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dangerously sleepy

27 november 2013

A few years ago on Cracked.com – now that I think of it, perhaps not the ideal source for information on human physiology – I read that humans barely need to sleep at all. Something called the Uberman Sleep Schedule can boost your alertness and productivity by reducing your sleep to two hours a day, with regular brief naps so that you don't actually lose your mind. Reports from those who've actually tried Uberman sleeping suggest that indeed you don't lose your mind, but instead descend into a state of low-functioning apathy. The benefit of staying awake 22 hours out of the day so you can spend most of it watching TV and staring into space seems minimal, but of course that isn't the intention of Uberman. It's supposed to turn you, naturally, into an Übermensch.

Übermenschen from Thomas Edison through Charles Lindbergh to Donald Trump have seized control of American rhetoric about sleep, argues Alan Derickson in his timely and original book Dangerously Sleepy. Get by on a nap here or there, stay up till all hours inventing or striking deals or flying the Atlantic, and you will crush your competition. But, Derickson argues,

Inordinate attention paid to elite short sleepers conceals the fact that a large share of those on the disadvantaged side of the sleep divide appear to be low-wage employees—cashiers, waitresses, domestic servants, janitors, and other service-sector workers. (143)
Of course, the Trumpian prescription for the sleepy poor would be: work even harder for even longer hours, and someday you'll become a real-estate baron with your own reality show. Fall asleep for an instant on the job, though, and you're fired.

Derickson studies sleeplessness in three key American industries of the mid-20th-century: steelworking, the railroads, and long-haul trucking. He looks almost exclusively at male workers. He says at the start that this focus makes his work inevitably only a small part of the story of restless American history. But it's the first part of the story ever to be told.

"The cult of manly wakefulness," Derickson's subtitle, was a rhetorical underpinning of all three workplaces. Not only did capitalists preach a vigilant work ethic, but workers too saw their masculinity bound up in staying awake all night. The three industries varied in the ways in which they kept employees awake. Steelworkers worked 12/7, and virtually 365, and every week or two put in the 24-hour "long turn" shift to switch from days to nights or back again. (Which implies that once every week or two they could sleep for 24 hours straight if they wanted to; whoopee.) While off duty, steelworkers tried to snatch sleep, half the time during the day, in crowded lodgings in noisy cities, often within earshot of their own mills.

Pullman porters were different. Theoretically they were off duty, at least informally, much of the time: even encouraged to nap on the noisome "smoking-car sofa." But this meant in practice that they were always on duty, available incessantly at passenger whim. Shifts could be days in length, amounting to continuous waking dreams; when a porter got home, he was often immediately "doubled back" on a route of equal length and sleeplessness.

Derickson brings out many ironies in the working conditions of the Pullman porters. Devoted to ensuring the comfortable sleep of others, they got none themselves. Pullman service was one of the most visible and coveted forms of employment for African-American men, and the Pullman company proud of their enlightened paternalism; but on the job, the porters were thoroughgoing second-class citizens in a workplace tightly segregated by color. (And by sex; female Pullman maids had fewer rights and perks than Pullman porters.)

Long-haul truckers had, and have it, the worst. Steelworkers could at least lobby for regulation, even if their unions were weak; the Pullman porters had a famously tireless union. But truck drivers have an ill-defined "workplace" and multiple systems of employment, many designed precisely to exempt them from regulatory oversight. In the mid-20th century, truckers of course had a union, the Teamsters; but that was a mixed blessing. The Teamsters, in Derickson's portrayal, could be more hostile toward rival workers than toward management. And their influence was limited by employment structures in the industry. Freight companies sometimes hired fleets of drivers, but more often subcontracted work to owner-operators, at times leasing back the equipment they'd sold to supposed independents and then hiring them short-term on unregulated contracts. The resulting fiction, that the trucking workforce consisted of proud entrepreneurs each of whom strove to outwork the rest, held a grain of truth. Driving 24 or 36 hours without sleep, or much sustenance aside from amphetamines, became a display of manhood: largely unseen, Derickson notes, apart from truck stops, but definitely not a world in which workers complained about feeling drowsy. The resulting chaos of definitions and practices is still largely with us.

Reading Dangerously Sleepy often made me sleepy, just from empathy with its strung-out cast of characters. Fortunately I have a white-collar job – English professor – that doesn't compel my wakefulness. But I am working longer and longer hours as the years go by. The modern managerial university constantly adds tasks to its faculty's days, and demands greater and greater "productivity," under threat of increased workload. I have been known to go on and on about a stretch a few years back where I worked a few 18-hour days while sleeping on my office couch. Poor me, I know: I wasn't pouring molten metal, or driving across Minnesota in the snow, or at the beck and call of every idiot who wanted his pillow fluffed. But what kind of creative or intellectual life are 21st-century teachers supposed to have, and provide for their students, in the face of ever-lengthening workdays and superhuman expectations?

It isn't just faculty who fall asleep at the wheel, of course. My students drag into class a lot sleepier than me. In a different context, while reading Dangerously Sleepy, I ran across accounts of UPS's "Metropolitan College" scheme, currently underway in Louisville, Kentucky. It's not a bad deal: sort packages at the UPS center overnight, get tuition help to to school during the day. Not bad, till you wonder when these students sleep, or how well they'll be able to keep up with anatomy or macroeconomics after a refreshing couple of hours' nap. Metropolitan College simply formalizes a system all too familiar to public-university students in the 21st century: go into debt, work 50 hours a week, go to class 12 hours, sit in traffic for another 24, and by the time you're done eating, studying, and cleaning yourself, you may get 56 hours' sleep: if you live alone, have no other responsibilities on life, and never spend a moment on recreation. But hey, it's a competitive world and this is the greatest country on earth. And at that, you have it a lot better than most working Americans: even if the dream at the end of your rainbow is more debt, longer hours, and less sleep.

Derickson is a professor at Penn State. Dangerously Sleepy is an academic history, laboriously documented, from an academic press. But it's as readable as any magazine story, and delivers its observations like the best journalism: unobtrusively but with pervasive wit and humanism.

Derickson, Alan. Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the cult of manly wakefulness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.