The Fourth River

What Will Compare With It?

by David Salner

I like writers whose work is informed by what they’ve done for a living, the humanity and inhumanity of their workplaces, the colorful characters that reside there. Although our vocations are sometimes deadening, we learn to devote care and thought to them—and to our coworkers. We reflect on our jobs with wisdom and, of course, humor. All of which brings up the question: Can work—which is so often brutal and degrading— furnish inspiration for writers and a frame of reference for readers?

Among my favorite authors are two for whom work was a central issue. “I don’t like work—no man does,” wrote Joseph Conrad. We can all identify with that, women as well as men, despite the fact that he addressed the gender, man, that knows less of drudgery than the other gender. He goes on to qualify his remark—“but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others.”  Those lines are from Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness. One of its underlying ideas is that in this age, serious work is intrinsic to our humanity. The worthlessness of two of his characters—The Chief Agent of the Company and his spy, the Brickmaker—can be gleaned from the fact that this latter figure produces no bricks. The African Helmsman, on the other hand, is esteemed by Conrad’s narrator as a coworker, a partner in the work of the riverboat. The narrator mourns quite feelingly the death of this minor character.

Conrad writes from the perspective of a boss, a sea captain. The narrator of Moby-Dick, on the other hand, is a worker, a common sailor who says: “I always go to sea as a sailor, because they make a point of paying me for my trouble, whereas they never pay passengers a single penny that I ever heard of. On the contrary, passengers themselves must pay. And there is all the difference in the world between paying and being paid. The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction…. But being paid,—what will compare with it?”
Many American writers, in fact, are denizens of the world of work. Whitman was a carpenter and housebuilder—Twain, a riverboat captain and reporter. These trades figured large in the sweeping democracy of Whitman’s outlook and the razor wit with which Twain cuts down prejudice and pretension. And some of today’s writers, like Philip Levine and Dorianne Laux, learned lessons rough and true from their workaday worlds.

So what does this have to do with the hundreds of MFAs graduating every year from excellent writers’ workshops? Not all of these young writers, as well-trained and adept as they are, will land plush academic jobs. Some will matriculate into other academies, including the school of hard knocks. But insight and humanity can be learned in the factory or the cubicle as well as the classroom. And this experience can be not only good for the creative spirit—but as Melville wrote, “Being paid,–what will compare with it?”




David Salner is the author of JOHN HENRY’S PARTNER SPEAKS (Word Tech, Cincinnati, 2008) and WORKING HERE (Rooster Hill Press, Minnesota State University, 2010). He worked for 25 years as an iron ore miner, steelworker, and laborer; he holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. His poetry appears in The Fourth River, Poetry Daily, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Threepenny Review, and many other journals. He lives in Frederick, Maryland with his wife, Barbara Greenway, a high school English teacher. Find him on the web at

Blog photo courtesy of EA Weymuller