Archived Reading Room

Essays highlight breadth of Styron’s knowledge

bookSome 30 years ago or so, William Styron — the acclaimed author of novels like The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice — visited the University of Virginia, the setting for some of his first novel, Lie Down In Darkness. I was living in Charlottesville and decided for the first and only time in my life to stand in line and have an author sign a book for me.

When I reached his table, Mr. Styron said affably, “What would you like me to write?” “To the Palmer House and country ham,” I told him. When he gave me a puzzled look, I explained that I had just bought the Palmer House in Waynesville, North Carolina — I am sure he was thinking of the famous hotel in Chicago — and that I had learned to cook country ham from him on a show he had done for television, where he had talked about writing while cooking a ham. 

He laughed and signed the book. 

William Styron died in 2006. This year, Random House has given us a wonderful gift of a book of Styron’s essays. Edited by Styron’s biographer James L.W. West III, My Generation: Collected Nonfiction offers readers a look not only into the writer’s life, but also into the history of our country from World War II until the Clinton years.

Rather than compile these essays chronologically, West has wisely put them into categories like “The South,” “Race and Slavery,” “Warfare and Military Life,” “Friends and Contemporaries,” and several more. Perusing these categories, and then examining the essays themselves, the reader becomes aware of the breadth of Styron’s experience and mind. The grandson of a slaveholder, a native of Tidewater Virginia, a college student at such institutions as Davidson, Chapel Hill, and Duke, a veteran of two wars, a best-selling and controversial novelists, a friend of so many other writers, an acquaintance of Jack Kennedy, a father and husband: Styron filled many roles in his life.

Many of these essays are topical, contemporary to the time in which they were written. In “Havanas in Camelot,” he writes of smoking cigars with President Kennedy; in “Chicago 1968,” he describes the chaos of the Democratic Convention in that city; in “Nat Turner Revisited,” he addresses the hostility he faced from certain African-American intellectuals for daring to write from the perspective of a slave.

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And yet, anyone who has any sense at all of the last 60 years of American history will find this writing as fresh as the day Styron set down his words. In “Havanas in Camelot,” for example, we learn that JFK loved Cuban cigars, which is ironic given the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis. We learn that Kennedy thought Alger Hiss was guilty, that he was so charismatic that even the Republicans were swept away by his charms, that he took an interest in everyone around him, and that a meal on a presidential yacht could include “cold hot dogs in soggy buns, gooey oeufs en gelee…glasses of beer not merely iced but frozen.” 

The essays concerning slavery and Nazi genocide — the focal points of Styron’s two best novels — also contain a good deal of history and address the writer’s dilemma in using history as a background for a novel. As in The Confessions of Nat Turner, when African-Americans took Styron to task for his portraits of American slaves, the same assaults occurred when Sophie’s Choice was published and some Jewish writers and groups declared that Styron’s heroine should have been Jewish. (Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter and the head of the Jewish Center of Documentation, wrote regarding this idea: “I’ve battled for years with Jewish organizations, warning them that we shouldn’t always talk about the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. I say let’s talk about the eleven million civilians, among them six million Jews, who were kills.”)

Readers of My Generation will find their own points of interest, but mine had to do with the criticisms and eulogies of various writers known to Styron. In “O Lost! Etc,” he reminds us of the tremendous effect of Asheville’s Thomas Wolfe on an entire generation of novelists and laments Wolfe’s diminished stature after 1970. In “William Faulkner,” he takes us to Faulkner’s house during his funeral and burial. He writes stirring tributes to Robert Penn Warren, Truman Capote, Irwin Shaw, and a dozen other writers. 

Perhaps his most impressive recollection is of James Jones, author of such books as From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. Styron and Jones both hit the best-seller list in 1951, Styron with Lie Down in Darkness and Jones with From Here to Eternity. Over the years, the two men became good friends with Styron staying in Jones’s house in Paris. Styron doesn’t hesitate to critique negatively some books by his friend — he is on the mark declaring that Go to the Widow-Maker “produced a depressing sense of retrogression and loss” — but he also gives high praise to The Thin Red Line and Whistle. Such generosity of spirit points to a writer who is confident enough of his own gifts to lavish praise on others.

For anyone interested in the history and literature of our country from 1940 to 2000, My Generation will make a superb addition to your library.

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