[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review, History]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[L.Q. cover and art from L.Q. Spring 2011: Lines Of Work.]
(Click pictures for full view.)
Lines Of Work. Jobs. Earning a living, a livelihood, food on the table, a roof over one’s head, survival.
Having now read all 37 back issues of L.Q. save one (and not counting the 38th issue current), I found this one different from all others. I generally like every issue and have almost always given a 4 or 5 out of 5 rating on Goodreads. Flesh, Fall 2016, is the sole earner of a paltry three.
I lightly annotate when I read. I’ll enclose noteworthy sentences and paragraphs in brackets, mark the same with an asterisk if especially thought-provoking, and perhaps add a word or two in the margin. If I thought the entire extract was notable I’ll put an asterisk by the title. There’s the rub.
As I ploughed through reading, not too fervently because it’s a history journal and not usually a murder mystery, I realized that nearly every extract/essay on this seemingly mundane topic of Work was getting a title asterisk. That is unusual. Nearly every extract piqued my curiosity. Food for thought.
Editor Lewis Lapham’s Preamble: The Servant Problem is insightful as always. Of his starting quotes the one I found more jarring, “The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor” by Voltaire. How true. In older times a more captive audience of poor was widespread, today it is less but not nonexistent.
Lapham notes the high unemployment rate in America (Spring 2011). That is in the news even as I write in Spring 2017. The better we get at gathering statistics it seems the more we can stretch and skew them to our particular purposes.
“The lines of work… …divide broadly into employments bent to one’s own purpose and those bound to a purpose other than one’s own.” (p. 14) In America’s founding “The newfound land and its newfound independence both were to be cultivated by employments bent to purposes of the individual…”. (p. 15) It wasn’t always so, as most of this issues attests to. Slavery in America was an exception to these lofty constitutional ideals.
Other than a few very literate Greek and Roman freed-men presented I was curious throughout about lesser lines of work regarding slavery. I presumed they had little time or education for writing. Freed-man Olaudah Equiano in 1789 does comment on slave investment and cruelty:
“I had the good fortune to please my master in every department in which he employed me, and there was scarcely any part of his business or household affairs in which I was not occasionally engaged. … By these means I became very useful to my master, and save him, as he used to acknowledge, above a hundred pounds a year.” (p. 164)
Near the end of the issue the full essay Tools Of The Trade by Peter Stothard alleviated the slightly less noted slave lines of work with discourse on slavery in Roman times:
“The ownership of Greek slaves extended and developed the dominance that Rome exerted over the Greek world.” (p. 202)
“Color of skin was of little consequence… Black slaves were traded from south of the Sahara… but were never a major part of any Roman street scene.” (p. 203)
“…a slave revolt was the terror threat of the ancient mind…. Why had not more slaves risen against their masters…”
“All of them had status as part of a household, and food on their plates that the merely free might lack.” (p. 204)
The bulk of the issue largely dwells on work from a western civilization perspective, with a few nods to oriental/asian or middle eastern environs.
The three sections of the main body Voices in Time are Task At Hand, Job Market, and Gainfully Employed.
As well as work, its counterpart idleness is addressed. Writing in 1621, Robert Burton (p. 26) receives my first double-asterisk mark, for his writing, not necessarily his opinion:
“As in a standing pool, worms and filthy creepers increase… so do evil and corrupt thoughts in an idle person…”
“…idleness is an appendix to nobility: they count it a disgrace to work…”
“When the children of Israel murmured against Pharaoh in Egypt, he commanded his officers to double their task and let them get straw themselves and yet make their full number of bricks, for the sole cause why they mutiny and are evil at ease is, “They are idle.””
That will teach them. (Available online as The Devil’s Tools.)
Burton is immediately followed by Norman Maclean (author of A River Runs Through It) expounding on two-man sawing teams in summer logging camps, followed by an extract from Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire Of The Vanities. All double-asterisked, three in a row. Homer and The Odyssey get a single, then a double for Theodore Dreiser’s piece on a Kansas City bellhop in 1925.
Lydia Davis is sadly amusing in a letter to a funeral director:
“I am writing to you to object to the world cremains, which was used by your representative when he met with my mother and me two days after my father’s death.”
“We noticed that before the death of my father, you and your representative use the words love one to refer to him.”
Then we were sitting there in our chairs in the living room trying not to weep in front of your representative … and your representative referred to him as “the cremains.””
“Cremains sounds like something invented as a milk substitute in coffee, like Cremora, or Coffee-mate.”
There is nothing wrong with inventing words, … But a grieving family is not prepared for this one. … You could very well continue to employ the term ashes. … We would know that these ashes are not like the ashes in a fireplace.” (p. 50)
Gloria Steinem is amusing, and sad, in her expose’ stint as a Playboy Bunny coatcheck girl in 1963. Not a classy job, in hindsight. No pun intended.
Ralph Ellison is insightful as always, his black perspective this time describing his 1930 employment in a paint business in barely desegregated Long Island. I’m convinced his book Invisible Man would be a very worthwhile read.
Mary Shelley with an extract from Frankenstein, Eleanor Coppola writing about the filming of Apocalypse Now. Charlie Mingus, one of my favorite jazz bassists, with the black ‘perspective’ again on getting and losing gigs in 1953 barely, almost but not quite, desegregated U.S.A.
See what I mean about western civilization oriented? (I’m too often reluctant to use the ‘civ’ word these days. I’m not seein’ it or feelin’ it.)
I’ve only mentioned the first third of the issue so far.
Westerners should find a smirk in the brief extract Quality Control, available online, with it’s dress code for female grooming in a big-box store.
Always Be Closing is online too, from the Mamet play and movie Glengarry Glen Ross. A fair bit of the f-word here, forewarning, but it is superb. Sales. I’d starve in half a day.
Ed Dante writes essays and papers for university students. (Did I double-asterisk everything?)
“I do a lot of work for seminary students. I like seminary students. They seem so blissfully unaware of the inherent contradiction in paying somebody to help them cheat in courses that are largely about walking in the light of God and providing an ethical model for others to follow.” (p. 90)
Karl Marx puts forth his basic tenets on labor and production in a brief one-pager. I just disagree with him and I don’t understand how communism ever took hold. I won’t get into it but What Is Human Becomes Animal is available online.
Though it is in your best interest to read great works by subscribing, Lapham’s Quarterly is quite generous in provided a fair bit for free at laphamsquarterly.org. Seek and ye shall find.
To be continued…