The Infinite Leisure Theory of Chattel Slavery

by Belle Waring on September 18, 2014

So, I was reading The Carolina Low-Country, published in 1931, which is a multi-author description of the physical beauty and lost culture of chivalric uh whatever of the Low Country, with a large section of Negro Spirituals in Gullah. (In practice this means they look as if they were written in old-timesy ‘let’s make fun of black people’s accents’ speak, but since no one knew the IPA and it is a real creole I’m inclined to let it slide.) Naturally its opening contribution is by a Ravenel, Charleston’s most prominent family. One of my father’s favorite stories is of the two drunk men walking along the river in Charleston: one sways and falls, clutching at the other, and they both go into the river, at which point one of them shouts “save me, for I am a Ravenel!” Since this is a True Tale of the Old South it’s almost certainly actually true; that’s just how these things work. If it included more, less probable elements it would be likelier. Like if he was bit by an alligator near Colleton or something. In any case, I came upon this gem (it has been previously established that “most important, and most purely African, is the negro’s highly developed sense of rhythm”):

To say that the spiritual is entirely or exclusively the work of the negro, or that it is “purely African in origin” is absurd. To its development, the negro brought certain highly essential qualities. Other factors necessary for the development of the spiritual he found on this side of the water. The blending and developing required infinite leisure. [emphasis mine] And this he had, for his many and varied tasks required of him in the main purely physical labor. He could, at all times, apply himself to singing while he worked.

I was ready to chuckle over the frontispiece and the second Ravenel and the two Pinckneys on the eleven-author list (one of my brothers best schoolfriends, and our next-but-three neighbor in S.C. is a Thomas Pinckney) when I looked a leeetle more closely and saw #5: Thomas R. Waring. Well, at least I’m not a white person who pretends I never personally benefited from slavery! Below, the salt-water marsh of the May River in Bluffton, which opens up to the sea behind Hilton Head Island. They never could grow anything on that. That’s just a place to hunt deer and ducks on the hammocks, and fish, and shrimp, and get oysters and crabs. I say “just” but it’s so beautiful back in there. One place across from us we call “the Lost World,” because the brackish water gets even less salt as it forms a lagoon next to black-water swamp, and the water is clear but dark like strong tea, and every bald cypress and palmetto and pine and little water oak has tattered festoons of spanish moss gray hanging down, and everything doubled in the still mirror of brown-black water. Cicadas are the only noise, making it alternately deafening and loudly silent. I saw the biggest water moccasin in the world back there one time, crazing the black mirror with S-curves. Leisurely, like. Not the rice-planting kind, the other kind.



heckblazer 09.18.14 at 8:23 am

Trivia: Clarence Thomas’ first language is Gullah.


Brett Bellmore 09.18.14 at 10:27 am

While the notion that slaves had “leisure” is, of course, offensive, I think I understand the concept that’s intended. When I was a teen, I spent quite a lot of time at farm labor, picking radishes and the like. Nasty work, but you actually did have a lot of time to think, as the work made few mental demands. You could compose poetry, or work on mathematical problems, or anything of that sort, while your hands went through the motions.

Now, as an adult, I work at things that require my attention, and leave no mental energy for such diversions. I wouldn’t want to return to picking radishes, but I wouldn’t deny that it did have some advantages in that area, if you wanted to exploit them.


Belle Waring 09.18.14 at 10:44 am

heckblazer: I know, so cool right? He’s a terrible Supreme Court Justice, but I do think it’s an awesome thing that a sharecropper’s grandson from Georgia who is a speaker of–he identifies as speaking Geechee though it’s the same–has risen to that high office.

Brett: yeah, I know what you mean, but it’s still the worst thing ever.


Neville Morley 09.18.14 at 11:00 am

I feel as if I may be dragging things away from the main focus of the post, but my immediate response to that astonishing quote was to speculate about its relationship to long-standing classical ideas about the relationship between culture/virtue and leisure. The ancient Greek position was of course that leisure was essential for proper human development – which is precisely why slaves (and other manual workers, who are regarded as effectively in the same boat) are incapable of virtue because they have no leisure and their minds are held back by the degrading effects of their occupation. Ravenel does at least acknowledge the possibility – derived from the Christian tradition of views on slavery, probably – that the slave’s mind might not automatically be degraded by his/her status and activities; albeit at the expense of erasing the actual labour by presenting it as an opportunity to whistle a happy tune more or less indefinitely without fear of interruption.


Pirate Laddie 09.18.14 at 1:33 pm

Those who remember Eric Hoffer may recall a series of interviews he did with Eric Sevaride, back in the late ’60’s. Hoffer spent much of his young adult life working crops in California’s agricultural valleys. He was self-educated through the public libraries in the areas he cropped. In later years, he worked as a longshoreman in the SF Bay area.
Hoffer made much of the nexus between intellectual activity and physical labor. “I would go to work in the morning with a half-formed idea, work with your crew and then go home at night with a fully-formed essay. When I got home I sat down to write, even before washing my hands.” The phenomenon is not without its charms.


Belle Waring 09.18.14 at 2:10 pm

“The phenomenon is not without its charms.” If you’re doing it on purpose, sure. Less so when you’re owned by other people who will kill you if you stop farming indigo. I mean, sure–I know what he’s talking about! I’m not trying to make everyone in this thread feel like an asshole! I just think we can go on ahead and indulge our inclination to think everyone in that book is an asshole. Let us consider a quote from Mr. Ravenel Sass, in which he muses on how the empty land of the Low-Country invites thoughts of the past (well not empty but undeveloped compared with richer parts of the country; this persisted to my childhood):

…The Negro comes early, comes in increasing number through the years; by the sweat of his toil the great plantations are made; he brings with him an unexpected gift, a gift of rhythm. [Some glimmer of self-consciousness appears here–BW.] From thousands of acres of waving rice, of indigo and sea island cotton, the fruit of the white man’s brains and the black mans sinews, wealth flows in. The Golden Age of the Low-Country begins. [Oops, no, it was doused.]

In the spacious plantation houses along the slow winding rivers and in the fine town-houses of Charleston are leisure, culture, in general a high sense of responsibility for a dependent, helpless race. In the Negro cabins of the Quarters are contentment, abundant rations, the sound of banjos and of singing. With all its faults–and, in common with the rest of the Old South it had its faults, its spots of dark shadow [NO SURELY NOT!!!!–BW]–it is an age and a land of courage, integrity and beauty. To modern eyes weary of the importunate present, the golden prime of the Low Country shines with increasing radiance; its virtues and its brilliances, transcending its shadows, invest it with an indescribable lustre of romance.

Increasing radiance? The uppity Negroes present must be importunate indeed for the lustre to glow more brightly as the 20th century advances, one would think. Look, I’ve worked on a farm also. I spent much of that time tired because I never went to bed early enough and wishing it wasn’t so hot in Virginia in August. You can totally get a Zen thing going where your hands work automatically and your mind can wander, but it never provoked any flights of philosophizing in me. Neville, I think Ravenel Sass in the second quote here has the classical definition in mind and thinks that the plantation owners were set at leisure to become gentlemen of a finer sort than is possible today. Are we on a New Republic-esque quest to prove that saying ‘slavery is infinite leisure’ isn’t crazy, or is it just too boring to read about how thorough and repulsive Lost Cause mythologizing racism was, or what? Y’all are confusing me. We’ve all experienced moments when creative realizations were made or things mentally came together after a period ajumble in oneself, when set percolating by the engine of physical exertion. Peripateia? I’m going to sleep now; please all tell me that I am a boring anti-racist who calls everyone a racist and now it like doesn’t even mean anything anymore, man, or else something else. I don’t know what y’all are trying to say.


Matt 09.18.14 at 2:22 pm

I’m sure the work sucked, but I’ll bet the bad part of being enslaved was the torture, imprisonment, constant threats of murder, the humiliation of constant theft, and the destruction of the family. Robert Frost clearing a field and building a stone wall all day certainly does have its charms, especially absent murder, torture, and plunder.


Ben Alpers 09.18.14 at 2:27 pm

Where on a Ravenel is the Colleton? ;-)


Belle Waring 09.18.14 at 2:50 pm

Ben A: LOLZ. The sinuous lower regions usually, but I can’t say I’ve made so intimate an acquaintance with any Ravenels–ah, no, it’s the Colleton River. You win the thread though.


Shirley0401 09.18.14 at 3:13 pm

I mostly lurk on Crooked Timber, as I don’t know nearly as much about most of what’s posted here as the others posting and commenting, but I live in the SC Low Country. A trend I’ve noticed, in the >5 years I’ve lived here, is an interesting strain of what I guess I’d call old-money libertarianism. (If you can stomach it, the TV show Southern Charm has as one if its’ primary characters an exemplar of this type, and he’s a Ravenel.) There’s an entire class of people, of all ages, that have so clearly and unarguably benefited from generations of state-sanctioned inequality, but insist we’ve all go the same chances in life, and the same access to success.
I guess you could say it’s progress (better than claiming unending hours of backbreaking labor are some kind of gift to those who perform it), but I see it more as an evolution — just a tweak on “it’s for their own good.”
If they could *really* handle success, financial security, or a decent education, they’d already have it, right?


Barry 09.18.14 at 3:32 pm

Brett Bellmore 09.18.14 at 10:27 am
“While the notion that slaves had “leisure” is, of course, offensive, I think I understand the concept that’s intended. When I was a teen, I spent quite a lot of time at farm labor, picking radishes and the like. Nasty work, but you actually did have a lot of time to think, as the work made few mental demands. You could compose poetry, or work on mathematical problems, or anything of that sort, while your hands went through the motions.”

Try doing it when somebody’s walking through the rows beating you if you don’t make your quota (which could be raised if you met it, of course).


Belle Waring 09.18.14 at 3:50 pm



Brett Bellmore 09.18.14 at 4:06 pm

Heck, try composing epic poetry while picking radishes in freezing rain. The point is merely that one can be wrong without being comprehensively wrong.


Limericky Dicky 09.18.14 at 4:35 pm

Really Brett? Have you tried it yet?


Limericky Dicky 09.18.14 at 4:36 pm

Really, Brett? Have you tried it yet?


Brett Bellmore 09.18.14 at 4:49 pm

Sure, when I was a teen. Trust me, the freezing rain is a real distraction. Probably not as much as beatings would be, though.


Scott P. 09.18.14 at 5:14 pm

I think there is a germ of an idea here. What we need to do is put our English, Theater and Philosophy majors to work as migrant labor. This solves three problems at once: the otherwise useless arts and humanities students, the need for agricultural work, and our immigration problem. As a side benefit, we’ll get oodles of great poetry, drama, and reflections on the human condition into the bargain.


Harold 09.18.14 at 5:20 pm

Everything is relative. North America has seasons and agricultural work is done in bursts, therefore, relatively speaking, North American slaves had more “leisure” — i.e., times when the work was less intense that say at harvest and planting times, particularly of tobacco – than that workers of the Caribbean, whose work on the sugar cane was so unremitting and conditions so hellish that they seldom survived more than a few years, could not reproduce, and had to be continuously re-imported in huge numbers from Africa. I believe Adam Hochschild comments on this in his book, Bury the Chains.


Harold 09.18.14 at 5:20 pm

than not that


mud man 09.18.14 at 7:10 pm

Not to forget that chronic hard physical labor is immensely destructive of the body, not to mention beatings and suchlike other-directed discipline. And exhaustion is not commensurate with subtle thought. It’s one of those “moderation” things, whereas black slavery was nothing about moderation.


John Quiggin 09.18.14 at 11:18 pm

The only hard physical work I do is endurance racing. I find that the moment I start thinking anything beyond my normal mantra (Don’t drown; don’t fall off; don’t fall down) my pace slows markedly. That’s actually useful in training sometimes, but I imagine if I were picking cotton it would rapidly draw the attention of the overseer.

To put it more simply: genuinely hard physical work is incompatible with thinking about anything else.


Bloix 09.19.14 at 12:13 am

I know nothing of indigo farming in South Carolina, and little of slave life, and likely there are more relevant quotations than the one I happen to know, which is from James Agee’s Let Us Know Praise Famous Men, and describes the work of tenant farmers picking cotton in the 1930’s, but as this is what I know I will share it:

“It is simple and terrible work. Skill will help you; all the endurance you can draw up against it from the roots of your existence will be thoroughly used as a fuel to it; but neither skill nor endurance can make it any easier.

“Over the right shoulder you have slung a long white sack whose half length trails the ground behind. You work with both hands as fast and steadily as you can. The trick is to get the cotton between your fingertips at its very roots in the burr .. in each plucking of the hand the fingers are searched deep in along these several sharp, hard edges… At the end of a week you are favoring your fingers, still in the obligation of speed… by the last long weeks of the season, you might be happy if it were possible to exchange them for boils… With each of these hundreds of thousands of insertions of the hands, moreover the fingers are brought to a small point, in an action upon every joint and tendon of the hand … the fingers by [season’s end] at best afford an excruciation at every touch…

“Katie is very quick. Last summer, when she was only eight, she picked 110 pounds in a day … Mrs. Gudger picks about the average for a woman, 150 to 200 pounds a day … a man can pick nearer to two hundred and fifty …

“The picking goes on from can to can’t… sometimes [the family] continues it by moonlight … The time narrows as the weeks go by and a sense of rush and a wish to be done with it grows on the pickers and is tightened through from the landlord … On the big plantations, where a good deal of the picking is done by day labor and is watched over by riding bosses, all the equations of speed and unresting steadiness are of course intensified…”

There is much, much more like this: the heat; the constant stooping; the weight of the sack; the inadequate food; the filth; the lack of sleep.

Agee was writing about free white workers in the 20th century. Everything he describes must be multiplied by a hundred to get a sense of the lives of slaves on a cotton plantation. Not just mounted bosses, but overseers with whips and chains; not just the fear of being let go, but the fear of being beaten to death; not just the need to press your young children to work, but the lack of any right at all to your children, not even the right to protect them from beatings and rape.

There are people on this thread who attempt in their imaginations to understand slave work by comparing it to their own summers on a farm where they hoed vegetables for a week or two. It seems to me that this is like Donald Rumsfeld saying that he stands at his desk every day, so how can forced standing be torture?


maidhc 09.19.14 at 12:30 am

Jack London was an example of a self-educated person who did a lot of manual labor in his early days, and he makes the point that, at least in the Gilded Age when workers had no legal protection, any manual labor job would work you to the point of complete physical exhaustion. One of the goals of the labor movement was to give workers sufficient leisure time to develop their minds, so part of the movement was the establishment of mechanics’ institutes and access to libraries, public lectures and so on.


L.M. Dorsey 09.19.14 at 2:30 am

Leisure there will always be, whatever the price. (I think Aristotle said that.)

I lived in Baltimore for a while in the 80s, and there were still a lot of “Arabs” (Ay-rabs) about, pony carts selling fruits and vegetables, crabs occasionally, sharpening knifes, fixing stuff. Hardworking folks. Hardworking ponies.

Anyway, every so often, I would find myself standing on a corner, waiting for a light, staring into the eye of one of these ponies, worn and weary and chaffed to a nakedness (the ponies, mostly). And I understood the allure of internal combustion engines. An owner could run the damned things to a fare-thee-well, and while they were not so picturesque as ponies, they were rational, predictable, and threatened blowback from your kids complaining about the suppurating sores. So I had to imagine the ponies were cheaper.

Came a Cracker-Jack epiphany: Cheap energy is the magic dust of the American dream. The only.

Should the cheap go, Jefferson gets a remake, and it’s plantation time again, innit. Til then, it’s the kids in the Central Valley and on the other side of the world who are pulling the carts that allow us the leisure to imagine we still have a shot at something not entirely servile in the way of a future. (We need to remember to offer them a path to citizenship at some point. Pfft. I said “we”, silly me.)


PJW 09.19.14 at 2:35 am

Johnny Cash said he started singing in the cotton fields to help take his mind off of the drudgery of the soul-crushing labor, blunting the agony for a spell.


JanieM 09.19.14 at 3:34 am

Cheap energy is the magic dust of the American dream. The only.

My dad, a son of immigrants, not much of a reader, not well-traveled (except for WWII), and a laborer all his life, used to say, with a kind of gloomy satisfaction, “This country was built on a cheap gallon of gasoline.” He would say it in the context of rising gasoline prices and his pessimism about what was coming, as long as forty or fifty years ago.


Meredith 09.19.14 at 3:45 am

Agriculture is a bitch. It marks the fall. (Felix culpa indeed.)

Agriculture is not (even vegetable) gardening. Certainly for me, the garden (with all its labors) is a place of refuge and a kind of zen. (Sometimes — only sometimes — folding laundry is, too. Or washing dishes. Never vacuuming.) One of my fondest teaching memories: advising a student while I weeded and she looked on, and then she joined in, as we discussed Aeschylus or something. (Actually, now that I think about it, we were probably talking about Sappho. After graduating, she worked on a lettuce farm in Arizona for a while.)

This year, yields weren’t good, for various reasons, including my neglect (I am getting a bit tired of it all, and my knees and even fingers ache after lots of weeding, plus I just don’t have the strength I once had). I bought more than usual from local organic farmers. (I wonder who works for them? How well are the workers paid? And so forth.)

What most struck me about Belle’s post: the beauty of place, in her words and her photograph, and the way our activities (especially those we call labors) in a place connect us to its beauty. And how shared experiences of place, which should (and often do unite) even exploiter and exploited, so often also become a wedge that continues to divide. Because “shared” experiences are only partially shared, in a wonderful way so often, but not in a wonderful way when unequal power, also often, enters in.


Belle Waring 09.19.14 at 4:59 am

Hi Shirley0401, part-time neighbor! I know what you mean and it’s incredibly depressing. “The Ravenel who Made it On His Own.” ALL THE LOLS. But you get those people away from the camera for ten seconds and they’re liable to turn pretty Lost Cause-y on you too, in the name of libertarian anti-Lincoln-tyranny. “The writ of habeas corpus!” You’re like, “what about those other people’s actual corpora what people done been habeant all that time if I may ask?”
Bloix: YES PICKING COTTON IS FAMOUS FOR NOT BEING VERY FUN EVEN SETTING THE CONSTANT BEATINGS AND DEATH THREATS ASIDE THIS WAS NOT SOME ROBERT FROST SHIT. Ahem. Thanks. Also, how much of our nation’s literature is written by migrant orange pickers? Illegal-immigrant asparagus-pickers working in California with their underage kids? Not a lot. And living where I do I can see rice farming when I to to Indonesia or Vietnam and do you know what wet-paddy rice cultivation is? An ASS of work. You look out there in that neon or forest green paddy or that muck half-fulled with rows of re-planted plants or up along the embankments and you see figures in hats. Always. Everywhere. So damn many. That cute eight-year-old boy lying on the back of his water buffalo with a piece of rice between his teeth (I will allow as he is having fun and would be the only person (temporarily) troubled by the institution of UN-approved school attendance/working standards)? There are 12 of him per mile. Random figure in hat, I make it…Jesus…like 40 per mile driven? And those people are working for themselves for the most part! And do you know what they do when they scrape together any money at all? Hire other, poorer Indonesians to farm their rice paddies (East Balinese rice is all farmed by people from West Baly or Lombok and Aceh and stuff.)
Meredith: yes, everybody will love the same things about the Low Country, and these jerkface authors even made me feel homesick while pissing me off. My dad grows much of the food we eat at his place, and has an amazing garden, in which he works for hours a day–when he chooses to, at dawn, when he feels up to it, and because he enjoys it. He loves gardening. That’s not what plantation labor was like. When you look around in the marsh between where the woods open up by the Savannah River and the little bridge, by the S.C. Wildlife Preserve, you can see a ton of old rice-cultivation-works, messed-up, just a haven for ducks now. But tall berms of earth and broken dykes and everything. And you know if you went by in 1850 all that would be crawling with slaves like an ant nest you kicked over, swarming, with heavy baskets of dirt on their heads, and skirts hitched up to re-plant the seedlings in the drained paddy, and men with whips standing along all the high land…well there’s no high land to speak of, but everywhere built up, that you would have to walk on to get to the road or the river. And guns. And motion. All the rice lying down so pretty and shaking its bright heads, and birds, and windmill scarecrows, and just labor, labor, labor. Shit, they’d put real children out there instead of scarecrows. I literally cannot believe I got any pushback on how idiotic this was. I think if you’ve ever worked as a roofer in the summer-time that might be more like it, sort of, if you were working for your abusive dad who would beat you if you didn’t do things right.


Meredith 09.19.14 at 5:27 am

The roofer thing, Belle. Hit home. When my newish father-in-law (Texas hardscrabble, though he’d pulled himself up by his bootstraps to get a degree and be a Baptist minister, emphasis music — his brothers did likewise in more lucrative arenas, so something about the possibilities of the WWII generation going on here) visited us for the first time after our son was born in 1980, he was disturbed that the roof in the old barn/garage behind our old, rented NE farm house needed repair, and out there he was in summer heat (NE version, but severe nonetheless on rooftops), he in his late 50’s, fixin’ things that we/he weren’t in the least “responsible” for the fixing. Partly a man’s way of avoiding all the human family stuff. But also some thing about WORK. I do wonder if this free man work thing has clouded people’s thinking about slavery. (Not my father-in-law’s thinking, god rest his soul. He sacrificed Baptist career for advocacy of Native Americans in OK and for CW for African-Americans — another story.)


Belle Waring 09.19.14 at 7:08 am

We used to get rice every year sewn up in plain muslin sacks that was grown on Waring family plantation land but since my father’s aunt died we don’t anymore. I do recommend people shell out sometime for some real Carolina Gold rice and taste why it used to be the best in the world–I eat some damn good rice around here and Carolina Gold is still the best. We exported tiny amounts to China just to the Imperial Palace (they politely fed it to pigs, just as like, but if so they were making a bad mistake.) Naturally I find it gemütlich an all but I can recommend it unreservedly. It’s even better as red rice, but as that involves coating the raw rice in bacon grease it’s sort of cooking-axiomatic. Plain, with butter and salt? And field peas? Mmmmm field peas. I got to eat so many little tiny whiteacre peas this summer, and my children got to try them (they loved them, naturally.) They’re like little lima beans, but if you never had a fresh lima bean you [hypothetical non-Southern CT thread reader] might not understand why this is good either. Um, pretend you only ever had canned green peas, and then you had real English peas shelled just a little while before you ate. That thing. But field peas can be dried (pigeon peas, black-eyed, etc.)


Palindrome 09.19.14 at 7:32 am

There was an old New Yorker cartoon from the 50s featuring a southern plantation of the future, where robots are picking the cotton in the fields and two white gentlemen sip juleps on the mansion porch. One turns to the other and says, “I miss that soft, sweet singing. That’s what I miss.”


L.M. Dorsey 09.19.14 at 1:02 pm

“I miss that soft, sweet singing. That’s what I miss.”

I wonder how much of red state voting “against their own interest” is actually voting in favor of the old social order founded on agriculture, enlivened and given urgency now by the fear that things are not working very well, and in any case big changes are coming. (After all, many, many Americans never had anything to do with the postwar culture of superkids and suburbs and Rand Corporation experts.) Corey Robin has argued something like this, I think.

One wouldn’t have to have forgotten how miserable the older way of life actually was. Nor would you have to be at all nostalgic. You would just have to think that life represented some true and inevitable state of human affairs that we have tried to escape to our harm. (Of course, every white person will at this point reflexively believe that come the revolution, s/he will be like all chummy with the folks in the big house, dropping by for drinks on New Year’s Eve, and so on.)


bianca steele 09.19.14 at 2:51 pm

JaniM @ 26

One of the most powerful scenes in “Miracle” is of the gas lines. (Of course, the hockey’s exciting, too.)


William Timberman 09.19.14 at 3:24 pm

In transition from one stage of my life to another, I picked lemons in California for a couple of weeks. Not as bad as cotton, I’d guess, but can you say thorns…? I remember it all vividly, but I won’t bore you with any of it, except for one anecdote. The first day, at about 10:00, when I was literally embedded up to my tuchus in a tree, clipping away, the boss man called me out into the row — he was taking lunch orders, as it turned out — and said: bread sandwiches or tortilla sandwiches?

I opted for bread, which turned out two hours later to be a slice of uncooked spam between two slices of wonder bread coated with yellow mustard. The tortilla sandwiches, I found out from watching my opposite number, were exactly the same, except that a rolled-up flour tortilla replaced the wonder bread. For the next week plus it was the same. Also, a stack of dixie cups (courtesy of the Koch brothers?) next to a stainless-steel tank of strawberry Kool-Aid for drinks. Oh, and the pay? 50 cents for every 55 pound lug you filled. The 60 year-old undocumented guy next to me — and his son and his grandson — each filled twice as many as I did.


The Modesto Kid 09.19.14 at 7:02 pm

Quoth the Ravenel…


clew 09.19.14 at 7:38 pm

If everyone did a few hours of grunt labor a day, and some childcare, and something in a particular skill, and some thinking, maybe no-one would have to do any of it in the worst conditions. I hear this Marx guy had an idea.

Another gloomy side-light on the cost of agriculture before cheap power: in _The Prospect Before Her_, about European women’s life courses, one of the worst possibilities for `working out’* was to carry water up the terraces in the dry South of France, Spain, etc. Backbreaking work, in a low-productivity region so there wasn’t really enough food to go around, and learning no skill to improve one’s chances later.

*Meaning `working outside the family-of-origin home’ then. I suppose it was an excellent promise of working out in the modern sense.


MPAVictoria 09.19.14 at 8:13 pm

“If everyone did a few hours of grunt labor a day, and some childcare, and something in a particular skill, and some thinking, maybe no-one would have to do any of it in the worst conditions.”

I like this idea….


Meredith 09.19.14 at 8:49 pm

Another wonderful southern dish: pole beans cooked long with a hambone (and maybe a little bacon fat thrown in), potatoes added near the end. Serve beans and pot liquor with cornbread.

All greens taste best with some pork fat.


Mike Furlan 09.19.14 at 9:34 pm

Here is George Washington, farming, while his slaves enjoy their leisure.


Mike Furlan 09.19.14 at 9:36 pm

Meredith, my father the army cook, though raised in Illinois, knew that to get the troops to eat greens, you had to put in some bacon.


Harold 09.19.14 at 11:46 pm

My father and aunt picked cotton for a dollar a day when they were kids in Texas (I don’t think they did it very often though). From what I have read, although picking the cotton was hard, the task was a one-time one with a definite end and signified the completion of that year’s agricultural cycle. For that alone it was cause for celebration. The really arduous work in the cotton fields was “chopping” the cotton — that is grubbing out the weeds with a hoe all day long day after day in the worst heat of summer.


Belle Waring 09.20.14 at 2:13 am

Mike Furlan: farming, Founding Fathers style! Gitn-sumbdy-else-to-do-er! I will take pole beans or greens cooked with hog jowl or whatever over Spam sandwiches every day thank you! (Though Kool-Aid is still a drinks option, actually.)


Meredith 09.20.14 at 4:37 am

Should the Scots and English get together and talk like this more often?


Laleh 09.21.14 at 1:33 pm

Belle, I have always thought so, but man, you have a way with words… “crazing the black mirror” has to be one of the most beautiful phrases I have read on Crooked Timber.


Brett Bellmore 09.21.14 at 1:44 pm

“Cheap energy is the magic dust of the American dream.”

Absolutely, except for the fact that “magic” dust doesn’t really exist, and cheap energy can. This is what infuriates me so much about people who talk casually about pushing up energy prices, and how we need to adapt to when and if the energy is available, instead of making it available when we want it.

They’re talking about deliberately engineering poverty for the masses. Just like the “sustainable population” folks who casually discuss how the human population needs to be reduced dramatically in a short period are talking genocide, not ‘population policy’.

There are a lot of folks out there talking about policies that have truly terrifying implications, and not owning up to them.


I don’t really miss much working on the farm other side of the river from our home in the country, agricultural sub-minimum wage sucks, so does going home aching all over at the end of the day. But I do think that every child ideally ought to put in some time doing that sort of thing; It does a fabulous job of convincing you that you need to do well in school so that you can get a desk job.


J Thomas 09.21.14 at 2:27 pm

“Cheap energy is the magic dust of the American dream.”

Absolutely, except for the fact that “magic” dust doesn’t really exist, and cheap energy can. This is what infuriates me so much about people who talk casually about pushing up energy prices, and how we need to adapt to when and if the energy is available, instead of making it available when we want it.

Cheap energy used to exist, and maybe it can again someday.

If there’s a way to get lots of cheap energy I hope we find it. I haven’t seen anything like that yet, but there might be possibilities from photoelectric or something.

In the short run we have to do what we can, which does not include cheap energy unless we subsidize it in ways that make everything else more expensive. Unless we make fossil fuels expensive we will keep burning them as long as we can’t produce more energy than people will pay for at fossil-fuel prices. So if we want to burn less fossil fuel we need to make it more expensive. Meanwhile, if we want capitalists to invest in other energy sources, we need to make it profitable, right? That’s hard to do without raising the price, until they find ways to cut costs more.

Cheap energy used to be real. For now, it’s magic. Maybe someday it can be real again, but not just by wishing.


Brett Bellmore 09.21.14 at 2:29 pm

Not just by wishing, and not by the work of people who think energy ought to be expensive.


godoggo 09.21.14 at 2:32 pm


mattski 09.21.14 at 2:39 pm

and not by the work of people who think energy ought to be expensive.

Non-sequitur on multiple levels.


Teachable Mo' 09.21.14 at 2:53 pm

I have read that Wallace Stevens wrote his poetry while walking to work. Then, when he got to work he would dictate what he had stirred up to his secretary. (I wonder what part of The Comedian as the Letter C is impenetrable because of a transcription error.) Guy Davenport wrote his prose that way.


Bloix 09.21.14 at 3:22 pm

#47- nobody thinks “energy ought to be expensive.” Many people think that fossil fuels should be priced to internalize their true cost. But nobody is against inexpensive energy.


godoggo 09.21.14 at 3:28 pm

I read Byron had a secretary transcribe as he freestyled Don Juan e.g. while shaving in the morning, relevant to Mo’s comment on Stevens which in turn was presumably relevant to something else.


godoggo 09.21.14 at 3:32 pm

Come to think of it, I guess back in those days you’d have to have somebody else shave you, like in the Three Stooges.


godoggo 09.21.14 at 4:33 pm

Or Sweeney Todd.


ZM 09.23.14 at 12:01 am

Teachable Mo’,

“I have read that Wallace Stevens wrote his poetry while walking to work. Then, when he got to work he would dictate what he had stirred up to his secretary. ”

Another of my favourite poets , John Shaw Neilsen from Australia, was mostly a farm labourer and other sorts of physical jobs – very very hard work in those days, especially in ‘poor country’ where crops would fail due to drought (the family lost their small landholding due to this from memory), although he was not a slave thankfully so at least he was saved the bondage and terrors accompanying that.

But it was quite common for him to compose his verse while doing labour – especially working on the delicate lyric rhythms which he is noted for. I do not think he dictated until he was much older and his eyesight had diminished very greatly so he found it hard to pen things.

I will copy a poem out for you, for I think his work is not well known outside of Australia.

Stony Town

If ever I go to Stony Town
I’ll go as to a fair,
With bells and men and a dance girl
With a heatwave in her hair.

I’ll ask the birds that be on the road –
I dream (though it may not be)
That the eldest Song was a forest thought
And the Singer was a tree.

Oh, Stony Town is a hard town,
It buys and sells and buys;
It will not pity the plight of youth
Nor any Love in the eyes.

No curve they follow in Stony Town,
But the straight line and the square,
But the girl will dance them a royal dance
Like a blue wren at his prayer.

Oh, Stony Town is a bare town,
It sells and buys and sells;
Merry men three I will take with me
And seven and twenty bells.

The bells will laugh, and the men will laugh,
And the girl shall shine so fair
With the scent of Love and cinnamon dust
Shaken out of her hair.

Her skirts shall be of the gossamer,
Full thirty inches high,
And her lips will move as the flowers move
To see the winds go by.

The men will laugh, and the bells will laugh,
To find the world so young,
And the girl shall go as a velvet bird
With a quick step on her tongue.

She shall cry aloud that a million moons
For a lover is not long,
And her mouth shall be as the green honey
In the honeyeater’s song.

If ever I go to Stony Town
I’ll go as to a fair,
And the girl shall shake with the cinnamon dust
And the heat wave in her hair.


Harold 09.23.14 at 2:09 am

Walter Scott composed while galloping his horse on the beach (he couldn’t walk easily because of withered leg from childhood polio). Critics complained about his inveterate refusal to revise (thereby in their view squandering his natural gifts), not to mention his habit of sometimes appropriating lines other poets’ lines. Be that as it may, I don’t think he would have been as surprised as some by the result of recent Scots’ referendum. Both he and Burns supported the younger Pitt against the French, if I am not mistaken.

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