Collected Works

Angus Calder

  • Men, Women and Work: Class, Gender and Protest in the New England Shoe Industry, 1780-1910 by Mary Blewett
    Illinois, 444 pp, $29.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 252 01484 7
  • Men’s Lives by Peter Matthiessen
    Collins Harvill, 335 pp, £15.00, August 1988, ISBN 0 00 272519 3
  • On Work: Historical, Comparative and Theoretical Approaches edited by R.E. Pahl
    Blackwell, 752 pp, £39.95, July 1988, ISBN 0 631 15762 X
  • Slavery and Other Forms of Unfree Labour edited by Léonie Archer
    Routledge, 307 pp, £28.00, August 1988, ISBN 0 415 00203 6
  • The Historical Meanings of Work edited by Patrick Joyce
    Cambridge, 320 pp, £27.50, September 1987, ISBN 0 521 30897 6
  • Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century 1590-1710 by David Stevenson
    Cambridge, 246 pp, £25.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 521 35326 2

The Book of Genesis explains that work is a punishment inflicted on humans for Adam’s Fall. In the Authorised Version, God tells Adam: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.’ The New English Bible translates as ‘labour’ what King James’s scholars called ‘sorrow’ – ‘Accursed shall be the ground on your account. With labour you shall win your food from it.’ A few pages later comes the very odd passage in which Noah’s son Ham sees him naked when drunk. Awakening from his stupor, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan – ‘a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’ – and this text was used by Early Modern Europeans to justify the translation of black Africans into the doleful state of chattel slavery.

I can’t remember anyone in the whole Shakespearean oeuvre who shows any zest for physical labour except the gravedigger in Hamlet. The Bard’s own works, however, have been regarded with almost the degree of awe traditionally accorded to the works of God, ‘the wondrous works of Him which is perfect in knowledge’ (Job 37:16). My invaluable old Cruden’s Concordance, with whatever theological authority behind it, explains that the phrase ‘works of God’ denotes 1. the Creation, 2. Providence and 3. Redemption, and goes on: ‘By good works are to be understood all manner of duties inward and outward, thoughts as well as words and actions, toward God or man.’

This is the usage in that favourite Victorian hymn, ‘Work for the night is coming’ (1868):

Fill brightest hours with labour;
Rest comes sure and soon.

The American author of the words, Anna Walker, is invoking the declaration of Christ himself (John 9:4): ‘I must work the works of Him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.’ Good works in this general sense could be performed by an invalid Evangelical lady, flat on her back but radiating piety. There has, however, been a strong tendency in the Evangelical tradition to conflate good works with labour. A famous instance is found in Isaac Watts’s Divine Songs of 1720, written prior to the Evangelical Movement proper, but popular with its adherents:

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour
And gather Honey all the Day
From ev’ry op’ning Flow’r!

In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For Idle hands to do.

In Books, or Work, or healthful Play,
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good Account at last.

Benjamin Franklin was soon working up his secularised version of the Puritan ethos. In Poor Richard’s Almanac (1758) he assured his readers that ‘sloth, by bringing on diseases, absolutely shortens life,’ regretted the human propensity to sleep too much, and insisted that ‘if we are industrious we shall never starve.’ By the mid-19th century, Christian exhortation to good works and the conviction of employers that they had a right to demand long hours of poorly remunerated labour were an almost omnipotent ideological mix. Carlyle announces in Past and Present (1843) that ‘all work, even cotton-spinning, is noble; work is alone noble ... The only happiness a brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about was, happiness enough to get his work done. Not “I can’t eat!”, but “I can’t work!” that was the burden of all wise complaining among men.’

One wonders what Carlyle might have had to say to Irena Knowlton, wife of a small shoe manufacturer in Hamilton, Massachusetts. Besides caring for three children, feeding boarders, doing the housework and garden work and keeping poultry, she stitched the uppers of ladies’ button boots, at home, for her husband. Mary Blewett in Men, Women and Work reports that ‘her diary (1870-86) is a litany of fatigue and illness’ and quotes this entry: ‘went berrying, done some shoes, scot to breakfast and dinner George went away today but O dear what a life to live God help me to do my duty baked 5 pies drove cow.’

And could Carlyle have approved of the ocean-haul seine fishermen of Long Island whose way of life was being extinguished in the mid-1980s, just as Peter Matthiessen was at work on his account of it? ‘These doggedly independent men,’ he tells us, ‘do not speak of themselves as “working”, far less “taking a job”.’ He quotes one of the younger generation: ‘Fishin wasn’t a job, it was your station in life, so to speak. Though it was a lot of hard work, it was not a job, but somethin you were born with and brought up with. A job was somethin like drivin nails or rakin leaves.’

‘Duty’ for Mrs Knowlton, ‘station in life’ for the fisherman – my own sense of work relates readily to both conceptions. My father, a writer, came from a Scottish working-class culture closely related to that of Calvinist New England. He would often sit brooding in his study for hours, apparently idle. I have inherited this trait along with his physique, and now realise that if he wasn’t working inside his head, he was suffering from the horrors of ‘writer’s block’, in which a conviction that work is a paramount necessity somehow makes it impossible to get on with it. My station in life is much like his own and I learnt from him a sense of duty: some things must be written in good causes irrespective of convenience or payment, bread must be cast upon waters, the night is coming in which no writer can type. I suppose that I cannot really understand in any depth attitudes to work outside this Puritan-Evangelical tradition. But I have not until recently thought that any other view than my own might make sense. There has been no occasion to question it, when our society has been dominated by decayed versions of Victorian work ethics, sentimentalised in Labour Movement adulation of (male) manual workers, warped by Boyson and Tebbit, exploited by employers and enshrined in that extraordinary phrase ‘right to work’.

We have taken it for granted that in the life of almost any person, work (or the lack of it) will be the dominant shaping factor. We choose trades or careers, or remain in our station in life. We have been defined on our passports by ‘occupation’. Those of us who don’t have paid jobs will probably be committed to housework. For people who can pay others to do that, voluntary work is a means of self-definition, a route to status, to MBE or DBE.

One of several reasons why P.G. Wodehouse is rather a subversive writer is that much of his best work (he worked assiduously all his long life, and loved it) presents characters who don’t work and don’t mind – who devote themselves totally to golf, for instance, in a pastoral community of rentiers. Clubs and country houses provide enough society. Eccentricity and infantilism are the amusing outcomes: Wodehouse’s fantasies confirm our sense that you can’t be idle and properly grown-up. We leave the sphere of schoolwork to pursue occupations which provide us with most of our social contacts outside our families. Non-workers are deprived of gossip, the pleasures of feuding and ritual Friday potations. These delights are dignified by their association with work. People who inherit fortunes or win the pools may be passingly envied as Monday arrives again, yet I suspect that a somewhat contemptuous pity, implicit in the phrase ‘poor little rich girl’, very commonly supervenes.

When we try to descry what is work and what isn’t, we can see no obvious margins. To quote R.E. Pahl’s introduction to On Work, his hefty and most useful collection of recent writings by some two score scholars: ‘Someone arriving from another planet might be surprised and puzzled by the way we distinguish between work and employment and the differential rewards that are paid to employees based on the kind of work they do and the kind of person they are. Interesting, creative and varied employment is highly rewarded; dull, repetitive and routine work is poorly rewarded. Men receive more money than women, and this is related to social attitudes and conventions more than the actual amount or quality of work that the individual or gender category does.’ Our extra-terrestrial guest would be further taxed to understand why minding someone else’s child can be a job, looking after your own is duty, why potholers, rock-climbers and marathon runners wilfully engage in dangerous physical toil as a leisure activity, how a journalist chatting over a beer may be working while the election canvassers he quizzes are slacking.

Every active human pursuit is potentially ‘work’. Only when we are wholly passive – sleeping, sunbathing, watching sport on TV – is it perfectly clear that we cannot be working. The parent driving children to the safari park may well feel, like the mother cooking Christmas dinner, that however much fun others may get, this is ‘work’. The pride of either over the task accomplished – kids brought smiling home, the chestnut stuffing praised – surely differs in degree rather than kind from that of an artist selling a big picture or a shipyard worker seeing a vessel launched.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in