There is a general antipathy about hearing too much about a writer’s day job once he has become successful, and Eliot’s successes piled up as he rose at Lloyd’s: Prufrock and Other Observations was published in 1915; his essays collected in The Sacred Wood in 1921; The Waste Land stormed both sides of the Atlantic in 1922, etc. Like Eliot at the bank, we know Wallace Stevens sold insurance, but nobody wants to think about the poet at the water cooler, or, even worse, pouring over actuarial tables. Same goes for William Carlos Williams being a doctor: Do we want a man so skilled with words to perform our annual physicals? It’s fine for a writer to have a quirky or strange day job, like nude model, “oyster pirate,” even garbage man. Yet the point of the writer’s life must remain to end up at the writer’s desk somewhere, with all that nonsense left behind.
Eliot subverts that plot by continuing to work at the bank even after his poems are successful and he’s made a substantial reputation as a critic. For Eliot to show up every day at a bank, and, as his letters confirm, find the work more conducive to writing poetry and criticism than taking a more literary job might be (and certainly better for his health than starving for his art), upends the way we want writers’ careers to progress. Eliot, the modernist upstart, was also a timid—and incorrigible—bourgeois.
I’m not a serious writer, of course, just happily scribbling my electronic graffiti on the walls of my little Internet alley for my own amusement, but I totally get that. I still miss the newspaper business, and there are times I halfheartedly consider going out and driving around for several hours in the middle of the night just to re-experience the fun of letting my mind wander while performing a job on autopilot, which was so conducive to the sort of thoughts that eventually ended up as posts.
A couple friends of mine are serious writers, though, and one of them works for the county environmental bureaucracy while the other works overnight in a drugstore/pharmacy. Both of them forsook academia and found regular jobs to be much more of a boon to writing stories and poems, which they’re pleased with even if they never get published. Something to be said for the comfort and familiarity of humdrum routine, I guess. Épater les avant-garde!