William Styron's Uncollected Essays: History Collides with Literature

By Sirlin, Rhoda | The Southern Literary Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

William Styron's Uncollected Essays: History Collides with Literature


Sirlin, Rhoda, The Southern Literary Journal


Until 1990, with the publication of William Styron's surprise best-selling memoir, Darkness Visible, most readers probably would have associated Styron almost exclusively with the novel. Actually, Styron has been writing a considerable amount of nonfiction since the 1960s, an impressive collection, much of which was published in 1982 in a volume entitled This Quiet Dust and Other Writings. The late critic and Styron scholar Melvin J. Friedman said that this collection "will surely one day have a place next to Mann's Essays of Three Decades, Valery's History and Politics, and Camus's Resistance, Rebellion, and Death--where it belongs" (37). This collection as well as Styron's other work has often been underestimated and misunderstood at home and then warmly accepted abroad, especially in France. Styron's fiction and nonfiction, like Camus's, demonstrate a sense of moral responsibility and knowledge of the sinister forces in history and modern life which threaten us all. "History," Styron once said, "is a marvelous and clear mirror of human behavior" (Caputo 150). It should not surprise us, then, that This Quiet Dust contains essays on the South's tragic legacy of racism and slavery, on what it means to be a southerner, on crime and punishment, particularly the issue of capital punishment, on military life, the Vietnam War, the 1968 Chicago Convention, on obscenity laws and pornography, on writers who have influenced American culture, and on the meaning of Auschwitz, which he asserts was embedded in our cultural traditions, a sleeping virus which did not end with the destruction of the crematoria in 1945. Styron's nonfiction, then, exhibits the intelligence, humanity, vision, and conscience that we have come to expect and admire in his fiction.

Styron modestly considers the writing of prose other than fiction a sideline, but he discovered while putting together his first collection of nonfiction prose that he had written a far greater amount in the essay form than he remembered. Actually, he has never harbored disdain for literary journalism or just plain journalism, under whose sponsorship he has been able to express much that has fascinated, alarmed, or amused him. Since 1982, dozens of as yet uncollected essays and reviews have appeared in such newspapers as The New York Times, Newsday, and the Virginia Daily Press, journals such as The Paris Review and Sewanee Review, and magazines such as The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, and American Heritage. Styron has also written gracious introductions to books he admires--in particular Francois Mitterrand's autobiography and judge Robert Satter's Doing Justice, a portrait of a trial judge at work.

Styron has always been fascinated by the human propensity to dominate and destroy; his fiction and nonfiction explore this tendency, revealing his tragic view of human existence. Some of Styron's essays can be described as advocacy journalism, pieces which provide a forum for his humanistic values and libertarian attacks on injustice. In short, he has been able to wed literature and politics, public and private concerns, disproving the notion that only Europeans are engage.

Certainly, since 1989, nobody could doubt the power and craft of Styron's nonfiction. Darkness Visible, his memoir about his near fatal bout with depression, began as a 13,000 word essay published in the December 1989 issue of Vanity Fair which won the National Magazine Award in the Essay and Criticism category Random House then published an expanded book version of this essay in 1990, which had an initial printing of 75,000 copies and remained on The New York Times Nonfiction Best-Sellers List for six months; in response to the book, Styron receives enthusiastic, dramatic, and sometimes desperate letters. Obviously, he has tapped into something disturbing and deep. He continues to be a spokesman for removing the stigma of depression, speaking on radio and television and to community and health organizations; indeed, Darkness Visible has spawned an entire cottage industry of first person accounts of mood disorders.

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