Idle Threats: Men and the Limits of Productivity in 19th-Century America

Idle Threats: Men and the Limits of Productivity in 19th-Century America

Idle Threats: Men and the Limits of Productivity in 19th-Century America

Idle Threats: Men and the Limits of Productivity in 19th-Century America


The 19th century witnessed an explosion of writing about unproductivity, with the exploits of various idlers, loafers, and "gentlemen of refinement" capturing the imagination o fa country that was deeply ambivalent about its work ethic. Idle Threats documents this American obsession with unproductivity and its potentials, while offering an explanation of the profound significance of idle practices for literary and cultural production.

While this fascination with unproductivity memorably defined literary characters from Rip Van Winkle to Bartleby to George Hurstwood, it also reverberated deeply through the entire culture, both as a seductive ideal and as a potentially corrosive threat to upright, industrious American men. Drawing on an impressive array of archival material and multifaceted literary and cultural sources, Idle Threats connects the question of unproductivity to other discourses concerning manhood, the value of art, the allure of the frontier, the usefulness of knowledge,the meaning of individuality, and the experience of time, space, and history. Andrew Lyndon Knighton offers a new way of thinking about the largely unacknowledged "productivity of the unproductive," revealing the incalculable and sometimes surprising ways in which American modernity transformed the relationship between subjects and that which is most intimate to them: their own activity.


Now what is the cause of this absence of repose, this bottled
lightning quality in us Americans?… We, here in America,
through following a succession of pattern-setters whom it is now
impossible to trace, and through influencing each other in a bad
direction, have at last settled down collectively into what, for better
or worse, is our own characteristic national type.

—William James, “The Gospel of Relaxation,” 1899

Indolence is an impossibility of beginning. … It is, in its concrete
fullness, a holding back from the future. The tragedy of being it
reveals is then the more profound.

—Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents, 1978

This introduction finds itself poised somewhere between Levinas and James; it harbors both a curiosity about the past and an apprehension about the future. It inaugurates my attention to what James calls an “impossible” task—that of documenting the “pattern-setters” who, over the course of a century rife with cultural negotiation, solidified the relationship between an American “national type” and the value of productivity. The task is daunting, both because of the considerable complexity and discontinuity of the history involved, and because of the ambiguity of the central concepts with which it will work—for the cultural meanings of productivity and unproductivity were, throughout the nineteenth century, far from self-evident. Despite what we tend to think about the primacy of hard work in the American experience, the nineteenth century was marked by a profound ambivalence about productivity (and, for that matter, about unproductivity, which was simultaneously regarded both as . . .

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