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Books that Shaped Work in America

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George P. Shultz

George P. Shultz
Former Secretary of Labor

Two books that shaped work in America—and the world—and made readers see the dignity of labor and the great skills needed to make a job successful are Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman's Leaves of Grass, written just before the Civil War, is filled with images of workers on farms, in factories and on boats—heroes of democracy. Before Leaves of Grass, the American worker was not described this way; after Whitman wrote, people felt a new sense of respect for the work involved in building our country. You can see this in the paintings of Winslow Homer after the Civil War. There is a great painting of a vast wheat field with a farm worker, his back to the viewer, swinging a scythe. The title of the painting is "The Veteran"; a hero of the battlefield is now a hero of the wheat field.

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883). Then there is Twain's Life on the Mississippi, which describes river pilots as immensely skilled navigators facing even more constant challenges than those at sea, and doing so as part of a working team. Mark Twain took his pen name from what one member of that team would call out to be the depth of the channel so the steamboat wouldn't run aground. The river's course and snags changed constantly, so pilots would put their latest logbook information in boxes along the Mississippi so that the next pilot coming down river would benefit from the one who had just gone ahead of him—a good, cooperative labor practice. But then they got the idea of locking the boxes so only the members of the pilot's special association could know what was going on. Their boats navigated safely; others ran aground. Their monopoly of information gave them a monopoly among pilots. Then along came new technology—the railroad—and the monopoly disappeared. A real labor lesson.

Overall, the portrayals of workers by Whitman and Twain made young Americans want to be like them and help build our country with pride.

George P. Shultz was the 11th U.S. Secretary of Labor, serving from 1969-1970.

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