During my teaching days when it came to my literature curriculum, my students became aware just as I did when I was their age that some American authors are pretty tough nuts to crack when it comes to comprehending what they’re really trying to say. Count Henry David Thoreau in that number.
Earlier this summer, I was reminded of that when I took another run at the author in a paperback that was one of my greatest book bargains ever. On a fall trip with my Lady Jane a few years ago to my favorite region of the country and also a region with a rich literary heritage, New England, I stumbled upon a shelf of books outside a library in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. They were old books for sale for a nominal price based on the honor system, with a box on a table for depositing a quarter for each book.
Since I was change-heavy at the moment, I was able to drop four quarters in the box and made my selections. One was a paperback anthology copyrighted in 1941, one which featured a slogan on the book cover that ended with one of those wonderful words of yesteryear, “Kind to your pocket and your pocketbook.” I always have that itch to scratch for something steeped in antiquity, be it my addiction to the old Bogie-and-Bacall black-and-white movies I watch regularly on TCM or my immersion in old newsprint, magazines and books.
Well, amongst the short works in the collection of noteworthy authors such as Steinbeck, Thurber, Maugham and Whitman, there appeared Thoreau’s essay “Walking.”
Now, even in a tough-read situation, standard for the philosophical author, there are still certain quotes that can be pulled out and admired for the ideas they convey. And in “Walking,” first published in the magazine The Atlantic a month after Thoreau’s passing in 1862 of tuberculosis at just 44 years old, I think there’s one extractable line that’s relevant in looking ahead to the upcoming Labor Day holiday. I think it speaks to the reason work is important and the reason most of us do our part to keep the labor line moving forward beyond the obvious need to support ourselves and our loved ones economically.
Wrote Thoreau, “The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism, whose touch thrills the heart, than the languid fingers of idleness.”
As for the heroism reference in the quote, well, it’s easy to connect heroism to work if you let go of the notion that work is only validated if a paycheck is forthcoming. Those who volunteer so often take on the look of a hero. Borrowing a line from an Ernest Hemingway short story entitled “Soldier’s Home,” a line delivered by parents to a son who’s having trouble finding direction after returning from World War I, “All work is honorable.”
Certainly for those who have retired who have housemates that still make their hearts skip a bit faster when that special someone enters the room, I do get the retirement thing, I suppose, although I still think a little separation that results in, say, a 20-hours-or-so, part-time job certainly could make those hearts grow a bit fonder. After all, I do think there’s such a thing as a bit too much togetherness.
For those who find themselves living alone, I think it’s important to “get out amongst ‘em” and work. I’ve always found that time presents two faces. Few older types would dispute that, collectively, our days become weeks become months become years with unimaginable celerity. However, without a daily purpose that involves some type of labor, whether paid or volunteer, each 24 hours move at a snail’s pace.
To me, even though there could be a variety of reasons, one of the saddest sights as I drive my work roads is a car or two in a driveway in the middle of a traditional workday. While I’m certainly not any sort of a temperance zealot, the only sight I find sadder, especially on those glorious sun-dappled days with which we are blessed, are those cars belonging to the diurnal drinkers outside bars.
And so, this coming Monday, please enjoy the day that traces itself back to the earliest times of the labor movement, with the first acknowledged Labor Day actually being a Tuesday in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882, two years before the holiday would become in perpetuity the first Monday of September.
The whole idea of this Labor Day thing is the day is supposed to be an acknowledgment of a well-balanced life, as in, out of our twenty-fours, eight hours of labor, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of sleep. Perhaps this year, make a plan on Monday as you sub out those eight hours of labor for some increased recreation and slumber to give some thought to that balance of life that divides your days into thirds.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.