Of the following two letters from Bill Styron to Norman Mailer, the first, dated March 4, 1953, was in response to Mailer’s fan letter about The Long March, Bill’s novella published in Volume 1 of Discovery, edited by Vance Bourjaily, in which Norman also had a piece.
Recently reading this letter—Bill had written it at the American Academy in Rome, where he was its first novelist fellow—I was intrigued, and a bit dismayed by Bill’s comments on James Jones as a writer.
Intrigued, because Bill had spoken so often of his good times in New York with Mailer and Jones, three World War II soldiers and newly successful novelists in 1951. They were all close, but after the Mailers joined the Styrons in Connecticut in 1956, Bill and Norman fell out and didn’t speak for decades.
Bill and Jim—and soon Gloria and I—became inseparable friends: we visited annually in their Paris apartment, traveled together in Europe and to Haiti (the famous Hotel Olafson), and shared holidays in Connecticut, Martha’s Vineyard, and Long Island for at least eighteen years until Jim died. Bill loved Jim and valued his later work highly, especially The Thin Red Line. I was surprised by his assessment of the author of From Here to Eternity, because Bill wrote a brilliant introduction for a later edition of the book.
Norman’s letter of March 3, 1953 (which was published in full in these pages on February 26, 2009) must have encouraged the self-doubting Bill, since he called The Long March “certainly as good an 80 pages as any American has written since the war and I really think it’s much more than that. You watch. It’s going to last and last and last.” He goes on to say that it is almost as “marvelous” as Heart of Darkness, of which it reminded him. His one “humble criticism,” which Bill refers to in his reply: “your tendency…to invert your story and manner your prose just slightly might come from a certain covert doubt of your strengths as a writer, and you’re too good to doubt yourself.”
March 4, 1953
Your letter, of course, certainly flattered me—elated me, indeed, about as much, or more, as any compliment I’ve ever received, and we won’t turn this into a mutual admiration society by my wondering if you know how much or often certain shades and nuances from Naked have crept into, from time to time, my own work. However, they have, much and often—I don’t know how visibly—and we’ll let it go at that.
I appreciate, too, your comments concerning certain things which I do to my prose every now and then which seem to reveal that I don’t know how…
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Copyright ©2012 by Rose Styron