Friday, June 21, 2013

Work and Idleness in the American Romantics

1. Perry Miller and the Puritan work ethic — Idleness as sin — Melville’s harpooners — Allegory — Melville’s nothing is really something; 2. Hawthorne’s Old Manse — Thresholds as thematic — Hawthorne’s prefaces — Romance as enchantment; 3. Veils and eagle-eyed reading — Idleness and enchantment; 4. Emerson: do your work; 5. Thoreau: converting experience into poetry — Don't be a tool — Ecumenicism and ineffability; 6. Indirection — Precision and drift

1.     Ever since Max Weber, we’ve come to know a certain hard-headed dedication to self-abnegating work as “the Protestant ethic.” In America, we know this to be the Puritan work ethic. Perry Miller records it well:
That every man should have a calling and work hard in it was a first premise of Puritanism. The guidebook for earthly existence, William Ames’s Conscience with the Power and Cases thereof [1643], confirmed his authoritative summary of theology, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity [1623], that even the man who has an income must work. Everyone has a talent for something, given of God, which he must improve. Although poverty is not a sin if it be suffered for causes outside one’s control, for any to accept it voluntarily is utterly reprehensible. God has so contrived the world that men must seek the necessities of life in the earth or in the sea, but the objects of their search have been cunningly placed for the finding. [1]
There might be a lot of penetrating questions to be asked about the relationship between this theology and a functioning economy. The depth of resonance to our current political rhetoric I pass over as obvious, and Miller records his own sense of resonance to his times (his book was published in 1952) when he suggests that the Puritan clergymen’s jeremiads against the society they saw around them in the colonies, “taken in sequence … constitute a chapter in the emergence of the capitalist mentality, showing how intelligence copes with—or more cogently, how it fails to cope with—a change it simultaneously desires and abhors” (40).

Whatever the real sources of this work ethic and whatever its relationship to the growth of an industrial economy, the fact is certain that in the mid-19th century, American intellectuals thought of this work ethic as tied to industrialization and as Puritan in spirit. The relationship of the American Romantics, however, to this work ethic was qualified at best. One interesting thread to be pulled out of the rich cloth of their commonalities is their use of “idleness.” Idleness is quite nearly the Puritan sin par excellence, a term embedded in their moral vocabularies in a way it isn’t today. For a boy to be called “idle” today—well, first, who on earth would call their child “idle”? We might say “lazy,” but even that word isn’t quite so charged as “idle” was. Idleness was an effrontery to God, in part. So whenever it appears in their work, it is done so self-consciously. It is not a mistake that at the end of the short chapter, “The Dart,” Ishmael says in Moby-Dick that “to insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.” This is one of those moments where Moby-Dick expands suddenly and seamlessly into its largest capacity as allegory, making the world an Ocean and every person a Whaleman.

Is everyone a harpooner, though? I take it not, and I think Melville’s perception is enhanced when we don’t assume that every particular person is the object of his allegorizing (as we would in allegories like Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where everyone is “Christian,” the protagonist). The Pequod embodies Man’s Mission through Life, both horizontally and vertically. On the horizontal side, there’s not only the fact that there are only men (not a mistake for either the ship or the allegory), but the distinction between crew—from the officers of the ship, all white, to their “squires,” the harpooners, all non-white. By casting Queequeg the Pacific Islander, Tashtego the American Indian, and Daggoo the “gigantic, coal-black negro-savage” as the harpooners, Melville is able to encapsulate the World from the white European’s perspective during the 19th-century’s Age of Imperial Expansion—“the native American [by which he means, not unironically, “white people”] liberally provides the brains, the rest of the world as generously supplying the muscles.” [2] But not only this, for there are the many other whalemen on board, from the blacksmith to “Black Little Pip,” who will get lost at sea (physically and spiritually), and the common sailor, who blends into the background, to the “romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men,” who—“disgusted with the carking cares of earth”—find themselves at the topmast and completely forget to call out at the sight of whales, what with “the problem of the universe revolving” in them and all. [3] Thus is Ishmael.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that Ishmael, in a somewhat transcendental guise, is described here as, basically, idle. Melville considered writing, and primarily of the literary kind, “the great Art of Telling the Truth.” These harpooners of the World require rest—subsidized rest if you want your Truth. They look like they’re doing nothing, but it really is something.

2.     We see this in Hawthorne as well. At the close of “The Old Manse,” Hawthorne’s sketch of his abode in Concord (rented from Emerson), Hawthorne says this:
In one respect, our precincts were like the Enchanted Ground, through which the pilgrim travelled on his way to the Celestial City. The guests, each and all, felt a slumberous influence upon them; they fell asleep in chairs, or took a more deliberate siesta on the sofa, or were seen stretched among the shadows of the orchard, looking up dreamily through the boughs. They could not have paid a more acceptable compliment to my abode, nor to my own qualities as a host. I held it as a proof, that they left their cares behind them, as they passed between the stone gate-posts, at the entrance of our avenue; and that the so powerful opiate was the abundance of peace and quiet, within and all around us. Others could give them pleasure and amusement; or instruction—these could be picked up anywhere—but it was for me to give them rest—rest, in a life of trouble. What better could be done for those weary and world-worn spirits? … what better could be done for anybody who came within our magic circle than to throw the spell of a tranquil spirit over him? And when it had wrought its full effect, then we dismissed him, with but misty reminiscences, as if he had been dreaming of us.

Were I to adopt a pet idea, as so many people do, and fondle it in my embraces to the exclusion of all others, it would be, that the great want which mankind labors under, at this present period, is—sleep!
This is a tremendously resonant passage that illustrates well Hawthorne’s peculiar talents in compression. First, there’s the use of thresholds. Hawthorne returns over and over to a select number of tropes and images, and one of these is the “threshold,” perhaps best illustrated by the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, where Hawthorne’s narrator binds together the “prison-door” (also the title of the short chapter) with “the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal.” This binding not only turns us from the prison door as threshold-for-Hester to the first chapter as threshold-for-reader, but also to “The Custom-House” preface as threshold-for-reader—Hawthorne is delicately moving us into the enchanted precincts of his narrative. We started in real life, and then moved to reading the preface, where the “Hawthorne” we may have met in Concord or Salem or on the cover of the book is transformed first into “the intrusive author” who would “prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.” After passing through the portal of the preface, this “I” suffers a further transformation into the narrator, which the pause at the “prison-door” (first chapter or physical prison door?) alerts us to.

This is how, broadly, Hawthorne thought of his prefaces, and “The Old Manse” functions the same way. Notice the parallel between “Old Manse” and “Custom-House” as spatial locations, and further notice how “The Old Manse” begins: “Between two tall gate-posts of rough-hewn stone … we beheld the gray front of the old parsonage, terminating the vista of an avenue of black-ash trees. … The glimmering shadows, that lay half-asleep between the door of the house and the public highway, were a kind of spiritual medium, seen through which, the edifice had not quite the aspect of belonging to the material world” (italics mine). The reader, moving through “The Old Manse,” parallels his own spectral self moving through the Old Manse’s gateposts, conducted by the narrator to the sights to be seen.

The threshold we are crossing, as I’ve intimated, is into the enchantment of his story. Hawthorne conceived of romance as a kind of enchanting, and itself as a liminal space between “the Actual and the Imaginary,” as he put it in “The Custom-House.” The second set of figures I want to call attention to, then, are mediums—all objects of mediation held a special power for Hawthorne. From the “moonlight” (light from the sun mediated by the moon) that is “a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer” which prefaces his definition of romance, to the “glimmering shadows” we just saw between the highway and the Old Manse which function as a “spiritual medium” (and thus causing the Old Manse to hover between Actual/material and Imaginary/spiritual).

Now, return to our original passage: “In one respect, our precincts were like the Enchanted Ground, through which the pilgrim travelled on his way to the Celestial City.” The Old Manse here becomes a figure for romance, for Hawthorne’s writing. Not only are we primed by the echo of “glimmering shadows, that lay half-asleep” with “the shadows of the orchard, looking up dreamily through the boughs” (the italics keying two more liminalities), but by troping the Old Manse as the Enchanted Ground of The Pilgrim’s Progress Hawthorne is able to: 1) make the Old Manse a liminal space (between beginning and destination, the Celestial City), 2) push the reader further into a literary, figural space (the first was the “spectralizing” I called attention to in beginning “The Old Manse” sketch, but if the reader was able to hold onto reality by considering it a sketch of a real place, and not a literary “making up,” now the reader’s spectral self is pushed through the literary wormhole of “like” and allusion into Bunyan’s narrative), and 3) make the reader into Everyman—just as Christian, the protagonist of The Pilgrim’s Progress, is on the same journey everyone else is on, so too is the reader—and wouldn’t you like some rest?

3.     So—Hawthorne is saying something a little different from Melville after all. (Wait for it.) Or is he? If you think of an author as a foe who secretes secrets into his text, then Hawthorne is the wiliest of opponents, and it is precisely what delighted Melville about him. One of Hawthorne’s favoritest of all tropes was the veil, which we’ve already met in the relevant context (in “The Custom-House”): “still keep the inmost Me behind its veil.” Hawthorne repeats this in “The Old Manse”: “So far as I am a man of really individual attributes, I veil my face.” So when Hawthorne (or should we say, “the Hawthorne figure”?) says in the passage we’re primarily focused on unpacking, “Others could give them pleasure and amusement; or instruction … but it was for me to give them rest,” should we trust him? Is this a pose? Part of his veiling of his real meaning? Melville thought so. In “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” Melville mocks the idea that Hawthorne, as he was popularly thought, was “a pleasant writer, with a pleasant style,—a sequestered, harmless man, from whom any deep and weighty thing would hardly be anticipated:—a man who means no meanings.” For Melville, however, the Truth had to be veiled as Hawthorne did, because Truth could not be approached directly and could therefore only be intimated “covertly, and by snatches.” And thus only “the eagle-eyed reader” was privy to the Truth.

Hawthorne says his house is for rest and for sleep. But you can’t stay—you want to get to your destination, whatever the “Celestial City” figures for you. More than that, however, are those glimmering shadows “half-asleep” at the threshold of “The Old Manse.” Those shadows, which as a medium are a trope for romance and enchantment, are not fully sleeping. They too are in a liminal space, resting perhaps but also slightly agitated. This is what Melville understood. You could take Hawthorne for merely a pleasant respite from the carking cares of the world, but if you look with sharp eyes, you’ll enter that dream-state where you come back affected by the subtle conceptual vibrations.

One of my reasons for reading Hawthorne so closely is to show how Hawthorne, like Melville, becomes the intellectual equal of our thinkers-in-prose. Literary patterning can just be for fun, but when you start pulling at the threads that make up certain literary writers’ tapestries, you’ll occasionally see far off elements respond to your pulling and open up to you with why—do the pyrotechnics mean anything? In this passage from “The Old Manse,” Hawthorne has thematized idleness into his writing. There is something essentially idle about falling under enchantment—that is part of its work. And this, Hawthorne thinks, is one of the things it is good for.

4.     Hawthorne’s experience with work other than writing was debilitating for his writing. While working for the Boston Custom House, Hawthorne writes to his beloved Sophia—who he will not marry until he’s made enough money to support them—that his “fancy is rendered so torpid by my uncongenial way of life, that I cannot sketch off the scenes and portraits that interest me.” [6] After resigning, he joins Brook Farm, the most famous American utopian community of the 19th century. You can imagine how disastrous working on a farm was to his imaginative strength and output. Just four months into the experience he writes to Sophia:
And joyful thought!—in a little more than a fortnight, thy husband [pet name—they were only secretly engaged at this point] will be free from his bondage—free to think of his Dove [another disgustingly affectionate nickname]—free to enjoy Nature—free to think and feel! I do think that a greater weight will then be removed from me, than when Christian’s burthen fell off at the foot of the cross. [allusion to Bunyan] Even my Custom-House experience was not such a thraldom and weariness: my mind and heart were freer. Oh, belovedest, labor is the curse of the world, and nobody can meddle with it, without becoming proportionably brutified. [7]
“Free to think and feel!” With these sentiments, Hawthorne probably seems pretty aristocratic alongside Thoreau, especially, and Melville, who tried his hand at manly work at sea. Emerson felt a greater unease about his position, since unlike Hawthorne he didn’t have to work at all. Though Emerson did have some money troubles after he resigned his post in the Unitarian Church, he’d already laid the groundwork for his income through intellectual labor—writing and lecturing. So though Emerson preached a Puritanesque ethic of work, it was carefully modulated to emphasize faith to one’s calling. “The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is that it scatters your force. … But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A must consider what a blindman’s-bluff is this game of conformity” (“Self-Reliance”). But even while Emerson believed we must hold true to what we were on the inside, he had deep doubts about society’s responsibilities for subsidizing people like he and Hawthorne to sit around and think all day. A few months before publishing his first book of essays, he referred to it in his journal as “a sort of apology to my country for my apparent idleness.” And just months after publishing “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. … Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. … To be great is to be misunderstood” (“Self-Reliance”)—four months later he records in his journal:
If I should or could record the true experience of my later years, I should have to say that I skulk & play a mean, shiftless, subaltern part much the largest part of the time. Things are to be done which I have no skill to do, or are to be said which others can say better, and I lie by, or occupy my hands with something which is only an apology for idleness until my hour comes again. Thus how much of my reading & all my labor in house or garden seems mere waiting: any other could do it as well or better. It really seems to me of no importance—so little skill enters into these works, so little do they mix with my universal life—what I do, whether I hoe, or turn a grindstone, or copy manuscript, or eat my dinner. All my virtue consists in my consent to be insignificant which consent is founded on my faith in the great Optimism, which will justify itself to me at last. [10]
I won’t parse the last bit—discussion of Emerson’s faith in fate is beyond my powers yet. (Why, after all, is it faith in optimism? Faith in the attitude of faith, the providential optimism that all will work out for the best?) To be sure, though, what we see here is doubt about the value of his work.

5.     Part of this doubt, I think, stemmed from his suspicion that while he preached a message of converting experience into poetry, he didn’t really carry it out. For those who heard “The American Scholar” in 1837 and resonated with “I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low,” there must have been a let down with the abstract discussions of the Law of Compensation and other “spiritual laws.” Thoreau, I think, thought this and his Walden is the outgrowth of carrying out the play Emerson only theorized. (While I like the trope of casting Emerson as the Theorist of the American Epic with Thoreau and Whitman as the authentic Emersonian Epic-Writers, I myself am not a fan of this criticism of Emerson. But that might be because I’m partial to abstract music.)

For Thoreau, we definitely needed to revise our notions of work. Thoreau is our indigenous Critic of Industrialization, and while no economist as Marx was (and disastrously more naïve about the pastoral thematic in his utopic vision), he is at least if not more trenchant on the debilitating effects of a modern industrial commercial economy on a person’s spiritual life. F. O. Matthiessen cogently remarks that Thoreau “preached a gospel of leisure to Yankees” [11] to offset the deeply ingrained Puritan ethic. His most famous line, of course, sets the tone for the point of the Walden experiment: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Why? Because we have become “the tool of our tools,” and if you don’t hear the contemporary resonance in “when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him,” then I doubt you’ve even heard of a loan.

George W. Bush’s ironic summoning of the Puritan spirit on February 5, 2005 might be one of the greatest symbolic moments in American labor history—to a mother with three jobs, he says, “Uniquely American, isn’t it? I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that.” Rorty used to say quite often that poverty comes before cultural issues because if you’re working three jobs, then you have no time to think about what’s best for your family or yourself, let alone what kinds of spiritual exercises you’d like to pursue or of other people who aren’t your family.

While that might be the most important relationship between work and idleness, there might be a more subtle relationship as well. Remember for Hawthorne that the best romance is halfway between the Actual and the Imaginary, “each imbuing itself with the nature of the other.” It is not pure fictionality that Hawthorne is after—not purely idle fancy. Likewise, Thoreau seems to have understood the problem of purity in either actuality or the imaginary. Despite his flare as a naturalist and eagle-eye for artifacts, Thoreau was wary of a too acute attention to detail. What Thoreau valued was a “sauntering of the eye.” And we can find the word’s resonance for him at the beginning of “Walking”: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country….’”

6.     Emerson talks of “fatal perception” in “Self-Reliance,” by which he means sight of something one cannot avoid. This was Emerson’s conception of intuition, or the influx of divinity, or what it means to be truly oneself (which at the same time makes you like God, and everyone else). I think this strain in Emerson is at odds with an equally dominant thread of indirection, which we also find in Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Melville. “An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us though its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author” ("The Poet"). For Thoreau, this idleness allows us to stray from the path—whatever direction we may have been accurately pursuing, it is not quite that now. “Rambling,” too, has this sense for all four. For Hawthorne, as we’ve seen, the veils reveal as much as they hide, for it is only through a medium that the ideal might imbue the real with its power. And Melville would not only agree with Emerson on reading, but Ahab is the iconic image for avoiding a direct relationship to reality and Truth—Ahab’s quest is for directness, and he unavoidably loses. [15]

We work hard at being precise—at being in control. But perhaps a little idleness would do us some good. Maybe taking our hand off the wheel occasionally, adding in a little drift. It is perhaps against the Puritan ethic that idleness pops into the vocabulary of the American Romantics the way it does, but their thematizing of idleness as a necessary condition for Truth, however variously conceived, is a curious and provocative move. I’m reminded of a passage in Heidegger’s Being and Time: “Things are so because one says so. Idle talk is constituted by just such gossiping and passing the word along—a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on becomes aggravated to complete groundlessness.” [16] Since every good pragmatist—as I urge us all to be—is an antifoundationalist, we have to construe what “ground” we’re talking about here so it doesn’t sound so foundationalist-y. One mode of approaching it is to say that the “ground” in question is justification—we’re only entitled to say things about the way something is if we’re on firmer ground than “because I said so!” But if Emerson and Rorty are right, then some one claim about how X is will be circumscribed by the vocabulary one states the claim in. And if this is the case, then as Rorty said, you can’t argue your way into a new vocabulary—you have to jump in feet first. A sentence that doesn’t make sense in an old vocabulary can only be savored or spit out. And savoring it, on this analogy, is giving yourself enough latitude to acclimate yourself to the new taste, i.e. creating the vocabulary within which the sentence makes sense. We have to allow our inference-crunching, justification-demanding brains to be idle long enough to both emit and savor immediately nonsensical things in order for those things to do their work in creating the medium through which they’ll make sense.


[1] The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, 40-41

[2] Moby-Dick, Ch. 27

[3] Moby-Dick, Ch. 35

[4] This is from Melville’s essential “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” It can be found easily in the Norton 2nd edition, edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford.

[5] Melville’s copy of Mosses from an Old Manse has a number of marginal scoring marks toward the end of this passage, which suggest to me that he vibrated to the thought here being articulated.

[6] May 29, 1840

[7] August 13, 1841

[8] I should also add that a significant portion of his income at this time was an inheritance from the estate of his first wife, Ellen, who died in 1831. Given the nature of the money, being bound up with loss, I can only imagine what additional psychological impact it had on his thoughts about idleness.

[9] October 7, 1840

[10] July 1841

[11] American Renaissance 92

[12] Chapter 1, “Economy” of Walden

[13] Hawthorne even recounts in “The Old Manse” that Thoreau had “a strange faculty of finding what the Indians have left behind them.”

[14] From Thoreau’s journal, quoted by Matthiessen on 90.

[15] And a story for another time, though perhaps meditate on Ishmael’s “key”: “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (Ch. 1).

[16] Macquarrie-Robinson edition, 212 (German 168)

[17] This is what Robert Brandom carries out brilliantly in terms of his pragmatist project of inferentialism in “Dasein, the Being that Thematizes” (collected in his Tales of the Might Dead).

[18] This is the line of thought that moves from Emerson’s “Circles” to Rorty’s “The Contingency of Language” (the first chapter of Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity).

[19] CIS 18


  1. AnonymousJune 23, 2013

    After reading your piece, I emailed a friend of mine stating... "As I idly rambled down to the lake it occurred to me that all I really wanted was to have (graceful thoughts)" He is a poet and our local Thoreau. He responded with a Zen saying..."Don't just do something, sit there."

    1. That's nice: "don't just do something, sit there." I have trouble with that. I don't like to be idle. I never got meditation. Part of what interests me about Robert Pirsig is his ability to get a form of spiritual exercise that I have no capacity for (that I know of). One of the things I didn't discuss a lot in the above is the preconditions of leisure. Emerson had his stipend; Thoreau, as I understand it, had his sister or aunt bring him meals on Walden Lake; Hawthorne had cushy jobs provided by well-placed friends (first and foremost, President Peirce); Emerson, Hawthorne, and Melville all had wives. I myself feel anxious when I'm not doing something, usually reading, because of professional pressure--it's hard work to try and be an academic. I like to think that the idea is that if I kill myself now, I'll get bigger bonuses of leisure later. But, who knows? Many a romantic has disparaged the very idea of deferral, "seize the day!" and all that.

  2. AnonymousJuly 03, 2013

    I've pretty much "traded in tomorrow for today". KK
    I think those preconditions of leisure are obvious enough, but I am thinking it's more like Pirsig's fishing analogy. If one doesn't take the time to decompress and do a little coasting I think they miss opportunities for new energies to enter... I've got another amateurish question about one of Pirsig's ideas. He refers to philosophic thought as being the "high country". I like the idea, but wonder if that structural hierarchy doesn't some how conflict with his overall seemingly disdain for duality. (if I even understand what that means). For me, I see philosophical thought as a different dimension of consciousness. That's getting pretty picky on my part, but it was one of those thoughts that popped in while my mind was on idle.

    1. Pirsig's "high country" does have a Platonic taste to it, which is what I think you sense. The idea of spiritual ascent is an elitism codified in intellectual terms in Plato's divided line, which also divided the "classes" (bronze, silver, gold) in Plato's republic. However, I think thinking of the high country as a "different dimension" risks the Platonism as well, for the question might be, "well, how do you access this completely different dimension?" That's why Plato had an answer ready: "dialectic." And you remember what Pirsig called Plato's dialectic--the usurper, the parvenu.

      I think what Pirsig has in mind is something more practically oriented in applying the idea of ascent in that metaphor. If philosophy is at root about living, then what philosophers do with abstract concepts is not radically different than what we do everyday. But it is different. So, on the metaphor, the more abstract we get, the more ground of life we might be able to survey, but you can't live up there--the air is thin and it's hard to breathe. Life becomes emaciated. There are those who wish to dissever themselves from life, alienated hermits. Sometimes its from misanthropy, but the impulse I think is at root ascetic. And for Pirsig, though he understood the impulse to isolation intimately, he wanted to promote the idea that the only reason to ascend the mountain was to bring wisdom back down the mountain.


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