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William Styron to Norman Mailer: Two Letters

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Rose Styron, Bill Styron, Norman Mailer, and Norris Church Mailer at the party for the tenth anniversary of Poets & Writers, New York City, 1980

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.”

—Rose Styron

March 4, 1953
Rome, Italy1

Dear Norman:

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 good I am. As for that, I think you may be right, having suspected it from time to time myself; but I think I’m arriving at a point which more and more I’m conscious of the mannerisms, and therefore tend to avoid them and go instead more directly to the point. It’s a hell of a hard process, but I take to it more instinctively than the other way around: the brawny method, like a big guy bellowing his way through a crowd. I wonder, for instance, to paraphrase your comment, if Jim Jones knows how really bad he is. I don’t know why I single him out, but really dreadful stuff like that piece in the second New World Writing2 seems to me to be indicative of the method of a writer who is so dazzled by the vision of his own strength, so earnestly wanting to think deep and write strong, that the result is an achingly conspicuous gaucherie with no significance for either writer or reader.

Of course there’s a middle ground in prose, between the tenuous, mannered web of the young lady writers, both male and female, who, whether they have or haven’t anything to say, can’t just quite squeeze it out—and the Older Boys, who always say what they have to say too loudly, too often, and not carefully enough. All this of course is cliché. But it’s simply remarkable to me how so few writers who call themselves serious are unaware of the simple fact that a piece of prose, complex or written in the simplest, most unpoetic language, is akin nonetheless to poetry in that it’s supposed to move men—to laughter or tears, at least to something—and it will very rarely do this unless it approaches this queer middle ground, where the reader can marvel at the excellence of the style and the power of the thing being said, without being really conscious of either. You feel that these boys are never really initially moved by the thing they want to say, or, if they are moved, rush in with flailing arms and without ever having considered the various wheres and whens and whys with which to move the reader. I suppose it would be impossible to explain to someone like Jim Jones where this middle ground is; you’ve been solidly encamped there ever since Naked, even in Barbary Shore which had strange and wonderful stretches.3 I swear, I can hardly read any of our contemporaries. I’m either deafened by them, or find them practicing onanism in the corner.

Married in Rome a year earlier, we had returned from a long honeymoon in Ravello to New York City where we stayed brief months between a summer rental in Springs, New York (near Peter and Patsy Matthiessen) and the house we bought and moved to in Roxbury, Connecticut. Bill was responding this time to Norman’s latest letter from his and Adele’s house in Mexico. It had expressed great unease with our silence regarding The Deer Park (“were you so unhappy with my book and disliked it so much you haven’t had the heart to write me for fear it would alter our friendship?… I think I’ll garrote the two of you in a slow twist”).

—RS

July 19, 1954
231 East 76th Street
New York, NY

Dear Norman:

First, let me explain that the uncommon delay in my correspondence results not out of any reluctance to write you about “The Deer Park,” but simply from a neurotic procrastination coupled with an unwillingness to spend a scanty 15 minutes or so writing you a “Hiya, how’s everything in Mexico” note, when what I really want to do is send you something lengthy, thought-out and considered—like what I hope this will be.

I’ll try, then, to dig in on the book without further ado. I read it a couple of days after you left and although it’s of course not quite so fresh in my mind as it was then, I took quite a few notes on it and have done considerable pondering in the meanwhile. First of all, I think it’s a fine, big book in the sense that it’s a major attempt to re-create a distinct milieu—an important one and one deeply representative of all the shabby materialism and corruption which are, after all, the real roots of our national existence. As a picture of this milieu, the book seems to me to be both honest and brilliant. It is also a depressing book, really depressing, in its manifest candor, and I’m afraid there aren’t going to be many people who will like it. The chapter toward the end, for instance, which reveals Teppis in all his gruesome horror is, I’m convinced, the most brilliantly scathing assault on a Hollywood demi-God that has yet been written; the blow-job is just right, the perfect symbolic admixture of impotence and cruelty.4 But it is just this sort of unrelenting honesty, as you must know, that is going to make the critics howl. The sex throughout the book is painful—painful as sex can only be when it has become a meaningless sensation. It is that way I know that you meant it, and it gives a tone to the book of unalleviated and leaden anxiety. Anxiety runs through the book like a dark river—the true torturous anxiety—and gives to the book this deep sense of depression, which is totally divorced from purely literary concerns. This I think the critics are going to miss—they’re going to flay you alive for indulging yourself in sensations when in fact it is the piling up of sensation after meaningless sensation, of lovelessness and debauchery, which gives such a meaning to the novel as a whole. Truly, modern life is golden-filled with golden girls like Lulu Meyers in resplendent Jaguars—but set in a wasteland of endless corruption and despair. A real Desert d’Or. But you’re going to be criticized for not being “gayer,” lighter about it.

Outside of Teppis (who really, I suppose, figures in a relatively minor role) your best character is Eitel. His final corruption is complete, and you portray his finish with power and a great deal of sympathy. Even he is depressing though, for since he is the only really “nice” character in the book one hopes desperately for his triumph and is deeply depressed by his finale. It really is an appalling picture you paint, appalling and truthful, and the book, I suppose, is so unpleasant—and so fascinating—to read, because the truth is so appalling. It is the apotheosis of total vacuum. Yet out of that vacuum I wouldn’t doubt but that you’ve created the most piercing study of Hollywood that’s been written. I only personally wish I “liked” the book more, that for all of these glittering creatures which you’ve skewered with such real art and insight I felt more heartbreak.

Some minor things: The party at the beginning is wonderful—the dialogue there is as good as any I know. Sergius doesn’t quite come off as a character (as someone else—I think Loomis—pointed out) and I wonder whether really that’s at all important, and whether that should worry you, if it does at all. It seems to me that first person narrators rarely if ever come off, and perhaps it’s better that they don’t but remain (like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) shadowy and unobtrusively in the background, even though they participate in some of the action. At any rate although Sergius did seem elusive to me, I reflected while reading that it didn’t seem to bother me much—perhaps because I came to accept him pretty much merely as a window through which to observe Eitel and Lulu and the rest. You worked some sort of magic, too, in the transitions, so that I found that I accepted motivations and actions even when Sergius wasn’t on hand to observe them. The curious thing about first-rate writers is that they can ignore the iron-clad conventions and rules and get by with it.

Here, then, is my final pompous verdict: you’ve written a book like sour wine, a lethal draught bitter and unlikable, but one which was written with a fine and growing art, and about which I think you can feel proud. It doesn’t have the fire of “Naked” but I think has primer and maturer insights. It is not an appealing book, but neither does it compromise, and for that alone you should be awarded a medal. If lacking the large universe of “Naked,” it doesn’t have “Naked”’s impact, it is also a book which burns with a different, somehow keener light. I don’t like the book, but I admire the hell out of it, and I suppose that’s all I have to say for the moment—or until I can talk to you face to face. What is really important is that the book is a solid one, with a deep sense of morality.

So I haven’t you written all this before because I seem to finally have become gripped by the creeping paralysis which has taken hold of me within the past year or so, and which has extended even to letter-writing. My mornings (12 noon +) are agony, and the daily Angst is hell. I look forward each day with the same hopeless ardor that a monk must envision paradise to the time when I’m free of this thing that constricts me, to the time when I’m “liberated” enough to be able to sit down and write 25 consecutive words without fear and trembling. It must be my liver, though it might be the heat—which has been terrible—and withal, no doubt, booze is heavily to blame. Anyway, it can’t last too much longer, for I’ll simply have to throw it all up and become a druggist or something. One thing, Rose is going to have a baby (I hope it’s a baby) next March and that might have the quality of snapping me out of my neurotic antics. It is strange, too, how on the weekends, when we go to see people in L.I. or in Conn., a sheer euphoria takes hold of me. I’m self-analytical enough to realize that my murderous anxiety mornings here in the city is because I’m faced with the ridiculous responsibility of creating a masterpiece, whereas the weekends have me gaily unburdened.

After you left, Maloney went temporarily off his rocker, drunkenly attempted suicide with his seconal, and ended up for a week in Bellevue.5 He’s all right now, but is going to lose his job, and God knows where he’ll eventually end up—the Bowery, probably. We are all by now sorely tempted to go on and let him slide down to limbo. We had supper with Larry and Barbara last night—a pleasant time. I read his novel finally; it’s really got some good things in it, though awfully spotty.

Say Hello to Lew Allen for me, will you? I owe him a letter from way back. His matador girlfriend got a lot of space recently in the N.Y. paper.

Ars longa. I think we perhaps flagellate ourselves too much. I hope my little critique made some sense to you; at any rate, believe me when I say that everything I said was as honest as I know how. Rose sends her love to both of you and requests that at one time or another you pick an orchid for auld lang syne. Catch me up on everything when you get time. As ever, Bill

Copyright ©2012 by Rose Styron

  1. 1

    Styron’s first letter to Norman Mailer. 

  2. 2

    James Jones, “None Sing So Wildly,” New World Writing: Second Mentor Selection (New American Library, 1952). 

  3. 3

    Mailer’s first two novels, The Naked and the Dead (Rinehart, 1948) and Barbary Shore (Rinehart, 1951). 

  4. 4

    These lines of Mailer’s, appearing on page 277 of the Rinehart proofs sent to Styron, are reproduced at the end of “Fourth Advertisement for Myself: The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” in Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959). 

  5. 5

    Bellevue was at the time a psychiatric hospital. 

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