Its adjacency to an item headlined “The Return of Side-Whiskers” is only the most obvious clue that “Rewards of Literature,” an editorial printed in the October 10, 1912 issue of The Nation, could have been published in the second decade of the twenty-first century rather than in that of the twentieth. We begin reading the item, and a century of history disintegrates into dust.
The article is at least nominally pegged to a debate in England that year about whether coal miners should be guaranteed a minimum wage. British miners had gone on strike in the spring demanding such legislation, to which the Asquith government finally agreed. Debate continued, however, on the question of extending such protections to other workers. (The US did not have a national minimum wage until the New Deal; the UK until 1999.) In September 1912, only a few months before co-founding the New Statesman, Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary that finally “the ordinary Trade Unionist has got the National Minimum theory well fixed in his slow solid head.”
The then-largely-conservative Nation, under the editorship of an Anglophile Sanskrit scholar named Paul Elmer More, was not necessarily opposed to raising the minimum wage, writing in an editorial the previous April that “the question is far too complex to be covered by any blanket decision.” Even so, the author of that editorial, Fabian Franklin, warned against the idea that “the workmen can get anything they want if they will only stand together.” Fiddlesticks, Franklin argued:
Capitalistic enterprise, capitalistic management, the stupendous mechanism and organization of production and exchange, the vitalizing and directing forces to which all this owes its efficiency and even its workableness—these are not the spontaneous gift of nature; nor can they be thrown aside and their fruits expected to remain. Even if the universal strike of workingmen might be organized, and even if it were to result in extorting, somehow or other, an immediate concession of “anything they want,” how long would the victory last?
It is almost in inverse proportion to the actual misery of their conditions that conservatives of any era dispense sympathy to suffering workers, a rule evident in the More-era Nation's publication of “Rewards of Literature.” Its author was the prolific and unjustly forgotten essayist Simeon Strunsky, a frequent Nation contributor who later worked at The New York Times for many decades, inaugurating its long-running feature, “Topics of the Times.” After crying for the miners, Strunsky urged his readers, spare a tear for “the large body of men and women who are engaged in the production of novels that do not sell very well.” “The question how a mine worker can live and bring up a family on his meager wage is a problem,” the leftist Strunsky wrote. “The question how a minor novelist lives is a mystery.”
Even successful writers had it rough:
We mean that it hardly pays when you consider the mental, physical, and moral effort that goes towards the attainment of success. There are instances, of course, where writers have succeeded in hitting the bull’s eye with a first or second book. But from the published confessions as a whole it is plain that, to the average “best-seller,” success comes only after years of hard work, discouragement, and, what is most important of all, disenchantment.
Strunsky’s essay reads like a commentary on George Gissing’s New Grub Street, published twenty years earlier, the hero of which is compelled by hunger and a status-conscious wife to write shoddy commercial tracts instead of difficult, lasting work. Gissing’s work showed writers to be subject to the same intolerable economic forces stirring up industrial strife all around the world. There is no avoiding the inherently alienating consequences of trying to earn a living through the production of words. Strunsky continued:
The American producer of best-sellers is at pains to show that he has no illusions with regard to his work. Commercial success is the only thing he claims to have achieved. He did nourish artistic ideals in those far-off days when the high price of beef was a much less vexing problem to him than the high cost of postage stamps. To-day he is engaged in giving the public what it wants. Now and then a novelist will venture to argue that writing the kind of literature the public wants is not a very degrading occupation, after all, but even this writer will seldom pretend that he enjoys doing it.
Strunsky’s article is based on the “confession” of a novelist published in the National Review—the name of a now-defunct conservative British magazine before it became that of an American one—explaining that he could no longer make a living as a writer and would instead become a taxi driver. Strunsky is supportive:
…our writer tells us that he was not engaged in turning out masterpieces, but pot-boilers; and what is the use of writing pot-boilers that do not even serve to make the pot boil? The case of our own best-sellers is essentially the same. It is true they do keep the pot boiling, with something over for dessert, and even an occasional motor car and a house in the country. Only, the motor cars and the bungalows could be more easily and more plentifully earned if our writers gave up literature for business. There at least one finds the opportunity for doing honest work. Business men do not work with their tongue in their cheek, in order to make a handsome income. They do not have to say to themselves, “I could turn out a very superior brand of soap, but if the public wants bad soap, I give the public what it wants.”
There Strunsky’s little piece ends, curiously avoiding the question that by the end of that decade would become famous: what is to be done? It is almost impossible not to imagine the heavy hand of a more conservative editor present in this abrupt conclusion. At the beginning of the article, Strunsky had said that if the “mystery” of how writers earn a living “were only brought up in Parliament” it “would stir public sympathy quite as powerfully as the case of the coal miners or the railway workers has done.” Perhaps now, with side-whiskers back in full force and just about everyone—miners, railroad workers, novelists—priced out of even Grub Street itself, hearings should be held in our own national legislature on the subject of a minimum wage for all, a basic income guarantee. The pot must boil, but literature need not be the fuel.
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