March 10, 2013

William Styron’s selected letters resonate with his driving ambition for excellence

“The Selected Letters of

“The Selected Letters of

William Styron,” edited by Rose

Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin

(Random House, 672 pages, $40)

After reading through nearly 700 pages of William Styron’s correspondence – and not a boring letter in the bunch – an astute reader might come away with five maxims about the writing life.

1. A writer without a big ego can’t hope to be widely read or appreciated.

2. Don’t turn other writers into your closest friends. They will stab you in the back with a vengeance that makes sibling rivalry look like puppy love.

3. Fawning over publishers and agents may be necessary to stay in print, but there’s no dignity in it. Burn those letters while you can.

4. Be honest about your own creative limitations, or they will burn you.

5. Edit your most intimate correspondence before you die, unless you want to leave a legacy as a louse.

Fortunately, Maxim No. 5 doesn’t apply to Styron, who comes across in six decades of letter-writing as gracious, earnest, devoted to his family, and awed by the natural beauty of his surroundings, especially the Amalfi Coast of Italy, where he and his wife, Rose, lived for eight months.

Perhaps the editing of these letters by Rose and historian R. Blakeslee Gilpin (who is working on the first, full-length biography of Styron) lets Styron’s Southern gentility trump his Marine Corps discipline, his disdain for sloppy writing, and the nearly fatal effects of his life-shattering depression.

Yet as he tells his father, “Pop” Styron, in 1949, he had adopted the elder’s touchstone of maturity: “being nice to people even when they’re not nice.”

Nice or not so nice?

Plenty of people weren’t nice to Styron. Norman Mailer, for one. Once comrades in arms, writing cutting-edge fiction in the 1950s, they became bitter enemies over Mailer’s wife, Adele, whom Styron reputedly


Another nemesis was Frederic Wertham, a man on a crusade to eliminate all violence from American literature. He found Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967) repugnant with its explicit vengeance against pre-Civil War slaveholders. For the most part, Styron let Wertham rant, even as his novel won the Pulitzer Prize.

Later, Jewish critics lambasted Styron for daring to cast a Polish Catholic as his Holocaust victim in “Sophie’s Choice” (1979), his gripping account of moral anguish that earned a National Book Award.

Styron weathered these storms with an equanimity that often belied his own inner turmoil. And what he wrote to his father in 1949 was only partly true:

He proved not so nice to James Jones, whose novels chronicled the struggles of American soldiers in World War II.

During the early years, when Styron and Mailer still exchanged notes of mutual admiration, Styron ridiculed Jones as “a writer who is so dazzled by the vision of his own strength, so earnestly wanting to think deep and write strong , that the result is an achingly conspicuous gaucherie with no significance for either writer or reader.”

Eventually, Styron and Rose, to whom he remained married for 52 years, befriended the Joneses, and they socialized happily together for years.

Success comes early

When it comes to Maxim No. 1, however, Styron had every right to tout his ego. In 1951, at the relatively tender age of 26, he published his first novel, “Lie Down in Darkness,” to overwhelmingly positive reviews.

Although he detected faults in the book, its unexpected success led him down the path of wealth and fame, where he would hobnob with senators and presidents, and with the country’s foremost writers – James Baldwin, Arthur Miller, Wallace Stegner, Philip Roth and Robert Penn Warren, toward whom he sounds excessively decorous, respectful and openly religious.

But even after his early success, Styron had to fight long and hard to write well in his own voice, which for some readers verged on the Southern Gothic – florid, fulsome, formidably wordy:

“I’m beginning to see that everything I write and my whole timorous approach to writing is of the same rough pattern of my day-to-day life – that being one of caution, trepidation and cowardly fears. No self-confidence.”

What resonates throughout these missives is Styron’s mission to write excellently, no matter how slow and belabored the process; he understood the value – and high cost – of his art:

“ [A] piece of prose, complex or written in the simplest, most unpoetic language, is akin nonetheless to poetry in that it’s supposed to move men – to laughter or tears, at least to something . . . .”

This meant that he always aimed high, striving to imitate the large, rich canvases of 19th-century European novels rather than the spare, typewritten pages of Ernest Hemingway.

And he took Gustave Flaubert’s axiom to heart: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

‘Auschwitz in the soul’

Violence begets violence, however, or at least it attracts the vitriol of critics steeped in political correctness – not to mention the insidious violence of Styron’s wounded psyche.

In Robert Lowell’s famous phrase, his “mind [was] not right,” unhinged by a debilitating depression. “It’s true for me that writing and writing is the only way to ward off the mental – what they call in Virginia – hootenannies, and a million fears.”

The irony for Styron the great novelist came to light in 1990, when his slim, book-length essay on his battle with depression, “Darkness Visible,” became his most widely read book. It topped the New York Times best-seller list, and spoke to an ever-growing malaise in American society.

Styron minced no words about his suffering: Depression is a disease, which can never be cured. He called it “Auschwitz time in the heart of the soul – a form of madness I wouldn’t wish upon a literary critic.”

‘A supreme expression’

Still, his art flourished even in his lowest moments, because, like Flaubert, he lived above all to write:

“It has become impossible for me to write anything without making it a supreme try at a supreme expression.”

Styron’s letters resonate with his love of artistic excellence, which he found blatantly lacking in American literature in the second half of the 20th century. “Most every form of expression in America is now keenly attuned to the second-rate, if not third-rate,” he wrote. “Mediocrity which succeeds is the norm.”

As these letters make abundantly clear, Styron’s art soared above the norm; that was the clean, well-lighted place where he belonged.

“Everything else,” as the poet Louis Simpson wrote in a letter to him, “is in the lap of the gods.”

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