Selected Letters of William Styron
I started – but never finished – Styron’s two major works, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice. This was long before I was doing reviews, so I can’t give specific reasons as to why I abandoned them (though I vaguely recall strong negative feelings). I did read all of Darkness Visible, his short memoir about his bout with depression, and his fine novella, The Long March. But I have no interest in tackling his first and second novels (both, as is true with Nat and Sophie, are enormous). Though I don’t qualify as a fan of his writing, Styron had a prominent place in the literary scene in the second half of the twentieth century. I didn’t suspect how far-reaching that place was. Apparently he had personal charm (or something going for him), because he was able, over the years, to establish close relationships with just about everybody who mattered. This extended to people in the uppermost tier of politics and pop culture (he palled around with the likes of JFK and Jackie, Sinatra and Mia). I could see one aspect of his success with other writers: his glowing comments about their work. Here’s a sample, taken at random: “It is an overwhelmingly splendid achievement that has left me gasping for superlatives.” He does a lot of gasping in these pages. In Advertisements for Myself Norman Mailer wrote that Styron “oiled every literary lever and power” to advance himself (as if he, Mailer, didn’t also work to make the right contacts). This attack – which was returned in kind – gives a look at the feuding that often crops up among writers. If Styron doled out praise, he needed it too, and he got combative toward those who viewed his work negatively; for him criticism cut deep. Though he succeeded as few writers do, and enjoyed many of the perks of that success, in his last two decade he published almost no fiction, and in his final six years his depression would return and overwhelm him. I found the book to be an interesting read (though there was much skimming over its 640 pages). I had questions in regard to what the compiler – Styron’s wife Rose – chose to include and exclude. There’s not one letter to her, nor to three of his four children (his eldest daughter gets ten, all cheerful and loving). I think some major tinkering was going on regarding personal matters. As I read these letters I initially felt dislike for the man, but gradually my attitude grew more forgiving. That tends to happen when the span of a life unfolds, from youth to old age.
Reading My Father - Alexandra Styron
I skimmed this book to find out about Styron’s relationship with his family, a subject that I thought had been avoided in the letters his wife chose to publish. According to his daughter, the father she grew up with was someone she tried to avoid (as did her mother, who stayed away from the house as much as possible). He had a volatile temper and went into verbally abusive rants at the slightest provocation. He comes across as a supremely selfish and self-centered man who was frequently unfaithful to his wife and largely indifferent to Alexandra. Being the youngest of his four children, she got the worst of him, for in her teenage years his ability to write began to desert him. Darkness Visible, his account of the depression that he experienced in his fifties, ends on an upbeat note; but the assault on his mind and body that reoccurred fifteen years later was brutal and unrelenting. Alexandra chronicles his decline, and it’s a frightening story. It provoked in me some radical thoughts. Why are doctors and mental care facilities so determined to keep patients from committing suicide? If someone reaches the point of no return and nothing in the medical arsenal helps – as was the case with Styron – it would be humane to let them have access to a pill to put them out of their misery. I also questioned whether Styron was deserving of the care he received from his wife and children for the last six years of his life. Though Alexandra tries to evoke feelings of love and sympathy for her father, she was clearly conflicted. While at the Duke University library, going through letters he had received from readers, she wonders, “how could a guy whose thoughts elicit this much pathos have been, for so many years, such a monumental asshole?” She feels like “picking up the letters by the fistful and shouting into the silence of the library, PEOPLE! Do you have ANY idea of who you are dealing with here?” (Italics the author’s.)
Ten North Frederick – John O’Hara
His more literary contemporaries expressed disdain for O’Hara’s writing, but I think their real gripe was that his books sold quite well. Though he did churn out a lot of mediocre work, he should be judged by the four long, ambitious novels he produced at the midpoint of his career. Ten North Frederick, the second of the four, tells the life story of Joe Chapin. We get to know Joe mainly by what he says. Even detractors acknowledge O’Hara’s ability to capture speech. This may seem like a minor distinction, but through speech a personality can emerge. Joe is a good man – no vices, really, until alcohol brings him down (though he had resigned from life before the serious drinking began). The odd twist is that this lawyer from Gibbsville, Pennsylvania aspires to become no less than president of the United States. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in his belief that he isn’t ordinary, and that his convictions have value. Of course, he fails dismally – in the political arena he’s a lamb among wolves. O’Hara was for many years a newspaper man, and he knew how to write eminently readable prose. This background also gave him a wide range of experience of life in this country in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. His stated purpose was “to record the way people talked and thought and felt, and do it with complete honesty and variety.” He largely succeeds. But, as is true in gymnastics, one must nail the landing; if you stumble, you detract from an otherwise excellent routine. O’Hara stumbles. I believe he made his misstep because he came to love Joe, and so he grants him a brief interlude of happiness with a woman the age of his daughter. This contrived and somewhat mushy episode is at odds in a novel that is otherwise firmly grounded in reality. All in all, Ten North Frederick is a solid achievement, both as entertainment and literature, and it deserved the National Book Award it received in 1956.