Nonfiction

Letters reveal William Styron’s dark side

 

This curiously annotated edition of William Styron’s letters spans 60 years, from his sweaty days as a young Marine-in-training to his slow, sad decline in old age. From afar his life seemed blessed: he was an internationally lauded bestselling novelist with a rich, pretty wife and a social circle that included movie stars and world leaders. But these letters reveal deeply entrenched insecurities, both as a man and an artist; insecurities Styron held at bay long enough for him to complete an impressive body of work.

Shortly after Styron’s death in 2006, his widow, Rose, tapped R. Blakeslee Gilpin, an academic, to edit and organize her husband’s correspondence. The project took five years to complete. Gilpin deserves praise; the narrative flow never lags. But many of his annotations will provoke head-scratching. He has a propensity for stating the obvious. A bevy of literary and cultural figures — Truman Capote, John Updike, Robert Frost, to name just three — are identified that should be familiar to anyone interested enough in Styron to pick up this book.

Sometimes the line is crossed into condescension. You glance down at a footnote and find the date of John F. Kennedy’s assassination or the title of the Sherlock Holmes novel Styron was referencing when he wrote, pretty unambiguously, “Baskerville hounds.” Really, what does Gilpin take us for? Twilight fans?

But Gilpin provides a helpful timeline. He gets one date wrong: Francois Mitterand’s first inauguration, which Styron attended at the French president’s request, took place in 1981, not 1980. France loved Styron almost as much as it did Jerry Lewis. His second novel, Set This House on Fire, bombed at home but sold like croissants in Paris.

In his letters, Styron’s delight at his popularity overseas fails to salve his wounded feelings. Too much time and energy are wasted ranting and whining about critics. But he had no qualms about talking down other novelists, although never to their face. Eudora Welty “commits the crime . . . of women writers in general — seeing life through pastel-tinted spectacles, lovely in its way but not in clear white focus.” James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity, has no idea “how really bad he is.” And Gore Vidal is a “talentless, self-promoting, spineless slob.”

One contemporary he admired was Norman Mailer. The feeling was mutual. Mailer was in awe of Lie Down in Darkness, Styron’s spectacular debut, and thought his short novel The Long March, a flawless indictment of American militarism. But the bromance ended bitterly in 1958, when Mailer accused Styron of slandering his second wife, Adele (whom Mailer would later stab at a party, on an unrelated matter). Styron pleaded innocent but eventually confessed his guilt to a friend.

Like Mailer, Styron suffered from wannabe machismo. In this sense, he was a product of his Southern upbringing. There are numerous instances here when he resorts to homophobic slurs. Only a dozen letters or so are addressed to women. He could communicate with his oldest daughter, Susannah, a free spirit who demanded little from him. But he preferred mailing envelopes to men, especially his father and William Blackburn, his mentor at Duke University, the teacher who recognized and nurtured his talent.

Styron’s letters to Blackburn describing his meetings with Jack and Jackie Kennedy are entertaining. The Styrons went to the White House in 1962, for the dinner honoring that year’s Nobel Prize recipients. Styron and the president hit it off. The First Couple invited him and Rose to spend the day with them on their yacht. While cruising around Martha’s Vineyard, JFK asked Styron about his work-in-progress: a fictional account of the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia.

The Confessions of Nat Turner won Styron the Pulitzer Prize. It also gave him a lot of headaches. Several letters deal with the onslaught leveled against Styron by black (and some white) intellectuals for daring to appropriate the persona of an African-American icon. He would get the same grief from Jews, when they objected to his treatment of the Holocaust in Sophie’s Choice.

The last part of this book is unpleasant to read. Styron’s suicidal depression, which he revealed in Darkness Visible, gets the best of him. In the end, it would triumph; he didn’t kill himself, but the steps he took to stay alive ruined his health and creativity. Let us remember him at the height of his powers, when the black dog, as Churchill called his dark mood, was still leashed.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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