Honest Abe was one. So, too, was writer Richard Wright and Olympian gold medalist swimmer Shirley Babashoff. Walt Disney and singers John Prine and Brittany Howard spent time working for the U.S. Postal Service. Future Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner was such an indifferent employee that he was fired.
Not only has the U.S. Postal Service been a conduit for communications throughout the nation’s history, its workers have tapped into broad experiences gleaned on the job to gain a better understanding of America.
The Postal Service has nearly 500,000 career employees and has been a professional entry point or a lifeline for dozens of creatives over the years. In encountering a mail carrier or sorter, consider that one might have been Charles Bukowski, who delivered mail in Los Angeles for a dozen years before writing, at age 50, his first novel. Its title? Post Office. Or writer Richard Wright, one among generations of Black Americans who found a steady job at the post office when other sectors were closed to him because of discrimination. (Since it was founded, the U.S. Postal Service has had to adapt to survive.)
When Wright became a temporary postal worker in Chicago, “my confidence soared,” he wrote in his autobiography, Black Boy. “I earned seventy cents an hour and I went to bed each night now with a full stomach.” After passing the postal examination in the late 1920s, he earned more money, worked nights, and wrote experimental fiction during the day.
Decades later, arriving in Chicago, community organizer Barack Obama tried to envision Richard Wright and the glory of the city, including what it would have been like bumping into Wright back in the day. “The mailman I saw was Richard Wright, delivering mail before his first book sold,” Obama wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. (The USPS issued a stamp commemorating Wright in 2009.)
For Army veteran and future singer John Prine, carrying mail in suburban Chicago for three years allowed him to see a world he would capture in his heartfelt songs. The last song Prine recorded, “I Remember Everything,” played Monday night at the Democratic National Convention, along with a montage of some of the 173,000-plus people in America dead from the coronavirus so far. (Prine died of complications of COVID-19 in April.)
As a young postal carrier, Prine occasionally would wheel kids around in his postal bag when it emptied at the end of his route. He would greet the residents of a nursing home eagerly awaiting mail, an experience from his daily rounds that he turned into the song “Hello In There.” Critic Roger Ebert, covering a 1970 show of the 23-year-old “Singing Postman,” marveled: “You wonder how anyone could have so much empathy and still be looking forward to his 24th birthday on Saturday.”
A few legends began working at the post office after achieving glory elsewhere. WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver joined in 1999 after his boxing career ended. America’s best woman swimmer in the 1970s, Shirley Babashoff, spent three decades as a mail carrier in Huntington Beach, California. With few endorsements after her swimming career, the postal job gave her the wherewithal to raise her son as a single mother. It also gave her time to write an account of her battle against steroid-laden East German swimmers in the 1976 Olympics, Making Waves: My Journey to Winning Olympic Gold and Defeating the East German Doping Program.
Many of the famous started early and moved on. Walt Disney worked as a substitute delivery worker as a young man, as did actors Rock Hudson and Sherman Hemsley. Before The Office, Steve Carrell worked for the post office. Before Bill Nye was the science guy, he was a postal guy. Before Brittany Howard fronted the Alabama Shakes, she was an Alabama rural carrier assistant. (Here's how mail-in voting began on Civil War battlefields.)
By all accounts, twenty-something Abraham Lincoln did a good job as the postmaster for New Salem, Illinois, in the 1830s. If an addressee could not collect his or her mail at the Post Office, Lincoln delivered it personally, according to a USPS account.
Not so William Faulkner, the high school dropout, jilted lover, and lackadaisical postmaster of the University of Mississippi’s mail drop from 1921 to 1924.
Faulkner concentrated on reading and writing during work hours, often sitting on sacks of unsorted mail. He left people’s mail in a garbage can for them to sort through. Faulkner freely acknowledged he was fired because he refused ″to be at the beck and call of every S.O.B. who wants to buy a two-cent stamp.″ He even inscribed a copy of his first book, The Marble Faun, to the postal inspector who fired him—and thanked him.
Family members were amused when the Postal Service dedicated a commemorative stamp to Faulkner in 1987. Said niece Dean Faulkner Wells: “I think he would be just tickled at the irony of it all.″