Let me but do my work from day to day,
In field or forest, at the desk or loom,
In roaring market-place or tranquil room;
Let me but find it in my heart to say,
When vagrant wishes beckon me astray,
“This is my work; my blessing, not my doom;
“Of all who live, I am the one by whom
“This work can best be done in the right way.”
Then shall I see it not too great, nor small,
To suit my spirit and to prove my powers;
Then shall I cheerful greet the labouring hours,
And cheerful turn, when the long shadows fall
At eventide, to play and love and rest,
Because I know for me my work is best.
[Henry Van Dyke, “Work”]
Employers want workers who function competently without being prodded to perform. A worker who appears to be struggling to make an effort is not likely to last long on the job.
Beyond merely making an effort is the daily practice of work. Because it consumes so much of our time and is so central in our lives, it is the subject of a vast collection of narratives, real and fictional.
On work and workers:
- Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (New Press, 1997).
- Laura Hapke, Labor’s Text: The Worker in American Fiction (Rutgers University Press, 2000).
- Janet Zandy, Calling Home: Working Class Women’s Writings (Rutgers University Press, 1990).
- Janet Zandy, Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work (Rutgers University Press, 2004).
- Stephanie Land, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive (Hachette Books, 2019): “‘I’m not your maid,’ goes the outraged refrain of the mother; ‘I’m not your mother,’ the outraged refrain of the girlfriend or wife. The declarations are pleas for respect, consideration; they invoke roles in which women can’t necessarily expect either. What indignities are you subject to when you are both mother and maid?”
- Megan K. Stack, Women’s Work: A Reckoning With Work and Home (Doubleday, 2019): “Megan K. Stack sets out in “Women’s Work” to explore the underside of motherhood — the realities of labor and child care that men ignore and that women of privilege regularly gloss over: leaving the nannies and cleaners out of their books, excluding them from social media posts and rendering their work invisible.”
- Jason DeParle, A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century (Viking, 2019): “ . . . a sweeping, deeply reported tale of international migration that hopscotches from the Philippines through the Middle East, Europe and eventually the United States.”
- Danielle Dreilinger, The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live (W.W. Norton & Company, 2021): “‘In its purest form, home economics was about changing the world through the household.’”
- Gabriel Winant, The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America (Harvard University Press, 2021): “How Health Care Became the Big Industry in Steel City”.
On the checkered history of work:
- Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton University Press, 2020): “How the White Working Class Is Being Destroyed”.
- Gordon H. Chang, Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (Houghton Mifflin, 2019): “ . . . a moving effort to recover their stories and honor their indispensable contribution to the building of modern America.”
- Eyal Press, Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021): “describes with great empathy the lives of workers who do jobs that they themselves find morally horrifying.”
- Anna Qu, Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor (Catapult, 2021): “. . . Qu trims loose threads off sleeves in her family’s garment factory . . .”
- Farah Stockman, American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears (Random House, 2021), “traces the shock waves at the Indianapolis factory following the announcement in 2016 that Rexnord, its Wisconsin-based corporate owner, was relocating the plant to Mexico.”
- Nell McShane Wulfhart, The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet (Doubleday, 2022): “. . . no one questioned men’s right to take whatever they wanted; marketed as the Playboy Bunnies of the sky, stewardesses were presented as property, like so many airborne party favors, with the mystique of the mile-high club emerging as a bucket-list goal for countless men.”
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Ruth Yeoman, et. al., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Meaningful Work (Oxford University Press, 2019).
- Randy Hodson, Dignity at Work (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
- Debra A. Major and Ronald Burke, eds., Handbook of Work-Life Integration Among Professionals: Challenges and Opportunities (Edwar Elgar Publications, 2014).
- Karen Korabek, et. al., eds., Handbook of Work-Family Integration: Research, Theory, and Best Practices (Academic Press, 2008).
- Stephen Ackroyd, et. al., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Work and Organization (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Mark Alan Wilson, et. al., eds., The Handbook of Work Analysis: Methods, Systems, Applications and Science of Work Measurement in Organizations (Routledge, 2012).
- Julian Barling, et. al., eds. Handbook of Work Stress (SAGE Publications, 2004).
- David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon & Schuster, 2018): “Graeber is expanding on a 2013 essay that he published in Strike! magazine and that subsequently went viral. In it, citing a famous prediction by the economist John Maynard Keynes, he argued that technology should have made workers more productive, leading to a 15-hour workweek, but instead has been used to make people work more, in pointless jobs they hate.”
- Vlademir Alexandrovich Danelyuk, Welder (1981)
- Diego Rivera, Woman Grinding Maize (1924)
- Georges Seurat, Farm Women at Work (1882)
- Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed (1844)
Film and Stage
- Time Out (L’emploi du Temps), “a somber and complex meditation on work” in which the only job is having a job
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
- Hayden Wayne, String Quartet No. 9
- Holst, Prelude & Scherzo, Op. 52, H 178, "Hammersmith": in program notes for a disc on the Naxos label, Christopher Mowat writes, “this musical tribute to (Holst’s West London) contrasts the inexorable slow progress of the Thames with energetic bustle of the then energetic street-life on its banks.”
- Hartke, Clarinet Concerto, "Landscapes with Blues (2001): I. Senegambia; II. Delta Nights; III. Philamayork.
- Falla, Harpsichord Concerto [Concerto for harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello – dedicated to Wanda Landowska] (1926)
- Arriaga, String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor: repetition of simple motifs in a minor key
- Bloch, Concerto Symphonique for Piano & Orchestra (1948)
- Blacher, Piano Concerto No. 1 (1947)
- Blacher, Piano Concerto No. 2 (1952)
- C.P.E. Bach, Keyboard Sonatas
- Quantz, Flute Concerto in C Minor
- Feld, Flute Concerto
- Burgmüller, String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 7 (1826)
- Dvořák, The Golden Spinning Wheel, Op. 109, B197 (1896)
- Richard Strauss, Sonatine No. 2 in E-Flat Major, TrV 291 "The Happy Workshop" (Fröhliche Werkstatt) (1945): Strauss, who spent his adult life as a composer, appears to have had a rosy view of the workplace, though he didn’t go easy on the performers with this composition.
- Raga Kaushile Kanada (Kaushile Kanara – Kaushile Kannada – Kaushile Kannara) (performances by Banerjee, Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan and Rashid Khan)
- Händel, 16 Suites for Keyboard; 8 Suites for Harpsichord, HWV 426-433, and others: the sound of brain-work
- Songs of the Land in China: Labor Songs
I went to turn the grass once after one
Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.
The dew was gone that made his blade so keen
Before I came to view the levelled scene.
I looked for him behind an isle of trees;
I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.
But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,
And I must be, as he had been, — alone,
‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
But as I said it, swift there passed me by
On noiseless wing a ’wildered butterfly,
Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night
Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.
And once I marked his flight go round and round,
As where some flower lay withering on the ground.
And then he flew as far as eye could see,
And then on tremulous wing came back to me.
I thought of questions that have no reply,
And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;
But he turned first, and led my eye to look
At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,
A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared
Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.
I left my place to know them by their name,
Finding them butterfly weed when I came.
The mower in the dew had loved them thus,
By leaving them to flourish, not for us,
Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him,
But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.
The butterfly and I had lit upon,
Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,
That made me hear the wakening birds around,
And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,
And feel a spirit kindred to my own;
So that henceforth I worked no more alone;
But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,
And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;
And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech
With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.
‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,
‘Whether they work together or apart.’
[Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers”]
Other poems about work:
- Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”
- Maya Angelou, “Woman Work”
- Marge Piercy, “A Work of Artifice”
- Martín Espada, “In Praise of Local 100”
- Ruth Stone, “Eden, Then and Now”
- Susan Meyers, “Mother, Washing Dishes”
- Elizabeth Bishop, “Filling Station”
- Lisel Mueller, “Virtuosi”
- Rhina P. Espaillat, “’Find Work’”
- Robert Pinsky, “Shirt”
- Al Magines, “The Dignity of Ushers”
- David Ignatow, “Self-Employed”
- Mary Collier, “The Washerwoman”
- Kenneth Koch, “To My Father’s Business”
- Lorine Niedecker, “Poet’s Work”
- Robert Frost, “Mowing”
- Bernadette Mayer, “Failures in Infinitives”
- Mark Halliday, “The Halls”
- Philip Levine, “What Work Is”
- Natasha Trethewey, “Domestic Work, 1937”
- Khalil Gibran, “Work Chapter VII”
- David Wagoner, “Wallace Stevens On His Way To Work”
- Emily Dickinson, “It Is Easy To Work When the Soul Is At Play”
- Walt Whitman, “Spirit Whose Work Is Done”
- Mark R. Slaughter, “Work, Sleep, Work, Sleep, Work”
- Robert William Service, “Work and Joy”
- Franklin Pierce Adams, “How Do You Tackle Your Work”
- Ben Gieske, “Work, Worker’s Pledge, Youth”
- Marvin Brato, Sr., “Work”
- Tash Aw, We, the Survivors: A Novel (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019): “ . . . a searching commentary on the desperate conditions of the largely invisible work force propelling the global economy.” “If poor Malaysians like Ah Hock are often ignored in the narrative of go-go Asia, with its propulsive growth rates and plantations of skyscrapers, undocumented workers fare even worse. When recognized at all, they are blamed for petty crimes or for stealing jobs from citizens. Asian scorn is no different from the American variety.”
- Hiroko Oyamada, The Factory: A Novel (New Directions, 2019): “The three central characters . . . watch themselves being slowly and systematically buried alive, but by another great extinguisher of the self: work.”
- Abi Daré, The Girl With the Louding Voice: A Novel (Dutton, 2020): “Raised in poverty, 14-year-old Adunni finds work as a housemaid for a rich Lagos family, enduring abuse and exploitation while she yearns to go to school.”