Shelter from the Economic Storm
Thoughts spurred by a visit to William Faulkner's house.
Despite having published five novels, two of which - The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying – would become enduring classics, it wasn’t until William Faulkner sold a handful of short stories to national magazines that he could afford a home.
The house, in Oxford, MS cost him $6000 in 1930. He dubbed it Rowan Oak and lived there with his wife Estelle and her two children from her first marriage. Following Estelle’s death in 1972, it was deeded to the University of Mississippi, which maintains it as a museum.
The home is nice, but not grand. Faulkner’s study has only a small working table with his Underwood typewriter, some bookshelves and a single bed. The plot of A Fable, scribbled by Faulkner on the walls, has been preserved.
There’s all kinds of reminders in the house of the financial precariousness that plagued Faulkner’s life. One display covers his time in Hollywood in search of fortune, while another details the correspondence between Faulkner’s agent and his Italian publisher, much of it about royalties owed. Faulkner had been forced to work menial jobs at the university to support himself while writing As I Lay Dying and it seems clear he didn’t wish to go back.
As I walked the house, the word “shelter” kept coming to mind. Faulkner spent his life in search of the kind of shelter that would allow him time to pursue his art, and the only form of shelter that mattered, was money.
Faulkner never managed to find more than sporadic financial security, mostly because he wasn’t good with money, but he recognized its value to artists, using a portion of his Nobel prize money to start what would become the PEN/Faulkner foundation, which still provides monetary support to developing writers.
Those magazines that provided Faulkner with the money for Rowan Oak were a kind of shelter for lots of writers at the time. My great uncle, Allan Seager, roughly Faulkner’s contemporary and writer of significant note during his time, has a number of laments in his personal papers about the need to write something new for the “slicks” to pay some bills.
University teaching has long been a shelter for writers. Uncle Allan spent better than 30 years (1935 – 1968) at the University of Michigan, teaching well apparently, but judging from his journals, not always happily. At least some of the time he resented the demands that kept him from his writing.
In times past publishers often provided financial shelter to writers, advancing amounts of money they didn’t expect to earn back for years, taking time to nurture a writer as they grow. Cormac McCarthy is a famous example.
Most of these institutions are badly eroded. Magazines have been replaced by an Internet publishing economy that chases page views and embraces “sponsored content” with a straight face.
A vast majority of college faculty work outside the tenure system for ridiculously low wages and little to no chance of advancement. The MFA degree holder that sticks in academia is far more likely to be adjunct than tenured.
Publishers still pay advances, but rather than nurturing talent, the trend now is to pursue the splashy debut, seven figures for a first book by someone preferably in their 20’s or 30’s. The good news is that seven figure advance has the potential to buy a lifetime of shelter. The bad news is if that book doesn’t sell, it’ll be the last book the author ever publishes.
I’m no Faulkner, but I recognized his struggle as a version of my own and that of most of the working writers I know. There is only limited shelter if one aspires to make art, and that which does exist isn’t as protective as it once was. I consider writing fiction my job 1a alongside teaching, and yet I can devote maybe 10% of my work hours to it during the semester.
Of course my struggle is no different than every other person working for a wage, and by accident of birth and background, I’m significantly less buffeted by society’s storms than most. To call my struggle a struggle seems almost obscene as compared to others.
And yet, I’m thwarted by forces that seem mostly out of my control. So was Faulkner, though, so perhaps it’s been ever thus.
But doesn’t this feel different? In a time where wealth is increasingly concentrated, where all of our activity is expected to produce “value,” which can only be measured by immediate economic output, shelter can be hard to come by. We have decided that things like art, or even a minimum wage that guarantees a minimally acceptable standard of living are not worth having if they are not fuel for the larger macroeconomic engine.
Productivity climbs. Wages remain flat.
And now the Supreme Court is poised to hear arguments on whether or not it is permissible for the Federal Government to subsidize individuals’ health insurance, a form of shelter that has enhanced the lives of millions that is now being threatened because of a typo.
The notions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness launched our nation. We’ve decided along the way that these are solo pursuits.
We have decided that disrupting institutions like unions, like newspapers, like the recording industry, like universities, like government itself must somehow benefit us because…? Well, I don’t actually know why, other than the fact that none of these institutions are held in any kind of significant esteem anymore and we’ve decided we might be better without them.
It’s a narrative that doesn’t make any sense to me. Why do we wish to make the things we claim to believe in like pursuing education, or K-12 teaching, or the creation of enduring art more difficult?
You hear talk that art will endure, that artists will create even if they aren’t paid, which is absolutely true, except why should we expect them to do so? And why should we demand that teachers “love” teaching as a kind of substitute for being treated like the autonomous professionals they are, and being paid fairly?
Why should undergraduate students be burdened by massive debt or compelled to work full-time to afford tuition?
There’s plenty of wealth in our country to make things otherwise. We just have to choose differently.
We have to choose to provide a reasonable right to shelter to those who need it.
Which is everybody.
Like this blog? Consider buying my book of short stories, Tough Day for the Army, which has almost nothing to do with higher education, but caused "laughter-induced asthma" in one reader, and was called "wonderfully comedic" by Publishers Weekly.
I'm using Twitter less these days. No reason really, just busy.
 That’s about $85,000 in today’s money. Even without its history, based on location, size, and land it would easily be worth well over a million dollars.
 And to my great uncle’s mind, rival. In his notes he laments how Faulkner managed to become so acclaimed while he (my great uncle) remained appreciated, but obscure.
 I’m luckier than most with writing for this space, and a weekly newspaper column, and a part time editorial position at a popular website to help provide income, but 30 years ago, the equivalent work would’ve been more than enough to support a household. Today, those gigs, plus teaching, plus editing, plus writing books, plus the occasional speaking opportunity allows me to just barely drag myself into the middle class.
 This is true in my limited, personal sample of one. Word-wise I’m writing the equivalent of two books a year for this blog and my Printers Row Journal column. The pay per word is significantly less in real dollars (not even adjusted for inflation) than my great uncle would make writing for Redbook or the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950’s when even then he could make thousands of dollars per story.
Read more by
Opinions on Inside Higher Ed
Inside Higher Ed’s Blog U
What Others Are Reading