, Newburyport, MA


September 2, 2013

Work, work, work!


Sounds like a return to Hesiod’s age of Gold — and a long way from Dickens, who kept his eye on labor bosses, exposed the vulnerability of workers, and it was a damned undignified sight. Bob Cratchit was but one of many parents with sick or handicapped children and forced to work for abusive bosses like Scrooge.

Empathy for women as laborers was more rare. The early ballad simply titled “A woman’s work is never done” avoided the good face put on women’s role in the labor scheme of the Bible. This was in spades, and Proverbs paean to the “virtuous woman” could have been written by Henry Ford: Her toil was repetitive, demanding and filled with pressure, responsibility and no wage; but if done without complaint, her prize was to be called “virtuous” — but hardly a day off, sorry to say.

And no sympathy at all for slaves, whose lives were debilitating toil nourished largely by the lash. There was “no eye to mark their sufferings with a tear,” wrote Thomas Day, just misery multiplied before sinking to sleep — “and wish to wake no more.”

H.L. Mencken lacked Dickens’ subtlety: All democratic theories include the “dignity of labor,” a delusion that is one of the worst, he said, though without it the worker has nothing but a belly-ache.

What to make of all this? Is it recognizable, applicable? Well, yes. We still seek a human age of Gold — of abundance and leisure without the kinds of work we don’t prefer. But our reality is the ongoing age of Iron wherein the gods treat us harshly and idleness means atrophy if not death.

We are constantly in, or seeking, jobs, careers, trades, professions, businesses; and when forced to be idle, are threatened in self-respect, self-image, well-being or family survival.

We may feel Thoreau’s life is impossible, even undesirable, for us. But so, perhaps, the one we now have. Somewhere between may be a better world altogether.


John Burciaga of Newburyport writes on politics, social issues and religion, and may be reached at

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