Magazine article The American Conservative

Greatness Visible

Magazine article The American Conservative

Greatness Visible

Article excerpt

Greatness Visible

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 Styrons letters is an impressive - albeit incomplete - masterpiece of the genre. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the author of Sophies Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner did not save carbon copies of his correspondence for posterity, and that made tracking down Styrons 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 Styrons 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, Styrons 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 mat 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 selfrealization 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 die 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. From the evidence of the letters, Styron never in his life wrote anything for fun. …

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