Thoreau’s Walden was first published in 1854, about a decade after his experience living in a cabin in the woods and not long after the first industrial revolution swept the United States. During the time of his “experiments” in Walden and later the writing of it, the American economy underwent a historical transformation from small independent farmers and artisans, who work mainly for themselves and local markets, to specialized workforce in factories. The process of production was divided into separate tasks, each performed and automated by the machine and the machine worker, who became an invisible and inconsequential peg in the vast profit-driven machinery. The mindless, repetitive and soul-sucking nature of such work replaced the supposedly more intimate and satisfying nature of work with one’s own process, tools and materials. Industrialization also took away the independence and peace of farmers who used to work more in harmony with nature to provide for their family’s basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. It was in time of this technological and economic development, Thoreau expressed his philosophy of work against the potential destruction of human nature, creativity and spirit for the benefits of commerce.
In Economy, the first and the longest chapter of Walden, Thoreau warned his readers not to “become tools for their tools” (33) and urge them to find work they love and suit their talent, to follow their genius, and find time to develop their personal and spiritual growth:
Most men… through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. Actually, the laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity day by day; he cannot afford to sustain the manliest relations to men; his labor would be depreciated in the market. He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge? We should feed and clothe him gratuitously sometimes, and recruit him with our cordials, before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. (4)
In Economy, Thoreau also stated that the pressure to work for any job to live a more luxurious but unnecessary lifestyle arose from the social conditioning and pressure of a society built on the pervasive culture of consumerism. Thoreau argued that excess materialistic ownership or taste, whether it be shelter, clothing, or food, was a shackle to enslave oneself instead of emancipation:
I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? (3)
Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”(12)
The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature… He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper… (33)
By working smart and keeping his expense as low as possible, Thoreau could spend majority of his time doing what he loved to do, a type of work that gave him true meaning and purpose beyond a paycheck: writing, reading, thinking/meditating, walking, observing nature:
For more than five years I maintained myself thus solely by the labor of my hands, and I found that, by working about six weeks in a year, I could meet all the expenses of living. The whole of my winters, as well as most of my summers, I had free and clear for study. (65)
The social pressure of work and its damaging impact from a consumer culture is felt in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye as well. One example is the tragic life of a secondary character, Pauline Williams, the main character Pecola’s mother. A spiritual, simple, and dreamy young woman from a small rural town of Alabama, after falling in love and migrating to an urban industrial town of north Ohio, Pauline fell prey to the conformity of materialism and style/fashion while her newly-wed husband, Cholly, worked in a steel mill:
Pauline felt uncomfortable with few black women she met. They were amused by her because she did not straighten her hair. When she tried to make up her face as they did, it came off rather badly. Their goading glances and private snickers at her way of talking…and dressing developed in her a desire for new clothes. When Cholly began to quarrel about the money she wanted, she decided to go to work. Taking jobs as a day worker helped with the clothes, and even a few things of for the apartment, but it did not help with Cholly. He was not pleased with her purchase and began to tell her so. Their marriage was shredded with quarrels. (118)
The story in The Bluest Eye spans from the depression era in early 30s to early 40s, about a decade after the second industrial revolution drastically changed the working and social landscape of America again. Though from different time period, the theme of work, or more accurately, meaningless, material-driven work, its impact on personal freedom and growth, its distraction, its hidden and high price paid by the working poor, remains similar in both Walden and The Bluest Eye. Their message continues to be alarming and relevant in the age of digital revolution in which we live now.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Economy.” Walden, Four River Press, New York, 2008
Morrison, Tony. The Bluest Eye, Vintage International, New York, 2007