Government jobs as arts subsidy

Often governments support the arts best when they are intent on some other purpose:

The very existence of government jobs subsidizes the arts. Even in the best of times, most writers find it difficult to make a living from book sales alone. Many accept government jobs, hoping they will have time to pursue their own projects. Bureaucracy, despite its deadening effects, stimulates creativity by creating a realm of personal freedom for many employees.

William Faulkner worked for a time as postmaster at the University of Mississippi postal station. He called his section of the post office the "reading room." Nathaniel Hawthorne worked in a customs house, after failing to get a postmaster job. Walt Whitman revised his Leaves of Grass while working for the Department of the Interior, although his superior fired him because he regarded the book as immoral. Herman Melville worked in a customs house as well, although not at the time of his greatest literary productivity. William Charvat estimated that between 1800 and 1875, 60 to 75 percent of American male writers "who even approached professionalism either held public office or tried to get it." 

The role of government jobs is no less prominent in the history of literature more generally. Chaucer was a career public servant, Dante pursued politics, Goethe was a bureaucrat for much of his life, and Anthony Trollope held a job in the postal service, during which time he wrote most of his sixty novels. William Wordsworth, Daniel Defoe, and the Roman poet Horace worked as tax collectors. Jonathan Swift was clergy in a tax-supported church. Stendahl worked in the Napoleonic bureaucracy. In the social sciences, Adam Smith worked in the customs house and Edward Gibbon was a member of Parliament and lord of trade.

It is a moot point whether we should count prison as a government "job," but many notable literary works have been written in enforced confinement, most notably Cervantes’s Don Quixote and de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Prison literature has been a growing genre in the United States since at least the 1960s. A longer list of incarcerated writers includes Boethius, Villon, Thomas More, Campanella, Walter Raleigh, Donne, Richard Lovelace, Bunyan, Defoe, Voltaire, Diderot, Thoreau, Melville, Leigh Hunt, Oscar Wilde, Jack London, Maxim Gorky, Genet, O. Henry, Robert Lowell, Brendan Behan, Chernyeshevsky, Dostoyevsky, and Solzhenitsyn.

I don’t have to tell you whose book that is from.  I wrote it, of course, while working for a state university.

Comments

Fascinating. Quite a few Indian bureaucrats and diplomats have published fiction lately -- Vikas Swaroop is the latest example. And, the late Narasimha Rao is claimed to have written his first and only novel 'The Insider' over a long period, which included his prime ministerial tenure (1991-96).

BTW, would theories of Brownian motion and relativity count as 'arts'?

I taught myself web programming and administration while on a USAID environmental information (read: secretarial support) contract, and used it to get a job in a dot-com, then in a real company. Not quite the same level, but it was the largesse of time and the ability to get the boring parts out of the way quickly and waste, er, invest the extra time in stuff that interested me.

I'm not sure Gibbon belongs here. Back then, did being a member of Parliament mean you were living on tax dollars, or that you were sufficiently rich to live a life of leisure and buy yourself a seat from a rotten borough?

Intersting examples, but most date back many decades or even centuries. Are there any more recent ones?

Let's not forget all those artists put to work by the New Deal. Everyone from Saul Bellow to the WPA photographers.

Montaigne was a Mayor

Let's keep in mind though, that if we expect writers to "write what they know" then working for the gov't gives them a narrow field of human endeavor that they are qualified to write about. If we want a rich body of literature that explores the vastness of human experience then writers must get out beyond the the comfortable confines of a secure gov't job and have direct experience of life. Writers should be driven to seek out experiences and ideas that readers will find valuable and interesting. Walt Whitman spent more time working as a journalist and editor than as a civil servant. What about John Muir and his wanderings in the West, Mark Twain on a Mississippi river boat, Joseph Conrad at sea, St. Exupery as an airplane pilot, Michael Herr author of one of the great Vietnam books "Dispatches" was a war correspondent...and many others. The point is not that gov't jobs are bad, they are after all as valid an experience as any other kind of job, and some are very interesting such as military jobs or Forest Service firefighting jobs, but I desire that we have a rich and complex literature that reveals perhaps unknown niches of life. And for that you have to go beyond the custom's house...

Franz Kafka, bureucrat, worked much with evaluating disability pensions to people who had been badly mauled by industrial machinery, in one of the world's first welfare systems.

Referred to it as his "bread job", according to wikipedia.

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