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Chapter 19: the problem of drudgery

It is a curious fact that, as society goes on, the very things that once stood for luxury come to be laid aside, and people revert to what is simpler. Feather-beds, for instance, were the former symbol of wealth and grandeur; the luxurious aristocrats of a former age were addressed as, “Now all you on down beds sporting,” and the like. Yet it is only the most rustic tavern that now offers one of these rather than a mattress, and only the newly arrived Irish woman who counts among her chief treasures her bulky feather-bed. So was white bread another symbol of social superiority; and yet now it is discovered that the snowier the bread the less its nourishment, and we resort to all sorts of admixtures in order not to lose the best parts of the wheat. In time we shall doubtless learn that complete indolence or self-indulgence is not the most [136] satisfying form of success, but that we must have some drudgery to make it complete. The most thoroughly leisured classes have to invent some form of hard work for themselves in the shape of field sports or yachting or golfing; and aside from this, the mere social duties, when taken at their highest, have drudgery enough to frighten any innocent rustic, and often to discourage the votaries themselves. Where is social pleasure carried to a higher point than in Newport?-yet one of the very ladies occupied in it said to me some years ago, “It takes my four daughters and myself every atom of our time and strength, from day to day, simply to keep up with our social obligations; this lasts all summer, and then we return to the city and recommence precisely the same life there, and it will last all winter, with only a slight mitigation in Lent.” It is safe to say that no farmer's or miner's daughter would be able to tolerate such an existence for a month; and yet all these ladies were cultivated, independent, and full of higher tastes that remained ungratified through want of leisure.

For men of the same class there is a shade more freedom, with perhaps less refined tastes. What can be imagined in the way of conversation [137] that is more vapid than the talk which may easily go on for a whole evening at a club of fashionable men! My most vivid memory of social drudgery goes back to an evening when I happened in at the chief club in Newport, and three or four gentlemen of this stamp were debating the question of servants' liveries. Two hours later I chanced to look in again, and they were still at it, a little refreshed by the suggestion of a change of tailors. They were all, I believe, worthy men, but what must their ordinary existence be if this was their relaxation? The wood-sawyer who should studiously provide a place where he could go in the evening and saw for fun would seem wise in comparison; there must be a certain interest in the “something attempted, something done,” of laboring away at a wood-pile. The author of a recent very thoughtful and suggestive book-Mr. E. L. Godkin's Political and Economic Essays-thinks that the labor problem is really insoluble, because it is truly the problem of “making the manual laborers of the world content with their lot.” But how many a man of wealth in this country works willingly on a scale which would appall any day-laborer, and this simply from love of the exertion; and is only glad [138] when a portion of it may come in the form of actual manual labor, even as Charles V. was glad to turn away from the task of governing half Europe to devote himself to clock-making.

One looks round in vain to find a pursuit without drudgery. Which is the more exhausting, for Mr. Bryan to travel day and night over the land to meet his admirers, or for Mr. McKinley to stay at home and receive delegations of his by the thousand? As a matter of personal happiness, is the Presidency, or the ghost of a chance of the Presidency, worth either? Three promising and successful members of the Lower House of Congress from a single State, within my knowledge, have recently declined renomination because they found the drudgery so overwhelming, two of them returning to the practice of the law and one to agriculture. Yet both these occupations are regarded as full of drudgery. Two of my college classmates were eminent lawyers, of whom both made constant complaints of this kind, and one retired in the full tide of success for this very reason. I have a neighbor, an eminent physician, who lately, in his eightieth year, spent three successive nights at the bedside of one patient. The professors [139] in the university town where I dwell are allowed a respite of a year every seventh year-their Sabbatical year, they call it-lest their drudgery prove too overwhelming. When I call during business hours on my kinsman the banker I stand reproached before the tremendous and wearing drudgery of his life. What need to speak of the fatigues and trials of the housekeeper? The shopkeeper is tied to his counter or his office, the mechanic to his bench. Among all these it is a choice only of the kind of drudgery; and I confess that of all these various labors the form which seems to me, on thinking them over, the least repellent and most attractive is that of the line of boat-builders on a certain sunny wharf I know, who work all day in their airy shops, with an endless stream of friends coming in to chat or children to play, where the work always ends in something graceful and beautiful and useful, and even the shavings are sweet-scented and the dust is clean.

If we cannot get away from drudgery, whether of grande dame or boat-builder, let us at least try for some species of it that is enjoyable. It is this test which puts literature and art so high among pursuits — the fact that, for those who love them, their very drudgery is, [140] within reasonable limits, a pleasure. The artist is, said Goethe, the only man who lives with unconcealed aims; and he also loves even to mix his colors and stretch his canvas. Haydon, the painter, says in his diary that when he gets a large canvas up, and goes to work on a new historical picture, kings are not his superiors. Every writer feels the same in entering on a new work, large or small; and if he is healthy and reasonable the pleasure holds out to the end, though perhaps with some intermittent periods of fatigue and discouragement. The old German professor in Longfellow's “Hyperion” hopes to die with a proof-sheet in his hand. It is unreasonable for any of us to expect that we shall be spoiled children and not have our share in the cares and vexations of men. If our lives are sound, these matters are secondary to the fact that we are doing, in some way or other, good and useful work. If it is not well for us to live only on the very finest wheat, we may well accept serenely a due proportion of wholesome bran. Above all, let us remember that life is short, that there are but twenty-four hours in the day, and that we cannot combine everything. To live greatly in society we must forego work in the studio or the library; to live [141] greatly in these last one must forego much of society; to live a life of philanthropy one must often resign them all. The late President James Walker, of Harvard University, said, as the result of much observation, “Put it down as a rule that no really eminent lawyer ever reads a book” --for lack of time. And Elmsley, the Greek critic, when asked by Lady Eastlake why the Germans beat the English in scholarship, replied, “Because they never go out to tea.”


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