- The Novels of William Styron: From Harmony to History
Ever since the publication of his first novel when he was twenty-six years old, William Styron has enjoyed international acclaim as a major American novelist. According to Gavin Cologne-Brookes, however, despite more than four decades of such consensus there still remains a “want of sustained, comprehensive studies of Styron’s novels.” In The Novels of William Styron: From Harmony to History, Cologne-Brookes acknowledges the valuable contributions made by Melvin J. Friedman, John Kenny Crane, Albert E. Stone, and others, but he recognizes as well that most book-length studies of Styron serve as little more than general introductions to his work. Hoping to build upon the “limited aims” of this previous scholarship, Cologne-Brookes seeks to “span wide and dig deep” in order to uncover and assess the evolving patterns of discourse that inform Styron’s five novels. Coupling Bakhtin’s theory of the dialogic novel with Lukács’s meditations on the superficial and illusory nature of unity, Cologne-Brookes reads Styron’s work as a “novelistic journey . . . from an aesthetic dominated by notions of harmony to one irretrievably intertwined with the realities of history.” Offering a complex and lucid analysis of the attitudes that have led Styron away from a faith in the “centripetal” harmony of art and toward an acceptance of the “centrifugal” forces of history, Cologne-Brookes [End Page 152] has taken an important step in moving Styron studies toward a more sustained and comprehensive discussion of the nature of Styron’s achievement.
In a creative and persuasive opening chapter, Cologne-Brookes reads Lie Down in Darkness as a multi-level narrative in which both Styron and Styron’s characters are expressing a need for a “discourse of harmony.” Milton, Helen, and Peyton seek this discourse in the face of social and familial chaos, but they are unable to find it. Styron, however, contains the centrifugal implications of the Loftis story by employing an “effaced narrator” who uses minor characters so that “the novel is artistically organized from discord toward harmony.” Moreover, Cologne-Brookes argues, Styron not only carefully contains the centrifugal forces within the text but he also places his novel in an intertextual dialogue with the modernist works of Faulkner, Joyce, Fitzgerald, and others. On one level this positioning allows Styron do to what Peyton cannot do—break free from her “inheritance.” On another level, however, the novel’s intertextuality allows Styron to reaffirm the modernist primacy of art over history, a primacy that enables Styron to suppress the decentering forces of history and pursue a “movement toward harmony” through aesthetics.
Cologne-Brookes contends that Styron’s next four novels manifest a move away from the comforts of aesthetic harmony toward a confrontation with, and finally an embracing of, the centrifugal forces of history. In The Long March, Styron establishes Tom Culver as a “detached artist trying to harmonize the world,” a role not unlike the one Styron established for himself in Lie Down in Darkness. In order to achieve the harmony he desires, however, Culver must side with authority against rebellion, thus manifesting how, in attempting “to reconcile warring discourses,” the artist may in turn “leave the authoritative discourse, or the power that is, intact.” For Styron, Culver’s stance as a detached artist seeking harmony via reconciliation becomes an increasingly “dubious position” as Styron himself enters a “more conscious dialogue between the author’s urge to harmonize conflicts and the urge to face social, historical, and political issues.” With Set this House on Fire, Styron shows an increased concern for political and historical issues, leading him toward a more thorough requestioning of his aesthetic search for harmony, especially when it becomes apparent that this search can lead to the “dominating or silencing [of] competing [End Page 153] voices.” In The Confessions of Nat Turner, Cologne-Brookes shows that Styron still holds on to his urge for harmony, but he also manifests a greater willingness to open up his art to “dialogic clashes.” Through Nat’s...