One lives so badly, because one always comes into
the present unfinished, unable, distracted.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
In 1851, as Herman Melville struggled to finish Moby-Dick, he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Dollars damn me. . . . What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. . . . Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”
During his lifetime, Melville earned just over $10,000 for his writing. During his lifetime, my father never earned more than $15,000 a year, whether from feeding a coal-fired brewery boiler, driving a cab, or selling cars. My mother even less, from garment piecework and typing that she did at home and from a turn as a drugstore clerk. She liked to say, speaking of her girlhood in the 1920s and ‘30s, that her family didn’t know they were poor—even after her mother drove her scoundrel father from the porch with a broom and they lost the meager income he allotted them, even after her motherless cousins came to live with them, making seven children to feed. “In those years everyone lived the same,” she said. The wealthy were distant and theoretical.