William Faulkner Resigns From His Post Office Job With a Spectacular Letter (1924)


Work­ing a dull civ­il ser­vice job ill-suit­ed to your tal­ents does not make you a writer, but plen­ty of famous writ­ers have worked such jobs. Nathaniel Hawthorne worked at a Boston cus­tom­house for a year. His friend Her­man Melville put in con­sid­er­ably more time—19 years—as a cus­toms inspec­tor in New York, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of his father and grand­fa­ther. Both Walt Dis­ney and Charles Bukows­ki worked at the post office, though not togeth­er (can you imag­ine?), and so, for two years, did William Faulkn­er.

After drop­ping out of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­sis­sip­pi in 1920, Faulkn­er became its post­mas­ter two years lat­er, a job he found “tedious, bor­ing, and unin­spir­ing,” writes Men­tal Floss: “Most of his time as a post­mas­ter was spent play­ing cards, writ­ing poems, or drink­ing.” Eudo­ra Wel­ty char­ac­ter­ized Faulkner’s tenure as post­mas­ter with the fol­low­ing vignette:

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.

By all accounts, she hard­ly over­states the case. As author and edi­tor Bill Peschel puts it, Faulkn­er “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.” A stu­dent pub­li­ca­tion from the time pro­posed a mot­to for his ser­vice: “Nev­er put the mail up on time.”

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, the pow­ers that be even­tu­al­ly decid­ed they’d had enough. In 1924, Faulkn­er sensed the end com­ing. But rather than bow out qui­et­ly, as per­haps most peo­ple would, the future Nobel lau­re­ate com­posed a dra­mat­ic and unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly suc­cinct res­ig­na­tion let­ter 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.

The defi­ant self-aggran­dize­ment, wound­ed pride, blame-shift­ing… maybe it’s these qual­i­ties, as well as a noto­ri­ous ten­den­cy to exag­ger­ate and out­right lie (about his mil­i­tary ser­vice for exam­ple) that so qual­i­fied him for his late-life career as—in the words of Ole Miss—“States­man to the World.” Faulkner’s gift for self-fash­ion­ing might have suit­ed him well for a career in pol­i­tics, had he been so inclined. He did, after all, receive a com­mem­o­ra­tive stamp in 1987 (above) from the very insti­tu­tion he served so poor­ly.

But like Hawthorne, Bukows­ki, or any num­ber of oth­er writ­ers who’ve held down tedious day jobs, he was com­pelled to give his life to fic­tion. In a lat­er retelling of the res­ig­na­tion, Peschel claims, Faulkn­er would revise his let­ter “into a more pun­gent quo­ta­tion,” unable to resist the urge to invent: “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.”

via Let­ters of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art of William Faulkn­er: Draw­ings from 1916–1925

Famous Writ­ers’ Report Cards: Ernest Hem­ing­way, William Faulkn­er, Nor­man Mail­er, E.E. Cum­mings & Anne Sex­ton

William Faulkn­er Out­lines on His Office Wall the Plot of His Pulitzer Prize Win­ning Nov­el, A Fable (1954)

Guide­lines for Han­dling William Faulkner’s Drink­ing Dur­ing For­eign Trips From the US State Depart­ment (1955)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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