books121709_04When the most influential poet of the 20th Century penned The Waste Land in 1922, he was also dutifully employed as a clerk in a London bank. And by “bank” I don’t mean your neighborhood credit union where they raffle-off family getaways to Disney and give lollipops to cute kids, but an austere English bank with officers who wore bowler hats and secretly idolized the pre-transformation Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

T.S. Eliot worked in the foreign transactions department at Lloyd’s bank from 1917 until 1925 (from the age of 29 until he was 37). He punched in Monday through Friday (plus one Saturday a month) from 9:15 am to 5:30 pm. Like many Americans today, he only qualified for two weeks of vacation a year.

Historian Russell Kirk ,in his essential book on Eliot, Eliot and His Age (1971), writes that the publication and success of The Waste Land both changed, and didn’t change Eliot’s circumstances: “Like other poets before him, Eliot woke to find himself famous; but still he labored in the cellars of Lloyd’s bank.” And by referring to the cellar here, Kirk is not being metaphorical. The novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot at Lloyd’s and wrote: “(Eliot) was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.”

And while Eliot’s banking days are no secret, what is less appreciated is that he was really good at his day job. Huxley observed that Eliot was indeed “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” And an officer of Lloyd’s, upon hearing of Eliot’s success with his “hobby,” remarked that Eliot had a bright future at Lloyd’s if he wanted it. “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become Branch Manager.” Eliot eventually took a post with famed publisher Faber & Faber where he worked for decades, eventually earning the title of Director. And Eliot was no figurehead at the publishing house; this was not a “writer-in-residence” gig — Eliot had to bring his business acumen to work each day. Faber colleague Frank Morley remembered that “Eliot had a theory you were not likely to lose money on the books you didn’t publish.”

If Mr. Eliot had to have a day job, why is it that writers and poets today are so cagey about what they do to pay the bills? We all know that book reviews and smart literary novels do not put one on the road to financial independence. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never before in the field of letters has so much been written, by so many, for so little compensation. And while nobody except maybe Jonathan Franzen and Bill O’Reilly (no political or emotive relationship is implied by this coupling) are making a bundle from book sales, why does it always hurt when you discover that a promising novelist is also the associate editor for Grillin’ Times USA, the official trade publication for the American Outdoor Grilling Manufacturers Association?

Putting aside literary-aligned occupations in “the industry,” like teaching in MFA programs or working in publishing, there are a lot of T.S. Eliot clerk jobs out there, but they are far from “cool” or relevant to “the writing life.” When we think of writers and day jobs, we tend to think of famous writers and their colorful and/or romantic experiences with the work world. We have William Faulkner who worked as the postmaster at the University of Mississippi where, according to legend, he wrote fiction during his work hours and pretty much ignored everyone around him. In the 1960s, the drunken bard Charles Bukowski worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Los Angeles, where he probably terrorized an entire generation of mail-receiving Angelenos. And then there are the dream gigs for writers, like Ernest Hemingway’s freelance work as a foreign correspondent in Paris for the Toronto Star Weekly. (Are they still hiring?)

When I learned that critic and famed literary blogger Maud Newton worked full-time as a legal writer, I was devastated. Maud Newton? The woman with 156,000 followers on Twitter, who knows every book person worth knowing, and has been on C-Span Book TV, she needs a day job? Isn’t there like a NEA grant for an irreplaceably significant literary personage?

From that point forward I decided that I would, for the sake of my own sanity, assume every writer I stumbled across was making a killing from writing. It’s easier that way. If I learn of a promising young novelist, I assume he wakes up each morning in a fabulous pre-war Manhattan apartment, owns a DeLonghi espresso machine and works on his book each day for three to six hours, depending on his mood. In the late afternoon, he strolls downstairs to the mailbox and gathers up a medley of foreign and domestic royalty checks.

On my own website, in my worryingly thin “About” section, I make no mention of the fact that I work full-time in the marketing department of a software company. Why? Maybe for the same reason that pop singers used to hide that they were married — it just doesn’t fit the image. It’s far more romantic to think of Jack Kerouac working as a railroad brakeman, zipping through the American landscape on the California Zephyr, than it is to ponder Eliot in the basement, Dr. William Carlos Williams treating a dying woman or the former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser (2004-2006) working as an executive at Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Company in Nebraska. That’s why I’ll stick with denial, thank you very much.

When I email this piece to Full Stop, I will picture an expansive, crowed Manhattan publishing office with dozens of staffers: kind of like the one depicted in Mad Men, but without the booze and typewriters. I’ll imagine that Editor-in-Chief Alex Shephard and Managing Editor Jesse Montgomery have just arrived in the office, Starbucks in hand, ready for a full day of well-compensated, literary-type imaginings that come with robust health insurance plans, a pension and lots of publishing junkets to Paris and London. Around noon, maybe Zadie Smith or perhaps Jeffrey Eugenides will stop by the office, and everyone will go for a lunch of pine nut salads with feta and avocado slices (no lunchtime cocktails in the 21st Century!). Maybe they’ll meet up with several young novelists who are living comfortably on their publishing advances! It would be a world where writers are well-paid and filled-to-the-brim with creative mojo; a world where they don’t have to do anything else but immerse themselves in the splendor of literature and craft and interior investigations. It would be a world so gentle, and so unrealistic, that maybe we wouldn’t need The Waste Land or The Sound and The Fury or even Shakespeare’s tragedies. Maybe it would be a universe too perfect to produce literature: a strange, unrecognizable world where Eliot couldn’t imagine J. Alfred Prufrock and those “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells,” a world where bright young men and women never grow old, and never learn to wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled.

You can find Robert Fay at robertfay.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertFay1.


 

  • http://twitter.com/djdreilinger Danielle Dreilinger

    Oh, but I love thinking about William Carlos Williams’s day job. Can’t we agree that some are scintillating and stimulating?

  • http://twitter.com/WD_Clarke WD Clarke

    Excellent piece. Your imagined reality near the end reminds me of that Martin Amis short story “Career Move” where the poet is granted a six-figure development deal for his sonnet “Sonnet”, while the struggling screenwriter has to scrape a living wherever while he completes “Offensive From Quasar 13″ for the little magazine called “The Little Magazine”.

  • pssh

    “Death is Not the End” by DFW — just get a MacArthur grant!

  • http://www.facebook.com/cmonsour Christopher Monsour

    You say these things like they are universal feelings but they’re not. I don’t have this negative reaction you describe to the idea of poets and writers doing other paying work. I think it’s very cool that Williams was a doctor and that Eliot worked in a bank. There’s a famous story that Ezra Pound sought sponsorships from other writers, to try to get Eliot an income he wouldn’t have to work for, so Eliot could spend more time on poetry; and that Eliot refused—he liked having a stable, paying job, and (sometimes at least) seems to have found his work interesting.

    The idea that a writer diminishes himself by participating in the workaday world seems to me, in 2012, a little juvenile. The idea that society owes an easy and romantic means of living, a sinecure, to those who produce art…I don’t know, it seems very complacent, very entitled. As you hint toward the end of your piece, I think it would also tend to produce a relatively insular and navel-gazing body of literature.

    Maybe it sounds unromantic to think of a poet having to sell insurance—but there are other ways to see it—it’s not too hard to romanticize the same idea, just consider the appeal of a world in which even insurance salesmen write great, and widely appreciated, poetry. :)

  • http://twitter.com/TonyNoland Tony Noland

    You’re right – there are some day jobs which aren’t just boring, they’re antithetical to the idea of a creative endeavor like writing stories and novels. The cognitive dissonance would rupture the spacetime continuum on both sides. Best to quietly keep on with the “hobby” and ne’er let the twin worlds collide.

  • http://twitter.com/lisajean1015 Lisa Carcia

    I give Mr. Fay credit for being tongue-in-cheek in this essay. But the “denial” he writes of is not merely his own; it characterizes the literary world in general. I find this denial damaging to my spirit as I do the lonely work of protecting time and mental space for writing and reading when I’m not at my day job (which is one I actually like and am good at). Let’s smash the silence. Me, I’m out and proud; my Twitter bio reads, “I write software specs for money and poetry for love.”

  • Joshunda

    I can relate to having hurt feelings when I discover a writer I love or admire has a day job. But I also have a deeper respect for them. Writing full-time is hard work, even when you have a platform. I think in my nostalgia and romanticizing of writers’ lives before I became one, it seemed to be a measure of talent and success if one could simply pay the bills by just being a writer. But Toni Morrison worked for years as an editor when she started writing in her 40s; Edward P. Jones, a masterful writer, was working as an accountant for years and years before he wrote The Known World. And we know many teachers who are also writers – and God only knows how they manage that until (or if) they get sabbaticals.

  • http://twitter.com/CaptDavidRyan David Ryan

    I would gently suggest that the fact that your mind instantly conjures up “NEA grant” as a solution to the problem (such as it is a problem) is, in and of itself, contributory to the problem.

    Sign me,
    Filmmaker/Boat-Builder/Writer/Merchant Mariner

  • Greg Luce

    I am a poet of (very) small repute (3 small press collections and a lot of poems scattered in print and online journals). I’ve been working for almost 30 years in pre-press production for a large DC-based non-profit. I think my work has been vastly enriched by my daily encounters with the “real” world and many non-literary people. I think there are many fine poets (and other writers) in academe, but I also think a lot of the vaunted irrelevance and “obscurity” of contemporary poetry is direct result of so much of it coming from the MFA-to-academy assembly line. My $.02 and I admit of exceptions.

  • PapaScribbler

    Gordy compared my working in the library
    while
    my heart was really in poetry
    to a bunch he knew in his home town
    who
    worked in the shipyard
    but who all owned little farms.
    —-from Albert Huffstickler’s poem, Crops, which appeared in
    Waterways, March ’90.

  • Anster

    Kafka was a great insurance company employee–who would have thought? And yes, Eliot may have been a very good banker (and the March Hare poems suggest he was a wanker), but could one anticipated that the peach image in modernist “Prufrock” would have inspired a recent post-punk music video, entitled “A Love Song for T. S. Eliot” (not to mention the embedded astonishing reproductions of Caravaggio: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mmJiNGh_mk

  • Jim Smith

    Why this is just brilliant! I loved it, and find myself drawn to adopt the writer’s attitude. Me? I used to work at a whole pile of crap jobs, then at 43 my wife said why not go to law school. Been a lawyer for 15 years now, specializing in civil trials, and love it. The law subsidizes my writing life, my small literary press, and travels in aid of writing. It’s terrific, and I’ve done 3 books, one a collected that was long-listed for a national award, and travelled to pay homage to Nicanor Parra in his home in Chile in the last few years. God bless the day job!!!!