31 Oct 2008
William Faulkner may have been one of America’s greatest novelists, but he was one hell of a lousy postmaster.
For the 24-year-old veteran, running the post office at the University of Mississippi in Oxford should have been a snap. Sort the letters and circulars, deliver same, sell a few stamps; there are plenty of people, unable to spell Yoknapatawpha, who have done better than the Mississippi native.
But for three years, Faulkner took the responsibility of delivering the mail and made a hash of it so badly that the post office should have changed its motto to “neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor gloom of night, nor that lazy son-of-a-bitch William Faulkner should stay these couriers from their appointed rounds.”
Faulkner took the job as seriously as he took everything else in his life, apart from writing fiction. He opened the post office on days when it suited him, and closed it when it didn’t, usually when he wanted to go hunting or over to the golf course. He would throw away the advertising circulars, university bulletins and other mail he deemed junk. The magazines he liked he’d keep in the back for a few days for his friends to read. Some friends he’d hire as part-time clerks so he’d have someone with whom he could play mah-jongg and bridge.
One student publication proposed for Faulkner’s motto: “Never put the mail up on time.”
Eudora Welty wrote about Faulkner’s eccentric behavior:
”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.”
After three years, the post office had enough. When it became clear that he was going to be pushed out, Faulkner decided to resign, but not before writing a note to his superiors:
“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.”
Later, when discussing his brief career with the post office, Faulkner would rework his resignation letter into a more pungent quotation: “I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son of a bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.”
Born: John Evelyn, diarist, essayist, Wolton, Surrey, 1620; John Keats, poet, London, 1795; Basil Liddell Hart, historian, Paris, 1895; Carlos Drummond de Andrade, poet, journalist, short-story writer, Itabira, Brazil, 1902; Dan Rather, journalist, memoirist, Wharton, Texas, 1931.
Died: H.L. Davis, novelist, poet, San Antonio, Texas, 1960; Joseph Campbell, scholar, mythologist, essayist, Honolulu, 1987; Ring Lardner, Jr., screenwriter, New York City, 2000.
Quotes for the Day: “I do think better of womankind than to suppose they care whether Mister John Keats five feet high likes them or not.”
“I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a poem and to be given away by a novel.”
“I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks, your loveliness and the hour of my death. O that I could have possession of them both in the same minute.” — A few quotes to and about women, attributed to the poet John Keats, who was born today in 1795