Work: Alienating or Transforming?

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

Douglas Wixson

Labor into Art:
The Theme of Work in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
by David Sprague Herreshoff
(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991) 181 pages, cloth: $24.95.

WHEN EARLY BRITISH settlers came to America, Stephen Innes points out in Work and Labor in Early America, their desire was to gain control over their own labor. It was a necessary condition of their reconstituted existence in a new land to feel and act as free people.

Circumstances were such, however, that by the middle of the nineteenth century most tradespeople were working for someone else, usually in such unwelcome conditions as those provided by textile mills, whaling ships and shoe factories. Most Black people were engaged in forms of oppressive servitude that emancipation scarcely relieved. Women were without the franchise; in some states, like Texas, their legal status was that of property.

Occupational mobility and economic success were far less accessible to most people than Ben- Herman Melville ‘s main purpose, according to C.L.R. James in Franklin’s autobiography James, was to “dive into the souls of men, exploring the might lead us to believe. Characteristic of Franklin’s time was what Billy G. Smith calls ‘the gradual erosion of a paternalistic structure and its replacement by a wage labor system.”(1) For every successful self-made man (women were not even in the running), there were countless propertyless workers whose lives were never recorded, least of all in literature.

When workers do appear in nineteenth-century American literature they are never central figures. Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Henry Thoreau, Frederick Douglass and Wait Whitman (and one might add Mark Twain and William Dean Howells) portray people at work, but not to focus on workers as a class or explore working-class consciousness. That would come later. Literary naturalists like Jack London, Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser, for instance, followed Zola’s lead in focusing on workers in the context of working-class life and aspirations.

It is noteworthy, for instance, that the reality of contemporary labor protest notwithstanding, Melville in Moby Dick declines to portray insurrectionary initiatives on the part of the oppressed mariners of the Pequod who suffer the dangerous absurdities of Ahab’s mad quest The passivity of the Pequod crew is all the more striking when we consider that work stoppage, desertion, indeed mutiny, were means by which seamen frequently sought control over the labor process in the nineteenth century in the collective settings of maritime work.(2)

Perhaps the explanation lies, as C.L.R. James appears to argue, in the nature of the “mariners, renegades and castaway? [Melville] who man the Pequod, unlikely material, as Melville shows us, for militant, collective action. Moreover, Melville’s main purpose lay elsewhere, to “dive into the souls” of men, exploring the nature of human will, pride and evil, as Shakespeare before him had done.(3)

If workers seldom appear in nineteenth-century American literature as a class, then work, by contrast, shows up as an important thematic category in Melville, Thoreau, Dickinson, lions. Douglass and Whitman, according to David Sprague Herreshoff’s Labor into Art, published in 1991 after a long gestation period.

Writing From Experience

Herreshoff’s study is a brave book devoted to a good purpose. It takes great risks in ignoring the vast accumulated research, including studies devoted to work and workers in American literature. Herreshoff makes no attempt to locate his study within or outside the tradition of formidable literary-social critics such as F.O. Matthiessen, C.L.R. James and Vernon Parrington, nor does he reflect his own contributions in the mirror of previous scholarship on labor and literature.

Yet I believe there is value in what Herreshoff undertakes, not just because of the honesty with which he grounds his readings in personal experience as a factory worker rather than in the disciplines of university research with which he is obviously familiar, but because he has something genuinely new to say. Labor into Art seems deliberately intended, like Eric Hoffer’s philosophic writings, to offer fresh approaches. His interpretations are conditioned, as he says, by “where! stand.”

Should readers have not already deduced where Herreshoff stands by the end of the fifth chapter, the concluding chapter appropriately titled, “Of My Time in the Factory and the Theme of Work,” will make things clear. in the conclusion Herreshoff freely accepts the no-lion that readings, even scholarly ones, are subjectively predisposed by “personal history and by a collective history and tradition of which I am aware…” (140).

The personal and the collective are joined, as they frequently were in the sitdown strikes, protest marches and bread lines, by the 1930s depression-era “slant” which convinced Herreshoff, a young man then, that “capitalism is a terminally sick system” (141). Ten years in an Akron tire factory as a semi-skilled worker left Herreshoff with few lingering romantic illusions concerning his fellow workers’ lot and a skeptical view regarding attempts by sincere but ill-informed writers in the 1930s to depict factory life in sympathy with the working class rather than from personal experience. Ruth McKenny’s Industrial Valley (1939), a semi-documentary of Akron’s rubber factories, is one such flawed effort, according to Herreshoff, in which long-suffering workers confront the evils of the system.

But workers do not wish to endure factory life, Herreshoff learned, so much as to escape factory drudgery—and if they do not succeed, then their desire is projected on their children. True outsiders like Thoreau who are “both in and out of the game stand a better chance of seizing truths about work life and laborers than proletarian fellow-travelers like McKenny. Despite her careful, diligent research and accuracy of detail, McKenny misses the spirit of working-class life, for instance, the “pain and hilarity” of daily factory existence (145). Moreover, the assumption that workers were interested in factionalism and disputes within the Communist Party is, in Herreshoff’s view, fantasizing.

Despite his independent views, Herreshoff was to his fellow tire builders a “red” sympathetic with foreign ideologies of which they knew nothing other than that they were not American. [During these years Herreshoff was a member of the Socialist Workers Party.–ed.] Herreshoff’s work experiences in Akron tire factories took place after the passing of the militant labor struggles of the 1930s, the results of which vastly improved the tire builders’ lives. In the Cold War era was born a hard-hat militancy that joined management in deprecating “commie sympathizers (and later, in the Vietnam War, peacenik?).

It is at this point (the year is 1951) when Herreshoff decided to leave factory work (as he claims other workers longed to do) to pursue a career in university teaching. Subtending this decision—it is not made explicit—is Herreshoff’s own feeling of alienation from his fellow laborers. This point is crucial, I believe, for in his choke of authors Herreshoff follows a thematic pattern, roughly Marxist, of exploration, revealing (through five different texts) the underlying character of manual labor as the nation began to attach itself increasingly to the rule of capital whose power lies in the control and exploitation of workers.

What Is the Nature of Work?

Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, Douglass and Whitman ‘penetrate and judge what making a living felt like as they took in and imagined the experiences (1). The basic, organizing question, according to Herreshoff, is “What does work do to human beings? This question, in turn, raises more specific questions including the relation between work and play, the repressive or liberating nature of play and how work affects one’s character.

If, as Marx argues, human nature is the ever-changing product of human activity, then exploitative labor degrades one into a commodity and thwarts the potential for one’s creative and humane self-development.(4) It follows that not only the conditions of work but the status of workers bears relevance to any literature in which labor is a subject This, in brief, seems to be Herreshoff’s premise. With or without Marxist underpinnings, it makes sense.

As an aside we might note that among the earliest attempts to portray workers and work conditions in industrializing America were those undertaken in the 1840s by journalists such as Parke Godwin, Albert Brisbane, Horace Greeley, George Ripley, Charles Anderson Dana, and William Henry Channing.(5) In the absence of an organized labor movement these writers, deriving their ideas in part from Fourierism, advocated a workers’ democracy based loosely on religion and economic reform.

In the 1840s, America was moving quickly toward industrialism, hastened along by the expansion of the railroad and a superb sailing fleet Along with this development grew a powerful capitalist oligarchy, the shrewd manufacturing-patrons, shipowners and bankers who, while embracing genteel manners and wincing at the suggestion that they were exploiters, set as first priority the expansion of their materialist interests through cheap labor.

The failure of the Jacksonian labor movement in the Panic of 1837 precipitated a host of journalist champions of labor including Orestes Brownson, editor of the Boston Quarterly Review [in the early 1840s], who wrote in his essay The Laboring Classes”:

“…our business is to emancipate the proletaries, as the past has emancipated the slaves. This is our work. There must be no class of our fellow men doomed to toil through life as mere workmen at wages.”

Ripley, Dana and Channing blended Unitarianism and Transcendentalism with their Fourierist doctrines in experimental Brook Farm. Hawthorne came to Brook Farm hoping to improve the lot of workers and went away disillusioned.

In one way or another most of the Transcendentalists gave support to the cause of labor, including Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller and others, whether simply on an anti-materialist basis or in direct support of labor organization. The latter, however, clashed with the individualist tendencies of Transcendentalism. And it is this conflict which Thoreau’s writings explore: his deep dissatisfaction with contemporary labor conditions, yet his unwillingness to mesh with or subsume his views to some common cause.

Thoreau’s protests against the social standards “dominated by New England mercantilism” as F.O. Matthiessen writes, appeared in literary form, a solitary enterprise that suited his temperament. “My working is writing,” Thoreau wrote. Yet Matthiessen, in his monumental 1941 study, viewed Thoreau “as close to the status of proletarian writer as possible in his simple environment “(6)

Concern toward the plight of laborers and artisans appeared in the writing of other Transcendalists “The tradesman … is ridden by his craft and the soul is subject to dollars, complained Emerson. But Thoreau was anxious to show, through his Walden experiment, that an individual was not bound by necessity to numbing drudgery. After all, Emerson wrote, an individual is the architect of his own fortune. Melville, on the other hand, appears pessimistically attached to a fatalistic perception of human destiny without such personal freedom.

Linking Thoreau and Melville, Herreshoff argues, is the perception of human alienation in the context of work. While Thoreau escapes the routines of labor in pursuing his own schedule at Walden Pond, Emily Dickinson and Frederick Douglass, for entirely different reasons, endure work drudgery from which they find relief in the free exercise of their rich imaginations. Finally, Whitman explores the human possibilities of unalienated work, sanctified by its potential for fellowship and playfulness.

Degrading labor, Thoreau shows us, can be avoided by deliberately restricting desire. Such a transformation of consciousness, however, would require “moral reform,” a rejection of materialist, utopian schemes of making labor more efficient. Thoreau’s project entails a restructuring of one’s life, the management of one’s household, in the Greek meaning of oikos, whence economics. The aim is to provide sufficient leisure for contemplation. His Concord neighbors remind Thoreau of penitential ascetics for whom work is a dutiful mortification of the flesh. It need not be that way, Thoreau argues—in his example we view protest against the dehumanizing effects of early industrialization in league with the protestant ethic of work “Actually,” Thoreau wrote, “the laboring man has no time to be anything but a machine.”

The division of labor that noticeably characterized early industrial worklife separates mental from manual labor in an antithesis that Marx underscores in his Critique of the Gotha Programme?

Thoreau appears sensitive to this separation in his suggestion to students that they should take part in the construction of buildings for the new college. It underlies his own decision to create a self-sufficient existence in the woods, constructing his own home from recycled materials, thereby demonstrating that the philosophic and literary uses to which the combined creative labor of head and hand in an individual may be put.

At the Work Site

Ishmael’s shipboard home, the Pequod of Melville’s Moby Dick, wrecks itself on the shoals of monomaniacal reason, taking down with it all but one of its crew. The voyage of the Pequod, Herreshoff claims, is a metaphor for early industrial capitalism under the control of a single-minded “manager” (Ahab). The ship’s name itself “evokes the blood-guilt of genocidal Puritan New England, the heartland of industrial capitalism in the New World” (36).

The Pequod’s crew represents the mixed composition of America’s chiefly immigrant working class in Melville’s time. Workers were beginning to turn to violent revolt by the 1850s, initiated by such events as the 1848 Allegheny, Pennsylvania strike. Yet Bulkington, the one person on-board who might have led a revolt, is eliminated early in Melville’s story. Moreover, as C.LR James points out Melville took great pains to show that revolt was no answer to the questions he asked.”(7)

Herreshoff adduces the following conclusion: Melville sees no prospect of proletarian revolution, and when rebellion occurs, such as on the Town-Ho, it is subdued with harsh consequences. Moby Dick is rather a setting for Melville to describe an industrializing America on its way to destruction, and in the process to reveal the complexities of human behavior and motivations in a microcosm of a “floating factory whose destination is the ocean floor with the national bird clinging to its mast.

Poetry and Drudgery

Perhaps the idea came from Emily Dickinson’s mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, friend and associate of Channing, Dana, Greeley and others eager to publicize the conditions of labor. More likely it derived from her habit of close observation, and the necessity of maintaining a large house along with her sister. Whatever its sources, the theme of work in Dickinson’s poetry is one of endless repetitive tasks from which she finds occasional relief in order to write.

Unnatural, yet a fact of the “human condition, housework compels the poet to reflect on the nature of alienated human labor and the heroic status accorded it in Puritan literature such as Edward Taylor’s “Huswifery.” Redemption from the onerous labor of housework lies finally in Dickinson turning responsibility over to her sister Lavinia. The division of labor is formalized: Emily writes poetry, Lavinia scrubs the floors.

No such options were available to Frederick Douglass, a slave who managed to escape the tyranny of one master and, through the paternalistic kindness of another, learn to read. The greatest danger, he perceived, was to internalize servitude—when the slave becomes his/her own slavedriver—through false consciousness (slave songs) and passivity.

Resistance to one master gave Douglass the confidence that he might overpower his fears; although he might be a “slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact,” Douglass wrote in his famous Narrative. Gaining freedom meant entering a new form of servitude, wage-slavery in the North. Denied him, because of race, was the opportunity to work at his own trade.

In his discussions of Dickinson and Douglass, Herreshoff raises race and gender considerations as constituents of work in the nineteenth century. His approach is once again interpretative, not analytical. No references are made to important touchstones of gender and race criticism.

The social awakening that Dana, Charming, Brisbane and other journalists heralded in the 1840s on the threshold of an industrial revolution in America attained its most eloquent spokesperson in Walt Whitman, himself a journalist Rather than speaking for the class interests of workers, however, Whitman exalted the fellowship of work in a democratic society, celebrating “a free association of producers engaged in a non-alienated form of work,” according to Herreshoff (137).

In Whitman’s description of work, the beauty of the teamster’s craft rather than its class-determined status is preeminent Whitman appears to breathe the optimism of a young nation; the older Jacksonian conviction that “there was a deep-rooted conflict in society between the ‘producing’ and ‘non-producing classes” has disappeared.(8) In Whitman’s glorification of labor, sexual and caste divisions are abandoned, Herreshoff notes. Whitman’s self-appointed task is to teach the worker “the glory of his daily walk and trade.” An axe, a weapon of terror, is, in the hands of the craftsman, a shapely “instrument of peaceful progress” (130).

Marx and Whitman pursue similar aims, if different means for attaining them, Herreshoff points out, noting the Communist Manifesto’s call for a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” The pre-eminence of economic activity in Marx, after all, is not based upon the pre-eminence of material economic values but derives from creative human activity that leaves its impact on the world. To understand the conditions in which labor manifests itself is to perceive the meaning and aim of human history. Man creates himself by his own work; in labor is man’s self-fulfilling essence.

The fact that industry was busy choking off that essence does not show up in Whitman’s poetry, any more than Jefferson’s vision of self-sufficient yeomen took into account contradictions in the economy at odds with his idealistic project. We are left with the contradiction of Whitman himself who, by his own admission, contained multitudes, like the democratic nation he celebrated. What emerges in Whitman then is not a consistent worldview or formulas for bringing about an earthly paradise for his workers but rather a validation of work itself as “a way of knowing the world” (138). In this sense, work is no different than play.

Herreshoff begins his study with the notion of alienated work as represented in the work of Thoreau, Melville and Dickinson. The Narrative of Frederick Douglass forms a bridge between representations of alienated labor, in the context of human freedom, and the liberating potential of work as it appears in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It is an ambitious undertaking on Herreshoff’s part.

Herreshoff apparently decided to ignore what others have written on the subject of labor and literature, but he was willing to draw from sources as diverse as Christian theology, transcendental metaphysics, Marx and proletarian literature to explain his theme. The conclusion of his chapter on Dickinson, for instance, invokes the permanent essence of the ‘human condition?

Employing traditional Christian views of work as humankind’s burden and source of suffering, Marxist notions of alienation and humanist interpretations of work’s liberating and playful potential, Herreshoff frames the topic of work as it appears in selected texts by five major American authors To explore the large middle-ground of boredom constituting most work is not the task of imaginative literature; for that we must look to narratives written by workers themselves—unfortunately, few of those still exist.

How Is Freedom Won?

By the conclusion of his study, Herreshoff appears curiously resigned. “So history begins,” he writes, with humanity condemned to a world in which private property, the state and hard work are necessary consequences of the Fall.” Every example given, however, with the possible exception of Melville, deconstructs the word “necessary.” Each of the five authors alerts, indeed urges, the reader to seize the possibilities of human freedom.

Labor into Art is an important contribution to criticism and to the education of the general reader. The social and political implications of work seldom if ever appear as a topic in the annual PMLA bibliographies. It is not simply the book’s uniqueness, however, but Professor Herreshoff’s originality and careful readings of important literary texts that recommend his study of “the theme of work.”

In a curious way, Labor into Art is a throwback to proletarian criticism of the 1930s in its best instances (which were not many). The books main weaknesses lie not with what Herreshoff has accomplished, but what he chose to leave out There is no reference, for example, to the important debates engaged in the 1840s on the subject of work and the worker. Changing modes of production that brought about radically altered conditions of work are neglected. The progress from Melville’s Typee to his “Bartleby the Scrivener traces the evolutionary dimensions of alienated work in an emerging industrial civilization.

In the conclusion, Herreshoff mystifies labor as a category belonging to the “human condition.” Marxist social revolution has failed. What remains is the solace discovered in “the powerful forest of the mind.” A rather melancholy ending, it would seem, to a book with such empowering implications.


  1. Quoted by Stephen Innes, editor, Work and labor in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988): 246.
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  2. See Marcus Redicker, in Innes, 251-86.
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  3. F.O. Matthiessen, in American Renaissance (New York Oxford University Press, 1941) demonstrates the parallels with Shakespeare.
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  4. I am indebted to Schiomo Avinieri’s The Social and Political Thought of Karl Man (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988):71ff.
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  5. An unpublished study by James Lovell, Jr. deserves further scholarly exploration. See Lovell Champions of the Workers in American Literature of the 1840s. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, 1938.
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  6. S. Matthiessen, op. cit.,

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  8. C.L.R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways. (London: Allison and Busby, 1985): 60.
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  9. The quotation is from Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little Brown, 1948).
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September-October 1993, ATC 46