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Book Reviews

The leisure ethic: work and play in American literature 1840-1949 by William A. Gleason . Stanford University Press, 1999.

ISBN paperback 0804734348. pp 445.

 Reviewed by Karen Wilkinson, Manchester Metropolitan University


For many Americans, the final years of Nineteenth Century were a period in which they faced the erosion of the work ethic their fathers had known. Instead, with the growth of corporate capitalism and its emphasis upon modernising the industrial process through what Frederick Winslow Taylor described as "scientific management" of the workplace, workers frequently found themselves trapped and unable to escape the day to day drudgery of life in the factory. Faced with the prospect of little or no job satisfaction, Americans increasingly sought fulfilment in their leisure activities, and throughout the period, there was a continual and ongoing debate about the role leisure and play activities had to play in shaping "the character and nature of men," as well as almost every aspect of American life - immigration, women's rights, race relations and mass culture - in the hundred years between 1840 and 1940.

The central thesis of Gleason's argument in The Leisure Ethic is that throughout this period, nowhere was the debate over play and play theory contested more strenuously than in the literature of the period. Through a careful analysis not only of the social, political and economic implications of discussions on leisure but also of literature spanning from Henry David Thoreau to Zora Neale Hurston, Gleason demonstrates the ways in which writers and their narratives questioned play theory and its commitment to an ideology of fair play and teamwork that it hoped to promote. 

The Leisure Ethic follows in a long line of texts that offer a multidisciplinary approach to the key issues in American Studies. In this respect this is an important book that offers a real taster of what American Studies is about. More important though, Gleason provides an accessible and highly readable analysis of the work of perhaps unfamiliar play theorists like Joseph Lee and William Forbush alongside the work of well-known writers such as Mark Twain, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps not a new direction for either literary or cultural historical studies, but certainly one that offers new and interesting avenues of exploration for students and teachers alike.
Posted 13 February 2003

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