cover image Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living

Henry at Work: Thoreau on Making a Living

John Kaag and Jonathan van Belle. Princeton Univ, $27.95 (232p) ISBN 978-0-691-24469-3

In this astute study, Kaag (Sick Souls, Healthy Minds), an ethics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and van Belle (Zenithism), a former editor at, explore what lessons Henry David Thoreau’s life and writings hold for 21st century workers. Suggesting that Thoreau’s opposition to the “alienation and nihilism” caused by capitalism defined his attitudes toward work, Kaag and van Belle explore how readers might push back against “meaningless work” by following his example. The authors examine Thoreau’s takes on the commodification of time, the dehumanizing effects of repetitive labor, and employers’ inability to provide spiritual fulfillment for their workers, and draw lessons for modern workers from Thoreau’s life. Telling how Thoreau quit a teaching position after his boss insisted he use corporal punishment to discipline students, Kaag and van Belle contend that resignation offers laborers the opportunity to claim moral agency from employers. The speculation on what Thoreau would think about modern workplaces is plausible and well supported (Thoreau would object to automated technology because of its inability to exercise “moral autonomy”), making a strong case for the transcendentalist’s continued relevance. This should give workaholics pause. (June)