July 1847-March 1848

The Collected Letters, Volume 22


TC TO AN UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT ; July 1847; DOI: 10.1215/lt-18470700-TC-UC-01; CL 22: 3-4


Chelsea: July, 1847.

My dear Sir,—Unluckily it is not possible to answer your main inquiry. The incomes of literary men even of a high reputation vary, according as the men work for popularity by itself, or for other objects, from 4,000l. a year to perhaps 200l. or lower. Add to which that all such incomes are uncertain, fluctuating on the wildest chance, and that not one literary man in the hundred ever becomes popular or successful at all. You perceive it is like asking what may be the income of a man that shall decide to live by gambling. No answer to be given. Reporters to the daily papers, whose industry is the humblest of all real or unservile kinds in literature, receive, as I have heard, about 200l. a year. Perhaps, all things considered, a man of sense, reduced to live by writing, would decide that, in the economical respect, these men's position was actually the best. By quitting reality again, and taking in to some popular department of literary rope-dancing, a person of real toughness and assiduity, not ashamed to feel himself a slave, but able even to think himself free and a king in rope-dancing well paid, contrives, with moderate talent otherwise, if he be really tough and assiduous, to gain sometimes considerable wages; in other cases dies of heartbreak, drinking, and starvation. That really is his economic position, so far as I have seen it. But for a man really intent to do a man's work in literature in these times, I should say that even with the highest talent he might have to be fed oftentimes like Elijah, by the ravens;1 and if his talent, though real, was not very high, he might easily see himself cut off from wages altogether; all men saying to him, ‘The thing you have to offer us is, in the supply and demand market, worth nothing whatever.’ Such a man as that latter, if he could live at all, I should account him lucky.

This, my generous young friend, this is the sad No answer I have to give you—a sad but a true one. The advice I ground on it you already discover—Not by any means to quit the solid paths of practical business for these inane froth oceans which, however gas-lighted they may be, are essentially what I have called them somewhere, base as Fleet Ditch, the mother of dead dogs.2 Surely it is better for a man to work out his God-given faculty than merely to speak it out, even in the most Augustan times. Surely of all places in this planet the place where the gods do most need a working man of genius is Manchester, a place sunk in sordid darkness of every kind except the glitter of gold, and which, if it were once irradiated, might become one of the beautifullest things this sun has ever seen.

Believe me yours, with real good will, / Kinder than it looks