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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Selected Letters of William Styron’

- - Friday, April 5, 2013

THE SELECTED LETTERS OF WILLIAM STYRON
Edited by Rose Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin
Random House, $40, 672 pages

I have to confess that William Styron has never appealed to me much as a novelist. His reputation as an anointed major figure has always seemed to be dubious, based as it is on really only two novels, "The Confessions of Nat Turner" and "Sophie's Choice." Undeniably blockbusters, each is a virtuoso performance when it comes to narrative and each zeroes in on terrible episodes in human history. That they are both far removed from Styron's own experience and thus involved enormous feats of imaginative energy is to his credit. Less so is the supercharged, manipulative quality of the micro-topic dependent on a welter of emotive context.

Styron the man did not seem any more appealing than his books, until I read the letters in this volume, lovingly and carefully edited by his widow. They break through the received image of a pillar of East Coast liberal litterateur to reveal someone capable of independent thought, a man of honesty and integrity truly dedicated to literature and vibrantly alive to history and culture. Since so much of what we know about Styron comes from "Darkness Visible," the wrenchingly powerful account he wrote of his struggle with clinical depression, this volume has the additional virtue of broadening our picture of him to reveal an attractive figure — when he was not struggling with the terrible affliction that nearly extinguished him.

Of course, that reflexively liberal image didn't come from nowhere, and readers will find no surprises in Styron's comments on Presidents Nixon and Reagan and on the Vietnam War. But although he is clearly flattered by President Clinton's flattery — calling "Nat Turner" "a 'transformative' work for him" — Styron is not as star-struck hobnobbing with him on Martha's Vineyard or with President Kennedy in the family quarters of the White House as one might expect. Indeed, he is notably cooler and more resistant to Mr. Clinton's charms than President George H.W. Bush reveals himself to be in his recently released volume of letters.

Styron's comments about his two spells as a Marine — at the end of World War II and in the Korean War — are less than gung-ho. Part of this is an understandable irritation at being diverted from his chosen path, first as a student, then as a budding writer. However, for one so interested in the larger historical picture in his work, there is disappointingly little sense of history and where he fits into it. His less-than-ringing "Semper Fi" is perhaps why, unlike his friends and contemporaries Norman Mailer, James Jones and Irwin Shaw, he produced only marginal looks at his experiences in the military and certainly not the major novels each of them did.

The path of friendship with Mailer did not always run smooth, but infinitely more thorny was that with the notoriously difficult, prickly and demanding Lillian Hellman. Nowhere does Styron's mettle shine more luminously and creditably than in his resolute response to her furious denunciation of him for not publicly endorsing her spiteful effort to ruin a fellow writer, Mary McCarthy, by suing her for libel in response to a literary judgment.

This was all the more admirable because he was himself no fan of McCarthy, as letters included here demonstrate. He brushes aside Hellman's boast that she had publicly defended him, by expressing due gratitude before sternly telling her that "in friendship there should be no quid pro quo." He goes on to give her sound advice, unfortunately but unsurprisingly to him unheeded, demonstrating that he was indeed a good friend:

"It was no lack of loyalty that prompted my refusal but only an abiding feeling, then as now, that such insults, no matter how insufferable, are best endured in silence, and that we somehow weaken our hard-bought integrity by lowering ourselves to battle with those who are demonstrably vicious or second-rate."

Whatever one thinks of Styron the man and his oeuvre, this substantial selection of his letters should do what one hopes such a collection will accomplish. Truly enhance our acquaintance with — and understanding of — a writer who was insightful in the way he looked at the world, past shadowing present, and the way he wrote about it.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.