Friday, September 7th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: When the check isn’t in the mail

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Sometime in late 1926 William Faulkner wrote to publisher and fellow poet William Stanley Braithwaite for help. The Boston-based publisher of his first book of verse, The Marble Faun, owed him $81 in unpaid royalties. For months his letters to the Four Seas Company had gone unanswered, save for confirmation that his one certified letter had been delivered. Exasperated, Faulkner turned to Braithwaite, whose firm happened also to be in Boston, to avoid filing suit—a move which he admits he could hardly afford, “having no income beyond that derived from more of less casual manual labor.” “Can you give me any information about these people? Is this their customary procedure?” he asks.

Faulkner was, like many writers, chronically broke. His friend Phil Stone had fronted Four Seas the $400 necessary to print 1,000 copies of the book. It is doubtful all 1,000 copies were ever printed. And Faulkner now suspected that “these people” were postponing payment, as he says, “to take advantage of the fact that my claim . . . will be defunct after two years.” Astonished that an author could fall victim to such a scheme, he wrote to Braithwaite: “It never occurred to me that anyone would rob a poet. It’s like robbing a whore or a child.” He closes with an obvious yet humble appeal to the publisher’s reputation: “You are the one national literary figure we know in the South as being tolerant of all poets, good and bad.”

William Faulkner, Letter to William Stanley Braithwaite, 1926. MS Am 1444 (346)

From the postscript we learn why the still obscure writer felt comfortable approaching Braithwaite in the first place. Braithwaite had included one of his poems in the annual Anthology of Magazine Verse which he edited, and Faulkner uses these appended lines to thank him. Phil Stone had, again, arranged for the poem’s inclusion while Faulkner was staying in Paris and himself paid for a $3 subscription. He explained in a 1925 letter to Braithwaite that “Mr. Faulkner, like other poets has no money with which to buy books.”

Braithwaite’s response is not among his papers at Houghton. But whatever his reply, it diffused Faulkner’s irritation, for he wrote back: “If it is just a matter of temporary financial embarrassment [for Four Seas Co.], I shall rest easy: I have been without money too damned often myself, to annoy anyone who is himself unable to meet an obligation.”

By 1931 the Depression forced Four Seas out of business. One might guess whether its obligation was ever met; but with Faulkner content not to hound them, probably not.

William Faulkner, Letter to William Stanley Braithwaite, 1926. MS Am 1444 (346)

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Dale Stinchcomb, Harvard Theatre Collection Curatorial Assistant, for contributing this post.]

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