The United States of America was, at the time of its creation, a politically and ideologically innovative community; however; at the same time, America was a nation built on traditional values and beliefs. As such, the American work ethic was one of great inspiration, as the colonists practiced their forefathers’ hard, manual labor, despite modern technology developing over the centuries. Even given the American nation’s economic and political prosperity, this work ethic was embedded into all of the American people, from the 18th century Irish settlers to the modern day influx of immigrants. The authors who have composed American literature have exemplified this principle of hard work, within their own literary works.
While the American work ethic can be portrayed throughout numerous contemporary literary works found in Everyday Use, Alice Walker, particularly establishes this theme in her story. An excerpt from her literary work reads:
In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winterI wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. (1057)
The above passage explicitly displays the American work ethic, as it shows the American people’s willingness to perform manual labor for a bulk of the day. While this characteristic has assisted in America becoming the nation that it is today, many critics argue that the American life revolves too much around work, and thus, leads to severe stress and further complicates their lives. However, while the character in “Everyday Use”may, at nature, be a person whose life revolves around work, she also lives a simplistic life in the South. Instead of her excessive work leading to stress, ironically, it is an outlet for her to relieve her stress.
Often in American society, people make the correlation (whether consciously or not), between a strong work ethic and moral authority. The desire to work hard and succeed is considered by many people to be one of the essential components of a virtuous life, thus in turn their moral authority must be virtuous. In this story, the mother tends to persuade the audience that her choice of relinquishing her quilts and other cherished items to her youngest daughter, Maggie, rather than her older, and more spoiled daughter. The audience is easily susceptible to this persuasion, because of this interconnectivity between moral authority, credibility, and a strong work ethic.
These American principles of hard work and diligence are also apparent within the story, “The Corn Planting,”written by Sherwood Anderson. This literary work tells the story of an elderly couple who had only known farming within their own lives, and had been exposed to little, if any, urban life. This couple had a grown son that was living in Chicago, working as an artist. While the son did not visit them, he often wrote letters telling them of his life. One day, however, a local man who had been in contact with both the son and the parents, revealed to the parents that their son had been killed in an automobile accident the previous night. Their reaction to this news was inquisitive, to say the least. An excerpt from this story reads,
It turned out, you see, that old Hatch had been plowing that day. He had finished plowing
and harrowing a field near the barn. The two figures went into the barn and presently came out.
They went into the field, and Hal and I crept across the farmyard to the barn and got to where we could see what was going on without
being seen. It was an incredible thing. The old man had got a hand corn-planter out of the barn and his wife had got a bag of seed corn, and there, in the moonlight, that night , after they got that news, they were planting corn.
People who live simple and less complicated lives often do not view work as a burden, and instead use it as an outlet to channel their emotions. It is evident that this occurs within the story. After being notified that their only son had been killed in a car crash earlier that day, the two elderly farmers decide that they will use their corn planting, as their outlet sadness and anger. Old Hatch personally states within the story that all he has ever known in life is farming, to no fault of his own. Farming is an area where he can feel secure because he knows the answers; he knows how to solve a problem. This knowledge of farming makes the tasks somewhat of a routine, and makes them simple for him to complete, thus farming is able to put events in his life aside temporarily, and make life less complicated.. The couple doesn’t even have to think about what they’re doing when they’re farming, as it comes natural for them, and it keeps their attention diverted elsewhere other than the loss of their son. Even in the couple’s saddest moment in their lives, they still are working. This shows that while critics of the American work ethic may be right that Americans have a tendency to enclose themselves with their work, it also can be a positive attribute, as this allows the family to deal with their sadness in a method that is most familiar and comfortable to them, farming.
As previously stated, this concept of the American work ethic, hard work, and diligence, can be found routinely through a number of contemporary literary works, as it is often an underlying theme within an American story (as Americans tend to be fascinated with this philosophy). This theme is so often used in American literature, because the targeted audience is inclined to relate to it. The above two passages perhaps best exemplify this concept