I recently stumbled across this wonderful letter to the New York Times, written in the October of 1865, taking a strong line against anti-loitering laws. It’s quite funny and, I think, the correct inclination. Arresting people for hanging out is not a good way to police a municipality. It simply breeds resentment towards the police while wasting their time (and public dollars). The letter also takes a strong line against the idea of work as an inherent good. Work for work’s sake is only good if you actually enjoy your job, something pious members of the upper-middle and upper classes are more likely to do than someone working in, say, a coal mine or a grocery store. But who is more likely to set the terms of debate? Not the grocery store clerk.
We have lately read in a newspaper of the city of the great organ, some praise of the Mayor of a town near Boston, whom we should like to hold up to undying reproach if we could remember his name or the name of his municipal dominion. It is found laudable in this officer that he has instructed his policemen to break up lounging at the street-corners, to order loiterers to move on, and to arrest them in case of refusal. The rigid course to be thus pursued will soon, it is believed, rid the town — we think it is Chelsea — of loafers, and will destroy loafing in Chelsea’s dismal streets. Everybody there must go to work, or go indoors, and seem to be at work. If the reader should happen to be in Chelsea, and should happen to be yawning in the dullness of his soul at the street-corner, let him be warned that he is indulging in a criminal relaxation. If two of our readers should happen — which Heaven forbid — to stop and greet each other on the public way in Chelsea, let them beware of arrest by the most senseless and fit men of the place, acting under the orders of the most preposterous Dogberry ever born.
Industry is well, and respectability is well, but both may be carried to a point where they cease to be virtues, and become bores. The protest of EUGENE WRAYBURN, on being told by Mr. BOFFIN to look at the bee, (with a view to his own conversion into a like state of diligence and bad temper,) was fair and just. We cry out against all attempts to turn the world into a mere bee-hive; and it seems to us that the Mayor of Chelsea (if it is Chelsea) has not only committed a violence in his order against the rights of citizenship proper to all Americans, but has also done his worst to rob an overworked civilization of part of its stinted leisure. It would have been his care, were he a Mayor in whom the Humane and the Beautiful mingle, to encourage lounging in the streets, as a legitimate and picturesque expression of this great weary nation longing for repose; instead of planting at intervals policemen to make men move on, he would have planted pumps to tempt them to lean, whittle, and “invite their souls.” So would he have been remembered in Chelsea as a municipal benefactor, and so would he have revealed himself in all his breadth and depth, a seer of the necessity our generation has for rest. As it is, he has tried to make leisure disreputable in Chelsea, and has confined so much idleness indoors that it will probably burst violently out at last and consume Chelsea with epidemic worthlessness.
The mystery authors of this letter also get points for quoting Charles’ Dickens Our Mutual Friend. (Although they neither name the work or the author: Back then a thorough knowledge of Dicken’s work was simply assumed.) The excerpt is below:
[Eugene Wrayburn:] “Conceding for a moment that there is any analogy between a bee, and a man in a shirt and pantaloons (which I deny), and that it is settled that the man is to learn from the bee (which I also deny), the question still remains, what is he to learn? To imitate? Or to avoid? When your friends the bees worry themselves to that highly fluttered extent about their sovereign, and become perfectly distracted touching the slightest monarchical movement, are we men to learn the greatness of Tuft- hunting, or the littleness of the Court Circular? I am not clear, Mr Boffin, but that the hive may be satirical.”
“At all events, they work,” said Mr Boffin.
“Ye-es,” returned Eugene, disparagingly, “they work; but don’t you think they overdo it? They work so much more than they need– they make so much more than they can eat–they are so incessantly boring and buzzing at their one idea till Death comes upon them– that don’t you think they overdo it? And are human labourers to have no holidays, because of the bees? And am I never to have change of air, because the bees don’t? Mr Boffin, I think honey excellent at breakfast; but, regarded in the light of my conventional schoolmaster and moralist, I protest against the tyrannical humbug of your friend the bee.”