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Mark Twain on the Leisure/Work Divide

Mark TwainWe got an e-mail the other day from John Yinger, a professor of economics and public administration at Syracuse University. It went, in part, like this:

By coincidence, I read a chapter of “Tom Sawyer” to my 10-year-old son the day your column on leisure time came out. It’s the famous chapter on whitewashing the fence. Here’s how it ends:

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it, namely, that, in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would no doubt have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers, or performing on a treadmill, is work, whilst rolling nine-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service that would turn it into work, then they would resign.

It looks to me as if you were scooped by Mark Twain!

Indeed we were, and hopefully not for the last time. The funny thing is that I thought long and hard about citing the Tom Sawyer whitewash incident in the column — in fact, this passage was in some degree an inspiration for the column — but I, like many writers, am leery of depending too much upon, or citing too often from Mark Twain, whose work was so good and broad that he could legitimately be cited in just about any article I might ever write. (However, as noted earlier on this site, not all the wisdoms attributed to him were actually written by him; also noted earlier is the fact that, as a writer, he was also a devout capitalist).

On a side note, some of the feedback we got from our NYT column suggests that several people missed the point we were trying to make about work vs. leisure. Rather than trying to condemn menial leisure activities like gardening, knitting, and “cooking for fun,” instead by offering personal examples at the end we were attempting to show that, not only do we not disapprove of such moderately irrational behavior, we ourselves embrace it. Oh well.