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Reflections: Oxford's Most Notorious Bad Boy, "Billy"

Courtesy of Visit Oxford.

People in Oxford, Mississippi, love talking about their most famous bad boy. His life made for some juicy conversation. Now, some 50 years after his death, Billy’s legend has been described as something like that of a bum uncle who died and revealed a hidden fortune – the very kind of uncle Southerners love to gossip about.

The “bum uncle” referes to his inept performance in the various jobs he held and a hidden fortune that only his devoted mother believed was deep insider her firstborn son.
From the time Billy was 19 years old, he knew that he wanted to be a writer just like the great granddaddy he admired who had written several books; even more importantly, he was a self-made man, a Civil War Colonel.
However, at the age of nine, Billy was experiencing the contradiction in his desire to become an aspiring artist and the muscular man of action his great granddaddy had been. As an adolescent, this inner conflict became more difficult to deal with as he struggled between his creative drive and his masculinity. There was something feminine about being a writer, as his father and the culture had taught him. But it was his mother who encouraged her son to read and praised his efforts to write poetry.
As far as Billy was concerned he saw his father as a figure of weakness while his mother was determined to raise her four boys according to her way, especially Billy who was the smallest of her boys.
When it became obvious to her that Billy wasn’t going to be as tall as his brothers, she decided to give Mother Nature a hand. What better way to increase his height than to put her 13-year-old son in a laced corset to make him stand straight and upright as much as possible. Billy had to wear it for two years. It was a humiliating experience for the teen, but he never complained, even though it prevented him from playing sports which he enjoyed.
Eventually, Billy showed his contempt for being forced to wear the feminine apparel by skipping school on numerous occasions, retreating to the woods where he spent his time reading and thinking. As soon as he was free from wearing the corset, he returned to playing sports, even getting the quarterback position on the high school football team. By this time, Billy had managed to separate his inner life from his social one. this split would become permanent in his life, creating a stalemate in his identity with an impotent duality.
In high school, Billy was a “D” student, so the 16-year-old quit school following the end of the football season. This was the year the United States entered World War I. He began to consider signing up but told his family that he was rejected because he was too short and frail. With the help of his friend Phil Stone, he forged some papers to prove he was a British citizen. He was accepted to enter the Canadian RAF training center near Toronto on July 9, 1918. However, the war ended before Billy could finish his training. After returning to Oxford in November 1918, he wore the uniform of an RFC lieutenant, walked with a limp and a cane, claiming he had suffered an injury after being shot down over France, which required the insertion of a steel plate in his head. It was quite a performance while it lasted. In one sense, Billy was masking his failures and losses. For years, he had been writing, but nothing published.
Billy coped with his losses by acting out masculine roles, such as an athlete, prankster, and hard drinker. In private, he became enamored with romantic fantasy, lyric excess, and morbid dreams of self-destruction. It was through his writing that he found expression and two key friendships. The first being a childhood sweetheart who had grown into a popular and beautiful teenager. However, her family wasn’t about to consider Billy as a potential husband because he had no steady income and no job prospects, unlike the suitor they preferred.
It’s difficult to determine the impact this loss had on Billy’s fragile identity. His brother said, “His world went to pieces.”
The other friendship was Phil Stone who had for years been reading and encouraging his creative efforts. In the fall of 1919, Billy signed up for some courses at the University of Mississippi (Oxford). He made a “D” in English but managed to get some of his poems published in the school’s campus journals and drawings in the campus yearbook.
For a while, he worked at odd jobs as a lackluster handyman, fixing boilers or hanging wallpaper for a few dollars, earning himself the local title of “Count No Count.” To his family, he was an embarrassment.
In 1922, there was an opening for a postmaster at the post office on the campus of the University of Mississippi. Billy’s friends pulled some strings so he could take the civil service exam. The 24-year-old passed it and became the new postmaster of the University of Mississippi, earning $1,500 per year. Now Billy would not have to find odd jobs to support himself.
Billy’s friends thought this would help settle him down and give him a sense of security and purpose.
Not so. he still had his heart set on becoming a writer.
As it turned out, he was a disaster in his new position. Billy ignored his duties by hiding in the back, playing bridge with his friends and forgetting to deliver envelopes. Another postal employee transported the incoming and outgoing mail between the train station and the post office. Billy’s only job was sorting the mail and selling stamps, but even that was too much for him.
The students complained that it took him too long to begin sorting the mail. Soon, long lines of restless students formed outside the post office. Behind the window, he could be seen sitting down, reading a magazine belonging to another student, or writing.
Billy was not only slow in carrying out his duties, he was also cold and sometimes nasty to the patrons. To make matters worse, he began throwing away the mail. If the students and faculty wanted their mail., they had to rummage through the post office trash cans searching for it.
It took the U.S. Postal authorities almost three years to get rid of him.
Billy’s attitude was, “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of the moneyed people.”
However, there was one that he thoroughly enjoyed – a good stiff drink. Billy’s nephew Jimmy recalled him saying,”Civilization begins with distillation.” His fondness for alcohol confirms just how much he believed in his own theory. In this, a dry county, Billy would sit outside in the field with his brother and childhood pet snake, Penelope, drinking cheap, 200-proof corn whiskey.
During these years, Billy ended up becoming the leader of a Boy Scout troop. He was good at the job, but it was cut short when the townspeople decided he was drinking too heavily work with the boys.
Having failed that, Billy did the only thing that was left. He became an author and won Mississippi’s first Nobel Prize in Literature.
Oxford’s most notorious bad boy was William Faulkner.

This Reflections story is from Jane Schroeder of Portage, Indiana, as seen in “The Oxford So & So.”
If you would like to contribute your own Reflections story, send it, along with photos, to hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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