Magazine article The American Conservative

Greatness Visible

Magazine article The American Conservative

Greatness Visible

Article excerpt

Selected Letters of William Styron, R. Blakeslee Gilpin and Rose Styron, eds., Random House, 704 pages

Given that letter writing is a dead art form, there are probably not many more books of this ilk waiting in the wings. Certainly authors and other notable figures will continue to correspond with each other, but changes in technology have wrested much of the poetry from the enterprise. I can't see myself working up a lot of enthusiasm for The Collected Emails of Michael Chabon. Can you?

Happily, this collection of William Styron's letters is an impressive--albeit incomplete--masterpiece of the genre. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the author of Sophie's Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner did not save carbon copies of his correspondence for posterity, and that made tracking down Styron's casually cast-off longhand missives an exceptionally daunting task. The editors were unable to locate, for example, any of the letters Styron wrote to the novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin--letters that would certainly have proven illuminating given Styron's complicated relationship with the African-American intellectual community in the wake of the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner.

The book begins with some dispatches from the young author-to-be to his father, while Styron was at Duke University as a member of the Marines' V-12 officer training program in 1943. Precociousness distinguishes these early epistles; in one example, composed at the tender age of 19, Styron grapples with what he perceives to be unresolvable conflicts within the Protestant Christianity of his upbringing. While this is far from an unusual predicament for a young, curious soul feeling its way in the wider world, Styron's musings are on an altogether different plane from the typical "I'm not going to church anymore; it's boring" complaint. He writes:

   In parts the Bible is a literary masterpiece.
   Nothing finer has been
   written than the story of Job and
   the sermon of Ecclesiastes, and I
   believe that if Christ was not the
   son of God, he approached such
   a divine kinship as nearly as any
   man ever born. But it is impossible
   for me to cling to a Faith
   which attempts, and succeeds in
   too many cases, in foisting upon
   the multitude a belief in so much
   which is utter fantasy.

Many years later, after he had reconciled somewhat with Christianity, or at least with the idea of Christianity, Styron found himself in his father's position: patiently listening to and counseling his child (daughter Susanna) through her own crisis of faith. His response to this challenge is one of the high points of the collection:

   It may or may not be a consolation
   to you that your intense wonder
   and turmoil about the meaning of
   the human condition is, in fact, a
   part of the human condition--or
   at least as it is experienced by sensitive
   and questing souls like yourself....
   A fisherman in the Arabian
   Gulf finds purpose in life by fishing,
   a Wyoming sheepherder by
   tending his sheep and remaining
   close to Nature and that big sky.
   On a somewhat higher level intellectually,
   a person like James Joyce,
   a profoundly pessimistic man at
   bottom, could find reason and
   purpose through these moments
   termed 'epiphanies'--instances of
   intense revelation (through love,
   or a glimpse of transcendental
   beauty in the natural world) which
   gave such a sense of joy and self-realization
   that they justified and,
   in effect, ratified the existence of
   him who experienced them. In
   other words, the existential anguish
   becomes undone; through
   moments of aesthetic and spiritual
   fulfillment we find the very reason
   for existence.


A span of almost 30 years separates these letters. Yet the same keen, questing intelligence informs both dispatches.

Another character trait apparently in place from the beginning was Styron's burning desire to be an important, capital-A Author. …

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