As someone who enjoys work and finds odious most notions of socially acceptable leisure, I’m inspired and repelled by Melville’s letter to his cousin Catherine G. Lansing, written on this date, Sept. 5, in 1877: “Whoever is not in the possession of leisure can hardly be said to possess independence. They talk of the dignity of work. Bosh. True Work is the necessity of poor humanity’s earthly condition. The dignity is in leisure. Besides, 99 hundreths of all the work done in the world is either foolish and unnecessary, or harmful and wicked.”
Almost any work undertaken in a spirit of gratitude and with a willingness to be of service possesses dignity. For nineteen years, beginning in 1866, Melville worked as a customs inspector in New York City. He writes to his cousin out of bitterness, frustration and more than a little self-pity. It’s a story romanticized long ago into legend: unappreciated writer gives up the pen and succumbs to the demands of the market. That is, he gets a real job, which hardly seems unreasonable, especially because he has a family to support and he can still go on writing, if not always publishing. Death was a lucrative career move for Melville. Slowly, after more than forty years, he became a qualified bestseller.
Melville is at least theoretically correct when he says “the dignity is in leisure,” though much that passes for leisure today (video games?) is without dignity. Work, of course, can be a form of leisure if it is fulfilling. In an interview, Dana Gioia says: “I like to divide the day into writing and manual labor.”
Happy Labor Day.