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.”