The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture

The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture

The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture

The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture

Synopsis

"The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture investigates the preoccupation with idleness that haunts the British eighteenth century. Sarah Jordan argues that as Great Britain began to define itself as a nation during this period, one important quality it claimed for itself was industriousness. But this claim was undermined and complicated by, among other factors, the importance of leisure to the upholding of class status, thus making idleness a subject of intense anxiety. One result of this anxiety was an increased surveillance of the supposed idleness of marginalized and less powerful members of society: the working classes, the nonwhite races, and women. In a widely researched and elegantly argued book, Jordan analyzes how idleness is figured in eighteenth-century literature and culture, including both traditional forms of literature and a wide variety of other cultural discourses. At the center of this account, Jordan investigates the lives and works of Johnson, Cowper, Thomson, and many other, lesser known writers. She incorporates their obsession with idleness into a new and lucid theorization of the professionalization of writing and the place of idleness and industry in the larger cultural formation that was eighteenth-century British identity." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

The first sentence of adam SMITH’S the wealth of nations (1776) proclaims that “The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labour, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity, and judgment with which it is any where directed, or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labour.” a few pages later, Smith proffers a remarkable sentence discussing the profusion of material goods this division makes available to even the humblest laborer and listing the huge number of workers and trades necessary to provide these goods:

Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress
and household furniture, the coarse linen shirt which he wears next his skin,
the shoes which cover his feet, the bed which he lies on, and all the different
parts which compose it, the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals,
the coals which he makes use of for that purpose, dug from the bowels of the
earth, and brought to him perhaps by a long sea and a long land carriage, all
the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and
forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his
victuals, the different hands employed in preparing his bread and his beer,
the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the
wind and the rain, with all the knowledge and art requisite for preparing
that beautiful and happy invention, without which these northern parts of
the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation, to
gether with the tools of all the different workmen employed in producing
those different conveniencies;if we examine, I say, all these things, and con
sider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be
sensible that without the assistance and cooperation of many thousands, the
very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even ac
cording to, what we falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which
he is commonly accommodated.

This compendious sentence conveys a sense of the variety and proliferation of objects and occupations in the eighteenth century. Although smith is praising this multifariousness, the very length and complexity of his sentence also seems to betray some anxiety, some attempt not . . .

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