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JACK WEATHERLY: Faulkner the consumer deals with bills



It’s foolhardy to write about William Faulkner and his intensely scrutinized life in Oxford, but here goes.

He valued himself highly long before the town, much less the world, caught on.

Faulkner strutted around Oxford like a bantam rooster with his beak in the air.

In those days, some people called him Count No-Account.

But eventually he did establish accounts, one of which was at Neilson’s Department Store in Oxford, which is on the verge of its 175th birthday.

Will Lewis Jr., second generation owner of Neilson’s, provided a copy of a letter that Faulkner had written Will Lewis Sr. on Jan. 31, 1941.

By then, he had written novels that are considered some of the greatest ever and was turning out screenplays in Hollywood.

But financial reality is no respecter of fame.

In response to a dun from Neilson’s, Faulkner typed a letter to the clothier — no doubt on the same Underwood portable on which he shaped his deathless prose.

Not that he would parody one of his famous lines, but he might as well have said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past due.”

Nevertheless, the letter was an exercise in creativity, no matter the mundanity of the subject.

He included a partial payment, a check for $10. But not before he had his say.

The great man said his income from Hollywood had dried up, leaving him with “about $1600.00 additional 1937 income tax which I was trying to pay, two years after my income had been reduced about 95%.”

“I am trying now to meet the last $853.00 payment for which demand (also with threats) was made Dec. 20.”

After the U.S. government, his top debtors were “the grocers and fuel people who in their kindness have supplied myself and my dependents with food and heat during this time, and to whom I owe a lot more than even Estelle [his wife] et al managed to get into you for.”

“If this don’t suit you, the only alternative I can think of is, in the old Miltonic phrase, sue and be damned.

“After Uncle Sam gets through with his meat-cutting, J.E. Neilson can have what is left. You may even get an autographed book. That will be worth a damn sight more than my autograph on a check dated ten months from now.”

Says the son of the recipient of the Faulkner missile: “It got paid.”

Clothing his family was quite an undertaking for a man whose income was erratic at best and not predictable till late in his alcohol-shortened life.

“Mrs. Faulkner would come in and buy something and none of the clerks wanted to turn her down,” Lewis said.

Faulkner, probably in a sober moment, would come off his high horse and ask the store owner a favor.

“Will, please let Estelle have goods selected,” he wrote in a note a few years later.

Faulkner had what we call a blended family these days, dominated by women, with many demands, not the least of which was clothes.

“Mr. Faulkner had many obligations but never had any money till right at the end of his life,” Lewis said

Those were the days long before credit cards and bankruptcy lawyers.

The cards gave birth to that law specialty for individuals.

Consumers is what we are called these days. We have magazines devoted to us. Consumer’s Digest is our Bible.

Anyway, can you imagine Faulkner with a credit card?

Most likely, he wouldn’t be dealing directly with a store in Oxford. It’d be some 800 number in who knows where.

“This is William Faulkner.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Faulkner, can you give me your account number and tell me the nature of the call?”

“It’s about my past-due payment. I’d like to make you a different kind of payment.

“You might call it a barter proposal. I write books and … .”

“Well, Mr. Faulkner . . .  .”

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.


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