Book Reviews: 'Letters to My Father,' 'The Suicide Run' by William Styron

  Enlarge Photo    
By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 4, 2009


By William Styron

Edited by James L.W. West III

Louisiana State Univ. 238 pp. $28


Five Tales of the Marine Corps

By William Styron

Random House. 194 pp. $24

In 1939, when Billy Styron was 14 years old, his mother died after a long and painful illness. Coming as it did when he was at an especially vulnerable age, her death must have had deep and lasting psychological effects on him, but he does not seem to have written much about it as he worked his way through his literary apprenticeship toward the high stature he enjoyed after the publication of his first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness," in 1951, when he was 26 years old.

Instead, it was his relationship with his father, the senior William Styron, that became an occasional theme in his writing, never more so than in these two slender volumes, published three years after his death. They are, like most posthumous books scavenged from the remains of notable writers, fugitive works at best, but they are not without value. The more interesting of the two is "Letters to My father," primarily because these letters -- written between Styron's departure from Tidewater Virginia in January 1943 and his return to the States 10 years later after an extended stay in Italy -- describe the younger Styron's literary evolution and because they leave no doubt as to the deep love and admiration he felt for his father.

It was a love that he felt but did not express as such. The two William Styrons had been left quite alone by Pauline Styron's death. Though they cared deeply for and needed each other, they were reserved about their feelings in correspondence and presumably in each other's presence. They lived in a more buttoned-up time than our own, and they were WASPs into the bargain. They addressed each other in letters as "Dear Pop" and "Dear Son," and though the elder did sign off as "Your devoted father," the younger rarely went so far as "Love to all," the "all" including a stepmother whom he in truth didn't love and whom he portrays with impatience and anger in one of the fragments collected in "The Suicide Run."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company