Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living by John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle; Princeton University Press, 232 pp., $27.95
In their new book, Henry at Work, John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle offer a surprising source of wisdom for the working world: Henry David Thoreau, infamous for shirking work by beating a retreat to the woods. Kaag and van Belle correct this cliché by reminding us that Thoreau did work—he taught, wrote, built, surveyed, and gardened. He even babysat for Ralph Waldo Emerson. More important for later generations, he reflected broadly on the worth of that work. Indeed, Thoreau was no quiet quitter but positively noisy about labor and its value. “He gave work,” as Kaag and van Belle put it, “a good Socratic grilling,” probing it from all sides, demanding that we, too, examine this thing that dictates our identities and guzzles our time. Given the combined effects of the Great Resignation, mass layoffs in the tech industry, and the advent of ChatGPT (which already makes a pretty good executive assistant), it’s time, the authors suggest, that we do the same. Socrates suggested that if we examine life, it might be worth living. Similarly, Kaag and van Belle posit that the examined job might be worth keeping.
Over several excellent books, including American Philosophy: A Love Story and Hiking with Nietzsche, Kaag has honed a trademark style of synthesizing philosophy and autobiography. Together, he and van Belle continue that trend. They remind readers that Thoreau’s understanding of “economy”—a central concept in Walden—implied “the ability to dwell in the world as a flourishing human being.” The extent to which employment often fails to achieve this today is clear in the authors’ early job histories—van Belle a parking attendant shuffling cars in a kind of “horrible ballet,” Kaag toiling in a retail store where a coworker covers for his tardiness until she doesn’t. They also report from the wider world, relating as one example the story of a floor worker at Home Depot who survives humiliating drudgery by getting high. “It is just easier that way,” he says before quitting two weeks later. No love lost for labor here.
But work need not drain our souls. Some of us could work less if we were willing to buy less. Unsurprisingly, Thoreau’s Socratic needling is especially sharp when it comes to the consumerism that drives so much of our “need” to work: “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he writes; Thoreau’s own “willingness to go without certain modern luxuries” made him a “frugillionaire,” write Kaag and van Belle, or “someone who lives richly on very little.” Still, even frugillionaires must eat. So the authors remind us that if quitting is not an option, thinking “differently about the work that you do sometimes is.” They also write movingly about work’s potential to anchor us in moments of existential anxiety. “This may be the sacred nature of meaningful work,” they speculate, “that it keeps us afloat and carries us on as the skies darken and the floods gather.”
Nice work if you can get it, some might say; indeed, Kaag and van Belle acknowledge that there is a risk of romanticizing here. For millions of humans around the globe, there is nothing redemptive about work. One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to feel cynical about exhorting people to value work if the actual value of that work accrues to others. (When the authors introduce us to Gloria, whom they describe as thriving in the corner store job that requires her to get up at four a.m. to minister to others’ needs, what I really wanted to know was whether she was paid a living wage and had health care.) Insisting that we love our work risks obscuring the fact that sometimes we should hate it: hate it enough to change the system that drains it of its meaning and then faults us for finding it meaningless.
In exploring this darker underbelly of employment, Kaag and van Belle introduce us to Brister Freeman and Zilpah White, two of Thoreau’s lesser-known neighbors. These fellow inhabitants of the Walden woods were not frugillionaires but people who lived in poverty as a consequence of past enslavement and present prejudice. Even if slavery had not routinely included physical torture, sexual assault, and family separation, the simple fact that it stole a lifetime of labor from millions of people would render it an atrocity. Freeman and White remind us that the early-American economy was built on stolen labor made possible by racism and that our economy still produces poverty, too often along racial lines. The wealthier we are, the harder it is to see this, the authors warn. Justice demands that the privileged among us ask ourselves “whether we are part of the tortures” that the Freemans and Whites of our day endure. It would have been a painful question for Concord’s inhabitants, and it should be a painful question for us now. Kaag and van Belle are right to raise it.
Henry at Work makes an elegant and heartening case for parsing the perennial American obsession with work through one of our most discerning writers. The Thoreauvian world that the authors envision is both thoughtful and sweaty, more egalitarian and more meaningful. If we want to actualize this ruddy utopia, we’d better get to work.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.