A way of working, a way of being

Peter Betjemann

The success of Pottery Barn and other companies that capitalize on the popular taste for a handcrafted look could seem like a commercial hoax, but the phenomenon has complex roots in our arts and literary history,
argues Peter Betjemann.

In his book, Talking Shop: Craft, Consumption, and American Literature, Betjemann asserts that the marketing of handicrafts reveals a tension in American culture between a desire for the simplicity and
artisanship of an earlier era, and the drive for consumption and mass production on the other.

"To think of this phenomenon primarily in terms of assumed contradictions is, I believe, to impose ironies on a definition of labor and work that for the majority of industrial-era Americans—including some of the country's best-known writers and artisans—has been fired in a larger cultural kiln," said Betjemann, a Research Fellow and assistant professor of English at OSU.

Betjemann's book explores relations between literature and skilled labor during the early phases of industrial development in the United States, when handicraft acquired durable associations not just with a way of working, but with a way of being.

“Most broadly, I am interested in how the emergence of craft as an idea about a better lifestyle and as a cogently imagined aesthetic—an effect of certain textures, patinas, and shapes—affected how all kinds of work, from manual labor to literary labor, were conceptualized.”

Talking Shop aims to reverse the common assumption that the ideal of skilled labor was forged in opposition to the practices of industrial reproduction and the habits of consumer culture. “Nor, however, does the book claim that a relentless market simply absorbed, packaged and re-sold apparently ‘crafted’ items, capitalizing on a vogue for the rustic. Rather, the very definition of skill—the fundamental way in which Americans thought about work of all sorts—was shaped by the industrial stakes of its nineteenth-century invigoration.”

Evolving notions of labor imagined the artisan's relation to material as a matter of sensitivity and intuition as much as training or technical prowess, Betjemann noted. “John Ruskin's "obviously hyperbolic claim that true artisans 'care not a whit' for keeping their chisels sharp represents a curious distaste for technical skill under evolving industrial-age standards of workmanship."

The leaders of the crafts movement thought of themselves as offering individually handmade objects as antidotes to the forces of industrial reproduction, yet the essential terms of their ideas about craft also
turned toward the logic that made handicraft available, as a sensibility rather than a trade, to the mass market.

"To be better than machine-made goods, crafts had to be one-of-a-kind objects of the singularly finest quality. But because the revivalists also imagined a democratic movement founded on sensibility and oriented to much more than the perfect techniques of tradesmen, they unmoored workmanship from its traditional grounding in reproducible skills."
While Talking Shop considers the writing of Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, and Edith Wharton, Betjemann considers Poe "the nineteenth century's best spokesman for literary craft." Poe's work also reflects the tensions that were endemic to nineteenth-century notions of labor.

In his account of writing "The Raven" Poe disclaims any effect of accident or intuition, and credits instead the perfection of the writer's craft. And yet, said Betjemann, the poem is "about the breakdown of language's efficacy." It is typical of Poe that "the perfect workmanship claimed by the author in the essays or by the characters in the fiction always somehow, in the end, gives way."

This "loosening of artisanship" from the enduring model of craft as a set of skills for reliably delivering what you promise represents one of the transformations that renders craft compatible with consumption. "It
informs how authors imagine their own work as well as how they depict the work of others."