“When are you going to ‘work’ for a living?”

I’ve been thinking about what turns activity into work in the eyes of others. A full-time, paying position with an eminently reputable outfit didn’t cut the mustard with Marcia Muth’s grandparents, who raised her in Fort Wayne Indiana, where Muth was born in 1919. They didn’t believe that women should attend college, but at nineteen she signed up for a night class. “My family was under the impression I was taking typing and shorthand and I was actually taking English literature,” Muth recounts.“I grew up reading Shakespeare, I liked classical music, I loved poetry. That was okay maybe on the side a little, but I was a disappointment to my family.”

Her great-grandfather had emigrated from Germany, become a merchant, and opened a store. The family firmly believed that everyone should work, and “the world of commerce and selling things was what you did.”

When Muth told a classmate that she was looking for work, the girl told her she’d just gotten a job at the public library. “She said, ‘Can you type?’ I said, ‘Oh, yes.’ Of course I couldn’t,” Muth recounts. Ironically, the head librarian hired her because he knew her grandparents. (Because she really couldn’t type, she’d stuff her mistakes in her pockets and head for the rest room every the head librarian came in. After a while he asked her boss, “Has that girl got kidney trouble?” Her boss called her in, said, “I realize you’re not a typist,” and offered her a position in bibliographical searching — “and that’s how I got into it.”) The audio clip below describes Muth’s family’s reaction to her passing up a position at the South Side Five & Dime. “Being a librarian was not something that anyone had ever done, and they looked down on it,” she explains.

Muth went on to become a law librarian, teacher, poet, publisher, and painter. I could see why being an artist was a serious departure from family expectations. But a librarian? I ran this past my friend Tara McPherson, a professor at USC, to whom it made perfect sense. Tara said, “It’s not bookish. It’s not material. It’s not like working in an oil refinery, or being a dry cleaner.” She told the story of her 6’7” father (short for a McPherson) who went to college on a basketball scholarship. His sports career ended when he broke his collarbone, and instead got a PhD in biology. His parents’ response? “When are you going to work for a living?”

Why were the Muths and the McPherson’s unable to conceive of their offspring’s career choices as legitimate? How do class, gender, and family history factor into their attitudes? Certainly being a librarian has long been considered an extremely respectable, dependable career (not to mention cutting-edge, as information goes digital) — especially for women. But Muth’s grandparents had just weathered WW I and the Depression; the field of library science was just coming into being; and they clearly had no clue how to handle their fiercely independent ward. Muth had run away from home at fifteen, then graduated from the first evening high school in the country, in Buffalo New York, and wanted to go to McGill University in Canada. “But as it turned out they didn’t want you to cross the border unless you had a job or a hundred dollars,” Muth recalls. “I had nothing. I was that kind of person.” More about her later.

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