We discuss Hemingway a lot at Oxford Exchange and West and Grand. He may not be everyone’s favorite writer, but he’s someone we’ve all read at some point. Outside of his writing, I think everyone would agree that he has lived a very interesting life. He drove ambulances during World War I, participated in big game hunts in Africa, traveled around with Spanish matadors, and covered the Spanish Civil War. My own personal favorite Hemingway epoch is his Parisian years. There he met and befriended a slew of artists and writers like James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Picasso, Ford Madox Ford, and on and on. Although learning about a historical era through film or literature only portrays a certain angle or ethos of the time, we can guess that Paris in the 1920’s was vibrant, engaging, artistically stimulating, and ultimately, affordable.
After rereading A Moveable Feast, a memoir of Hemingway’s that covers his time in Paris, I was struck by the feasibility of his lifestyle. He started as a foreign corespondent with the Toronto Star, covering stories around Europe, but after a few years he quit to focus on his fiction. In Paris, Hemingway lived in a meager apartment above a sawmill with his wife Hadley and first son. One would assume then that he had already been making a sufficient wage by selling his stories, but at the beginning of his career, before his first novel was published, he could only sell his stories to German periodicals. He would sell his 5 to 10 page short stories for around 15 francs a page. He certainly had money saved from journalism, but this slow stream of money seemed enough at times, which is remarkable. Also, taking into account the office he rented for writing, the amount he bet at the horse races, and the trips he and his family would take to Spain and Austria, where they would stay 4 or 5 months at a time, it all seems impossible.
Yet he got by with what he had. Unless, of course, he obscured some sort of financial backing and hyperbolized his lack of wealth. But he writes in A Moveable Feast about borrowing money and books from Shakespeare and Company’s owner Sylvia Beach, and how he’d pretend to go out for meals, but actually walk around the Luxembourg Gardens to stave off his hunger. In the end, he made out alright and was able to live in Paris and provide enough amenities for his family without a guaranteed, steady income.
Nowadays, this lifestyle would not be feasible. Not only is the cost of living excessively high – rent in a city like Paris or New York (Manhattan) hovering around $1,500 per person with roommates – artists aren’t paid nearly as well. Writers would be given healthy advances for promising books. This still happens, Garth Risk Hallberg and Emma Cline coming to mind, but not with the same frequency and leniency. In addition, large magazines like Esquire, Rolling Stone and Playboy aren’t publishing literature anymore, and the magazines or journals that do pay writers certainly don’t pay enough to live. It was never easy being an aspiring writer, but Hemingway and others made it. Today, it isn’t possible to live in a large city as an artist without financial backing or a job. Artists are forever on the move to discover the next city or town to inhabit; one with a thriving creative scene and a feasible standard of living. How do we fix this? Certainly, we can’t change an entire economical system overnight and lower the living wage. But I think a lot more can be done for artists. It’s never been a guaranteed form of employment, but more should be done. A lot of European countries fund artists through grants and programs. We have this here, but not to the same extent. Although this may or may not be the way to handle it. I’m sure there's myriad of problems facing this sort of departmental intervention in the arts, but I’m also sure there are a spate of ways to tackle this problem. You may not agree with supporting the arts, but for those who value its importance, we'd all agree that something can and should be changed.