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Greatness Visible

William Styron's letters are masterpieces of the genre.
Greatness Visible

Given that letter writing is a dead art form, there are probably not many more books of this ilk waiting in the wings. Certainly authors and other notable figures will continue to correspond with each other, but changes in technology have wrested much of the poetry from the enterprise. I can’t see myself working up a lot of enthusiasm for The Collected Emails of Michael Chabon. Can you?

Happily, this collection of William Styron’s letters is an impressive—albeit incomplete—masterpiece of the genre. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner did not save carbon copies of his correspondence for posterity, and that made tracking down Styron’s casually cast-off longhand missives an exceptionally daunting task. The editors were unable to locate, for example, any of the letters Styron wrote to the novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin—letters that would certainly have proven illuminating given Styron’s complicated relationship with the African-American intellectual community in the wake of the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner.

The book begins with some dispatches from the young author-to-be to his father, while Styron was at Duke University as a member of the Marines’ V-12 officer training program in 1943. Precociousness distinguishes these early epistles; in one example, composed at the tender age of 19, Styron grapples with what he perceives to be unresolvable conflicts within the Protestant Christianity of his upbringing. While this is far from an unusual predicament for a young, curious soul feeling its way in the wider world, Styron’s musings are on an altogether different plane from the typical “I’m not going to church anymore; it’s boring” complaint. He writes:

In parts the Bible is a literary masterpiece. Nothing finer has been written than the story of Job and the sermon of Ecclesiastes, and I believe that if Christ was not the son of God, he approached such a divine kinship as nearly as any man ever born. But it is impossible for me to cling to a Faith which attempts, and succeeds in too many cases, in foisting upon the multitude a belief in so much which is utter fantasy.

Many years later, after he had reconciled somewhat with Christianity, or at least with the idea of Christianity, Styron found himself in his father’s position: patiently listening to and counseling his child (daughter Susanna) through her own crisis of faith. His response to this challenge is one of the high points of the collection:

It may or may not be a consolation to you that your intense wonder and turmoil about the meaning of the human condition is, in fact, a part of the human condition—or at least as it is experienced by sensitive and questing souls like yourself. … A fisherman in the Arabian Gulf finds purpose in life by fishing, a Wyoming sheepherder by tending his sheep and remaining close to Nature and that big sky. On a somewhat higher level intellectually, a person like James Joyce, a profoundly pessimistic man at bottom, could find reason and purpose through these moments termed ‘epiphanies’—instances of intense revelation (through love, or a glimpse of transcendental beauty in the natural world) which gave such a sense of joy and self-realization that they justified and, in effect, ratified the existence of him who experienced them. In other words, the existential anguish becomes undone; through moments of aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment we find the very reason for existence.

A span of almost 30 years separates these letters. Yet the same keen, questing intelligence informs both dispatches.

Another character trait apparently in place from the beginning was Styron’s burning desire to be an important, capital-A Author. From the evidence of the letters, Styron never in his life wrote anything for fun. Every novel had to be big, game-changing, Zeitgeist-defining. One would think he set himself up for a fall with such lofty aspirations but, remarkably, Styron came pretty close to fulfilling his ambition: three of his four published novels—Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Sophie’s Choice—were greeted by most critics as major works. Even the difficult second book—Set This House on Fire—had an improbable second act in France, where it came to be regarded as one of the most important English-language novels of the post-World War II period.

Styron liked to quote Flaubert: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your works.” While he was only partially successful at embodying the first half of this axiom, no one can doubt his follow-through on the second. Right out of the gate, he clashed with editors and critics over explicit passages in Lie Down in Darkness. With The Confessions of Nat Turner, the white, Virginia-born author unintentionally provoked the ire of some prominent black intellectuals with his decision to write the slave insurrectionist’s story in the first person. In Sophie’s Choice he had the audacity to cast his titular Auschwitz survivor as a Polish Catholic, a decision that angered some Jewish critics who felt Styron had muddied the waters in his attempt to emphasize the universal, rather than explicitly Jewish, tragedy of the Holocaust. Through all of these controversies, Styron barreled onward, unwilling to constrain himself.

There was, however, a dark side to this purity of vision: William Styron could be an insufferable snob. The letters reveal a man who seemed to derive no pleasure from any form of entertainment below the level of high art. He listened almost exclusively to classical music, disdained (during the early part of his career at least) popular films, eschewed sports, and was utterly contemptuous of popular writers he felt were dumbing down the masses. The hacks in question? Leon Uris and Herman Wouk. Neither could be mistaken for Flaubert, but I suspect I’m not the only soul who pines for that beguiling era in which Wouk was considered an appropriate beach read. In light of all the rarefied bitchiness on display, Styron’s gradual revelations—beginning in his letters from abroad during the 1950s—of his lecherous streak and taste for hard liquor come as something of a relief: at least he had some common appetites.

The capital-A Author was also consumed, to the point of distraction, by worries over his position vis–à–vis the other “important writers” of his time: Bellow, Updike, Vidal, etc. He was particularly obsessed with the accomplishments of his erstwhile friend Norman Mailer. After several years of boisterous camaraderie, the two had a bitter falling out in 1958 over comments Styron allegedly made about Mailer’s wife. Yet the real problem may have been that the men were too much alike: both were status-obsessed, both actively jockeying for the position of Greatest Living American Writer. “I have not seen hide nor hair of Norman,” Styron writes James Jones in a letter from 1959,

except to hear that he has coming out soon an anthology of his work called Advertisements for Myself, a characteristically self-effacing title, which includes a 75,000 word essay, heretofore unpublished, about the problems facing a man who wishes to become a ‘major writer in our time.’ The sad, sad thing is that Norman could be a major writer, but I don’t see how he can be one if all his energy is thrown into crap like this.

The cogency of Styron’s argument is undercut by the fact that, in many of his letters (as well as in interviews at the time) he too threw all of his energy into “crap like this”: jockeying for position and slandering his contemporaries. The only difference between Styron and Mailer is that Mailer figured out how to profit from his ruminations.

Styron spent much of his career actively striving for, and for the most part attaining, literary greatness. Yet his true defining moment—the one that, I believe, will secure his place in the firmament—came as the result not of calculated ambition but of setback. At the tail end of 1985, crippled by suicidal depression, Styron admitted himself to Yale-New Haven Hospital for intensive treatment. What happened next was extraordinary, at least in the annals of literature: instead of shooting himself à la Hemingway or drinking himself to death à la Fitzgerald, Styron channeled his struggle with mental illness into a searing memoir, Darkness Visible, which became one of the most acclaimed books of his career. It was a surprising twist indeed that an author famous for his tragic endings sent forth into the world a cathartic document that gave many sufferers of depression the strength to avert tragedy.

In her 2011 memoir Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron reveals that her famous dad could be a terror at home. Certainly his struggle with depression did not end with the publication of Darkness Visible, and his family often bore the brunt of his roiling mood swings. Yet she and others have recounted how Styron would patiently spend hours on the phone talking complete strangers out of committing suicide. Tellingly, in his letters Styron glosses over these acts of compassion. He seemed to understand intuitively that, in this area of his life at least, larger forces were at work.

March/April 2013The final letter in the collection is addressed simply “To Readers” and accompanied by the instructions “To be made public at my death.” “Everyone must keep up the struggle,” Styron writes, “for it is always likely that you will win the battle and nearly a certainty you will win the war. To all of you, sufferers and non-sufferers alike, I send my abiding love.” Thus the lifelong pessimist bequeaths a legacy of hope.

The Selected Letters of William Styron reflect the man. They can be warm, transcendent, and sublime, as well as vindictive, profane, and petty. Yet they are never anything less than a joy to read. Rose Styron, co-editor of the collection, is to be commended for her big-heartedness in allowing her late husband’s turbulent soul to shine forth in all its complicated glory. It is indeed a blessing that this man lived in the bygone era of pen-and-paper correspondence—a quirk of timing that has enabled this accidental autobiography to be clawed back from dusty shelves and special collections around the world. As his beautiful, heart-baring letters make clear, William Styron needn’t have spent so much of his life fretting over his status. Almost from the beginning, his greatness was assured.

Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.