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Even Balzac Had To Intern

Before he became a founder of realism and an unlikely literary sex icon, the young Honoré de Balzac was proofreading legal filings.
Hulton Archive
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Before he became a founder of realism and an unlikely literary sex icon, the young Honoré de Balzac was proofreading legal filings.

A young man graduates from college. At his father's insistence, he begins interning at a law firm. But when it comes time to pursue the profession, he refuses: He wants to do something more meaningful. He wants to write.

Sound like your son/cousin/roommate/best friend? It was Honoré de Balzac.

That's right – before he became a founder of realism and an unlikely literary sex icon ("Do not suppose," an Italian count wrote to his wife, "that the ugliness of his face will protect you from his irresistible power"), the young Balzac was proofreading legal filings.

It's one of the more satisfying anecdotes in Andrew Shaffer's new book, Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors. Shaffer recounts the alternately entertaining and horrifying antics of hard-partiers like Dorothy Parker and Jack Kerouac and chronicles the way in which their misbehavior both ignited the creative fire (Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" was pure narcotic hallucination) and nearly extinguished it (a drunk William S. Burroughs tried to shoot a highball glass of gin off his wife's head and aimed a little too low; he later fled Mexico to escape serving his sentence).

But between the young Marquis de Sade's discovery of titles in his uncle's library like The Nun in the Nightdress and Gustave Flaubert's public fornication with the ugliest girls in the brothel, "all without taking my cigar out of my mouth," there is a quieter – and much more admirable — story of perseverance.

Determined to write, Balzac lived and worked in a drafty attic apartment in Paris (on his peeved parents' dime) and eventually moved back home – he wouldn't publish anything under his own name until he was 30.

An 18-year-old Charles Baudelaire, meanwhile, suffered a nasty bout of post-college blues: "At school I read, I cried, sometimes I fell into a rage, but at least I was alive, which is more than I am now." After a listless trip to India, he returned hell-bent on writing; his stepfather, a high-ranking government official, would never speak to him again.

Over in America, Edgar Allen Poe turned to gambling to pay his tuition at the University of Virginia – he was studying law. He gave up after a year, proclaiming, "Literature is the most noble of professions ... For my part, there is no seducing me from the path, even for all the gold in California."

Interning, moving back home, looking for answers abroad, weighing passion against compensation ... Doesn't all of it sound just a little too similar to what millenials – members of my own generation – face today?

"Being a writer in the 17th or 18th century was pretty much the same as being a writer in the 20th or 21st century," says Shaffer. "It's an occupation that they knew then doesn't make a lot of money, and their parents knew that, and said, 'What's your backup plan?'"

Never mind the striking similarity between these literary giants' raging egotism and ennui and those of the Me Generation: Many were on antidepressants, and it's not so hard to imagine Lord Byron updating his status with, "I cry for nothing. Today I burst into tears all alone by myself over a cistern of goldfishes – which are not pathetic animals," or William Faulkner tweeting, "There is no such thing as bad whiskey. Some whiskeys just happen to be better than others." Never mind the gender-blind promiscuity.

No, what is most remarkable about Shaffer's history is the way in which it colors that liminal space between writers' obscurity and their eventual fame – not just with tales of weeklong benders, but also with portraits of sacrifice and stubbornness. Literary Rogues is far from a how-to, but it's strangely reassuring: Success isn't always instantaneous, and the antics don't really have anything to do with it. After all, Hemingway wasn't famous because he drank – he was famous because he wrote.

"When I started off writing in my early twenties, I was like, I need to get a bottle of whiskey, and sit down at my computer, and this is how you get inspiration — which is total BS," says Shaffer, who readily admits that he forewent his MFA for an MBA.

"I think the ultimate story is that ... everybody thought they were going it alone, but they were part of a larger community. And I can only imagine how that relates to today, where you can find community much easier, through the Internet."

Shaffer also notes that where earlier writers only had pubs and brothels, contemporary writers have MFA programs and residencies. "But at the same time," he says, "not a lot's changed."

So perhaps a twentysomething who is still half-living at home, groveling for unpaid internships and chipping away at her student loans while simultaneously dabbling in illicit activities and casual hook-ups can take solace in the plight of these early-career writers — regardless of her aspirations. But, as Shaffer warns, the substance isn't in the scandal:

"It's easy to burn your lips on a crack pipe or ball your way through a Parisian whorehouse in the 1890s," he writes. "Attempting to create something of value in a world that tells you at every turn to shut up and color inside the lines, that conformity leads to success? That's real rebellion."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Angela Evancie