William Faulkner Was a Really Bad at Being a Postman

In 1921, 24-year-old William Faulkner had dropped out of the University of Mississippi (for the second time) and was living in Greenwich Village, working in a bookstore—but he was getting restless. Eventually, his mentor, Phil Stone, an Oxford attorney, arranged for him to be appointed postmaster at the school he had only recently left. He was paid a salary of $1,700 in 1922 and $1,800 in the following years, but it’s unclear how he came by that raise, because by all accounts he was uniquely terrible at his job. “I forced Bill to take the job over his own declination and refusal,” Stone said later, according to David Minter’s biography. “He made the damndest postmaster the world has ever seen.”

Faulkner would open and close the office whenever he felt like it, he would read other people’s magazines, he would throw out any mail he thought unimportant, he would play cards with his friends or write in the back while patrons waited out front. A comic in the student publication Ole Miss in 1922 showed a picture of Faulkner and the post office, calling it the “Postgraduate Club. Hours: 11:30 to 12:30 every Wednesday. Motto: Never put the mail up on time. Aim: Develop postmasters out of fifty students every year.”

Eudora Welty, the other greatest Mississippi writer of the 20th century, described his tenure this way:

Let us imagine that here and now, we’re all in the old university post office and living in the ’20’s. We’ve come up to the stamp window to buy a 2-cent stamp, but we see nobody there. We knock and then we pound, and then we pound again and there’s not a sound back there. So we holler his name, and at last here he is. William Faulkner. We interrupted him. . . . When he should have been putting up the mail and selling stamps at the window up front, he was out of sight in the back writing lyric poems.

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Somehow he managed to keep his post for three years, despite paying it as little attention as possible. But in September of 1924, he was reviewed by a Postoffice Inspector from Corinth, Mississippi, and the review was not good:

“The following charges have been made against you as postmaster at University, Mississippi,” the inspector writes.

1. That you are neglectful of your duties, in that you are a habitual reader of books and magazines, and seem reluctant to cease reading long enough to wait on the patrons; that you have a book being printed at the present time, the greater part of which was written while on duty at the postoffice; that some of the patrons will not trust you to forward their mail, because of your past carelessness and these patrons have their neighbors forward same for them while away on their vacations; that you have failed to forward and properly handle mail for various patrons of the office . . . that you have closed up the box of John Savage and others after they had paid their box rent and you had receipted them; that you returned COD parcel No. W22705, from John Ward, Mens Shoes, New York City, addressed to H. E. Ray Jr., after he had given you an order in person and left ten cents in money to forward to him at 924 Filmore Street, Corinth, Miss., and you have notified him for postage and he sent you postage from Corinth as per your order, yet the parcel was returned to senders marked “unclaimed.”

The inspector goes on to accuse Faulkner of various faults, including failing to deliver letters, mistreating mail of all types, permitting “unauthorized persons” into the office, and writes that he has heard reports of how Faulkner is “indifferent to interest of patrons, unsocial, rarely ever speak[ing] to patrons of the office unless absolutely necessary; that you do not give the office the proper attention, opening and closing same at your convenience; that you can be found playing golf during office hours,” and “that you have thrown mail . . . in the garbage can by the side entrance, near the rear door . . . that this has gotten to be such a common occurrence that some patrons have gone to this garbage can to get their magazines, should they not be in their boxes when they looked for them.”

In closing, the inspector informs Faulkner: “You will please advise me in writing, within five days from this date, stating whether the charges are true, in part or wholly so, and show cause, if any, why you should not be removed. Failure to receive a reply in this prescribed time, will be deemed as evidence that you have no defense to offer, and action will be taken accordingly.”

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In response (though clearly not within five days), Faulkner sent this letter:

[October, 1924]

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.

Clearly, it wasn’t meant to be. But in 1987, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative 22-cent postage stamp bearing the writer’s likeness, designed by Bradbury Thompson, and based on a portrait by Murray L. Goldsborough. “It’s as if the United States Postal Service had forgiven him for the mail he had lost in the trash barrel in light of his proven deserts in other fields,” Welty said at the time. Very charitable of them.