Doing Nothing by Tom Lutz

Tom Lutz’s son moves in before college to take some time off and spends the first couple of weeks parked on the couch. The father’s torn: On the one hand, just look at that lazy kid! Who knows what opportunities he’s missing while parked on the couch. On the other hand, well, I myself spent some time before college “finding myself” in a string of low expectation jobs, and look how it worked out for me. Wagering that his ambivalence is characteristic rather than idiosyncratic, Lutz, the author of three previous books, including Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, set out to research the cultural history of the shiftless, the idle, and the lazy. It turns out that, under a variety of guises, slackers — and the fury they inspire in the hardworking — have been a key part of the American imagination at least since John Smith was setting the Jamestown colony to rights.

Lutz’s book is charming and graceful, long on anecdote and telling details, if perhaps short on coherent story or even organizing principle. He has two key insights into the relationship between work and slack. First, the fact that we hear so much solemn moralizing about the work ethic, the gospel of work, and so forth, ought to point up the fact that such moralizing must oppose … something. The voluminous discourse about work suggests, through its very copiousness, that perhaps hard work isn’t universally valued as a blessing from God. The second insight affords Lutz more comic opportunities: Self-proclaimed idlers are frequently monsters of productivity, whereas those who proclaim the virtues of hard work are just as often, if not more often, somewhat unfamiliar with the concept. For an example of the former, see, say, Samuel Johnson. For an example of the latter, see the current President of the United States. While he’s aware of the methodological difficulties slackers pose — almost by definition, we only know about them when they choose to produce, so there’s at least some chance any cultural history of slack is going to be wildly inaccurate — he can’t very well let it wreck the book. Likewise, he knows that people like to boast about overwork — “the work ethic … seems to demand not so much work as the announcement of it.”

Doing Nothing is exhaustive, though not quite exhausting, in its long catalogs of slackers and others who opt out from the apparently prevailing enthusiasm for work. There are moments, for example, when Lutz appears to believe that simply listing cultural artifacts, such as “slacker novels,” is itself a form of analysis. Also, for a book subtitled A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America, there is actually quite a lot of material about England. There’s even a stray, yet oddly detailed, account of the Japanese freetahs. While sometimes this material adds useful contextual material, the overall effect is to make the selection of material seem arbitrary. Sometimes Lutz wants to include the evidence from slackers only, but other times — especially during the account of the 1950s — he discusses those cultural figures arguing for the importance of work. Of course, once the defenders of work appear in one chapter, you start to wonder why they weren’t there in other chapters. The Victorianist in me misses Thomas Carlyle, for instance, or perhaps Bleak House‘s Skimpole. And let’s just say that it’s very, very peculiar to have a discussion of 19th-century American attitudes toward labor that doesn’t really discuss slavery, or native Americans. (Again, Carlyle would be relevant here.) Anna Nicole Smith, by contrast, gets a more sustained engagement. Lutz’s focus on Anglo-American literary culture also leads him to downplay racial or cultural similarities or differences.

It’s also the case that Lutz can’t quite seem to make up his mind about the historical status of the antagonism between hard work and slack. At some points, he seems to gesture toward the claim that this opposition is the product of a specific set of historical — especially economic, political, and demographic — conditions. He can point in any decade of the 20th century to defenders of idleness who point out that if every person to whom one sneered, “get a job,” actually did so, working- and middle-class standards of living would collapse. Slacker identities blossom, on this account, when there’s a surplus of potential workers, especially young men. (Lutz does consider women’s relationship to idleness, though in a pretty confined and literal way. He doesn’t discuss, for instance, the ways the 19th-century marriage market in effect prepared women for idleness rather than utility.)

At other points, though, he suggests that the opposition between idleness and work is, at bottom, a psychological one, and thus to an extent universal. The psychoanalytic critic Tim Dean once summarized the psychological argument this way: “He whom I suppose to know how to enjoy, I hate.” If I’m working, and that other guy is researching his fantasy baseball draft … well! Lutz even goes so far as to suggest, though without ever really unpacking the argument’s implications, that the slacker/worker antagonism is Oedipal, a recurring conflict between fathers and sons. While it varies its dress in different periods, the core antagonism is, at these moments, the same.

Doing Nothing is certainly an enjoyable, informative, and intelligent book. That the richness of its material sometimes overruns its conceptual purchase is hardly a mortal sin; rather, it signals the centrality of this material to American identity, as well as the ongoing confusion over the value and meaning of work today.