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Bill Styron: The Ups and Downs

Jill Krementz
William Styron at his house in Roxbury, Connecticut, January 1972

The hundreds of letters written by William Styron, nearly sixty years of them, many quite long, are about such matters as the public apology of Robert McNamara regarding the Vietnam War, capital punishment, the crassness of American culture, politicians, publishers, the books of friends and less-known writers, the ignorance of critics. There are letters of considered opinion and those of a good old boy, the vulgarities included. In them are marvelous images: William Burroughs, met in Paris,

is an absolutely astonishing personage, with the grim mad face of Savonarola and a hideously tailored 1925 shit-colored overcoat and scarf to match and a gray fedora pulled down tight around his ears. He reminded me of nothing so much as a mean old Lesbian and is a fantastic reactionary, very prim and tight-lipped and proper who spoke of our present Republican administration as that “dirty group of Reds.”

Styron, during his long and distinguished career as a writer, produced four novels, or five counting the novella The Long March (1956). He wrote slowly in longhand on yellow pads, usually in the afternoon, not going on to the next paragraph or page until he was satisfied with what he had written before. He complained always of the difficulty of writing, the torture of it. “Writing for me is the hardest thing in the world.” He loathed it, he said, every word that he put down seemed to be sheer pain, yet it was the only thing that made him happy.

From youth his sole and burning ambition was to be a writer. For him there was never any question but that it was manly and important work. His father, who was an engineer in the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia, and to whom Styron was always close, encouraged him in this. Styron’s mother died when he was nine years old and he grew up with a stepmother who was not a large influence on his life. The early letters to his father frequently mention the writing he is doing, at college and afterward, describing and discussing it. Styron was idealistic, open, and committed to truth, not just the objective truth but the truth that lies in the heart and that everyone recognizes.

Styron was born in Newport News in 1925 and the family later moved to a small, somewhat rural village about ten miles away. He was a true southerner, from the Tidewater country of Virginia, and though he resisted being classed as a southern writer, his novels are largely southern—Lie Down in Darkness (1951), The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)—and it is a southern narrator, Stingo, the voice of Styron himself, who tells the story of Sophie in Sophie’s Choice (1979). He wrote long. Length and amplitude, he felt, were primary virtues of the novel. “My natural bent seems to be rhetorical,” he wrote to his teacher at Duke, William Blackburn. “I believe that a writer should accommodate language to his own peculiar personality, and mine wants to use great words, evocative words, when the situation demands them.”

Lie Down in Darkness, his first novel, was begun with the encouragement of Blackburn and also of Hiram Haydn, then an editor at Crown who had Styron as a student in a writing class he was teaching at the New School. It took almost four years to write and was completed in 1951, just before Styron was called back into the Marines during the Korean War. He had been in the Marine V-12 program at Duke, and had completed training and gone on to officers’ school and been commissioned a second lieutenant. He was stationed at Quantico, destined to be part of the Marine force that would invade Japan, when the war ended.

Lie Down in Darkness was published to some acclaim in September 1951. He wrote to William Blackburn:

The reviews, most of them, have been quite wonderful. You probably saw the Sunday Times and Tribune. The out-of-town reviews have practically all been superlative, with the exception of the Chicago Tribune, which said I needed an editor like Maxwell Perkins.

The novel’s length—four hundred pages—and density were two of its strengths, however, and it was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The judges included Malcolm Cowley, Allen Tate, Van Wyck Brooks, and W.H. Auden, and the prize included a year in Rome and a stipend of $3,500. In March 1952 Styron sailed for Europe on the Île de France. On board were Lena Horne and Arthur Laurents, with whom he wrote that he got plastered in the First Class bar.

It was the rising of the curtain. In Europe, first in London and then in Paris where he stayed for five months, and finally in Rome, he saw the great world. He met Peter Matthiessen and the Paris Review crowd in Paris. The magazine was just getting started and he became part of it. He met and became friends with Irwin Shaw. He was in Rome less than a month when he met again a beautiful American girl, Rose Burgunder, whom he had been introduced to at Johns Hopkins a year earlier. She left a note in his mailbox and they got together at the bar of the Excelsior Hotel for a drink. Six months later they married.

In Paris Styron had written a long story based on an incident he experienced in the Marines, which would later appear in book form as The Long March. It was published in 1953 in the magazine Discovery, and not long after, a letter from Norman Mailer reached him in Rome saying that it was “as good an eighty pages as any American has written since the war.” Mailer was the contemporary Styron admired most, and he promptly replied with his own letter of friendship and flattery, praising The Naked and the Dead (1948) and Barbary Shore (1951). A long correspondence of mutual admiration and approval followed, two young lions licking one another’s paws—James Jones, who had written From Here to Eternity (1951), was a third. Saul Bellow was a decade their senior, John Cheever was a New Yorker writer, Philip Roth was in high school, Isaac Singer was another world.

Some months later Styron, as his good friend, wrote to Mailer about The Deer Park (1955), a Hollywood novel:

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.

Perhaps to smooth things over, in a following letter Styron wrote:

Parts of The Deer Park still keep coming back to me. It’s amazing how solid a book it is, in the sense that its effect hangs on, even if you don’t particularly want it to. I think this is because there is in the book an unremitting determination to be truthful, and that beautifully distinguishes it from most of the novels which are coming out these days, the writers of which have become so bewilderingly entangled in the dishonesty and million-dollar-hokum of contemporary American life that they’ve lost their point of view entirely, so that their slickly cynical distortions are accepted as realism and truth. Most every form of expression in America is now keenly attuned to the second-rate, if not third-rate….

In the fall of 1954, following their return from Europe, Styron and his wife bought an old house and eleven acres in Roxbury, Connecticut, where they lived from then on, eventually with their four children. They later bought a second house on Martha’s Vineyard where they spent long summers. Styron wrote to Mailer that fall:

Since you heard from me I have finally come to the point where I think I can hazard the statement that my next novel is under way. I never thought that a project could be so hellishly difficult or seem to stretch out so aimlessly and vainly toward the farthest limits of the future, but I am embarked, at least…. I remember your once asking me if it was to be a “major effort”; I don’t know what I said in reply, only now I’m beginning to realize that it is a major effort—major in the sense that it has become impossible for me to write anything without making it a supreme try at a supreme expression.

The Mailers moved to Connecticut themselves two years later, and the couples often saw each other socially. The next letter came as a thunderclap. It was Mailer’s accusation that he had heard that Styron had been passing “atrocious remarks” about Mailer’s wife, Adele, and invited Styron to a fight “in which I expect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit.” In a second letter, Mailer invited Styron to repeat an explanation face-to-face. That never happened. It was more than twenty years before they corresponded again. Styron told James Jones that it was Rose’s theory that it was Mailer’s pent-up homosexuality focused on Jones that caused him to become insanely jealous, hence the venomous letter:

This is awful stuff to talk about, but we are dealing with a lunatic. At any rate I’m convinced that this jealousy, combined with a bitter envy of both of our talents, has been at the root of his hatred.

At the beginning of 1960, Styron wrote a long letter to Robert Brown, an editor at Esquire, which had published a section of the new novel, Set This House on Fire, explaining his history and that of Lie Down in Darkness:

It came out in 1951, and due to the good offices of an editor and publisher who had faith in the book it received considerable journalistic attention. It got fine reviews in the Sunday book pages; embarrassingly enough, even Prescott half-liked it, and though Time Magazine and The New Yorker shrugged it off as another magnolia-and-moonlight potboiler, there were a lot of very fine and intelligent reviews from the provinces. It was even a moderate best-seller for a while, and then it dropped out of sight. Well, I thought all this was swell enough, but being university-bred myself and not ashamed of it I began to wonder when I would get really serious attention. I mean I began to say to myself that all this middlebrow attention was very good, but now—how about the serious audience? How about the old Kenyon and old Partisan and the old Hudson and all the rest? Who was going to tout this book onto the college readers—the serious young people in college or just out who after all make up one of the major parts of a serious writer’s audience?
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