8. Friedrich Nietz­sche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, in Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020), 3:519, §270. 9. Mark 2:27.

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nation’s early years, how ­else would it feel? ­Free citizens felt themselves, as Walt Whitman would put it, looking out over “demo­cratic vistas.”10 With industry and commerce and self-­ determination, the New World could be made yet newer. Yet Thoreau’s demo­cratic vista, unlike ­those of his contemporaries, was one part cultivated, nine parts uncultivated, and he thought it ­ought to stay that way. In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau puts it bluntly: “Yes, though you may think me perverse, if it w ­ ere proposed to me to dwell in the neighborhood of the most beautiful garden that ever h ­ uman art contrived, or e­ lse of a dismal swamp, I should certainly decide for the swamp. How vain, then, have been all your l­ abors, citizens, for me! My spirits infallibly rise in proportion to the outward dreariness. Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness! In the desert, pure air and solitude compensate for want of moisture and fertility.”11 Against the tidy and geometric sensibilities that informed the Gardens of Versailles, Thoreau would rather have a swamp. This is his caution against overcultivation. “That old musty cheese that we are,” as Thoreau puts it, has a tendency to go stale too soon.12 Our work should not kill the wilderness inside of us, and certainly not the wilderness outside of us. Being cultivated at work, pursuing the path of Bildung, is not the same as “professional development” or mentorship or achieving more specific certifications (although none of ­these are necessarily bad t­ hings). Rather, Bildung is embodied in an employment experience that is outside the immediate purview of the job. Many corporate retreats—­corporate-­sponsored events that aim to “hack” sector-­wide prob­lems—­actually get to this sort of 10. Walt Whitman, Demo­cratic Vistas (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1871). 11. Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” in Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 263. 12. Henry David Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, ed. Jeffrey S. Cramer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 132.

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personal growth rather nicely: they are often in beautiful places, provide time for workers to converse about nothing in par­tic­u­ lar, provide recreational outlets of the workers’ choosing, and encourage ­free expression on the com­pany’s dime. Now, this is not exactly Thoreauvian, but the point of Bildung is to get out of the hell-­hole of the meeting room, and convert fresh air, sunshine, and outdoor-­ness into a dynamic growth mindset. Again, Thoreau would have prob­ably called bullshit on this ­whole enterprise since corporate retreats are still geared to the bottom line, but workers find meaning and growth in such a setting, and perhaps that is a point Henry could accept. Growth is never to be confused with mere change. You can change jobs and coworkers, change roles and responsibilities, change offices and outfits, but never grow. Growth, the sort that is entailed in Bildung, is the cultivation of all of your faculties in line with the objectives that you set for yourself—­the purpose-­driven life is initiated by your determining what purposes you wish to pursue, and then exploring opportunities that allow you to pursue them. As a writer, it is easy to allow certain powers and abilities to atrophy: social skills wane, dorsal muscles ache, eyesight fails, migraines build, and nutrition is often sacrificed for real (but usually just ­imagined) genius. This lack of balance is the first sign that a worker has lost the North Star of self-­cultivation. By contrast, t­ here are workers who seem never to deviate from the faint, yet always, discernible path to growth. In Carlisle, the s­ ister town to Concord, Mas­sa­chu­setts, and a community that Thoreau called “city of the woods, which, if it is less civil, is the more natu­ral,”13 ­there is a yellow clapboard building at the center roundabout called Ferns. Ferns is one of ­those old-­time country stores that refuses to die. If you need 13. Thoreau, Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, 42.

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milk in the ­middle of a snowstorm, the owner Matt (a guy who also volunteers at the fire station) ­will bring it to you, and then plow your driveway. You ­don’t try to pay him. He ­doesn’t need or want the money. We suspect that Matt is growing in his job, but we ­really ­aren’t sure. We are sure about one of his employees: Gloria. Gloria is the heart and soul of the store. Ferns opens at 6:00 a.m., which is exactly two hours ­after Gloria wakes up—­every day. The store has a bustling business of early morning coffee drinkers, donut eaters, muffin scarfers, and croissant munchers. Gloria feeds and ­waters them all. The job, at first glance, might look like sheer drudgery, but Gloria, very clearly, is growing at Ferns. All of her is growing. “I like the p ­ eople that come in h ­ ere,” she said one morning. “And when no one is around, I get to read my books. It smells good in ­here too. And I like all the folks I work with. And ­these cookies and muffins ­won’t make themselves, and I think they are actually pretty darn good. Way better than when I first started.” She was definitely right about the last point. But what about the insane wake-up e­ very morning? “I get to watch the sunrise.” Gloria prob­ably d ­ oesn’t have any special corner on nirvana, but who knows? Perhaps this is the best that a h ­ uman can do in laboring through life. As Thoreau writes at the end of Walden, we must keep our eyes open for the dawn, for the dawn ­will certainly come, be it in the form of an a­ ctual sunrise, or the greeting of a new customer, or the smell of baking bread.

 ­ here must be a large number of Thoeauvian workers ­today T (at least we hope so)—­but we know painfully few, and only a few, like Gloria, come to mind. Another is Douglas Rand Anderson.

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Dr. A, as he was called by his students, was a professor of philosophy and one of the few academics in the dollar-­obsessed 1980s to keep the memory of Henry David Thoreau alive. This, however, does not make Doug, as his colleagues call him, a Thoreauvian worker. His life resembles something of Henry at work ­because he began it in a tannery, skinning, drying, and conditioning animal skins with his hands; he used the small amount of money he was paid to make the best of the necessities of life, abiding in small towns of southern New Hampshire. From the tanneries, Doug moved to plumbing, and then to construction, then to writing, then to teaching, and fi­nally back to writing. In truth, he wrote as a lifelong work. In his sixties, living in rural Connecticut, he’s been hired as a day laborer at a lumber mill and helps his wife manage her choco­ late business, both of which are anything but hugely profitable. Through it all, he learned German and Latin and Greek (just like Thoreau), and he knows more about the love of wisdom than us—or any endowed chair of the Ivy League, for that matter. That is a Thoreauvian at work. Recently we asked Doug, who lets his friends call him “Moose,” to describe meaningful work, Thoreau-­style. “Well, meaningful work is something in the end when it is done—is satisfying.” Yeah, but what did he mean by “satisfying”? “It is the feeling of not having wasted a day,” he paused for a second, “or an hour. It is not a high-­end emotion. Jobs should involve the physical and intellectual. You know: work that involves the w ­ hole being. I am with the Navajo on money—if you are chasing it, you are chasing the wrong t­ hing. Money is a byproduct of meaningful work, not the ultimate objective.” Thoreau would prob­ably roundly agree, but also encourage us to key in on the idea of a job drawing out “the w ­ hole being.” Many jobs ask workers to engage only a small subset

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of their talents: a computer programmer uses her analytic chops; a bricklayer his muscles and sense of balance; a marketing director her sense of buyer-­centricity; a CEO her grasp of orga­nizational management and rhe­toric. You get the idea: Emerson called it “harping on one string.”14 But the division of ­labor in modern economics, according to Thoreau and Emerson, corresponded with the disturbing division of the laborer, with parts that are used and t­ hose that atrophy and die. So how should we find work that nurtures and acknowledges the ­whole self? That is a very good question. In the last de­cade of Thoreau’s life, he seems to have struck upon something of an answer. His boyhood had been spent, some might inaccurately say “wasted,” wandering through the meadows of Concord and the surrounding Sudbury and Carlisle. He was taking a careful mea­sure of the land—­taking account of e­ very geographic nuance, e­ very tree (he was more or less obsessed with his leafy friends), dating the rock outcroppings, discovering ancient native burial grounds, finding himself in out-­of-­the-­way places. This boyish ecstasy for nature was imported into Thoreau’s adulthood as he crept through the Estabrook Woods, stalking a deer for a peek, or getting down on his stomach to commune with the snakes. He was Amer­i­ca’s beloved wild child, but also its greatest nature lover, who insisted that he had to spend four hours walking ­every day regardless of weather. It was not unusual for him to cover twenty miles on foot in a single day, and not in the Fitbit fanatic type of manner. It was as if the landscape called him to its furthest reaches, and he was more than happy to answer. “For many years I was self-­appointed inspector of snow-­storms and rain-­storms, and did my duty faithfully; surveyor, if not of 14. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1892), 106.

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highways, then of forest paths and all across-­lot routes, keeping them open, and ravines bridged and passable at all seasons, where the public heel had testified to their utility.”15 His working life as a surveyor might seem completely fated against this background, and perhaps it was, but it was also a ­matter of some chance. Remember, he purchased his first set of equipment as a way of teaching his students topography and geography, and only ­after this happy coincidence used it to fashion a part-­time vocation. “Part-­time” makes it sound less committed than it was, but you have to remember Thoreau’s view on being a day-­laborer: “For myself I found that the occupation of a day-­laborer was the most in­de­pen­dent of any.”16 Thoreau was contracted to survey the land of his neighbors in a similar way; it was a job that came and went in spurts, which was just as well for a man who wanted to spend his days in a variety of ways. Surveying appealed to Thoreau the naturalist, but also to Thoreau the scientist and disciple of accuracy. Mea­sur­ing life, accurately and truly, was his very basic calling, and surveying was for a long time an appropriate outlet. Armed with drafting tools and the most sophisticated fifteen-­inch compass, Thoreau bushwhacked and climbed through the landscape around town, providing a valuable ser­vice to its inhabitants, who anticipated Robert Frost’s comment that good fences make good neighbors. Thoreau’s meticulous maps survive ­today and stand up against any mea­sure of modern precision. Surveying allowed Thoreau to witness e­ very a­ ngle, ­every natu­ral incline, ­every magnitude, depth, and length. This was the work that he—­his ­whole self—­was born to do. Of course, even the most perfect vocation has its pitfalls and almost-­unforeseen tragedies. When Thoreau was hired to 15. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 17. 16. Ibid., 67.

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survey a large tract of land in Haverhill, north on the Merrimack River, it was for the purpose of clearing the land for sixty ­houses. Many of the local surveys he completed w ­ ere meant to cordon off wood lots that would be felled and sold. One eve­ning, while on a job, Henry caught sight of a landowner and a group of men evaluating the location of an old post hole to determine the bound­aries of a potential new field. All of a sudden, Henry imagined the owner surrounded by dev­ils, and directly next to him, the “prince of darkness,” the surveyor. One can heed the calling of a natu­ral vocation, but one should also be careful, Thoreau l­ ater wrote: “Trade curses every­thing it h ­ andles.”17

 What was the most fulfilling work that Thoreau ever did? Writing his monstrous journal that he thought that very few would ever read, and prob­ably only marginally more actually did? Or writing his Walden, which is widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of American arts and letters? Picking huckleberries with a bunch of kids on the hills of Concord? Surveying the land that he thought should never r­ eally be cordoned off? Building boats that would carry him up and down the w ­ aters that surrounded his town? Planting a melon patch with a dozen dif­fer­ent va­ri­e­ties, which supplied the summer parties of Concord? Making pencils of the utmost quality? Perhaps this is the wrong question entirely when it comes to meaningful work. The question concerning one’s occupation is not about finding the “most” fulfilling moment; rather it is striking upon the unique way that we take up the thoughtful l­abor of life, how we set it down at certain points, and how we renew it with unpre­ce­dented vigor. 17. Ibid.

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We have said l­ittle about the worth of work as a function of its worth to o ­ thers, and that has been an omission that deserves correction. ­There is a very famous quote often misattributed to Thoreau’s friend Emerson: To laugh often and much: To win the re­spect of intelligent ­people and the affection of c­ hildren, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in o ­ thers, to leave the world a bit better w ­ hether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier b ­ ecause you lived. This is to have succeeded.18

Hopefully this sentiment describes many ­people, but it depicts, with remarkably fidelity, the life work of Henry David Thoreau. T ­ here ­were very few adults in Concord of the nineteenth ­century who could have claimed this holistic notion of success—­other than Henry. Notice that success is not realized in one particularly fulfilling act of work. It ­isn’t that you have “to win the re­spect of intelligent p ­ eople” or “the affection of ­children.” You have to do it all in your good time, but d ­ on’t delay. Thoreau, despite his reputation as a cynic and recluse, was no stranger to joy and love: “­There is no law so strong which a ­little gladness may not transgress.”19 Thoreau insisted in 1853, “Pile up your books, the rec­ords of sadness, your saws and your laws. Nature is glad outside, and her merry worms within w ­ ill ere long topple them down. T ­ here is a prairie beyond your laws.”20 He led the Emerson ­children through 18. This “Emerson” quote is prob­ably from a piece written by Bessie A. Stanley for a December 11, 1905, issue of Emporia Gazette; see https://­quoteinvestigator​ .­com​/­2012​/­06​/­26​/­define​-­success​/­. 19. Thoreau, journal entry, January 3, 1853, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 4:446. 20. Ibid.

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their childhood, through the thickets and berry patches of New E ­ ngland, and was deeply loved for his efforts. His books and general com­pany w ­ ere cherished by the best and brightest of his time. He forgave Emerson his frequent condescension and lack of compassion. His entire life, from beginning to end, was structured around the apprehension of Beauty. From 1840: “Beauty is where it is perceived.”21 To 1855: “From the right point of view, e­ very storm and e­ very drop in it is a rainbow.”22 He made friends with the friendless, like his neighbor in the Estabrook Woods, Perez Blood, and he believed that the African Americans he helped on the Under­ground Railroad deserved to be ­free. He cultivated countless gardens—­and himself in the pro­cess. He was a voice for freedom, equality, self-­ reliance, and humility in an age that often sought to drown it out. And he left the best of himself in his writing—­for millions of readers like you. Perhaps t­here is no such t­hing as the “most fulfilling” moment of life or of work, but a way of orienting yourself to the daily grind, or to the harmonious work that is not r­ eally work at all. The task is to find a way forward that is consistently fulfilling, that reminds us that t­ here is a chance to be satisfied but also an opportunity to be better. If meaningful work turns on interest and goal, maybe t­ here is a way that we can deepen the meaning of both, always in the moment when we find ourselves. Thoreau reminds us that the challenge of finding fulfilling work is at once the challenge of remaining pre­sent, attentive, responsive to the moment. “You must live in the pre­sent, launch yourself on ­every wave, find your eternity 21. Henry David Thoreau, journal entry, December 16, 1840, in The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. H.G.O. Blake, vol. 7, Autumn: From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892), 439. 22. Thoreau, journal entry, December 11, 1855, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 8:44–45.

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in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look ­toward another land. T ­ here is no other land; t­ here is no other life but this, or the like of this.”23 In the end, this may be among the most impor­tant lessons we can glean from Henry David Thoreau’s life at work.

 Our work sometimes dies with us and sometimes goes on. Nothing is guaranteed. “One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels,” Thoreau writes in Walden.24 In ­either case, Thoreau reminds us that it is our aim that counts in the end. “In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high.”25 What is your aim? How high is your aim? Thoreau worried that we tend to lower our aim, or to forget our aims altogether, when we confuse the economy of life with economics in a reductive “productivity” sense. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who in­de­pen­dently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood u ­ nder a tree for shelter, a ­house­keeper. We now no longer camp for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.26

Thoreau makes room for t­ hose whose highest aim is working, or l­abor itself. “Some are ‘industrious,’ and appear to love ­labor for its own sake, or perhaps b ­ ecause it keeps them out 23. Thoreau, journal entry, April 24, 1859, in Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, ed. Torrey and Allen, 12:159. 24. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 10. 25. Ibid., 26. 26. Ibid., 36.

Fulfilling Wor k [ 171 ]

of worse mischief; to such I have at pre­sent nothing to say.”27 Certainly that is a rare type. Certainly neither of us fits this description. But maybe t­ here is a bittersweet pride some workers feel over the nonworker, particularly ­those healthy nonworkers who just happen to possess the means to live work-­free. Perhaps t­ here is a pride over p ­ eople who h ­ aven’t strug­gled with life mired in a miserable job; this is a fiery habanero that ­those with easier jobs w ­ ill never taste, a bit of hell that gives us twice the depth. Consider the Greek mythic figure of Sisyphus, doomed for eternity to the futile work of heaving a boulder up a mountain, only for it to roll back down to its original rut, where Sisyphus must start again and again. The French phi­los­o­pher Albert Camus wrote of Sisyphus’s endless ­labor and, despite every­ thing, encouraged us to affirm it. “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”28 Thoreau does sometimes express such tragic affirmation. In Walden, he writes of past employments: “For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my ­labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains w ­ ere their own reward.”29 But apart from you Sisypheans out ­there, the rest of us need more than work itself. We need that higher aim, that higher purpose, that forgotten heaven, even if we never get it. If we fail, so long as we aimed upward, we fail honestly. In a letter to his friend Calvin Harlow Greene, dated February 10, 1856, Thoreau wrote, “You may rely on it that you have the best of me in my books, and that I am not worth seeing 27. Ibid., 67. 28. Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus” and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 123. 29. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 17.

[ 172 ] ch a pter 10

personally—­the stuttering, blundering, clod-­hopper that I am. Even poetry, you know, is in one sense an infinite brag & exaggeration. Not that I do not stand on all that I have written—­but what am I to the truth I feebly utter!”30 Work, at its best, holds a transcendent power. It is the ability to leave something of worth ­behind, to elevate us and make us better ­people, to force us to “be in the moment” in ways that leisure typically does not, to evaluate the meaning of our lives with unpre­ce­dented clarity. And we can work, believe it or not, right up to the very end, even when our physical faculties abandon us. T ­ here is such a ­thing as ­mental and spiritual work. Robert ­Sullivan speculates that Thoreau’s purported last words, “moose” and “Indian,” show us Thoreau’s mind still “wrestling with his Maine papers, trying to get them into shape for publication, trying to make money for his ­family as he left them, and anxious to the end about meeting a deadline.”31 Thoreau may have died working on something that would only be accomplished by ­others. But no m ­ atter, that is often the case at the end of a truly meaningful life’s work. It may be that, in the end, you agree with Emerson’s l­ater view of Thoreau. In a journal entry of 1848, Emerson writes, “Henry Thoreau is like the woodgod who solicits the wandering poet and draws him into antres vast and deserts idle,32 and bereaves him of his memory, and leaves him naked, plaiting vines and with twigs in his hand. Very seductive are the

30. Henry David Thoreau to Calvin Harlow Greene, February 10, 1856, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 2, 1849–1856, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth, Elizabeth Hall Witherell, and Lihong Xie (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2018), 404. 31. Robert ­Sullivan, The Thoreau You D ­ on’t Know (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 275. 32. The phrase “antres vast and deserts idle” is from Shakespeare’s Othello, 1.3.139; “antres vast” means “vast caves.”

Fulfilling Wor k [ 173 ]

first steps from the town to the woods, but the End is want & madness.”33 But what if the madness is the other way around? “The cost of a t­ hing,” writes Thoreau, “is the amount of what I w ­ ill call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”34 What is the cost of your work? What amount of life have you exchanged for it? Now, what is the benefit? If you ­don’t know, or if costs exceed benefits, perhaps ­you’ve stepped from the woods to the town, only to end in want and madness. 33. Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1848, in The Journals and Miscellaneous ­ otebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. William H. Gilman and J. E. Pearsons N (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1970), 10:344. 34. Thoreau, Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition, 30.


The Business of Living

by now it should be clear that Henry spent his life at work, yet he never confused living with the busyness of life or the commercial success of the nine-­to-­five. Deadlines would come and go, but t­ here is r­ eally only one deadline to worry about, and that is the real dead-­line of life. Thoreau’s greatest worry was to come to the end of life only to discover that he had not lived. That is the real, not-­kidding-­around terror of ­dying. And it is why figuring out our work life is so absolutely impor­tant. We spend most of our waking hours d ­ oing it—­working, that is—­but most of us ­haven’t a clue about what it actually means. Thoreau’s work, documented in his voluminous writings, embodied in his many varied jobs, was meant to figure that out. He is both a model and a guide in what the business of living can be, what we should aspire to. When he died, his longest-­ standing, if not best, friend, Emerson joked that he lacked ambition, that he should have applied himself to real work, as they say ­today. Emerson failed to mention that Thoreau had helped raise his own ­children, taken care of his ­house, inspired his writings, and been a friend in a time of need. This is work as well, and prob­ably the sort that Henry never came to regret. Even and especially in his unambitious life, Thoreau was a master at the business of living.

 In writing this book, we did not totally neglect our ­family obligations or drive ourselves to the bone, but we worked hard, perhaps harder than we have ever worked at writing in our lives. We worked together, and in the pro­cess we made each other better writers and better p ­ eople. That is what Thoreau, along with Aristotle and countless other phi­los­o­phers, would call the task of true friendship. We hope that our l­ abor reflects something of Henry: his thoughts on work and life that might

Conclusion [ 177 ]

grow and ripen and be harvested by you. And we hope that reading this has not been an onerous and meaningless task. Thinking about “Henry at work” is of this moment: one in which a vast number of ­people are resigning their traditional posts, reconsidering the meaning of their professional lives, forgoing compensation for meaning, and struggling to justify themselves in a world of modern capital that lists ­toward injustice. In other words, the book is meant to be read now, which means that we ­were already too late in writing it. Like any meaningful moment of work, our work on this book seemed like no work at all, like we had been built for it, like we ­were just fulfilling our destiny. That d ­ oesn’t make us heroes in the business of living—­not like Thoreau—­but it does mean that we felt compelled, interested, and purpose-­driven in ways that we ­will remember and cherish for a very long time. That is our ultimate hope for you, that you may find something of this type of work and that you may seize it and remember that it can underpin a life of significance. That is work at its very best. Ultimately, any meaningful meditation on work comes down to the very clear, yet very bittersweet fact that the business of living is only as long as life itself. It is short and moves incredibly quickly, in exactly one direction—to the end. One of the authors of this book had a cardiac arrest at the age of forty. The other survived his own parasuicidal be­hav­iors and now lives with a ­woman, his wife, who suffers with the pain of fibromyalgia ­every day, and is pointedly aware that life is unfair and finite. ­Human finitude is bittersweet, ­because it is at once constraining and motivating: the time that we have is short and therefore precious. We need to find our proper station in life as quickly as pos­si­ble and apply ourselves to it. In 1850, when Thoreau took the job of mourning the loss of Margaret Fuller on the shores of Fire Island, he did more than just search in vain for her remains on a desolate beach.

[ 178 ] Conclusion

He performed a task that is extremely valuable: he discovered what might be the ultimate meaning of h ­ uman fragility. In the face of a life cut short, Henry concluded, “I say to myself—­Do a ­little more of that work which you have confessed to be good.”1 Good work. That is all that is required in a Thoreauvian life. Its goodness does not necessarily turn on God’s grace or the permission of some higher power (although it very well might), but on one’s willingness and ability to “confess” that the task was good. While we are alive, we have the ability to “make good” on the business of living. A ­ fter his failed search-­ and-­rescue mission, Thoreau reflected on the chance to save ourselves through work, continuing, “If ­there is an experiment which you would like to try, try it. Do not entertain doubts if they are not agreeable to you. . . . ​Do what nobody ­else can do for you. Omit to do anything ­else. It is not easy to make our lives respectable by any course of activity.”2 Indeed, it is not easy at all: it is all too s­ imple to squander the time we have left, to pick activities and tasks that are unfulfilling, but Thoreau, from beginning to end, showed us that it is pos­si­ble, even if we all frequently fail. Each of us can do “a ­little more of that good work.” In the words of Wendell Berry, who is as close to Thoreau as any writer of the twenty-­first ­century, “The old and honorable idea of ‘vocation’ is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted.”3 In truth, what Thoreau was actually looking for on Fire Island w ­ asn’t Margaret Fuller’s 1. Henry David Thoreau to Harrison Gray Otis Blake, August 9, 1850, in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 2, 1849–1856, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth, Elizabeth Hall Witherell, and Lihong Xie (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2018), 78. 2. Ibid. 3. Wendell Berry, “Wendell Berry on Work,” Progressive 74, no. 11 (2010): 6.

Conclusion [ 179 ]

body (what use is that in the end?) but rather another type of corpus, a manuscript that she had spent years working on and had hoped to transport to Amer­i­ca. It was lost, but the point is not: it is the work that ­matters. That is what remains.

 Make hay while the sun still shines. The expression meant something very real, very power­ful to Thoreau, who often felt himself passing away all too quickly. He died at the age of forty-­four, of tuberculosis, the scourge of his life, often exacerbated by his habits of working outside in the rain. Work is always a deadly business. And so is life—we d ­ on’t get out of it alive. In our waking hours, however, we get to confess to our “good work,” right up to the point where life quits us. Make hay while the sun still shines. The expression meant something very real to Thoreau’s neighbors, even if they failed to understand its existential gravity. Concord is situated on what the Native Americans called the Musketaquid, meaning “a place where the ­water flows through the grass.” ­Today it is called an “alluvial meadow,” a term for a grassland that is fed by rivers. For ten generations before Thoreau, ­humans had been supported on this land, by this land. The rivers produced “muck,” a technical term for soil fortified, created, and watered by the rivers. The muck produced hay. The hay produced ­cattle fodder. The cows produced manure. The manure produced fertilizer. The fertilizer produced arable land. The land produced grain. The grain produced bread. And the bread sustained the ­people of Concord. ­There is only one hitch in this beautiful food chain, in this story about work and production, and every­one knew it: the sun would eventually set or tuck ­behind a dark cloud, and the floods would come. When the floods came, every­thing was

[ 180 ] Conclusion

ruined: the hay would be soaked and rot in the fields, and the ­people would go hungry. When the floods came, every­thing died. And the floods would always come—it was only a ­matter of time. This is why the p ­ eople of the Musketaquid had to harvest the hay when the sun still shined. They would work together, quickly, like their lives depended on it—­because they did. The hay would be stored in barns and silos for a rainy day, or for ­future inhabitants, some of whom ­were yet to be born. This may be the sacred nature of meaningful work, that something remains a­ fter we are gone, that it can sustain t­ hose who carry on. Henry David Thoreau has helped us see this essential truth about the business of living. He knew the floods would come. He knew that the proper response to death was to work in the face of it. One of the very first of Thoreau’s good works was a construction proj­ect that he undertook in the summer of 1836, at the age of nineteen, “the manufacturing [of] a vessel in miniature, not [a well-­benched] ship as Homer would have it but a kind of oblong trough.”4 It was, as he said, a boat to “keep body and soul together.”5 Thoreau would build many boats in his life, the most famous of which he christened the Musketaquid, ­after the w ­ aters that would eventually rise and lift it up, raise him up. This may be the sacred nature of meaningful work, that it keeps us afloat and carries us on as the skies darken and the floods gather. ­After our work is done, we might be lucky enough to utter Thoreau’s last words: “And now comes good sailing.”6 4. Thoreau to Charles Wyatt Rice, August 5, 1836, in Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence, vol. 1, 1834–1848, ed. Robert N. Hudspeth (Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2013), 12. 5. Ibid. 6. See Kathy Fedorko, “Revisiting Henry’s Last Words,” The Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 295 (2016): 2.

A Sel ec t i v e Chronol og y of Thor e au’s Wor k L if e

1833 Thoreau starts his college ­career at Harvard College. 1834 To help pay for Harvard, Thoreau and his ­father go to New York City to sell Thoreau-­brand pencils. 1835 Thoreau leaves Harvard for a ­little more than three months; during this time, he works in Canton, Mas­sa­ chu­setts, as a teacher. 1837 May 10: a catastrophic run on US banks sparks the “Panic of 1837,” leading to a major economic depression, a­ fter which it took the economy seven years to fully recover. June 1: Thoreau gradu­ates from Harvard into a depressed economy. Works as a teacher at the Center School in Concord, but quits a few weeks l­ ater; in late October, begins journaling. 1838 Thoreau opens, with his ­brother, John, a small school, once the Concord Acad­emy, and they employ nature walks and philosophical discussion rather than memorization and punishment as pedagogical methods. It expands quickly. 1839 Thoreau works at his ­father’s pencil mill and delivers his first address at the Lyceum. 1841 Thoreau publishes poetry and essays in the Dial, the literary magazine and organ of American Transcendentalism. 1842 Thoreau closes the school due to John’s poor health. [ 181 ]

[ 182 ] A Selecti v e Chronology

1843 John Thoreau Jr. dies of lockjaw in his ­brother Henry’s arms. 1844 Thoreau spends nearly eleven months on Staten Island tutoring William Emerson’s c­ hildren. 1845 Thoreau begins his two-­year, two-­month, two-­day experiment in deliberate living at Walden Pond by constructing and dwelling in a single-­room cabin. 1846 While at Walden, Thoreau drafts A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his first book. 1846 June: Thoreau spends a night in jail for evading the poll tax due to his objection to US imperialism. 1847 September: A ­ fter leaving Walden, Thoreau agrees to take up residence at the Emerson h ­ ouse­hold while Waldo is away on a Eu­ro­pean lecture tour. Thoreau tutors and cares for Emerson’s ­children and becomes close friend to Lidian Emerson. 1849 Against the advice of Emerson, Thoreau publishes A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, which is a distinct and total financial failure. Thoreau is left with seven hundred unsold copies of the book. 1849 “Re­sis­tance to Civil Government,” l­ ater known as “Civil Disobedience,” is published for the first time. 1850 July: Margaret Fuller dies in a shipwreck off the coast of Fire Island, New York. Thoreau scours the beach for her remains at Emerson’s request. 1850 Thoreau begins his extensive work as a surveyor.

A Selecti v e Chronology [ 183 ]

1852 Thoreau begins to revise Walden in earnest, employing his extensive journals, allowing the seasons to structure the narrative. 1853 Thoreau publishes excerpts from Walden in Putnam’s Monthly, as well as parts of A Yankee in Canada. 1854 Thoreau publishes Walden; or, Life in the Woods. 1859 Thoreau piques the ire of his neighbors by giving his defense of John Brown. 1860 Thoreau falls seriously ill with a cold, which would linger and eventually prove fatal. The spell was brought on by a winter trip to Walden Woods to count the rings of trees. 1861 Thoreau’s notes for his book on Native Americans reaches its full proportion at more than ten volumes. This book would never be completed. 1862 May 6: Death of Henry David Thoreau. 2023 Thoreau’s memory is carried on by millions of readers.

Ack now l ­e dgm e n ts

john k a ag would like to thank his wife, Kathleen, his coworker in all t­ hings, who has over the years taught him the value of love and genuine interest in the ­labors of life. Their kids, Henry and Becca, are sources of constant inspiration and a reminder that the workday needs to end and recreation needs to begin. And the nonhuman beasts—­Seymour, Lily, and Mowgli—­provided much-­needed comic relief when ­things seemed gray and bleak. Kaag is horrible at acknowl­ edgments. But he loves his ­family dearly and knows very clearly that his ability to write and work happily is keyed to its continued vibrance. He would like to thank Mr. van Belle for making this book pos­si­ble and for bearing with his eccentricities and mood—­and for making the pages sing, that too. Rob Tempio, the editor of Henry at Work, Markus Hoffman, and Clancy Martin w ­ ere invaluable readers through a whirlwind of writing. Fi­nally, Kaag would like to thank his ­mother, Becky Kaag, for being worker par excellence (and he only wishes she would have been able to work and play longer). jonathan van belle wishes to thank his wife, Zuriel; he ­will go wherever, whenever, with her, with the dandelion’s love of g ­ oing, to ­every Eden of the earth, and beyond their gates. Their Miniature Schnauzer, Nietz­sche, whose trumpeting and gamboling is the sweetest example of loving one’s work, also deserves a bark of acknowl­edgment. Bark! Eternal gratitude, as well, to his m ­ other, Robin, and f­ ather, Steve, for defying the antinatalists. He would like to thank, endlessly, Dr. Kaag for actualizing aspirations long nursed and for demonstrating [ 185 ]

[ 186 ] Ack now ledgmen ts

kindness, fairness, and friendship in ­every way at ­every step of the way. John at work deserves its own book—­and a romantic portrait in the spirit of Caspar David Friedrich. ­There is not enough confetti in the world to celebrate Rob Tempio, whose twenty-­five-­hour workdays deserve more than acknowl­ edgment, but encomium; nor enough champagne to toast Hank Southgate, our copyeditor, for his ea­gle eye. Fi­nally, Jonathan wishes to thank his grandparents, Don and Lillian van Belle, for their love and wisdom. He would like to ask God to re­create in heaven the home they gave him. Streets of gold would not delight him, u ­ nless one of ­those golden streets read, “Karnes Way.”

Bibl iogr a ph y

Primary Lit­er­a­ture books and essays Thoreau, Henry David. Essays: A Fully Annotated Edition. Edited and annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013. —­—­—. Sir Walter Raleigh. Boston: The Bibliophile Society, 1905. —­—­—. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Edited and annotated by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. —­—­—. “Walden,” “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Journal, Reviews and Posthumous Assessments, Criticism. Norton Critical Edition. 3rd ed. Edited by William Rossi. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. —­—­—. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden; or, Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod. Edited by Robert F. Sayre. The Library of Amer­i­ca. New York: The Library of Amer­i­ca, 1985.

the journal Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis H. Allen. 14 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949. —­—­—. The Journal of Henry D. Thoreau. Vol. 1, edited by Elizabeth Hall Witherell, Robert Sattelmeyer, and Thomas Blanding. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 1981.

correspondence Thoreau, Henry David. The Correspondence of Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Walter Harding and Carl Bode. New York: New York University Press, 1958. —­—­—. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence. Vol. 1, 1834– 1848, edited by Robert N. Hudspeth. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2013. —­—­—. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: The Correspondence. Vol. 2, 1849– 1856, edited by Robert N. Hudspeth, Elizabeth Hall Witherell, and Lihong Xie. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2018.

[ 187 ]

[ 188 ] Bibliogr a ph y other Thoreau, Henry David. ­Great Short Works of Henry David Thoreau. Edited by Wendell Glick. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. —­—­—. The Writings of Henry David Thoreau. Edited by H.G.O. Blake. Vol. 7, Autumn: From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892.

Secondary Lit­er­a­ture: On Thoreau Blauner, Andrew, ed. Now Comes Good Sailing: Writers Reflect on Henry David Thoreau. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 2021. Bridgman, Richard. Dark Thoreau. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Cafaro, Philip. Thoreau’s Living Ethics: “Walden” and the Pursuit of Virtue. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2004. Channing, William Ellery. Thoreau the Poet-­Naturalist: With Memorial Verses. Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902. Dann, Kevin T. Expect ­Great ­Things: The Life and Search of Henry David Thoreau. New York: TarcherPerigee, 2017. Dean, Bradley P. “Thoreau and Michael Flannery.” The Concord Saunterer 17, no. 3 (1984): 27–33. Emerson, Edward Waldo. Henry David Thoreau as Remembered by a Young Friend. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917. Fedorko, Kathy. “Revisiting Henry’s Last Words.” Thoreau Society Bulletin, no. 295 (2016): 1–4. Fink, Steven. Prophet in the Marketplace: Thoreau’s Development as a Professional Writer. Prince­ton, NJ: Prince­ton University Press, 1992. Gross, Robert A. “Culture and Cultivation: Agriculture and Society in Thoreau’s Concord.” Journal of American History 69, no. 1 (1982): 42–61. —­—­—. The Transcendentalists and Their World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. Grusin, Richard. “Thoreau, Extravagance, and the Economy of Nature.” American Literary History 5, no. 1 (1993): 30–50. Harding, Walter. “Five Ways of Looking at Walden.” In Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” 85–96. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Kaag, John. “Thoreau’s Cynicism, and Our Own.” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19, 2017. https://­www​.­chronicle​.­com​/­article​/­thoreaus​-­cynicism​ -­and​-­our​-­own. —­—­—. “Thoreau: The Wild Child at 200.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 7, 2017. https://­www​.­chronicle​.­com​/­article​/­thoreau​-­the​-­wild​-­child​-­at​-­200​/­. Kaag, John, and Clancy Martin. “At Walden, Thoreau W ­ asn’t ­Really Alone with Nature.” New York Times, July 10, 2017. https://­www​.­nytimes​.­com​/­2017​/­07​ /­10​/­opinion​/­thoreaus​-­invisible​-­neighbors​-­at​-­walden​.­html. Kaag, John, and Jonathan van Belle. “Thoreau’s Economics: The Truly Precious Cost Precious L ­ ittle.” Psyche, October 20, 2021. https://­psyche​.­co​/­ideas​ /­thoreaus​-­economics​-­the​-­truly​-­precious​-­costs​-­precious​-­little.

Bibliogr a ph y [ 189 ] —­—­—. “What Thoreau Can Teach Us about the G ­ reat Resignation.” Fast Com­pany, November 11, 2021. https://­www​.­fastcompany​.­com​/­90695132​/­what​-­thoreau​ -­can​-­teach​-­us​-­about​-­the​-­great​-­resignation. Lawrence, Jerome, and Robert E. Lee. The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. Lemire, Elise V ­ irginia. Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Mas­sa­chu­setts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Mc­Ken­zie, Jonathan. The Po­liti­cal Thought of Henry David Thoreau: Privatism and the Practice of Philosophy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Meyer, Michael. Introduction to “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience,” by Henry David Thoreau, 7–36. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Neufeldt, Leonard. The Economist: Henry Thoreau and Enterprise. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. Pinksy, Robert. “Comedy, Cruelty, and Tourism: Thoreau’s Cape Cod.” American Scholar 73, no. 3 (2004): 79–88. Richardson, Robert D. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. ­Sullivan, Robert. The Thoreau You ­Don’t Know. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Thorson, Robert M. The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. The Walden Woods Proj­ect. “The Thoreau Log. 1844.” Accessed February 19, 2022. https://­www​.­walden​.­org​/­log​-­page​/­1844​/­. Walls, Laura Dassow. Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. Willis, Frederick Llewellyn Hovey. Alcott Memoirs: Posthumously Compiled from Papers, Journals and Memoranda of the Late Dr. Frederick L. H. Willis. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915.

Secondary Lit­er­a­ture: Miscellaneous Albee, John. Remembrances of Emerson. New York: Robert Grier Cooke, 1901. Alexander, Scott. “Are the Amish Unhappy?” Slate Star Codex, April 2, 2018. https://­slatestarcodex​ .­com​/­2018​/­04​/­02​/­are​-­the​-­amish​-­unhappy​ -­super​ -­happy​-­just​-­meh​/­. Aristotle. Aristotle’s “Politics.” 2nd ed. Translated by Carnes Lord. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. Axon, Samuel. “Big Tech Companies Are at War with Employees over Remote Work.” Ars Technica, August 1, 2021. https://­arstechnica.​ ­com​/­gadgets​/­2021​ /­08​/­vaccines​-­reopenings​-­and​-­worker​-­revolts​-­big​-­techs​-­contentious​-­return​ -­to​-­the​-­office​/­. Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to De­cadence: 1500 to the Pre­sent. New York: Harper­ Collins Publishers, 2000. Berlin, Isaiah. “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Four Essays on Liberty, 118–172. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

[ 190 ] Bibliogr a ph y Berry, Wendell. “Wendell Berry on Work.” Progressive 74, no. 11 (2010): 6–8. Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. Camus, Albert. “The Myth of Sisyphus” and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage International, 1991. Child, Lydia Maria. The American Frugal House­wife. Garden City, NY: Dover, 1999. Delbanco, Andrew, ed. Writing New ­England: An Anthology from the Puritans to the Pre­sent. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2001. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Conduct of Life. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1892. —­—­—. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by William H. Gilman and J. E. Pearsons. 16 vols. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1960–1982. —­—­—. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Ralph L. Rusk. 6 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1939. —­—­—. The Selected Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Edited by Joel Myerson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. —­—­—. Self-­Reliance and Other Essays. Edited by Stanley Applebaum. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1993. —­—­—. “Thoreau.” Atlantic, August 1862. https://­www​.­theatlantic​.­com​/­magazine​ /­archive​/­1862​/­08​/­thoreau​/­306418​/­. Fantham, Elaine. Introduction to Georgics, by Virgil, xi–­xxxiii. Translated by Peter Fallon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. French, Mary Adams. Memories of a Sculptor’s Wife. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928. Gandhi. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. 12. The Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1964. Gettinger, Dan. “Study: Drones in the FY 2019 Defense Bud­get.” The Center for the Study of the Drone (blog). April 9, 2018. https://­dronecenter​.­bard​.­edu​ /­drones​-­in​-­the​-­fy19​-­defense​-­budget​/­. Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin Books, 1987. Ha­ri, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real C ­ auses of Depression—­and the Unexpected Solutions. New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Hawking, Stephen. A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. New York: Bantam Books, 1988. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edited by Thomas Woodson, James A. Rubino, L. Neal Smith, and Norman Holmes Pearson. 23 vols. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1962–1997. James, William. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981. —­—­—. The ­Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popu­lar Philosophy. New York: Longmans, Green, 1912. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Bibliogr a ph y [ 191 ] Lincoln, Abraham. Lincoln on the Civil War: Selected Speeches. New York: Penguin Books, 2011. Matsumoto, Shoukei. “Soji (掃除): A Meditation on Zen Cleaning.” Ignota (blog). March 20, 2020. https://­ignota​.­org​/­blogs​/­news​/­soji. McDermott, Rachel Fell, Leonard A. Gordon, Ainslie T. Embree, Frances W. Pritchett, and Dennis Dalton, eds. Sources of Indian Tradition. 3rd ed. Vol. 2, Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. McInerney, Jay. “Still Asking the Embarrassing Questions.” New York Times, September 9, 1990. https://­www​.­nytimes​.­com​/­1990​/­09​/­09​/­books​/­still​-­asking​ -­the​-­embarassing​-­questions​.­html. McIntyre, Iain, ed. On the Fly! Hobo Lit­er­a­ture and Songs, 1879–1941. Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018. Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-­Street.” Proj­ect Gutenberg. https://www​.­gutenberg​.­org​/­ebooks​/­11231. Nietz­sche, Friedrich. Die fröhliche Wissenschaft. In Kritische Studienausgabe, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, 3:343–651. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2020. Noble, David F. The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. London: Penguin Books, 1999. Pleij, Herman. Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life. Translated by Diane Webb. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Porphyry. Porphyry the Phi­los­o­pher to His Wife Marcella. Translated and with introduction by Alice Zimmern. London: George Redway, 1896. Sartre, Jean-­Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays. 2 vols. Translated by E.F.J. Payne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Smith, Adam. The Wealth of Nations, Books I–­III. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin Books, 1986. Stoll, Steven. The G ­ reat Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth. New York: Hill and Wang, 2008. Sucher, Sandra J., and Shalene Gupta. “Worried about the G ­ reat Resignation? Be a Good Com­pany to Come from.” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge (Harvard Business School), August 4, 2021. https://­hbswk​.­hbs​.­edu​/­item​ /­worried​-­about​-­the​-­great​-­resignation​-­be​-­a​-­good​-­company​-­to​-­come​-­from. Sweet, Paul Robinson. Wilhelm von Humboldt: A Biography. 2 vols. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 1978. Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books, 2011. US Department of L ­ abor, Office of Child L ­ abor, Forced L ­ abor, and ­Human Trafficking, Bureau of International L ­ abor Affairs (ILAB). 2020 List of Goods Produced by Child L ­ abor or Forced L ­ abor. 2021. https://­www​.­dol​.­gov​/­agencies​ /­ilab​/­reports​/­child​-­labor​/­list​-­of​-­goods. Whitman, Walt. Demo­cratic Vistas. New York: J. S. Redfield, 1871.

[ 192 ] Bibliogr a ph y Virgil. Georgics. Translated by Janet Lembke. Yale New Classics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005. —­—­—. Georgics. Translated by Peter Fallon. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. —­—­—. Virgil in Two Volumes. Vol. 1, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid I–­VI. Translated by Henry Rushton Fairclough. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Works on Work Applebaum, Herbert. The Concept of Work: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. Barbash, Jack. “Which Work Ethic?” In The Work Ethic—­A Critical Analy­sis, edited by Jack Barbash, Robert J. Lampman, Sar A. Levitan, and Gus Tyler, 231–261. Bloomington, IL: Industrial Relations Research Association, 1983. Budd, John W. The Thought of Work. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2011. Crawford, Matthew. Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. Danaher, John. “­Will Life Be Worth Living in a World without Work? Technological Unemployment and the Meaning of Life.” Science and Engineering Ethics 23, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019. Geuss, Raymond. A Phi­los­o­pher Looks at Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Noonan, Jeff. “Luddites, ­Labor, and Meaningful Lives: Would a World without Work R ­ eally Be Best?” Journal of Social Philosophy 51, no. 3 (2020): 441–456. Terkel, Studs. Working: ­People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do. New York: Pantheon Books, 1974. Weeks, Kathi. The Prob­lem with Work. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. Zuboff, Shoshana. “The Work Ethic and Work Organ­ization.” In The Work Ethic: A Critical Analy­sis, edited by Jack Barbash, Robert J. Lampman, Sar A. Levitan, and Gus Tyler, 153–181. Bloomington, IL: Industrial Relations Research Association, 1983.

Il lust r at ion Cr edi ts

Page ix

Bundle of nails, 19th ­century. Concord Museum Collection, Mr. Walton Ricketson and Miss Anna Ricketson; Th33c.

Page 1

Bed, about 1810; 1845. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Cummings E. Davis or George Tolman; Th2.

Page 21

Desk, about 1838. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Cummings E. Davis; Th10.

Page 35

Pencil boxes, 1850–1860. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Mrs. Herbert B. Hosmer; Th59 & Th106.

Page 53

Plan of Bateman Wood-­lots (so called) belonging to Charles Gordon, Concord Mas­sa­chu­setts, November 9, 1857. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Raymond Emerson; Th1.

Page 73

Spyglass, about 1854. Concord Museum Collection, Mr. Walton Ricketson and Miss Anna Ricketson; Th41.

Page 83

T square, about 1850. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Cummings E. Davis or George Tolman; Th13.

Page 99

Surveying chain, about 1850. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Cummings E. Davis or George Tolman; Th32.

Page 119  J. Thoreau and Son pencil label, 1850–1860. Concord Museum Collection, Mr. Walton Ricketson and Miss Anna Ricketson; Th33h. [ 193 ]

[ 194 ] Illustr ation Cr edits

Page 139

Penobscot snowshoes, about 1853. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Cummings E. Davis or George Tolman; Th26.

Page 153

Wood box for geological specimens, about 1849. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Mrs. Gilbert S. Tower; Th114.

Page 175

Drafting instruments, about 1850. Concord Museum Collection, Gift of Cummings E. Davis or George Tolman; Th12b-­g and Th14.

I n de x

abolitionism: of Lydia Maria Child, xxiii; of Thoreau, x, xix–xx accountability: Gandhi and, xxi; systems operating without, 103. See also responsibility Adams, John, 158–59 agriculture: child and forced ­labor in, 47; Virgil’s Georgics and, 42–44. See also farmers; farms Alcott, Amos Bronson, xviii, 141 Alcott, Louisa May, xiii alienation: coworkers and, 141, 151; Marx on, xvii; supported by our own choices, xxi–­xxii; in systems without accountability, 103; in the world of work, xvi Allen, Phineas, xiii Amish, 62–63, 64–65 Anderson, Douglas Rand, 163–64 Anthropocene, 57 apologia of life’s work, 92 Aristophanes, 45 Aristotle, 133–34, 142, 143, 176 artificial intelligence, 60, 67, 70 autonomy: modern organ­izations and, 13; self-­cultivation and, 159–60; technology and, 67. See also freedom bad faith, 100–103, 115 Ball, Nehemiah, 17–19, 18n bankruptcy, 9 “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (Melville), 94 bean-­field, 28, 39–41, 106 beauty, Thoreau’s apprehension of, 169

Becky (John’s ­mother): end-­of-­life care for, 97; manual work of, 36–37, 38, 42, 51–52 Berlin, Isaiah, 85 Berry, Wendell, 178 Bhagavad Gita, 39 “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” 59–60, 71 Bildung, 159–60, 161–62 Billerica Dam, 61 Black residents of Walden, 105–6, 107 Black workers, on night shift, 32 Blake, Harrison Gray Otis, 60, 102 Blood, Perez, 142, 169 boats, built by Thoreau, xii, 167, 180 bosses: clocking in for, 23; hiring ­others to do their work, 107; resignation to get away from, 18–19 Bostrom, Nick, 67 Briggs, Charles Frederick, xiv–xv Brook Farm, xviii, 141 Brown, John, 183 Brownson, Orestes, xiii, 46 Buddhism, 50–51, 112, 123, 129 burn-­out, 19–20 business of living, Thoreau as master at, 176 camel, xiv, 48, 50 Camus, Albert, 96, 171 Cape Cod (Thoreau), 77–80 capitalism, modern: coworkers in, 140–41; difficulty of finding fulfilling work in, 157–58; nineteenth-­century rethinking of, xvii–­xix; pretentiousness in, 114–15; resignation to opt out of,

[ 195 ]

[ 196 ] index capitalism, modern (continued) 3, 177; suspicion of government and institutions in, 14; Thoreau’s attempt to get away from, 6; Thoreau’s criticism of, xvi, 14, 95; work schedules and, 24 changing jobs, without personal growth, 162 changing oneself: to change the world, xxi; when burnt-­out, 19–20. See also personal growth Channing, William Ellery, xi, 78–79, 142, 145 Child, Lydia Maria, xxiii–­xxiv child ­labor, international, 47 choices: about where to find meaning, 96; Emerson’s criticism of Thoreau and, 11–12; supporting monstrous substructure, xxi–­xxii chronotypes, 30–31, 32 “Civil Disobedience” (Thoreau), xi, xx, xxiii, 25, 109–10, 182 Civil War: Gatling gun in, 66; harm princi­ple and, 108; slavery and, xix class realities, 31–33 climate change, 10 clocking in, 22–23; dark jokes and, 77; social class and, 32–33; Thoreau’s subversive message about, 33. See also work schedules The Clouds (Aristophanes), 45 Cockaigne, 58, 59–60, 71 communal living, Transcendentalists’ experiments in, xviii–­xix, 141 communication: disconnected by technology, 63–64; precluded by pretentiousness, 114 commuting, 4, 12, 22 compensation, Emersonian notion of, 121, 129 compensation for work: forgone for meaning, 177; giving up freedom and self re­spect for, 129; matched to wants and needs, 121–23;

opportunity costs of, 136–37; writers and, 121; recorded in Walden, 123. See also money Concord, grassland sustaining ­people of, 179–80 Concord Acad­emy, xiii Concord Lyceum lectures, 77, 80, 181 Concord River, Thoreau’s boat on, xii consumerism: debt resulting from, 9; supporting immoral businesses, 114; Thoreau’s orientation to money and, 7, 125; work schedules and, 24 cooperation: Thoreau on, xxii–­xxiii; in utopian experiments, 141 corporal punishment, 17–19 corporate retreats, 161–62 cosmos: Diogenes as citizen of, 15–16; work as ­human response to, 24 cost of a ­thing: in terms of life exchanged for it, 173; and wants vs. needs, 126 coveting what ­others have, xxiv, xxv Covid-19. See pandemic coworkers: compared to solo work, 140; deliberate living and, 141–42; friction with, 148–49; Lao Tzu on solitude and, 152; in large offices and factories, 140–41; as a source of support, 151–52; Thoreau as disagreeable coworker, 148–51; Thoreau’s experiences with, 141–42, 143–44; Thoreau’s turn to deep past for, 146–48; unsatisfying social virtues and, 142–43 Coyle, Hugh, 107 coyote proj­ect, 88–89 Cramer, Jeffrey S., xiii cynicism, 12–17, 168 Dante, 148 dark jokes, 76–81 day laborers at Walden, 126, 166

index [ 197 ] death: Thoreau’s response to fact of, 176, 180. See also life, as tragically short debt, 9 Declaration of In­de­pen­dence, 37, 106, 159 deliberate living: ancient thinkers supporting task of, 145–47; in end-­of-­life care, 97; in a person’s home, xxi, xxv; self-­sufficiency and, 11; and Thoreau’s experiment at Walden, 13, 92; Thoreau’s orientation to money and, 125; in working together, 141–42, 144–45 depression, economic: ­Great Depression, 10, 59–60, 116; as Thoreau graduated from Harvard, 4, 75 depression, emotional, 20 Dewey, John, 42 Diogenes, xiv–xv, 14, 15–16 division of l­ abor, 49–50, 120, 165 drudgery, 49, 51, 85, 95 Earl (John’s grand­father), 51 Eclogues (Virgil), 43 ecol­ogy, 29 economy, American: pivotal transition in, xii, xv–­xvi; Thoreau’s critique of, xvi, 7–8. See also capitalism, modern; Industrial Revolution “economy”: changes in meanings of, 23–24; Greek root of, xvi–­xvii education: for meaningful work, 13; self-­cultivation and, 159–60 elitism: Thoreau accused of, xxvi; of Thoreau-­era Harvard, 12–13 Emerson, Lidian, xii, 142, 145 Emerson, Ralph Waldo: abolitionism and, xix; autonomy in modern organ­izations and, 13; Brook Farm and, xviii; on compensation in the universe, 121, 129; cowork with Thoreau, 142, 143–45; criticizing Thoreau for “no ambition,”

11–12, 145, 176; Dewey’s admiration for, 42; eulogy for Thoreau by, 11–12, 145, 149–50; on following yourself wherever you go, 94; on foolish consistency, 3; helped and inspired by Thoreau, 176; Humboldt’s ideas on self-­ cultivation and, 160; ­later critical view of Thoreau, 172–73; loan and letter of recommendation for Thoreau from, 5; machine ­labor and, 56; Margaret Fuller and, 113, 144–45; Nietz­sche influenced by, 160; praising Thoreau’s first book, 121; self-­reliance and, 13, 37, 102, 106, 144, 158; on social virtues at work, 143; Thoreau’s construction work for, xii; Thoreau’s forgiveness for, 169; Tho­ reau’s helping raise c­ hildren of, xii, 11–12, 168–69, 176; on Thoreau’s humor, 77; on work that nurtures the ­whole self, 165 Emerson, William, 26, 182 Epicureanism, 14 Estabrook Woods, 165, 169 ethics: machines and, 67, 70; self-­ cultivation and, 160; Thoreau as model of moral work, 116–18; Thoreau’s moral inconsistencies and, 100; Thoreauvian guidelines for, 100–103 Etzler, John Adolphus, 55–57, 59, 61–62, 68 exploitation, lifestyles depending on, 45–48 Fallon, Peter, 44 Fantham, Elaine, 43 farmers: sons of, 93, 94, 101–2; Thoreau’s disapproval of, 110–11 farms: cruelty of factory farming, 65; effect of migration to cities on, xix; Thoreau and, 13, 129. See also agriculture

[ 198 ] index Ferns, 162–63 financial crisis of 2008, 112–13 fire, accidentally set, 5–6, 75 Flannery, Michael, 116–17 flex time, 28 Flint’s Pond, 127–29 forced ­labor: international, 47; Thoreau’s prediction about continuation of, 105. See also slavery Ford, Joseph, 29 freedom: acting in good faith and, 100–103; Emerson on orga­ nizational sacrifice of, 13; given up for money, 129; lack of personal accountability and loss of, 103; from manual l­ abor, 57–60; of the privileged; of remote work, 4, 11; resignation and, 3, 16; technology and, 59; Thoreau as voice for, 169. See also autonomy Freeman, Brister, 105–6, 107 French, Mary Adams, 86–87 friendship, 142, 145, 150, 151, 169, 176–77 Fruitlands, xiii, 141 Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, xix–xx fulfilling work. See meaningful work Fuller, Margaret, 113, 144–45, 177, 178–79 Gandhi, Mahatma, xx–­xxi Gatling, Richard Jordan, 66 Gatling gun, 66 Gelassenheit, 63 Genesis, Book of, 43, 57–58 Georgics (Virgil), 42–44, 138 German thinkers, on self-­cultivation, 159–60 Gibbons, Peter, 150 good faith, 100–101, 114 graphite, xii, xiv grave robbers, 135–36 ­Great Depression, 10, 59–60, 116 ­Great Recession, 10

­ reat Resignation, xxv, 3–4, 10–12, 177 G Greene, Calvin Harlow, 171–72 Gross, Robert, 18n Harding, Walter, 116 Ha­ri, Johann, 64 harm princi­ple, 108 Harvard: Thoreau as gradu­ate of, 4, 17, 31–32, 75; Thoreau’s time at, xiii, 12–13, 25–26 Hawking, Steven, 68 Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 148 health: quitting a job ­because of, 7; as real wealth, 29 Hesiod, 43, 45 higher purpose: money instead of, 131–32; need for, 171–72 Hindu texts, 39, 146 Hoar, Edward Sherman, 5–6 Homer, 146, 180 hospitality, xxii–­xxiii house­work, 49, 50–51 Humboldt, Alexander von, 159 Humboldt, Wilhelm von, 159–60 humor: dark, 76–81; to help focus on job, 76; in Thoreau’s Cape Cod, 77–80; Thoreau as master of, 74–75 hunting, 111 ice cutters, 128–29, 142 immigrants: Irish, 107, 116–17, 128–29; poverty among, 33 immoral work: complicity of consumers in, 114; in jewelry business, 112; of Mexican-­American War, 104, 108–9; military bud­get of US and, 109–10; perpetuated by the system, 107; of plundering a shipwreck, 113–14; pretentiousness and, 114–15; Thoreau’s experience with, 17–19; of used car salesman, 111–12; on Wall Street, 112–13 imperialism, 109, 136, 182

index [ 199 ] in­de­pen­dence, 49. See also self-­ sufficiency Industrial Revolution: and the increasing importance of money, 120; and loss of freedom of ­labor, 58–59; migration to cities during, xix; Thoreau on harms of, 46–47; work schedules and, 23–25 Irish immigrants, 107, 116–17, 128–29 iron foundries, 51 jail, Thoreau’s night in, xx, 109, 157, 182 James, William, 70–71, 155 Jefferson, Thomas, 158–59 Jones, Anna, 4 journal, Thoreau’s: as his most meaningful work, 154–57, 167; from notes taken while walking, xiv; translated into Lyceum lectures, 77; word count of, x King, Martin Luther, Jr., xx Kondo, Marie, xxiv Lao Tzu, 152 Latino workers, on night shift, 32 Lawrence, Jerome, 157 Lee, Robert E., 157 leisure, xiv, 172 Lemire, Elise, 106 life, as tragically short, 6, 92, 158, 177–78 “Life without Princi­ple” (Thoreau), 90–91, 129–30, 135–36 Lincoln, Abraham, xix, 105 living deliberately. See deliberate living Louisa (aunt of Henry), 74 Louis XIV’s House Rules, 91–92 love, 69–70, 71, 97, 123, 168–69 Luddites, 60–61 luxuries of modern life, 23; Thoreau’s attitude ­toward, 31, 125–26 Lyceum lectures, 77, 80, 181

machine work: Emerson’s concern about, 56; in Etzler’s utopian fantasy, 55–56, 57; in factory farming, 65; Industrial Revolution and, 58–59; Thoreau on benefits of, 61; Thoreau on dehumanization by, 61–62; Thoreau’s satire on Etzler’s vision of, 56–57. See also technology Madison, James, 158–59 making a good living: resigning from, 8; yet always feeling poor, 129 making a living: vs. getting a life, 6, 15; Thoreau’s dislike for “pre­sent modes of,” 91, 95; vs. working for a higher purpose, 131 making hay while the sun shines, 179–80 manual work: brutal and meaningless kinds of, 51; connection to nature in, 37, 38–39; connection to ultimate real­ity in, 39–42; Etzler’s predicted end of, 54–57; of John’s ­mother Becky, 36–37, 38, 42, 51–52; phased out by factory manufacturing, 48, 59; taking a toll even when chosen, 51–52; of Thoreau at Walden, 37–38, 39–41; Thoreau’s view of value in, 45; Virgil’s theodicy and, 42–45; visions of freedom since Genesis and, 57–60 Marx, Karl, xvii materialism. See wealth, material Matsumoto, Shoukei, 50 McInerney, Jay, 81 meaning, Tolstoy on quest for, 84 meaningful work: becoming meaningless, 92–93; cultivating a well-­rounded person, 158; Emerson on self-­cultivation and, 160; ­human connections and, 64; involving the ­whole being, 164–65; in the moment we are in,

[ 200 ] index meaningful work (continued) 169–70, 172; money as byproduct of, 164; purpose-­driven, 162, 177; sacred nature of, 180; self-­ expressive, 155–58, 177; students’ desire for, 125; subjectively felt, 86; Thoreau on “supports” of, 92; Thoreau’s useful signposts to, 154; Thoreau’s variety of, 167; viewed negatively by Thoreau’s neighbors, 86–87; of worth to ­others, 168–69 meaningless work: of eco­nom­ically disadvantaged workers, 32, 84; level of inanity and, 89–90; manual, 51; of many white-­collar workers, 84–85; reframed in meaningful ways, 96–97; resignation not always the solution for, 94–97; of slavery, 85; social justice and, 85; studying animals seen as, 87–89; subjectively felt, 86; Thoreau on “artificial and complex” nature of, 90–93; Thoreau on “weak supports” of, 91, 92; Thoreau’s fretting about worthlessness and, 84; Thoreau’s neighbors viewing his work as, 86–87. See also resignation melon patch, 6, 167 Melville, Herman, 93–94 ­mental and spiritual work, 172 ­mental health, ­doing it for yourself, 20 Mexican-­American War, xx, 16, 104, 108–10 Meyer, Michael, xviii micromanaging, 25, 26, 32, 159 migration to cities, xix monetization, 127–28 money: ancient phi­los­o­phers and, 132–34; breeding the desire for more, 9, 122; as byproduct of meaningful work, 164; Industrial Revolution and, 120; matching wants and needs to, 121–22; origin

of, 126–27; as taboo subject, 120; Thoreau on working only for, 7–8, 129–32, 134; Thoreau’s necessities of life and, xxiii–­xxiv, 123–25. See also compensation for work morality. See ethics morning work, 28 Musketaquid (alluvial meadow), 179–80 Native Americans: Lydia Maria Child as activist for, xxiii; Musketaquid and, 179; Thoreau’s mocking of pilgrim story and, 78–80; Thoreau’s notes for book on, 183 nature: alienation from, xxii; Thoreau’s boyish ecstasy for, 165–66, 168; Thoreau’s satirization of Etzler’s utopia and, 56–57; work coinciding with flow of, 24, 27–28; working with your hands and, 37, 38–39 Navajo ­people, 164 necessaries of the soul, 122–23, 125 necessities of life: origin of money and, 126–27; for Thoreau, xxiii–­xxiv, 123–25 negative externalities, xxii–­xxiii neighbors, Thoreau’s, 105–7 Nietz­sche, Friedrich, 160 night shift, 32 The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail (Lawrence and Lee), 157 Noble, David F., 55 Office Space (film), 150 oikos, xvi–­xvii, xix, xx, 15, 29 opportunity cost, 136–37 pandemic, xxv, 10, 11 Panic of 1837, 4, 75, 181 pecunia, 126–27 pencils, xii, xiv, 61, 167, 181 personal growth, 159, 162. See also self-­cultivation

index [ 201 ] phi­los­o­phers: finding meaning in work of, 95–97; money and, 132–34; required by Thoreau to be practical, 45–46 pilgrim story, 78–80 Plato, 132, 133 Pleij, Herman, 58 Pliny the Elder, 146 poetry: by Thoreau, 144–45; Thoreau on manual ­labor and, 48, 49; Thoreau’s aspirations for, 7 Porphyry, 96 poverty: of Irish working poor, 107; and recognition of what is necessary, 122; of sharecroppers, 51; of Socrates, 150; of Thoreau ­family, xii, 31; Thoreau on, 9; working conditions and, 32–33 Pratt, Enoch, 79 pretentiousness, 114–15 purpose-­driven life, 162, 177 “quiet desperation,” 32, 84, 106, 125 Quincy, Josiah, 25 racial profiling, 112 Rahimzadeh, Daryan, 19–20 railroads, 47, 61, 107 remote work, xxv, 4, 11 replication crisis, 65 resignation: conscious choice in, 6, 7; cynicism and, 12–17; delayed to make ends meet, 9; dif­f er­ent meanings of, 3; dif­fer­ent reasons for, 6–7; from Google, 19–20; ­Great Resignation, xxv, 3–4, 10–12, 177; of Melville’s Bartleby, 94; as a reevaluation, 15; risk of being criticized for, 12; vs. staying with meaningless work, 94–97; of Thoreau (from Walden), 92–93; of Thoreau (from work), 6, 13, 15; of young p ­ eople in Thoreau’s community, 93

responsibility: autonomous technology and, 67; moral, 102–3; in self-­cultivation, 159–60. See also accountability retirement, earning money for, 137–38 Richardson, Robert, 8, 15, 42, 44–45 “Right to Dry,” 10 “Right to Repair,” 10 Ripley, George, xviii, 141 Romantics, Eu­ro­pean, 39 rumination while walking, xiv Salt March of Gandhi, xx–­xxi Sartre, Jean-­Paul, 100–101 Satyagraha, xx–­xxi Schopenhauer, Arthur, 74, 151–52 Scrooge, Ebenezer, 123 self-­cultivation, 159–62 self-­reliance: Emerson on, 13, 37, 102, 106, 144, 158; manual work and, 37; Thoreau as voice for, 169; of ­today’s cynical cap­i­tal­ists, 14. See also self-­sufficiency “Self-­Reliance” (Emerson), 144 self-­sufficiency: ­Great Resigners and, 10–11; income and expenditures for, 48, 123–25; manual work and, 37–38; not depending on ­labor of ­others, 46–48; practicality required for, 45–46; of Virgil’s farmer, 45. See also self-­reliance shipwreck, plunderers of, 113–14 simplicity, 13–14, 45, 63, 65, 115, 116, 126 Sisyphus, 171 slavery: Black workers of ­today and, 32–33; economic entanglement with legacy of, 46; harm princi­ ple and, 108; Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech and, xix; meaningless work in, 85; Under­ground Railroad and, 61, 104, 151, 169; ­women’s meeting at pond ­house and, xxii. See also forced l­ abor

[ 202 ] index sleep, 30 small ­things, 26 Smith, Adam, 8 social class, 31–33 social justice, 85, 107 Socrates, 45, 132–33, 150, 154 solitude, inclusiveness of, 152 spiritual work, 172 Staten Island, Thoreau’s brief stay in, xii, 5, 26, 182 Stoics, 24, 27 St. Simon Stylites, xv success, 168 ­Sullivan, Robert, xiv, xxii, 172 surveying, xiii–­xiv, 91, 123, 130–31, 142, 166–67, 182 Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu), 152 technology: Amish lifestyle and, 63; of the Anthropocene, 57; disconnected communication and, 63–64; of Industrial Revolution, 59; and predicted end of manual ­labor, 54–55; questioning the worth of, 67–69; Thoreau’s satire on Etzler’s vision of, 56–57; twenty-­first-­century, 60, 62, 68–69; in warfare, 66–67; William James on dangers of, 70–71. See also machine work Thales, 133–34 Theocritus, 43 theodicy, 42–45 Thoreau, Cynthia (­mother), xxiii Thoreau, Henry David: as abolitionist, x, xix–­xx; childhood of, xii, xvi; death of, 75, 176; Dewey’s admiration for, 42; disagreeable qualities of, 148–51; final illness of, 183; as Harvard gradu­ate, 4, 17, 31–32, 75; as Harvard student, xiii, 12–13, 25–26; last words of, 172, 180; living during early years of US, 159; meaningful life of, 168–69; misfortunes of, 75–76; night in jail

of, xx, 109, 157, 182; reputation of, x; resignation of, 6, 13, 15; thriving on disputation, 149–51; in years between Harvard and Walden, 4–6. See also Thoreau’s work life; Walden (Thoreau); Walden, Thoreau’s stay at Thoreau, John (­father), xi, 142 Thoreau, John, Jr. (­brother): death of, 5, 10, 75, 84, 138; teaching with Henry, xiii, 4–5, 26, 141 Thoreau’s grand­father, 2 Thoreau’s work life: construction work, x–xi, xii, xiv, 180; with death on his mind, 138; helping raise Emerson’s ­children, xii, 11–12, 168–69, 176; inventing graphite-­grinding machine, xiv, 61; as nanny and tutor, xii–­xiii, 26; odd jobs in, xiv, xv, 123, 157; selective chronology of, 181–83; surveying, xiii–­xiv, 91, 123, 130–31, 142, 166–67, 182; teaching at Center School, 17–19; teaching with ­brother John, xiii, 4–5, 26, 141; as a writer, xi, 121, 167 time, 6, 92, 158, 177–78. See also chronotypes; work schedules “time is money,” 22, 24 time theft, 24–25 Tolstoy, Leo, xx Transcendentalists: on accountability to a boss, 23; experiments in communal living of, xviii–­xix, 141; moral responsibility and, 103; periodical published by, 144; Thoreau and Emerson working together as, 142; ­union with natu­ral world and, 39 tuberculosis: Thoreau’s death from, 11, 75, 179; Thoreau’s recurring bouts of, 4, 7, 74, 75, 84, 179; of John Thoreau, 5 Tudor, Fredric, 128–29 Turkle, Sherry, 64

index [ 203 ] Under­ground Railroad, 61, 104, 151, 169 United States: self-­cultivation and, 159–61; at time of Founding ­Fathers’ deaths, 158–59. See also economy, American Universal Man, 46 Upanishads, 39 used car salesman, 111–12 utopian thinkers, xvii–­xix, 141. See also Etzler, John Adolphus Ve­das, 146 Versailles, Gardens of, 161 Village Forge Tavern, 2 Virgil, 42–45, 138, 146, 148 vocation, 158, 178 Vonnegut, Kurt, Jr., 81 Walden (Thoreau): “The Bean-­Field” chapter of, 28, 39–41; cosmopolitan identification and, 16; draft written at pond ­house, xi; “Economy” chapter of, x, xv, xvii, xx, xxi–­xxii, xxiii–­xxiv, 14, 23; income and expenditures recorded in, 123–25; on inventions with “unimproved end,” 65, 66, 68; last paragraph of, 80–81; literary reputation of, 167; Lyceum lectures and, 77; message of, 6; publication of, 183; revision of, 183; as self-­consciously personal, 158 Walden, Thoreau’s stay at: and animals, 87–88, 89; his arrival in 1845, 6, 10; construction of his ­house, x–­xi; hospitality at his ­house, xxii; as a liberating step forward, 15; manual ­labor

during, 37–38, 39–41; with meals and laundry in Concord, 38; and nearby neighbors, 105–7; resignation from, 92–93; search for meaningful education and, 13 walking, Thoreau’s daily practice of, xiv, 165–66 “Walking” (Thoreau), 30–31, 151, 161 Wallace, David Foster, 96 Walls, Laura Dassow, xxi–­xxii, 144 walls, Thoreau’s dislike for, 90–91 “Waste not, want not,” xxiv wealth, material, 8, 14, 15 Wealth of Nations (Smith), 8 A Week on the Concord and Merri­ mack Rivers (Thoreau), xi, 61, 121, 158, 182 Wheeler, Abiel H., 117 White, Zilpah, 106, 107 Whitman, Walt, 161 Willis, Frederick Llewellyn Hovey, 87 work schedules: and accountability to a boss, 22–23; astronomical model of, 26–27; and ­children’s school schedules, 30; at Harvard in Thoreau’s time, 25–26; Industrial Revolution and, 23–25; morning work and, 28; Thoreau’s attitude ­toward, 22–24, 27–28. See also clocking in writers: allowing certain abilities to atrophy, 162; pitiful payment of, 121; Thoreau’s work life as, xi, 121, 167 Zen Buddhism, 50–51 Zuriel (Jonathan’s wife), and coyote proj­ect, 88–89