George P. Shultz is an esteemed economist, statesman, educator and businessman. He is also a quintessential public servant, having served as secretary of state, secretary of the treasury and director of the Office of Management and Budget. But his first government gig (he was previously the dean of the University of Chicago’s graduate business school) was as secretary of labor. He held the post, during the Nixon administration, from 1969 to 1970.
When I asked Secretary Shultz what books he thought shaped work in America, I didn’t know what to expect for an answer. I assumed he’d suggest academic tomes; books I never heard of – important books, yes … but ones that are not particularly accessible. I was wrong. Shultz’s book selections that “made readers see the dignity of labor and the great skills needed to make a job successful” included one of the most beloved works of poetry in American literature: Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
I love that he included a book of verse for our list of Books that Shaped Work in America. First published in 1855, “Leaves of Grass” paints a remarkable portrait of what is uniquely America. Whitman made the book a life-long endeavor, revising and expanding it until his death to reflect new experiences and societal shifts, including America’s urbanization and ongoing quest for democracy based on individual equality.
In his essay, Shultz writes that “Leaves of Grass” “is filled with images of workers on farms, in factories and on boats – heroes of democracy. Before ‘Leaves of Grass,’ the American worker was not described this way; after Whitman wrote, people felt a new sense of respect for the work involved in building our country.” Members of the public seem to feel the same way, as we have received several recommendations to include “Leaves of Grass” in the Books that Shaped Work in America. One commentator called it “the poetic heart of America.” Another said: “The descriptions of workers, the process of work itself, and the unique images of America move the mind and the heart. One of the lessons I learned early was respect for the often unrewarded, inglorious work that keeps the trains moving, the food coming to table, the trash off the streets. Whitman honored that work and the people who do it, weaving in their lives into the fabric of the country as a whole.”
There is poetry in work, and yes, there is work in poetry. What poem or collection of poems do you believe shaped our notion of work and workers in our country? Send us your suggestions.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. Learn more about the department’s 100 years of service by viewing an interactive timeline and watching a special centennial video at dol.gov/100.