THE THREE DOZEN ESSAYS and book reviews herein collected are William Styron's occasional writings, the work to which he turns in order to divert and refresh his mind while more substantial enterprises are under way. Collected, they add up to what Styron describes as "a very personal book," in that "virtually all of the pieces are the offshoot of either my occasional crotchets or perennial preoccupations." Predictably, therefore, the themes upon which Styron dwells in these oddments of literary journalism -- slavery, crime and punishment, universal victimization and guilt, redemption -- are the same ones that he has concentrated on in his long, passionate novels; though many of the essays are attractive and interesting, and all are most powerfully written, the overall impression they create is of a writer working in a medium in which he is less than comfortable.
What readers will find in This Quiet Dust is a large sampling of Styron's distinctive, arresting prose that manages to disguise the rather small body of ideas it discusses. At portraiture and landscape Styron has scarcely a rival, and when he summons himself to produce oceans of rolling paragraphs he can positively drown the reader in emotion; his tools are those of the novelist, and no American now living is capable of employing them to more stunning effect. But like the novelists to whom he is perhaps most usefully compared -- Faulkner and Fitzgerald -- he is more gifted at narrative than analysis; he speaks with striking force, but he does not always have that much to say.
This is not, in point of fact, a pejorative comment; ideas are not what we look for from novelists. The experimentalists and the academics notwithstanding, the novelist's task is to describe and reveal the world, to find coherence in human experience at whatever scale he chooses; with the rarest of exceptions, the "novel of ideas" is by its very nature a failure, because it invariably deprives fiction of the vitality that is its essence. To say that Styron is short on original and arresting ideas is not to say that he has an unoriginal or uninteresting mind, but that his strengths lie elsewhere.
Styron's essays on capital punishment are cases in point. The first of these, "The Death-in-Life of Benjamin Reid," was originally published in 1962 and apparently played a significant role in the subsequent commutation of the death sentence of its subject, a Connecticut man of exceedingly limited education and opportunity who had killed a person in a moment of panic. It's a powerful piece; indeed, Styron confesses that if anything the writing now seems to him "overwrought." But this highly charged prose masks the predictability of Styron's arguments. Though he makes the usual and unexceptionable points in opposition to the death penalty, he simply does not demonstrate that capital punishment "is one of the few moral issues about which it is almost impossible to harbor mixed feelings, at least after one has studied the matter carefully," as he claims in a preface to the essay.
The same objections must be raised against Styron's occasional ventures into political commentary. In some cases he is either naive or ill-informed, as when he claims that "in the horrible dark night of racism at its worst in America, the 1930s, the Communists were among the few friends black people had." In others he is blinded by the emotions that surge through and about him. His piece on the 1968 Democratic Convention is a chaotic mixture of righteous passion and snobbery:
"Daley is only the nastiest symbol of stupidity and desuetude in a political party that may die, or perhaps is already dead, because it harbors too many of his breed and mentality. Hubert Humphrey, the departed John Bailey, John Connally, Richard Hughes, Ed Muskie--all are merely eminent examples of a rigidity and blindness, a feebleness of thought, that have possessed the party at every level, reaching down to those Grant Wood delegates from North Dakota who spilled out from the elevators into my hotel lobby every morning, looking bright- eyed and war-hungry, or like Republicans, whom they emulated through becoming one of the few delegations that voted against the pacific minority Vietnam plank en bloc."
It is a pity that Styron chose to include this contemptible essay in the collection, for it nearly poisons everything around it. But immediately thereafter Styron dismounts from his high horse and returns to the business at which he is best. In a section called "Portraits and Farewells" he pays tribute to a number of literary figures who have influenced his life. These include the great teacher of writing at Duke University, William Blackburn, and, somewhat surprisingly but most agreeably, Philip Rahv: "Strangers often found it hard to understand how one could become a good friend of this brusque, scowling, saturnine, sometimes impolite man with his crotchets and fixations, his occasional savage outbursts and all the other idiosyncrasies he shared with Dr. Johnson. But I found it easy to be Philip's friend. For one thing, I was able almost constantly to relish his rage, which was a well-earned rage inasmuch as he was an erudite person -- learned in the broadest sense of the word, with a far-ranging knowledge that transcended the strictly literary -- and thus was supremely confident to sniff out fools. I discovered it to be a cleansing rage, this low, guttural roar directed at the frauds and poseurs of literature."
There is also much in This Quiet Dust, as would be expected, about Styron's native South and the many ways in which it has influenced his work: ". . . the Virginia which I so vividly and poignantly recall from my early years worked on me a lasting effect, made me in large measure the writer that I am." All of these pieces are quite lovely and often nostalgic, but never sentimental or, in the familiar Southern manner, evasive; it is precisely because Styron has been willing to engage the harsh truths of Southern history that he has written about the region's past and present with such deep understanding.
Although Styron takes obvious pride in the pieces he has collected here, there is little evidence that he assigns most of them greater weight than they can hold. That is as it should be. The best of these essays are very good, but they bear only a passing resemblance to the novels that have been the true work of his life. His admirers, among whom I wish to be numbered, will be happy to have This Quiet Dust in the absence of something more substantial; but no one is likely to mistake it for the real thing.