Even Faulkner had a day job


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Sure, William Faulkner is one of the most iconic writers of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature. And was a mailman.

When Faulkner accepted the Nobel in 1950, he said, ‘I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work -- a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.’ These days, when every mega-advance in publishing makes headlines, it’s nice to remember that Faulkner took to his typewriter ‘not for glory and least of all for profit.’


From 1921-24, young Faulkner worked as the postmaster at the University of Mississippi. It wasn’t exactly a grueling job -- he took afternoons off to golf, and read magazines before delivering them to their recipients. But it wasn’t exactly lucrative, either -- adjusted to today’s dollars, Faulkner was bringing home about $18,000 a year.

That’s according to Lapham’s Quarterly, which has an author day job chart in its new issue.

Also on the list: Franz Kafka, whose bureaucratic job famously influenced his writing, and Anthony Trollope, whose gig as a postal surveyor didn’t get in the way of him writing thousands and thousands of pages of fiction.

The worst off was Charlotte Brontë. Her written work, like Kafka’s, was influenced by her work-for-pay. Unlucky for her, Brontë’s job as a governess paid terribly -- her adjusted annual salary would be less than $2,000 today -- and while meals were free, her employers deducted petty fees such as clothes washing. Lucky for us, her resentments surfaced in ‘Villette’ and ‘Jane Eyre.’

The Lapham’s Quarterly chart, from its new Arts and Letters issue, tracks the basest of their jobs. Faulkner went on to more writer-appropriate day jobs, writing pulp fiction and screenplays for Howard Hawks; eventually, that Nobel would come with a nice financial reward. T.S. Eliot, who wrote ‘The Wasteland’ while employed by the bank Lloyd’s of London, eventually left that job to work in publishing. But they all were patient wage-earners, carving out time before and after work hours to write some of our most lasting books.

While J.K. Rowling is making billionaire lists, there is another generation of bank clerks, mailmen and nannies staying up late with their laptops, writing ‘not for glory and least of all for profit.’


-- Carolyn Kellogg