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The Leisure Ethic: Work and Play in American Literature, 1840-1940.

The Leisure Ethic: Work and Play in American Literature, 1840-1940. By William A. Gleason (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. xviii plus 446pp. $60.00).

The Leisure Ethic mines a century's worth of major American literary works for their authors' contributions to the ongoing debate concerning work and play in U. S. society and culture. William Gleason draws on a wide range of texts, including Thoreau's Walden, Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, explaining that, however disparate these works may be, each expresses interest in "assessing the capacity of both modern leisure and the new ideology of play to substitute for the fading American ideals of ... individual autonomy, creativity, and agency." All the authors represented in The Leisure Ethic, Gleason argues, offer "narrative solutions" to the pressures created by economic and social change, often by "strategically rewriting the narratives of the reformers" (23) who set out to address those pressures. Gleason's examination of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature through the prism of changing ideologies of work, play and leisure yields both insightful readings of important texts and intriguing questions for social and cultural historians.

Gleason begins in the 1840s, noting that Thoreau's vision of self-cultivation as an escape from the deadening patterns of work and social life in antebellum America seemed to exclude the Irish immigrants then arriving in large numbers to serve as a labor force for an emerging industrial society. From there, the analysis focuses on Mark Twain's navigation of the issues of industrialization, the loss of artisanal independence, and the growth of a vapid leisure class in Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi. Moving into the twentieth century, Gleason discusses the "play theory" developed and disseminated by many progressive reformers as an antidote to the problems caused by the closing of the frontier, industrialization, and mass immigration. This theory, he argues, which emphasized organized play as a crucial component of social development and character-building, evoked responses from many creative writers who criticized the theory's implicit acceptance of the social and economic inequality endemic to corpo rate capitalism. To illustrate his point, Gleason juxtaposes literary responses to the progressive play reformers' use of the frontier myth in O.E. Rolvag's Giants in the Earth and Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky. The Leisure Ethic then discusses leisure and the changing nature of women's work in Annie Hillis' Herland and Edna Ferber's Emma McChesney & Co. To demonstrate how play theorists' elaboration of an "ideal" body to be produced by healthful recreation excluded all but descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, Gleason considers the salience of race and leisure in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and E Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. In another chapter, he examines how the implicit class and racial dimensions of the play theory could make leisure a pitfall rather than a benefit for the disadvantaged through a discussion of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy and Richard Wright's Native Son. Finally, the book uses William Faulkner's Sanctuary and Zora Neale Hurston 's Their Eyes Were Watching God to explore critiques of Southern society's attempts to "control the labor and leisure of Southern women in the 1920s and 1930s," (307). Here as elsewhere, the book engages a variety of issues and questions of interest to social historians: race, gender, and the meaning of leisure, as well as workers' resistance and response to industrialization, and the nature of progressive reform.

Though The Leisure Ethic's concerns dovetail with those of social historians, its methods and approach differ markedly. To his credit, Gleason is well versed in social and cultural history, and brings this material into his argument with good effect. But historians will be uncomfortable with Gleason's frequent recourse to terms like the frontier, corporate capitalism, and industrialization as explanatory or heuristic devices. Social history certainly employs these terms too, but is constrained to define them precisely for each historical situation to which they are applied. Using them too broadly, as Gleason sometimes does, risks producing overgeneralized and overdetermined arguments and explanations. Thus historians will question how definitively Gleason's evidence traces the influence of play theory and leisure reform, either into the literary works Gleason cites, or through them into the larger society and culture. Bringing a series of paired texts, some of which have no obvious connections with one anoth er, into dialogue, produces valuable, sometimes brilliant insights into literature, but the value of those insights for social history is much more problematic.

It would be unfair to hold The Leisure Ethic to stringent social historical standards, however, for it purports to be a study of literature, not history. Should, then, social historians read this book? Considering Gleason's command of sources on play theory, his efforts to place the literature he studies in its social context, and the genuine insights he offers, one must answer in the affirmative. In addition to being well written and erudite, The Leisure Ethic raises a number of important issues for students of American labor or leisure and provides fresh perspectives for historians to ponder. If social historians are not completely happy with the answers the book provides, they should be grateful for the questions it poses.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Martin, Scott C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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