As in the decade after World War I, when the great American modernists — Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein and others — frolicked on the Left Bank, during the 1950s Paris was again the place to be. In Europe following the success of his 1951 first novel “Lie Down in Darkness,” William Styron (1925-2006) drank and partied and became friends with George Plimpton, Truman Capote, Peter Matthiessen, James Jones, Irwin Shaw and many other young writers. He was there at the founding of the Paris Review and was among the earliest authors to be honored with one of the now-famous “Writers at Work” interviews. In Italy, he met a woman named Rose Burgunder, who became his wife and is the editor, with R. Blakeslee Gilpin, of these “Selected Letters.”
Styron’s literary reputation has long been a little unclear, however — rather like those of virtually all his Paris friends. Was he a major artist? “The Long March” — a novella — brilliantly describes a Marine Corps ordeal and its effects on two reserve officers. “The Confessions of Nat Turner” became a huge bestseller, endured many attacks from black intellectuals for its presumption to speak in the voice of a Virginia slave, and won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize. I have a friend, a Southern academic, who ranks “Sophie’s Choice” among the major books of our time. Nonetheless, it and “Nat Turner” were both dismissed by some prominent critics as essentially Book-of-the-Month Club novels.
“Sophie’s Choice” came out in 1979, and for the rest of his life — more than 25 years — Styron produced nothing of scope or serious ambition. Writer’s block was one reason, depression another. For younger people, I suspect he may actually be best known for “Darkness Visible,” an 80-page essay, published in 1990 as a small book, about his battle with suicidal despair — and his eventual, if temporary, recovery.
However posterity judges Styron as a novelist, he was certainly an exceptionally smart and amusing correspondent. His many letters tend to be long, detailed and zingy with shrewd, lewd and funny remarks. He must have spent a serious portion of his day just on his mail. Many of his best letters are to his father, William C. Styron Sr., and his mentor William Blackburn, the legendary creative writing teacher at Duke whose students included Mac Hyman (“No Time for Sergeants”), Reynolds Price, Fred Chappell and Anne Tyler. In later years, Styron wrote regularly to novelists James Jones (“From Here to Eternity”) and Philip Roth, to his editor Robert Loomis (whom he had met at Duke) and to his daughter Susanna.
Personalia, literary gossip and stylish prose are what make reading collections of letters fun, and Styron’s contain all these. What writer today would dare say, as the youthful Styron does, that Eudora Welty’s short stories are “fairly pale. She doesn’t want to commit herself to anything, emotionally or intellectually, either, and thereby commits the crime” — and here young Bill is about to get himself into trouble — “of women writers in general — seeing life through pastel-tinted spectacles, lovely in its way but not in clear white focus.” Having finished Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” he notes, “It’s been a long time since a book has bored me so.”
While on a trip to England, Styron glimpses T.S. Eliot on the subway, “as large as life (bigger, in fact, than I’d imagined him) with a kindly, sad face and a sort of melancholy stoop.” He visits Daphne du Maurier in Cornwall and comments that “she seems very nice, would still, I think, be good for a fair-to-middling roll in the hay.” In Paris, he calls on the aged Tristan Tzara, the founder of dada, and in Ravello, Italy, he reminds us that it was there that Wagner composed “Parsifal.”
Not everything is so literary and artsy. Because Styron’s agent asked him to buy her a bottle of it, I learned that Lanvin once sold a perfume with the wonderful name “Pretexte.” He’s often very funny, too: Styron stays in a villa that “has a couple of servants whose obsequiousness would make Uncle Remus look like a Prussian.” His baby daughter, he writes, “is quite handsome, I think, although she is so far completely inarticulate and has all of the moist habits of one so young.” When his second novel, “Set This House on Fire,” is blasted by the critics, he confesses: “I did get one good review, however, in Amarillo, Texas, and I cherish it like an amulet, and someday, if you ask, I may show it to you.”
As early as age 27, Styron is worrying that he is “a wash-up as a writer and fit only to do the ‘Recent & Readable’ part of the book section in Time.” Later, he complains that he should have majored in business administration: “A fifth-rate entertainer on TV has more tangible and satisfactory rewards than a novelist.” He recognizes his “appalling logorrhea” and natural bent for the rhetorical, while stressing that he’s “not a devotee of the Hemingway tight-lipped mumble school,” and “eventually when I mature and broaden I expect to use the language on as exalted and elevated a level as I can sustain.”
Throughout his life, Styron goes out of his way to help other writers, singing the praises of Guy Davenport’s first novel (the never-published “Effie Garner”), recommending Mary Lee Settle for a fellowship, encouraging that still-undervalued novelist Donald Harington, analyzing at considerable length the strengths and weaknesses of Michael Mewshaw’s early fiction. Nonetheless, Styron is exceptionally prickly about any criticism of his own work: When Maxwell Geismar praises his first books, he’s the best critic around; when he lambastes “Nat Turner” as a “product of the Plantation School of Southern Liberals,” he is cast into outer darkness, along with other Styron detractors, whether envious hack reviewers or those narrow-minded academics who somehow prefer the novels of Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer, the latter initially a friend, then a bitter enemy.
Many of the letters quietly crow about book sales and movie deals. Styron actually takes one Random House advance in the form of stock from its parent company, RCA. These pages also chronicle an upward social success: a big house with 11 acres in Roxbury, Conn., and a summer place on Martha’s Vineyard, invitations to the Kennedy White House, friendship with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Mia Farrow and Carlos Fuentes and Lillian Hellman, cruises to Europe, a Jaguar. When Styron decides to write a play, “In the Clap Shack,” Robert Brustein of the Yale Drama School immediately wants to stage it. The first blurb on the back cover of these letters is from President Bill Clinton, no less.
But why shouldn’t a novelist be sociable, make money, enjoy worldly success? A serious author has only one important obligation: to write the best books he can. Which is just what Styron clearly did. Along the way, he also took time to dash off these terrifically enjoyable letters.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
SELECTED LETTERS OF WILLIAM STYRON
Edited by Rose Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin
Random House. 672 pp. $40