Sunday, March 7, 2010

Quitting the Paint Factory

This is a terrific essay (thanks Ben!). It's called: Quitting the Paint Factory, by Mark Slouka. (It's from the November 2004 issue of Harper's Magazine.) Talk about something resonating with you. Please enjoy this excerpt:

In one of my favorite anecdotes from American literary history (which my children know by heart, and which in turn bodes poorly for their fu­tures as captains of industry), the writer Sherwood Anderson found himself, at the age of thirty-six, the chief owner and general manager of a paint factory in Elyria, Ohio. Having made something of a reputation for himself as a copywriter in a Chicago advertising agency, he’d moved up a rung. He was on his way, as they say, a businessman in the making, per­haps even a tycoon in embryo. There was only one problem: he couldn’t seem to shake the notion that the work he was doing (writing circulars extolling the virtues of his line of paints) was patently absurd, undignified; that it amounted to a kind of prison sentence. Lacking the rationalizing gene, incapable of numbing himself sufficiently to make the days and the years pass without pain, he suffered and flailed. Eventually he snapped.

It was a scene he would revisit time and again in his memoirs and fic­tion. On November 27, 1912, in the middle of dictating a letter to his secretary (“The goods about which you have inquired are the best of their kind made in the…”), he simply stopped. According to the story, the two supposedly stared at each other for a long time, after which Anderson said: “I have been wading in a long river and my feet are wet,” and walked out. Outside the building he turned east toward Cleveland and kept going. Four days later he was recognized and taken to a hospital suffering from exhaustion.

Anderson claimed afterward that he had encouraged the impression that he might be cracking up in order to facilitate his exit, to make it compre­hensible. “The thought occurred to me that if men thought me a little in­sane they would forgive me if I lit out,” he wrote, and though we will nev­er know for sure if he suffered a nervous breakdown that day or only pretended to one (his biographers have concluded that he did), the point of the anec­dote is elsewhere: Real or imagined, nothing short of madness would do for an excuse.

Anderson himself, of course, was smart enough to recognize the absurdity in all this, and to use it for his own ends; over the years that fol­lowed, he worked his escape from the paint factory into a kind of parable of liberation, an exemplar for the young men of his age. It became the cornerstone of his critique of the emerging business culture: To stay was to suffocate, slowly; to escape was to take a stab at “aliveness.” What America needed, Anderson argued, was a new class of individuals who “at any physical cost to themselves and others” would “agree to quit working, to loaf, to refuse to be hurried or try to get on in the world.”

“To refuse to be hurried or try to get on in the world.” It sounds quite mad. What would we do if we followed that advice? And who would we be? No, better to pull down the blinds, finish that sentence. We’re all in the paint factory now.

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