Idle Threats

Men and the Limits of Productivity in Nineteenth Century America

272 pages

10 halftones

October, 2012

ISBN: 9780814789391



Also available in



Part of the America and the Long 19th Century series


Andrew Lyndon Knighton is Associate Professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles.

All books by Andrew Lyndon Knighton

The 19th century witnessed an explosion of writing about unproductivity, with the exploits of various idlers, loafers, and “gentlemen of refinement” capturing the imagination of a country that was deeply ambivalent about its work ethic. Idle Threats documents this American obsession with unproductivity and its potentials, while offering an explanation of the profound significance of idle practices for literary and cultural production.
While this fascination with unproductivity memorably defined literary characters from Rip Van Winkle to Bartleby to George Hurstwood, it also reverberated deeply through the entire culture, both as a seductive ideal and as a potentially corrosive threat to upright, industrious American men. Drawing on an impressive array of archival material and multifaceted literary and cultural sources, Idle Threats connects the question of unproductivity to other discourses concerning manhood, the value of art, the allure of the frontier, the usefulness of knowledge,the meaning of individuality, and the experience of time, space, and history. Andrew Lyndon Knighton offers a new way of thinking about the largely unacknowledged “productivity of the unproductive,” revealing the incalculable and sometimes surprising ways in which American modernity transformed the relationship between subjects and that which is most intimate to them: their own activity.


  • “With wit and sophistication, Andrew Knighton engages familiar writing by Irving, Thoreau, Melville, and Gilman and others in a fresh critical and theoretical inquiry into the experiences of time and space that continue to define capitalist modernity.”

    —Thomas Augst, New York University

  • "Knighton's arguments about the imperatives attached to the conduct of capitalist time- posed through readings of literary and visual culture- ground a theoretical inquiry into the impossibility of posing a demand for more robust productivity without invoking the specter of its opposite: idleness."

    —Dana D. Nelson, Journal of American History

  • "Critics and readers often speak of literary works.  And while a lot of energy has been expended on pondering the qualities and attributes that make something literary, comparatively little consideration has been given to exploring why it is commonplace to speak of textual artifact as a 'work....'  Though Andrew Lyndon Knighton's Idle Threats: Men and the Limits of Productivity in Nineteenth-Century America does not necessarily examine these implied protocols, it does dwell on the economic and aesthetic imperatives to transform leisure and repose into productive experience."

    —Russ Castronovo, The New England Quarterly

  • "Knighton traces these tensions through a variety of cultural forms, beginning with the literary and extending through landscape painting; narratives of the western frontier, along with associated developments in urban and regional planning; and works in popular physiology and political economy...he deftly traces the development of the concept of repose as a counterpoint to labor and an antidote to the sheer productivity now viewed as the hallmark of both the age and the estimable man." 

    American Literature