Pecuniary Botheration (Part 3)

(Continued from last two posts.)

Another writer who was also a first class adventurer, and who also loved the American West was Robert Louis Stevenson. Although Scottish by birth, Stevenson saw himself as a true citizen of the world. He decided to write about his travels at an early age, despite the lack of a personal fortune, and a family that was less than supportive. His closest friend and publisher, Sir Sidney Colvin, later published many of Stevenson’s letters – out of a truly voluminous correspondence (one wonders what the advent of e-mail has done to this unique and fascinating literary genre of authorial correspondence). And Stevenson’s letters often mention his financial problems, especially in his early years when his writing did not yet support him.

In a letter to his mother in 1879 (Stevenson would have been twenty-nine years old then, and was temporarily living in London – he had just published Travels With A Donkey) he writes: “After a desperate struggle with the elements of every sort and principally money, I arrived last night in London, the possessor of 4 shillings. You can count on me for Friday next absolutely; but unless some money is sent I shall probably have died of hunger in the meanwhile. You will laugh when you hear my troubles; I have lain in pawn and lived on charity most free. I think you are wrong about my work; I believe there is an element of idleness in my present collapse, which I mean to evince as soon as I arrive. I am astonished at the reviews I have seen; they are very kind.”

Several months later, arriving in Monterey, California, where he hoped to marry, and would spend a good deal of time, Stevenson wrote to another of his publishers, W. E. Henley, “At times I get terribly frightened about my work, which seems to advance too slowly. I hope soon to have a greater burthen to support, and must make money a great deal quicker than I used. I may get nothing for the Vendetta; I may only get some forty for the Emigrant; I cannot hope to have them both done much before the end of November.”

In a collection of letters from Katherine Mansfield to her lover and then husband John Middleton Murry, dating from 1913-1922, Mansfield continually bemoans their lack of financial resources. Her letters are exquisite in their attention to the details of her surroundings, and very intimately frank and charming with her unabashed love for Murry; but most of the letters also discuss in detail their penury as it relates to their chosen careers as writers. On March 25, 1915 Mansfield wrote to Murry, “I had a great day yesterday. The Muses descended in a ring, like the angels Botticelli Nativity roof – or so it seemed to ‘humble’ little Tig, and I fell into the open arms of my first novel. I have finished a huge chunk.”

Just two days later Mansfield anxiously writes again, “I am really worried about money for you. Will you have got another cheque by now? I do hope to Heaven that you have. I always feel you become wicked and don’t spend enough on food if you’re hard up and you are really rather dependent on good meals – if you only knew it. I shall be eating chestnut buds if Kay doesn’t send me my money some time next week.” Until her premature death at the age of thirty-four from tuberculosis and other serious illnesses, Mansfield’s anxiety over practicing her art and having to worry about money often consumed her.

Ernest Hemingway was considered a successful writer during his lifetime, but his correspondence also shows that his literary success didn’t provide immunity from money problems. In a 1928 letter to his editor Maxwell Perkins he wrote detailing his problems with advances and concerns about getting enough cash for his work, “I worry about the whole business…and am prevented from writing the stories I wanted to do now in between by worrying about these bloody matters.”

Dawn Powell, a writer who worked at her craft steadily, while on the brink of the economic abyss her whole life, died in obscurity and poverty. On April 12, 1935 she wrote in her diary, “Fear is such an utterly disrupting force – fear of no publisher, fear of cringing once more before debtors, fear of being trapped in the Middle West again and dependent on relatives – so that this panic creeps in my pen or typewriter, and nothing is possible.”

Things hadn’t improved much by 1959, when she wrote, again in her diary, “We have about sixty cents between us, and Post check doesn’t come.”

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