Before the novel, he was a mailman

Bill Radke Apr 1, 2010

Before the novel, he was a mailman

Bill Radke Apr 1, 2010


Bill Radke: Before William Faulkner wrote the “Sound and the Fury,” he was a mailman. It didn’t pay much, but he got to read the magazines he was delivering. The day jobs of famous authors is the subject of a piece in Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal of history and ideas founded by the longtime Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham. Lewis, welcome to Marketplace.

Lewis Lapham: Thank you, Bill.

Radke: And why are day jobs interesting to you?

Lapham: They’re interesting because it’s very rare that people can support themselves simply on their writing. Faulkner, as you say, was a postmaster at the University of Mississippi. He was a terrible postmaster.

Radke: Yeah, it sounds like it.

Lapham: He lost the mail, he spent the afternoons playing Mah Jong and sometimes going on a round of golf.

Radke: Charlotte Bronte worked for almost nothing, and apparently she didn’t have time to write either.

Lapham: No, she didn’t. She was a governess, and she was being paid $1,800 a year–

Radke: That’s today’s equivalent money.

Lapham: Yeah, that’s today’s equivalent. We’re talking about the middle of the 19th century. And she had to pay extra to wash her clothes. T.S. Eliot was a colonial and foreign accounts clerk for Lloyd’s Bank of London, and he was being paid to keep records of German debt. His famous friends, the poet Ezra Pound, they would say, “Eliot, you’re a great poet, why do you do this?” And he said because it gave him a feeling of security.

Radke: Security, of course, being a big issue for artists. Do you think today’s modern authors are more or less able to support themselves with their writing?

Lapham: Well, very few. I mean if you look at the record, I mean most writers today have some kind of university affiliation or a foundation grant.

Radke: How is the recession affecting writers?

Lapham: It might make them see more clearly what kind of society that they’re living in. A lot of the writing for the last 20-odd years has been very self-absorbed — the memoir instead of the portrait of the society. It might encourage writers to engage more with the society as a whole. It might force them to look more carefully at other people.

Radke: Lewis Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Lewis, thank you so much.

Lapham: Thank you, Bill.

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