Bill Styron: The Ups and Downs

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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 …

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