Review | Everyone knows that work is miserable. Can Thoreau help fix it?

Henry David Thoreau’s mother, it is often said, did his laundry. The continued attraction of this old chestnut — debunked by Rebecca Solnit and Laura Dassow Walls, among others — is that it undermines Thoreau’s supposed claim to manly self-reliance on Walden Pond. Of course, Thoreau is less famous for living in a shack than for writing a thoughtful and funny book about doing so, and many readers value “Walden” for its account not of independence but of interconnectedness. Even so, a shameful whiff of idleness clings to the writer. Wasn’t he a hypocrite? Wasn’t he a freeloader?

Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living,” by scholars John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle, offers an impassioned and often successful defense of Thoreau as a diligent worker (pencil maker, teacher, surveyor, editor, writer, bespoke tiny-home manufacturer and bean-field tiller). More important, it presents him as a philosopher whose thinking on the topic of work has much to teach our “Great Resignation” age. They argue that Thoreau helps us to see, for example, a mismatch between “the tides and seasons of our energies” and the rigidity of the office clock; to find the pleasure and meaning of manual labor; to know when and why to quit. The authors’ desire to make Henry speak to 21st-century working life is admirable. But this approach also leads to some puzzling blind spots — testament, perhaps, to what truly hard labor it is to think beyond the structures and ideas that reinforce the modern work ethic.

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“Henry at Work” addresses itself to a general audience and proceeds “anecdotally and personally” through 10 chapters organized around keywords including “Resignation,” “Machine Work,” “Meaningless Work,” “Compensation” and “Fulfilling Work.” These titles evoke Thoreau’s own writing in the “Economy” chapter of “Walden” and in his later essay “Life Without Principle.” The authors share with their 19th-century subject an engaging style of everyday philosophy that extrapolates big questions about a well-led life from seemingly more practical concerns: how to live frugally, to make a living. The book also resembles anthropologist David Graeber’s “Bulls—- Jobs” — cited in the bibliography of “Henry at Work,” though not directly referenced in the text — in its conversational tone, as well as its admixture of philosophical musings and quasi-ethnographic interviews with present-day workers.

The book is at its best when it guides readers through Thoreau’s place in a longer philosophical history of work. The authors patiently explain the concept of “theodicy” — an account of “why life (including work) sucks if there is [a] God who cares about us” — and explore how we might compare Thoreau’s views of work with the models of theodicy offered by ancient Greek and Roman writers. This leads to a clarifying discussion of differences between an 8th-century BC work ethic represented by Hesiod’s “Works and Days” (work hurts but is inevitable), a 1st-century BC work ethic represented by Virgil’s “Georgics” with which Thoreau aligns himself (work leads to the cultivation of “new facilities, new emotions, new senses, new sensitivities”), and the 16th-century Protestant work ethic (making money is a moral end in itself) that still holds sway today.

In their quest to acquit Thoreau of indolence and assert his continued relevance, however, the authors cede too much to the profit-driven ethic that they say they want to interrogate. Originating as an article in Fast Company, including at least one citation of a LinkedIn post, and featuring interviews with the likes of a billionaire real estate investor and an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, the book absorbs a strangely corporate outlook. Zoom meetings, flex hours and company retreats are hailed as opportunities for “workers [to] find meaning and growth” of which Thoreau would approve. Notably, Kaag and van Belle consider collective labor only under the heading of “Coworkers,” which frames the topic not in terms of class solidarity and bargaining power but of something more like simple collegiality.

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This illustrates the greatest flaw of “Henry at Work”: It tends to regard the problem of work as one of attitude rather than one of material conditions. The authors encourage us to think “differently about the work that [we] do,” to “work out of love,” to see “one’s work as self-expressive.” It is true that the question of why we work so hard has invited consideration of ideological forces at least since Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Perhaps changing our thinking about work will let us change our conditions of work? But Weber’s idealist insights (that is, his focus on the way that ideals and beliefs direct other forces) should be supplemented with attention to structural forces. The conditions under which we labor — how little we’re paid, how our productivity is organized and evaluated, and so on — inevitably determine how we labor, often driving us to overwork for the benefit of others. A sense of “vocation” is no salve under such conditions. As labor journalist Sarah Jaffe warns in the title of her recent book: “Work Won’t Love You Back.”

It’s true that Thoreau, a Transcendentalist, inherited idealist tendencies from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw great power in changing one’s perspective. But Thoreau departed from his mentor by linking new ways of thinking more directly to new ways of living and acting. Thoreau’s move to Walden was one such shift: an attempt to escape the cycle of debt that lay beneath the veneer of prosperity coating Concord, Mass. Another example was Thoreau’s infamous night in prison resulting from an act of civil disobedience against unjust laws, prefiguring Gandhian satyagraha, U.S. civil rights, and labor strikes. All of these later movements shared the conviction that society’s smooth functioning must be interrupted to force change. Good vibes don’t make a good world in and of themselves, and thinking better thoughts about work by yourself won’t make work better.

Some of the best recent scholarship and thinking on work offers a mix of idealist and materialist approaches. Kaag and van Belle might have attended to Graeber’s claim that the proliferation of “bulls— jobs” is not merely a crisis of malaise. For Graeber, useless but highly paid jobs — and the concomitant devaluing of “essential” yet supposedly unskilled labor — concentrates wealth and power among an elite class. Like Weber, the Marxist theorist Kathi Weeks takes the power of the work ethic seriously, framing it as a cultural, quasi-spiritual force in “The Problem With Work” (2011). But she also argues that a shift in people’s material circumstances — say, the security provided by a “Universal Basic Income” or a legislated 30-hour cap on the workweek — is necessary to create conditions for better imaginations of work.

“Henry at Work” thus reads as a depoliticized account of a deeply political problem. The authors’ five “Thoreauvian commandments” overly domesticate Henry to the genre of the self-help book. In the process, we lose sight of the provocateur who may have more in common with Paul Lafargue, author of the satirical 1883 pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” (newly republished in 2022) than he does with “a way of orienting yourself to the daily grind.” Nonetheless, this accessible and timely book has great potential to urge more people to see Thoreau not as a solitary sluggard but as a resource for thinking together about the future of work, or a future after work as we know it.

Nathan Wolff is an associate professor of English at Tufts University and the author of “Not Quite Hope and Other Political Emotions in the Gilded Age.” He is working on a new book that looks to 19th-century U.S. literature for lessons about the formation of, and alternatives to, the American work ethic.

Thoreau on Making a Living

By John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle

Princeton University Press. 203 pp. $27.95

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