How many of you, I wonder, have a room of your own? Most, I would guess, but that doesn’t mean that everyone does; certainly not in the current economy. And what is life like if you don’t have such a place where you can retreat from the world, be silent, think, read, write, watch TV, go on the computer, or do whatever you want?
Virginia Woolf, the great English author, presumably thought it desperately important, especially for women. I will take only a moment of your time to think about a few of the ideas she expresses in her short fictionalized essay/novel, A Room of One’s Own, published in 1928. Her book was written nine years after English women won the right to vote.
The essentials that the book’s narrator believes to be required for the life of a writer are a room of one’s own (with a lock that you control) and the equivalent of $33,283 dollars per year. The actual amount she names is 500 pounds in UK currency, but I’ve converted it to 2014 U.S. dollars. That precise number isn’t crucial. She — Woolf’s character — is trying to name a figure that will make you sufficiently independent to have the intellectual freedom to do some serious writing.
Woolf anticipated some criticism of these ideas. Here is one that might have occurred to you already:
…I think you may object that in all this I have made too much of the importance of material things. Even allowing a generous margin for symbolism, that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that lock on the door means the power to think for oneself, still you may say that the mind should rise above such things; and that great poets have often been poor men.
Woolf then looks to a man to defend her position, one Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, a famed literary critic of the day and the author of On the Art of Writing (1916). He begins by naming 12 famous English poets of the last 100 years. He continues:
Of these, all but Keats, Browning (and) Rossetti were University men; and of these three, Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well to do. It may be a brutal thing to say and a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius (is to be found) equally in poor and rich, holds little truth. As a matter of hard fact, nine out of those 12 were University men: which means that somehow or other they procured the means to get the best education England can give. As a matter of hard fact, of the remaining three you know that Browning was well to do, and I challenge you that, if he had not been well to do, he would (not have succeeded as a writer)…
Quiller-Couch goes on to describe poor, but talented writers who became psychologically troubled out of their frustration or committed suicide. Then comes his powerhouse conclusion:
…It is — however dishonoring to us as a nation — certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for 200 years, a dog’s chance. Believe me — and I have spent a great part of 10 years in watching some 320 elementary schools — we may prate of democracy, but actually, a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.
Money = intellectual freedom. Usually only with enough money do you automatically have the time and space and opportunity to “think” about something other than how you will receive your next meal and who you must answer to in order to earn it. That is the belief both of Woolf and Quiller-Couch. Woolf also confronts the historical “belief” that women were incapable of serious thought and inferior to men in almost every other important way.
Yet we live in a more liberated time you might say. My answer to that would be to ask you to realize that Quiller-Couch is referring only to men. Moreover, I have seen yearly one such school of the kind I believe he is describing, although it is not an elementary school. Chicago’s Mather Public High School is my alma mater, much changed from 1964 when I graduated. The poverty induced stress in the homes of many of Mather’s students is heartbreaking.
We know this from talking to these kids, reading their personal essays, conversations with their teachers, and reading the letters of recommendation written by those instructors. We know that by age 16, at least for some of them, they have already been so discouraged by their circumstances that they believe the “American Dream” does not apply to their lives. Indeed, we know that many of the friends of the best students tell them that their academic hopes and career ambitions are unrealistic.
As some of you have read on my blog, my graduating class created and has supported the Zeolite Scholarship Fund for 15 years, to give some of these poor kids better than “a dog’s chance” to receive an education and make a good living sufficient to the intellectual freedom that has been described here — the education needed to get a job that allows you to rent or buy the room and the lock and create an atmosphere conducive to serious thought.
As Quiller-Couch said of the England he knew, it is “dishonoring to us as a nation,” in the USA, that his words apply to our time and place as they did in his. I know there are no easy solutions, but that doesn’t mean one should wait for someone else to do something. It could be tutoring, mentoring, donating money for books or scholarships, or becoming a teacher yourself. It could mean voting for those who have some good ideas about how to change the situation or running for office yourself. Many other actions — governmental, social, educational, and nutritional — are possible.
Nor is this simply a matter of dishonor or unfairness. It is a waste of young lives, plain and simple, some of whom would benefit the world given the right conditions.
My suggestion? Start by visiting a public school in a poor neighborhood. Unfortunately, they are very easy to find.