Muscles and Mind, Aching to Work

St. Mary's students perform in Studs Terkel's "Working"

St. Mary’s students perform in Studs Terkel’s “Working”

May Day

Today is International Workers Day so today’s blog post features one of the great novels about workers and their rights. Although I am an Obama enthusiast, I have been disappointed that he hasn’t put more focus on unemployment. Sure, I know he has been fending off Republican attacks on the large deficit, but I feel that his own support for debt reduction is misplaced at a time when so many people are unemployed, underemployed, and underpaid. The time for debt reduction is when the economic downturn is well behind us. To practice austerity when a recession or a fragile recovery are underway is suicidal.

To his credit, Obama firmly opposes the sequestration, which is slowing growth and maintaining high unemployment with its layoffs, furloughs, and cutbacks.

Last week I attended a musical version of Stud Terkel’s Working, directed by my colleagues Michael Ellis-Tolaydo and Larry Vote. The play is inspiring in the way it shows the dignity of work and how much work work enters into our sense of self respect. In a related way, John Steinbeck shows us the blow we suffer when work opportunities begin to disappear. Grapes of Wrath conjures up the prospect of a “trampling of the vintage,” which is to say of the wrath that wrath that will be unleashed, if those in power don’t get their economic act together.

The times are not as revolutionary as they were during the Great Depression, when unemployment was much higher and there weren’t the social safety net programs for the unemployed and poor to fall back on. Nevertheless, the passage still strikes a chord. The “great owners” mentioned at the beginning of the passage (our 1%) are nervous because the citizenry is becoming angry:

The Western Land, nervous under the beginning change. The Western States, nervous as horses before a thunder storm. The great owners, nervous, sensing a change, knowing nothing of the nature of the change. The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply—the causes are a hunger in a stomach, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times. The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house, the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments…

Steinbeck goes on to say is that, worrisome though the situation is, we should be even more worried if humans ever stop complaining about being unemployed and underpaid. If we ever start rolling over in the face oppression, then that’s a sign that we have lost this Manself that makes us great as a species.

Keep your eyes on the prize. Happy May Day.


Photograph by Bill Wood


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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