Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Book Reviews

Making a Living Is More Than Work

Thoreau’s loafing and the purpose of life.

Jonathan Malesic

Walden Pond Revisited (detail), 1932–33, by N.C. Wyeth (1882–1945); Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, USA, bequest of Carolyn Wyeth/Bridgeman Images.

At one point in his 1854 prose paean to simple living, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau recounts his acquaintance with a Canadian woodchopper named Alec Therien, “a true Homeric or Paphlagonian man.” Therien is a jolly character, given to rolling on the forest floor with laughter and seasoning his speech with exclamations like “by George!” and “Gorrappit!” Thoreau admires him for his skill at his craft, his oneness with his animal nature, and his lack of guile.

Walking past Thoreau’s cabin one day, Therien observes, “How thick the pigeons are! If working every day were not my trade, I could get all the meat I should want by hunting,—pigeons, woodchucks, rabbits, partridges,—by gosh! I could get all I should want for a week in one day!”

Thoreau plays the remark for a joke, but there is a serious, paradoxical point here. Thoreau’s “experiment” at Walden Pond was meant to show that industrial society had multiplied human work for no good reason, that a good life was attainable with limited consumption and labor. In fact, he tried to show, the good life is attainable only through simpler living that liberates the person to strive toward higher ends. Therien seems to grasp this, yet he keeps working for the sake of his “trade” and despite the fact he could meet his weekly needs with just a day’s effort. Is he free of the Protestant ethic that burdens so many of his contemporaries, or is he still stuck within its iron cage?

Walden is filled with figures like Therien who are trying, often failing, to solve the problem of work: John Farmer, whose thoughts are mystically summoned to a sphere beyond his exhausting labor; John Field, the Irish “bogger” scorned by Thoreau for choosing to do brutally hard work and live in a hovel so he and his family can have tea, butter, and meat; the Indian who weaves a basket no one wants to buy; and, in a fable Thoreau relates near the end of Walden, an artist in the city of Kouroo who dedicates his life to carving the perfect wooden staff. Centuries pass as he works to achieve his goal, but, as Thoreau writes, “as he made no compromise with Time, Time kept out of his way, and only sighed at a distance because he could not overcome him.” Paradoxically, then, “no more time had elapsed than is required for a single scintillation from the brain of Brahma to fall on and inflame the tinder of a mortal brain.” All of these figures embody parables with subtle and conflicted lessons, and as a result they are indispensable for understanding perhaps the most interesting and challenging American writer on the subject of work.

Of these characters, only Alec Therien receives mention in philosophers John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle’s Henry at Work, and he only briefly. Kaag and van Belle set out to give a comprehensive account of Thoreau as both a worker and a thinker who can expose the pleasures and pains of work in twenty-first-century society. It is a worthy aim. Following the pandemic’s disruption of our working lives, we can use Thoreau’s insights. Yet the authors of Henry at Work miss their opportunity to make Thoreau relevant by ignoring his radicalism.

Kaag and van Belle are motivated in part by what they feel is the need to rehabilitate Thoreau’s reputation. Even Thoreau’s closest friends thought he was a slacker. In a eulogy, his mentor and rival Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that the younger man, dead from tuberculosis at age 44, “had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry-party.” The charge has stuck ever since. The consensus today is that Thoreau was an indolent adolescent who played at self-reliance while his mother did his laundry.

To Kaag and van Belle, Thoreau was instead “the consummate worker,” diligent in his crafts. As they note, he was a schoolteacher, a pencil maker, an inventor, a surveyor, a carpenter, a field researcher, a bean hoer, and, of course, a writer and orator. He had “as many trades as fingers,” he wrote of himself in Walden. Kaag and van Belle praise his earthy “Virgilian work ethic,” writing that he “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.”

Independent, yes. Work loving, no. If Thoreau has a reputation for being suspicious of work, it is well earned. In Walden and elsewhere, he is a relentless critic of common ways of working and anything but an apologist for the supposed virtues of agriculture or the skilled trades. “Thoreau’s two-year stint at Walden demonstrated that only through manual work could a man or woman reestablish his or her place in the natural order of things,” Kaag and van Belle write. But it was his solitude in nature, not his work, that prompted Thoreau to ask, “Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?” At the same time, recognizing that a too-close relationship with the land beneath one’s feet could turn into blinkered nationalism, Thoreau complained that many of his contemporaries “love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads.”

With the life he sketches in Walden, Thoreau shatters our conceptions of work’s proper role in life. Leisure—whether standing in a doorway, contemplating a sandbank, or watching two ants fight—looks, to the industrious mind, like loafing. Thoreau shows that, from a higher perspective, spending time this way might be what life is for. His neighbors in Concord would accuse him of laziness, “but if the birds and flowers had tried me by their standard, I should not have been found wanting.”

Kaag and van Belle acknowledge that Thoreau invites us to consider the “cost” of our work, but they fail to appreciate that as far as he is concerned, any money-making work points our souls in the wrong direction, and so we have good reason to limit it as much as possible. The authors ask, “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?” True, as the authors argue, Thoreau found mystical meaning in working his bean field. At some moments, he found, “it was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans.” Yet he claims he undertook bean farming because he thought it would be easy. “It was on the whole a rare amusement,” he writes, “which, continued too long, might have become a dissipation.” He brags that he planted late and never bothered to manure his field and still did “better than any farmer in Concord did that year.” He worked only in the mornings, he says, and spent his afternoons in town, listening to gossip.

The light yoke of his labor allowed Thoreau to “follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment,” he writes in Walden. Kaag and van Belle fail to make this essential distinction between the necessary labor that sustains “vital heat” and the pursuit of one’s genius. Indeed, they do not refer to genius in this sense at all.

Rather, they throw everything a person does into the category of “the business of living,” then often equate that business with work. Such business, on their account, includes lending money to someone in need, caring for a sick parent, communing with animals, reading classical poets, gardening, picking huckleberries, and thieving. These activities have work-like elements, to be sure, but if virtually everything we do is work, then the concept loses its analytical power. Why, then, talk about work at all?

The overly broad definition of labor results from an impoverished moral imagination—common in American culture—that can value an activity only by calling it work. This was the sort of willful spiritual poverty Thoreau was trying to challenge. Kaag and van Belle write that “Thoreau clocked his workday at Walden Pond” with little care, following the sun, not the machines that, he wrote, “minced” and “fretted” the day “by the ticking of a clock.” But why call it a workday? The authors overlook Thoreau’s loud boast about his refusal of work, which he makes just a few sentences after complaining about clock time: “There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment in any work, whether of the head or hands. I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery.” This is a larger conception of what a day is for.

Kaag and van Belle contend that Thoreau’s greatest work was not Walden but his journal, particularly the entries he made in the last decade of his life. To Kaag and van Belle’s credit, they draw heavily from it in their book, but I question their assumption that the journal itself should be classified as work. The journal was the fruit of Thoreau’s daily exercise, which included a walk of several hours through the woods and countryside, with frequent stops to jot down notes and observations. This effort was not immediately remunerative, nor even intended for an audience. It was simply the record of Thoreau following his crooked genius: not the business of living, but the art.

One need not be a writer to live in accord with one’s genius. Thoreau saw great promise in Alec Therien. His thoughts were underdeveloped, Thoreau believed, but they were original, and he was unafraid of them. He made Thoreau think “that there might be men of genius in the lowest grades of life, however permanently humble and illiterate.” But the parable of the woodchopper’s life shows the difficulty of keeping labor from impeding the pursuit of genius. It may be that Therien’s genius was to fell trees. If it was less profitable than hunting, then so be it. There are worse things than unprofitability. Or perhaps he was a victim of false consciousness, unable to see that the price of his commitment to his “trade” was his very life. The undecidability is the point. Many of us are in a similar position: We say we love what we do, that we find it fulfilling—as indeed it might be—yet our employers benefit from all the extra effort we make in the name of being good “organizational citizens.” Kaag and van Belle claim that the Great Resignation of 2021 represented “America’s Thoreauvian Turn.” They are right that we need Thoreau now, as we think through the intersecting problems of economy, democracy, climate, and racial justice. But we need better than the Thoreau they offer.

As I read Henry at Work, I kept returning to Walden to double-check the authors’ interpretation. I would find the passage in question, then keep reading, page after page. Like the pond itself, Walden is clear, bracing, and seemingly bottomless. If you want to know about Thoreau and work, go to the source.