The Origins of the White Collar Worker

10039431225_a61dc81997_o.jpg

They labored in poorly lit, smoky single rooms, attached to merchants and lawyers, to insurance concerns and banks. They had sharp penmanship and bad eyes, extravagant clothes but shrunken, unused bodies, backs cramped from poor posture, fingers callused by constant writing. When they were not thin, angular, and sallow, they were ruddy and soft; their paunches sagged onto their thighs.

Clerks were once a rare subject in literature. Their lives were considered unworthy of comment, their workplaces hemmed in and small, their work indescribably dull. And yet one of the greatest of short stories is about a clerk. In “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), Herman Melville, who had become famous for writing memoirs and novels about spectacular sea voyages to exotic islands—gaining a readership he eventually lost with that strange, long book about a whaling voyage—decided to turn inward, to the snug, suffocating world of the office. The titanic hunt for the white whale was exchanged for the hunt for the right-sized pen. And for finding the right position to sit at a desk: “If, for the sake of easing his back, he brought the table lid at a sharp angle well up towards his chin, and wrote there like a man using the steep roof of a Dutch house for his desk, then he declared that it stopped the circulation in his arms. If now he lowered the table to his waistbands, and stooped over it in writing, then there was a sore aching in his back.” More at Longreads.

After reading that, I think I need to buy the book.



Categories: Articles, Books

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: