William Faulkner is one of the most celebrated American authors, having won the Nobel Prize in 1949. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked his 1929 novel The Sound and the Fury sixth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.
But it seems that if you had met him as a teenager, you would have never predicted such success. Faulkner repeated the eleventh and twelfth grades, and never graduated from high school.
Faulkner next attended the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) because his father had a job there as a business manager. His dream was to be a writer, but he skipped classes often and received a “D” grade in English, and his poems and short stories were uniformly rejected by publishers. In 1920, he dropped out of Ole Miss after three semesters.
Eventually, his mentor, Phil Stone, a local attorney, arranged for him to be appointed postmaster at Ole Miss. 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.
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.
Eudora Welty, the other greatest Mississippi writer of the 20th century, described his time at the post office 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.
Faulkner somehow lasted at the job for three years, but in 1924 he received a less than stellar performance review from the Postoffice Inspector, who made several charges against him. Here is part of the first charge:
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.
There were other charges, such as: permitting “unauthorized persons” into the office; being indifferent to interest of patrons, unsocial, rarely ever speak[ing] to patrons of the office unless absolutely necessary; not giving the office the proper attention, opening and closing same at his convenience; that he can be found playing golf during office hours, and that he has thrown mail in the garbage can by the side entrance, near the rear door.
In closing the inspector writes:
“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.”
Faulkner’s response (after the five-day deadline) was the following:
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.
It’s probably one of the most well-written resignation letters you will ever see.
And perhaps that’s just what Faulkner needed. in 1926 he published his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, and in 1929 he published The Sound and the Fury.
I guess the moral of the story is to not judge people by their past failures but to encourage them to keep pursuing their dreams.
And if everything works out, you too may someday have a commemorative stamp issued in your likeness, just like the one issued in tribute to Faulkner in 1987.
I guess the USPS was willing to forgive him for his past transgressions…