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07.01d. Mencken on Making a Living in America. Reading Professor Leiter's weblog on the philosophy job market a while back, I thought of H. L. Mencken's analysis of the same market. From page 92 of Prejudices: A Selection, from "On Being an American".

For example, in the matter of attaining to ease in Zion, of getting a fair share of the national sway, now piled so mountainously high. It seems to me, sunk in my Egyptian night, that the man who fails to do this in the United States to-day is a man who is somehow stupid-- maybe not on the surface, but certainly deep down. Either he is one who cripples himself unduly, say by setting up a family before he can care for it, or by making a bad bargain for the sale of his wares, or by concerning himself too much about the affairs of other men; or he is one who endeavors fatuously to sell something thtat no normal American wants. Whenever I hear a professor of philosophy complain that his wife has eloped with some moving-picture actor or bootlegger who can at least feed and clothe her, my natural sympathy for the man is greatly corrupted by contempt for his lack of sense. Would it be regarded as sane and laudable for a man to travel the Soudan trying to sell fountain-pens, or Greenland offering to teach double-entry bookkeeping or counterpoint? Coming closer, would the judicious pity or laugh at a man who opened a shop for the sale of incunabula in Little Rock, Ark., or who demanded a living in McKeesport, Pa., on the ground that he could read Sumerian?

It is a wonderful thing that people like me can make so much money writing about things that don't interest very many people, and that, indeed, they can't even understand. Mencken's advice is bad, of course. There is more to life than money, and I highly recommend to those who like it the academic life (which I have tried), and raising a family at an early age (which I failed to do). It can even be a good idea to make a bad bargain of selling your wares--- driving a hard bargain is very hard on the nerves, and in modern America life is easy enough that it is worth giving up a lot of cash for a drop in tension. All this should be kept in mind when reading academic novels like The Lecturer's Tale, on which I blog
below. Sure, English department lecturers are poorly paid and work hard, but don't feel sorry for them. If they don't like it, they can jump ship and become high school teachers or bank loan officers. There's nothing keeping them from prosperity but themselves. Maybe they like academia despite the low pay, in which case they are acting sensibly but shouldn't whine; or maybe they are too proud to work in a job they consider mundane, in which case we should make fun of them. [permalink: 04.07.01d.htm]

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