Hand to Mouth Questions and Answers
by Paul Auster

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Please write an in-depth summary of Hand to Mouth by Paul Auster. This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Please note that this material is intended to supplement the information presented in our eNotes study guide.

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Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure is Paul Auster's memoir about an early period of life when he was struggling to survive. Everything he turned his hand to seemed to fail, and he was constantly plagued by the specter of poverty. He describes how a "grinding, almost suffocating lack of money . . . poisoned my soul" and almost certainly caused the end of his first marriage.

In the best tradition of starving artists, Auster worked at a number of badly paid jobs, including, at one point, a stretch in the Merchant Marine on an oil tanker. But most of his employment seems to have had some connection to language and the literary life; he worked part-time for a rare books dealer and at a wide variety of freelance writing and translating jobs.

Auster's plight also produced a constant stream of get-rich-quick dreams and schemes. He describes two which were based on the theme of baseball, later a familiar motif of the author: a card game based on baseball, and what seemed to him a blatantly commercial detective novel about a baseball player who is mysteriously poisoned. In a similar vein, Auster admits that he was far from immune to the allure of a matchbook ad touting the wealth-generating potential of "Growing Worms in Your Basement."

The author reflects on the way in which his dedication to the writer's vocation shaped his attitude toward money and his disdain for writers like William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot, who had no qualms about working in professions which yielded a secure income. He elaborates further on the even earlier mixture of ambivalence and guilt he had experienced about his middle-class provenance. He feels a sympathy for the downtrodden and expresses throughout the book a withering contempt for capitalism, though he seems to have felt no need to become involved in politics during his youth in the 1960s, when many were turning in that direction.

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