Jul 26 2017

Works of Art versus the Art of Hard Work: Some Recent (& Not So Recent) Examples

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I don’t know where the cliché “Are you working hard or hardly working?” originates from, but it recently came to mind as I was reading Frank Goodwyn’s Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective (1955) where a few passages made me huff:

As in the case of older Texans, their faith was bolstered by a strong equalitarian outlook. They scorned all aspirations to identify themselves with the self-styled elite by cultivating a fondness for deliberately complex musical, artistic, and literary patterns. Their basic philosophy prevails to this day, coloring the political and cultural life of the state. Their blanket endorsement of plain labor and their suspicion of all exclusively intellectual activities are well depicted in the answer that one West Texan gave when I asked him whether his town had produced any successful artists, writers, actors, or musicians. “No, sir,” he said. “None ever had time for such things. All have tried to work and make an honest living.” [1]

I suppose all work and no play means West Texas has no “complex” music, at least it didn’t in 1955. Perhaps it’s why I (being born in West Texas) never learned how to properly read (and therefore never bother to attempt to write) poetry. Continuing with Goodwyn:

Most Texas versifiers are still too busy being poets to write good poetry. Anxious to excel in the literary world’s critical eyes, they adopt the classic poet’s manner without capturing his fire. They follow his metrical rules without fully feeling their powers shying from clichés and baying the moon in accepted bardian style. They think they have to speak in terms of Greek mythology and cosmic dreams, treating the seasons as if they were lovelorn spirits and the heavenly bodies as if they were rational creatures. The task of expressing these trite ideas without using the trite words which have traditionally conveyed them is too much for the average Texas poetaster, as it would be for anyone else. He hence emerges with little more than a few lame lines in slender books printed at his own expense. [2]

As Mark Athitakis has recently pointed out in The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt (2016) one of the reasons Laura Ingalls Wilder focused on hard work, particularly in her first work Little House in the Big Woods (1932), is because, when one is living in a frontier environment as she did in her childhood, one quickly appreciates hard work’s relationship to survival. Wilder’s emphasis on the relationship of hard work and survival is part of what made it a hit with Depression-era readers when the book was first published. [3]

Athitakis then goes on to show that some contemporary writers of the Midwest have been much more hesitant in their enthusiasm for portraying hard work, even when portraying hard work as it relates to the act of writing, as in Athitakis’s example of Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother (2013), which I have yet to read. [4]

Now when it comes to the concept of hard work and contemporary nonfiction writers of the Midwest, J. D. Vance has recently observed in Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016):

People talk about hard work all the time in places like Middletown. You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness. During the 2012 election cycle, the Public Religion Institute, a left-leaning think tank, published a report on working-class whites. It found, among other things, that working-class whites worked more hours than college-educated whites. But the idea that the average working-class white works more hours is demonstrably false. The Public Religion Institute based its results on surveys—essentially, they called around and asked people what they thought. The only thing that report proves is that many folks talk about working more than they actually work[5]

The concept of hard work (and sometimes the mere appearance of hard work) was very much accompanied with that of survival for most non-whites in the early and mid-twentieth century South. As Isabel Wilkerson shows in The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010) with the example of Robert Joe “Pershing” Foster:

The friend showed him what to do, and Pershing worked beside him. He looked up and saw the foreman watching him. Pershing pretended not to see him, worked even harder. The foreman left, and, when he came back, Pershing was still at work. At the end of the day, the foreman hired him. Pershing finished out the summer stacking staves, not minding the hard work and not finding it demeaning. “Sometimes,” he said, “You have to stoop to conquer.” [6]

For Pershing, survival eventually meant leaving the South. But others were determined to stay (and they did), like the parents of actor Wendell Pierce as he, a native to New Orleans, writes in The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken (2015):

It’s hard for people today to understand it, but for black folk back then, a strong will like Mamo’s and Papo’s, joined to a rock-hard sense of discipline, was a tool of survival. [7]

With regard to hard work and Southern whites, consider the nonfiction writer Rod Dreher and his family situation. Even though his father Ray Dreher graduated from LSU, “he was a man who had no business confined to a desk. It wasn’t in his nature,”[8] because “Paw had not wanted to go to college; he thought he belonged at trade school, where he could improve his mechanical skills, which were his passion.”[9] In contrast, Ray describes his son Rod as a child who “had your head in books all the time,” unlike Ray and Rod’s sister Ruthie who “loved nature, and being outside.” [10] Later on when Rod and Ruthie attend LSU:

Ruthie thought I was getting away with something, and not only because I managed to ace tests even though I had stayed out late drinking beer and barely studied…. [11]

We were both straight-A students, but Ruthie earned her grades through hard work and grit; academics came much more easily for me. [12]

Ruthie and Ray revered hard work in a way Rod (at the time) did not; they even defined the concept differently than he did, where in a sense, physical accomplishments were valued more than mental feats. At times, for Rod, even something as physical as preparing a dinner for his family ended in resentment, because, frankly, concocting a hoity-toity bouillabaisse just ain’t the same as stewing plain ole gumbo. [13] Rod describes his father’s worldview:

To him, preferring the world of ideas to the natural world was no mere aberration on my part. It was personal, and constituted a failure to love. If I loved as I ought to love, I would desire the things he desired. [14]

If that wasn’t enough his sister and her husband felt similar to their beloved patriarch:

Hannah [Rod’s niece] said she and her sisters had grown up with Ruthie and Daddy disparaging me as a “user”––my father’s word for the most contemptible sort of person, one who gets things done craftily, usually by taking advantage of others. [15]

Rod’s hard work as a writer was never fully accepted by his family.

As I attempt to bring these thoughts to closure, let me contrast these contemporary American concepts of hard work, and their relation to survival, and their relationship to creative output (particularly writing) to the life and work of James Joyce––an Irishman who worked hard on his writing—some might say too hard, at least some of the time, because it is hard work to learn to read him properly, no matter what they say in West Texas.

As his biographer Richard Ellmann acutely observed:

We are still learning to be James Joyce’s contemporaries, to understand our interpreter….[16]

He does not wish to conquer us, but have us conquer him. There are, in other words, no invitations, but the door is ajar.[17]

At one point Joyce confessed:

“My literary work during the last eleven years has produced nothing. On the contrary my second book Dubliners cost me a considerable sum of money owing to the eight years of litigation which preceded its publication.” [18]

NOTES

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[1] Goodwyn, Frank. Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective. NY: Knopf. 1955. p. 239.

[2] Goodwyn 339.

[3] Athitakis, Mark. The New Midwest: a Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. Cleveland, OH: Belt Publishing. 2016. pp. 37–39.

[4] Athitakis 39–43.

[5] Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. NY: HarperCollins. 2016. p. 57.

[6] Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. NY: Random House/Vintage Books. 2010. p. 131.

[7] Pierce, Wendell. The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City that would not be Broken. NY: Riverhead Books. 2015. p. 21.

[8] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. pp. 3–4.

[9] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 63.

[10] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 9.

[11] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 35.

[12] Dreher, How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. p. 8.

[13] Dreher Little Way of Ruthie Leming 78–79; How Dante 19–20.

[14] Dreher How Dante 10.

[15] Dreher How Dante 27.

[16] Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce. Oxford UP. 1959. p. 1.

[17] Ellmann, James Joyce 4.

[18] Ellmann, James Joyce 404.