Commonplace Book - Autumn 2009

Labor

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By Anne Matthews


It would soon be dawn. No cocks were crowing. All they heard was an old man’s voice as he prostrated himself full-length, no doubt for a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain. The labor of throwing himself down and rising again sounded painful. Genji wondered what in this dewlike world he so desired that he insisted on such strenous prayers.
—Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, Heian period (early 11th century a.d.)


During his stay at Monticello, [Joseph] Neilson’s joinery was not limited to woodwork; he also fathered, with Betty Hemings, Jefferson’s talented slave carpenter, John Hemings. Indeed, there are probably still sections of woodwork at Monticello shaped by two sets of hands, father and son, white and black, free and slave, Neilson and Hemings—a continuity of craft, of generation and race, of old house and remodeled house.

—Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello, 1988


Born of the blood of gods, Anchises’ son, man of Troy, the descent to the Underworld

is easy.
Night and day the gates of shadowy Death
stand open wide,
but to retrace your steps, to climb back to
the upper air—
there the struggle, there the labor lies.
—Virgil, The Aeneid, 149–52 (tr. Robert Fagles)


Nature, altered and changed, is in this room. But this is masked. I type. I kill nothing. I touch no living thing. I seem to alter nothing but the screen. If I don’t think about it, I can seem benign, the mountains separate and safe from me. . . . My separation is an illusion. What is disguised is that I—unlike loggers, farmers, fishers, or herders—do not have to face what I alter, and so I learn nothing from it. The connection my labor makes flows only in one

direction.
—Richard White, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?”: Work and Nature, in Uncommon Ground, 1996


The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.
—Marge Piercy, “To Be of Use,” 1973


Take the Second Avenue Elevated Railroad at Chatham Square and ride up half a mile through the sweaters’ district. Every open window of the big tenements, that stand like a continuous brick wall on both sides of the way, gives you a glimpse of one of these shops as the train speeds by. Men and women bending over their machines or ironing clothes at the window, half-naked. Proprieties do not count on the East Side; nothing counts that cannot be converted into hard cash. The road is like a big gangway through an endless work-room where vast multitudes are forever laboring.

—Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, 1890

•••••

Monster you are killing me Be sure
I’ll have you later Women do endure
I can can no longer
and it passes the wretched trap whelming
and I am me
drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!
One proud tug greens Heaven. Marvellous,
unforbidding Majesty.
Swell, imperious bells. I fly.
Mountainous, woman not breaks and
will bend:
sways God nearby: anguish comes to an end.
Blossomed Sarah, and I
blossom. Is that thing alive? I hear a
famisht howl.
—John Berryman, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet, 1956


If a man is clipping a hedge, you must compliment him on it. Hedges have to be praised. This is where the old employers went wrong, they didn’t understand about praise. If there had been more praise for gardeners there would still be plenty of good gardeners around. An industrial worker would sooner have a £5 note but a countryman must have praise. . . . I am a young man who has got caught in the old ways. I am 39 and I am a Victorian gardener, and that is why the world is strange to me.

—Ronald Blythe, Akenfield, 1969


All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.

—Aristotle (384–322 b.c.)


Join the Union, girls, and together say Equal Pay for Equal Work.

—Susan B. Anthony, The Revolution, March 1869


As you walk home—although the apprentice is knocking on the master’s door—the little watercress girls are crying their goods on every street. Some of them are gathered round the pumps, washing the leaves and piling up the bunches in the baskets, that are tattered and worn as their own clothing; in some of the shallows the holes at the bottom have been laced up or darned together with rope and string, or twigs and split laths have been fastened across; whilst others are lined with oilcloth, or old pieces of sheet-tin. Even by the time the cress-market is over, it is yet so early that the maids are beating the mats in the road, and mechanics, their tool-baskets slung over their shoulders, are still hurrying to their work.

—Henry Mayhew, “The Farringdon Watercress Market,” 1851


If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.

—Albert Einstein, in the London Observer, 1950

•••••

Early in the morning I worked barefooted, dabbling like a plastic artist in the dewy and crumbling sand, but later in the day the sun blistered my feet. There the sun lighted me to hoe beans, pacing slowly backward and forward over that yellow gravelly upland, between the long green rows, fifteen rods, the one end terminating in a shrub oak copse where I could rest in the shade, the other in a blackberry field where the green berries deepened their tints by the time I had made another bout. Removing the weeds, putting fresh soil about the bean stems, and encouraging this weed which I had sown, making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass—this was my daily work.
—Henry David Thoreau, “The Bean-Field”, in Walden, 1843

Anne Matthews collects the quotations for Commonplace Book and is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.


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