Dissenting from the Work Ethic

Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America

If a university is an intellectual banquet, four years hardly suffice to nibble a tray of tapas. Yet, anxious to improve institutional efficiency, academic administrators are taking extraordinary measures to ensure that seniors graduate. At the University of Georgia, matriculants malingering into a fifth year can now expect to lose parking privileges and access to football tickets. Millions believe that the shortest distance between adolescence and affluence is the diploma line at college graduation, and few would wish that it were any longer. A friend of mine did, and he deliberately kept some incompletes on his transcript to delay commencement. Dubbing himself “the oldest living undergraduate,” he postponed into his late 30s a return to the family business in a corner of the South that lacked the rich array of concerts, plays, exhibitions, films, and even classes in Berkeley. Other slacker capitals include Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Boulder, Cambridge, Chapel Hill, Charlottesville, Iowa City, Madison, and Austin—all municipalities where dawdling is endemic.

Author Tom Lutz was able to evade expulsion from collegiate Eden by enlisting in the professoriate. He spent some of his youth living on a commune and smoking pot, and he begins Doing Nothing, a fascinating and sedulous study of antipathies to work, by reflecting on the ambiguities of his own situation. “I am convinced, and not without good evidence,” he says, “that I am astoundingly lazy.” For good evidence, Lutz, who teaches at the California Institute of the Arts, notes that he squanders innumerable hours on TV, movies, and books. Yet as a scholar of contemporary culture, he also rationalizes that what some deride as goofing off is really toil for him: “And so my life of sloth blends imperceptibly into my pathological flip side, my workaholism, and this is the odd thing: I can just as easily argue and believe that I work, not too little, but entirely too much.” In contrast to salaried drones, Lutz luxuriates in the freedom to do what he wants when he wants, but he also finds himself laboring late into the night on research and writing. “We are all lazy imposters,” he says about his kind, “and we are all workaholic slaves. We work way too hard and not nearly enough.”

A persistent theme throughout Lutz’s book is that American culture has been riven and driven by a tension between the work ethic and an aversion to exertion. Doing Nothing traces a history of ambivalence toward indolence. Lutz acknowledges the 19th-century French tradition of flaneurs, those, like Baudelaire, who made an art of sauntering along the streets of Paris, and he salutes Goethe’s feckless Werther as “the founding German slacker.” He notes that Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, who spends much of his eponymous novel in bed, “is a slacker on a grand scale,” and he analyzes the freetahs who hang out in Tokyo’s Golden Gai neighborhood, “Japan’s slacker mecca.” However, choosing to focus on American idlers, he never mentions Ivan Turgenev’s Bazarov or Feodor Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov. The name of Marcel Proust, who, horizontal for a decade in a cork-lined bedroom, constructed a seven-volume masterpiece, is not dropped once in Lutz’s chronicle of eminent dropouts. Though dolce far niente—to do sweet nothing—is as Italian as Chianti, Lutz’s detailed study of American slackers has nothing to do with it. “Slacker” was first used in its contemporary sense in 1898, and while tracking its evolution out of idlers, loungers, strikers, and other dissenters from the common hustle, Lutz is most intent on documenting the last 50 years as the Golden Age of willful sloth. Crediting Samuel Johnson, who founded The Idler magazine in 1758, as “the world’s first slacker,” Lutz is not much interested in indolence earlier than when New England colonists stopped feeling bound to pay taxes on tea. So he misses the opportunity to examine the biblical legacy of the Fall, which condemned the human race to live by the sweat of its brow. The Prodigal Son, who dropped out of the family business (but was later restored to his career queue), was pioneering flakiness long before “Kicked Out,” the ABC reality show “in which a twenty-something jobless moocher is booted from his (or her) parents’ house and followed by a camera crew as he tries to live for ten days on his own.” The preeminent slacker of ancient Greece has to be Odysseus, who after 10 years hanging with the warring dudes in windy Troy, spent 10 more years bopping around the wine-dark seas before returning to his kingdom and his wife.

Lutz notes that the American colonies served as a haven both for Britain’s ne’er-do-wells and its most pious proponents of God’s work and good works. He might have found a similar counterpoint between Spanish vagabonds who sailed west in quest of easy gold and the zealous missionaries and empire-builders they exasperated. But he begins his detailed history in the 18th century with Benjamin Franklin, the creator of Silence Dogood and the dispenser of sober advice about frugality and industriousness. Yet examining the wit that undercuts Franklin’s received wisdom as well as the Philadelphia dilettante’s own relaxed behavior, Lutz concludes that “The famous Franklinian work ethic is at its heart a bit of a sham.”

Throughout the book, Lutz finds humor in portraits of those who pursue and those who evade labor. It is necessary to understand the grind in order to understand the slacker, and the two often coexist in ironic tension within the same personality. Though he famously proclaimed, “I loaf and invite my soul,” Walt Whitman was a busy guy. Mark Twain, who created a gallery of memorable slackers, including Huck Finn’s Pap and Tom Sawyer, was extraordinarily productive. So was Karl Marx, the foremost champion of resistant labor. In The Right to Be Lazy (1883), Marx’s son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, argued—both strenuously and flippantly—for the human prerogative to shirk work. Lutz reads Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, which appeared in 1819, the same year as John Keats’ “Ode on Indolence” and Lord Byron’s “Don Juan,” as both a fantasy of liberation from useful labor and a cautionary fable about squandering one’s life. Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the recusant scrivener who ends up starving himself to death, is another vivid commentary on the dilemma posed for the individual by a culture built on getting and spending. Within the 20th century, Lutz finds slackers among the “Lost Generation” of disillusioned Left Bank idlers, but he also notes how dedicated they were to perfecting their art. “To work was the only thing,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. “It was the one thing that always made you feel good.”

Following World War II, the Beats brought elements of alienation and depression to the figure of the slacker, but if the 1950s are, as Lutz claims, “the decade of anti-conformity,” it marks the ascendancy of those who, like Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Hugh Hefner, C. Wright Mills, and Maynard Krebs, prefer not to embrace the American work ethic. The various countercultures of the 1960s—hippies, yippies, surfers, and other dissidents and dropouts—joined Bob Dylan in refusing the tenet of toil: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.” With punk, skateboarding, and the affectless youth of Generation X, Lutz argues that slackers still rejected work but, as much as any other citizen of the consumer culture, delighted in spending. His slacker canon includes The Wild One; Easy Rider; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Bright Lights, Big City; Clerks; Office Space; The Simpsons; Motherless Brooklyn; and, of course, Richard Linklater’s Austin-based Slacker.

Lutz’s topic makes him attentive to the nation’s violent history of labor strife. He notes that during World War I draft dodgers were called slackers and that traces of defective patriotism still attach themselves to the term. He examines the movement to reduce the workday as well as recent trends extending it, and he discusses the effect of involuntary unemployment on the utopian dream of a world without work. Doing Nothing has nothing to say about immigration, though much current controversy is an expression of national anxiety over slackers: Are newcomers willing to work hard in jobs that Americans refuse to take? Will they and their broods end up sponging off the hardworking taxpayer? Lutz nominates George W. Bush, who averages 19 weeks a year away from the Oval Office and is the son of a classic overachiever, as likely to “go down in history as our slacker president.” That history is, he shows, filled with alpha males who evade responsibility. Lutz discusses Beat poet Diane di Prima, but few other women fit the slacker category. Could it be that woman’s work is never done, not because she chooses not to do it but because, in a culture that restricts entrance to Arcadia to men, their task is always incomplete?

Lutz, who has published three other books, is clearly no laggard; Doing Nothing is a hefty volume with a thick bibliography. But he has opened the book on a huge and hugely important subject. Anyone wishing to follow up—by looking at Robin Hood, Prince Hal, slackers in Soviet Russia, socialist Sweden, and the Acoma Pueblo, among much else—has her work cut out for her.

Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth and teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth.

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