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  • Stingo's Complaint:Styron and the Politics of Self-Parody

William Styron's position as an American writer rests on four fulllength novels and a novella published over a period of nearly thirty years. The dozen or so short stories he has published represent apprentice work for the most part or work extracted from novels-in-progress. He has shown no particular talent or predilection for the form. His occasional prose has been only a sideline, he admits (Quiet Dust ix), but several essays and review essays—those on Nat Turner, Lieutenant Calley, the prison letters of James Blake, Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War, Richard L. Rubenstein's The Cunning of History, and the case of eighteen-year old Peter Reilly charged in 1973 with the murder of his mother in Canaan, Connecticut—do command attention not only because they reflect the nagging moral anxiety of his fiction but also because they obviate the image foisted on him by Norman Mailer in the Sixties, that of a reconstructed Virginia Gentleman and literary opportunist with the mind of a virgin oyster (Advertisements 4). Gentleman he is—nowhere has this been more evident than in his public response to Mailer's vendetta—a gentleman driven by ancient moral imperatives in confronting Old- and New-World barbarisms like the Southampton insurrection, the My Lai Massacre, Auschwitz, and (to juxtapose the egotistical with the historical sublime) Mailer himself. [End Page 575]

In addition to his fiction and occasional prose, Styron has collaborated on an unproduced film script, Dead!, based on the Snyder-Gray murder of 1927. In the Clap Shack, a play based on an episode both amusing and gruesome in his Marine Corps experience during World War Two, was produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1973 and published the same year. Putting it gently, the play and screenplay served primarily as reminders that the gifts that had made Styron famous were not those of a playwright. It had been a good five years since he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner. Had all the racist fuss following it done him in?

Few novelists of Styron's generation have remained so long in the limelight with such long hauls between books and without benefit of the celebrity grubbed by talk-show veterans, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Mary McCarthy in the Seventies. His last two novels, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, received more than a fair share of media hype, but he has always scorned the television sparring ring and during the Johnson administration grew wary of literary awards and White House invitations.1 Since a skirmish with student militants at Harvard in 1968, his appearances on college campuses have been rare. It was not until 1973 that his work was included in a major college anthology of American literature.2

After his success with Lie Down in Darkness in 1951, Styron was widely considered the Southern writer most worthy of comparison with Faulkner and most likely to revitalize the "Southern School" for post-World War Two readers. In a Paris Review interview of this year, however, he declared his independence of the Southern School and all other Schools, berating those critics whose existence depends upon the invention and inventory of "Schools" and discouraging any thoughts of his becoming spokesman for a new generation. "What the hell is a spokesman, anyway? I hate the idea of spokesmen . . . so-called spokesmen trumpeting around, elbowing one another out of the way to see who'll be the first to give a new and original name to twenty-five million people: the Beat Generation, or the Silent Generation, and God knows what—all" (Matthiessen 278).3

The following year The Long March was published. In thematic complexity, economy of means, and stylistic finesse, this novella is his most flawless performance to date. It deserves its place with Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, Crane's The Blue Hotel, Faulkner's Red Leaves, and Flannery [End Page 576] O'Connor's Wise Blood in Philip Rahv's collection, Eight Great American Short Novels. In its allegorical leaning as in its theme...


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