- The Nonfiction of William Styron
In this vast and immensely readable collection of a number of William Styron’s nonfiction—which includes essays, book reviews, occasional pieces, ventures into autobiography, and other forms of what might be called creative nonfiction—we see that Styron, if he hadn’t made it as a novelist, could have found great success as a reporter, op-ed columnist, memoirist, literary historian, and practitioner of various other literary callings. Most of these pieces, assembled by Styron’s biographer James L. W. West iii, saw earlier publication in the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and other publications, but a few others are published here for the first time. We have some of Styron’s best-known essays, “A Case of the Great Pox,” a chronicle of his fearful stay at age nineteen in a military hospital—because he had been misdiagnosed with a case of syphilis which turned out to be trench mouth—and “Havanas in Camelot,” concerning his introduction to (at least what others saw as) the delights of cigars in the presence of John F. Kennedy. We see Styron’s reflections on the success of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, which appeared when he was twenty-six, the growth of his interest—beginning in his Virginia childhood—in the slave Nat Turner, who became the subject of one of his greatest literary triumphs, The Confessions of Nat Turner, as well as his greatest literary trial: charges by numerous black critics and scholars that he had created a misleading picture (a weak, conflicted man, obsessed with white women) of an African American hero. Styron knew southern history, and he knew his own times, but those times they were a-changing. The grandson of a slave owner but also a racial liberal who had many friends (most prominently James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison) among black writers, he had begun his novel in the black-and-white-together phase of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, assuming it would be well-received by African Americans. However, when it appeared in 1968, it was critically disdained. Styron’s sin seemed to be not only that he had misrepresented Turner, but that he told his story—had, in the eyes of his critics, appropriatedhis story—in the first place.
West’s collection is arranged thematically and generally, but not always chronologically: Childhood and Youth, The South, Race and Slavery, World War ii(including powerful pieces on Auschwitz and Hiroshima), Military Life, “Disorders of the Mind” (reflections on the deep depression he suffered later in life, the roots of which he finds much [End Page xxi]earlier), and so forth. His love-hate relationship with the South is clear from the beginning: he is proud of being a Virginian, finding in the Tidewater landscape a beauty equalled in few parts of America and in Virginia history a richness lacking in most of the United States. However, he certainly doesn’t care to live and die in Dixie.
Two of the finest sections in the collection are entitled “Antecedents” and “Friends and Contemporaries.” In the first he discusses the influence of Mark Twain (“my most beloved literary forefather”) and of William Faulkner (that influence is clear to anyone who has read Lie Down in Darkness, parts of which one might see as The Sound and the Furyset in Tidewater, Virginia), as well as that of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He also reflects on Thomas Wolfe: “it would be hard to exaggerate the overwhelming effect that reading Wolfe had upon so many of us who were coming of age during or just after World War ii”—particularly, he adds, if one was a southerner. But like almost every other writer of that time who was drawn to Wolfe, Styron insists that he got over the early infatuation, and for the most part he did. It is not difficult to see, however, some remnant of that influence in certain of Styron’s works, particularly Sophie’s Choice, the story of a young...