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Book review: Henry at Work: Thoreau on making a living by John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle

17 November 2023

Harriet Baber considers what Thoreau had to say on the subject

IN 1846, Henry David Thoreau, a young Harvard graduate, took up residence in a wooded area abutting Walden Pond, near his parents’ home in Concord, Massachusetts. Anticipating the current tiny-house movement, he lived for two years in a pond-side cabin on land lent to him by his patron Ralph Waldo Emerson, for whom he did odd jobs. There he experimented with “subsistence living”, a condition rightly described as “attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it”.

At Walden, Thoreau recorded his musings, chiefly platitudes absorbed from the Transcendentalist “philosophy” fashionable at Harvard during his student days. Transcendentalism rehearsed themes that became the stock in trade of both the political Left and Right in the United States: the inherent goodness of people and Nature (Left), rugged individualism (Right), and disdain for institutions (both).

Everyone, Left, Right, and Centre, can find something in Thoreau’s Walden, encapsulated in mots that read like the texts on inspirational posters or quote-a-day calendars, to garnish their preferred ideologies. Never one to bow the knee to consistency, the bugbear of little minds, Thoreau can be cited in support of any doctrine you please: ex falso quodlibet. Walden flatters privileged adolescents questing to “find themselves” and is a staple in the American high-school curriculum.

Henry at Work is a rumination on Thoreau’s ruminations in Walden and elsewhere, ostensibly focused on his view of work. Kaag and van Bell structure their book in ten chapters that purport to address a range of issues, including “manual work” and “machine work”, “immoral work”, “meaningless work”, and “fulfilling work”. Each chapter features curated quotations from Thoreau’s writings, many of which are at best tenuously connected to the chapter theme, surrounded by a tissue of platitudinous pieties and, occasionally, nonsense: “without higher purpose in your life, money is vacuous,” “there is an existential elision between work and human existence.”

Kaag and van Bell have a good deal to say about the meaninglessness of much work, but no clear account of what “meaning” comes to, except to note that “meaningful work is the sort where we place our entire selves, squarely and resolutely, and thereby find ourselves.” Huh? Is it work that serves a valuable purpose? work that provides a sense of satisfaction? work that is inherently interesting and challenging? The reader will look in vain for clarification or argumentation in this volume. In fairness, we were warned: the authors declare at the outset that they will “proceed . . . anecdotally and personally”.

Like Thoreau himself, Kaag and van Bell ignore the fundamental question: how can we avoid work that is, by any definition, irredeemably meaningless? The US remains the only advanced economy that does not guarantee workers paid holidays. And, for those who do not have a patron to supply land and funding, there is no exit. We have no safety nets: tent cities near my home house a growing homeless population. Thoreau, who lasted a little over two years in his cabin, recommends eschewing filthy lucre to live in a garret and write. Who supplies the garret?

Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, California, in the United States.


Henry at Work: Thoreau on making a living
John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle
Princeton University Press £22
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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