Rough Work in Twain

The books of Mark Twain idealize leisure.  His greatest and most beloved protagonist, Tom Sawyer, is a master of shirking off labour assigned by his aunty — and the author piles respect on his mischief.  Huckleberry Finn and Jim spend the majority of their story in a state of tense slacking: while their adventures can’t be called relaxed, they have more to do with fun and freedom than they do with the bondage of school or slavery (labour of the indentured and wholly immoral variety).  Even the author’s travel narratives espouse a lifestyle of carefree enjoyment, wandering from one exotic locale to the next in a rush of excitement and, more importantly, carefree comfort.

Of course, Twain is a writer in the American tradition of multitudes and contradiction and he does produce an alternative perspective on this heavy subject of work.  Life on the Mississippi addresses the five years or so Twain spent as a riverboat pilot.  The job required him to memorize the vast, constantly evolving body of the river — state lines would shift periodically as the Mississippi cut into banks on either side, dangerous reefs would form as the flowing water carried millions of tonnes of sediment downstream — and the only way to keep up to date on this rapidly changing geography was by checking the bulletins in the community of Pilot’s Houses in port towns along the river. A good modern equivalent of this kind of training is The Knowledge, the testing process undergone by London’s hackney carriage (“black cab”) drivers — the test of memorizing the metropolis’ every twist and turn takes an average of twelve attempts over three years; though London cabbies driving around the city on their scooters, studying their mounted maps, don’t have to worry about bringing a whole ship of passengers and an entire load of cargo along for the pretty hairy training experience.

Twain describes piloting as a science, one that requires noble practitioners: “Your true pilot cares nothing about anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation surpasses the pride of kings.”  The author’s description of selfless devotion to hard work prefigures the modern concept of “flow.”  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defined “flow” as he researched artists and painters in the eighties and 90s to discover how individuals lose themselves in their work: Csikzentmihalyi and his team discovered that people captivated by their performance of a task — such as piloting — receive an overwhelming sense of joy, lose self-conscious reflection, and gain an instrinsic sense of reward from the work at hand.  Twain explored this concept of immersive labour in a rather sideways fashion. Tom Sawyer used the conventional understanding of flow to con an acquaintance into whitewashing a fence:

“Hello, old chap, you got to work, hey?”

Tom wheeled suddenly and said:

“Why, it’s you, Ben! I warn’t noticing.”

“Say – I’m going in a-swimming, I am. Don’t you wish you could? But of course you’d druther work – wouldn’t you? Course you would!”

Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:

“What do you call work?”

“Why, ain’t that work?”

Tom resumed his whitewashing, and answered carelessly:

“Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer.”

“Oh come, now, you don’t mean to let on that you like it?”

The brush continued to move.

“Like it? Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?”

That put the thing in a new light. Ben stopped nibbling his apple. Tom swept his brush daintily back and forth – stepped back to note the effect – added a touch here and there – criticised the effect again – Ben watching every move and getting more and more interested, more and more absorbed. Presently he said:

“Say, Tom, let me whitewash a little.”

-The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter Two, 1876

Even the author’s chief layabout knows what flow is supposed to be — enough to cast the task at hand off to his gullible friend.

Leisure and work go hand in hand; and while Mark Twain often appears more in love with ease, his understanding of and admiration for motivated, rewarding labour is one of the things I most admire about his tales.  He sees work as a journey that moves along with life, like a steamboat churning its wheels within the vast environment of the Mississippi.  Labour at its most triumphant is a tireless embrace of a rapidly changing future.


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