Rose Styron, in her introduction to her husband’s “Selected Letters,’’ recalls him as a kind and gentle man who “flew into legendary short-lived rages.” But he emerges from these letters as frequently cruel, crude, and gripped by resentments and hurts that lasted years, even decades. The emotions he expresses most often and most passionately are ambition, anger, and envy. Much of his correspondence to other writers and especially to critics and scholars is composed of direct scathing indictments or indirect demeaning denouncements.
To his faithful friends — his teacher and mentor, William Blackburn, fellow writers Peter Matthiessen and James Jones, and several others — he is generous, loving, and loyal. Yet it is the rancorous tone and rivalrous concerns that seem to dominate in the almost 650 pages and 60 years of correspondence. Discovering that the man differs from his wife’s estimation of him and a reader’s speculations about him in no way detract from the interest of the letters. In fact, seeing the man behind the artist proves fascinating.
His longest feud was with Norman Mailer, who accused him of slandering his wife, Adele. Reading Styron’s nasty remarks about “Jewboys,” “nigra actor Ossie Davis,” the “little epicene pricks of Esquire,” and the “masqued faggots” at Capote’s ball lends credence to Mailer’s assertion, which, in fact, Styron eventually owned up to, after decades of bitter estrangement.
Although on good terms with Ted Kennedy, when the senator made a surprise visit on Martha’s Vineyard, Styron snidely writes, “[Y]ou could have knocked me over with a splinter from the Chappaquiddick Bridge.” Of friend Lillian Hellman, he writes, she is “utterly insane and loathsome to everyone, but is mercifully immobilized by her cigarette, her blindness, feebleness and venom and so can really bite no one seriously.”
In his early tender letters to his supportive father he is modestly optimistic, but when at age 26 he publishes his first novel, “Lie Down in Darkness,’’ to critical acclaim, he imagines himself as successor to Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce. Much later, when he writes his first and only play — “In the Clap Shack’’ — he considers his competition Arthur Miller, referred to earlier as “that strangely & frantically opportunistic dramatist.”
From his homes in Roxbury, Conn., and on Martha’s Vineyard, he worked slowly, producing novels — “Set This House on Fire’’ in 1960, “The Confessions of Nat Turner’’ in 1967, and “Sophie’s Choice’’ in 1979. He reveals little about the composition of these works but spends an inordinate amount of space on their reception by critics and scholars. Enraged when blacks responded angrily to “Nat Turner,’’ he responded to their “hysterical polemic” that he was a racist and a defamer of black people by accusing them of “utterly failing to understand the purposes of literature.” When “The New Yorker’' gave him a “contemptible little kiss-off” of a review for “Sophie’s Choice,’’ he consoled himself with an unexpectedly warm response from Norman Podhoretz, archly identified as “the archbishop of the Jewish right wing.”
His greatest scorn was reserved for writers who courted fame, money, and Hollywood, although he himself coveted these signs of success, as well as honors, prizes, and membership in exclusive clubs.
The light paternal tone of a series of letters to his oldest daughter, Susanna, when she was 16, comes as a welcome respite from Styron’s customary tart reflections on literary matters. But it is odd that there is nothing to his three other children, Polly, Thomas, and Alexandra, and only a few letters to his devoted wife, Rose.
He never mentions his life-long drinking problem until the age of 58, when he gave up alcohol, and, while he does confess to feelings of despondency and desperation in his 20s, he doesn’t refer to them again until felled by suicidal depression at the age of 60. When at 65 he published “Darkness Visible,’’ about his descent into despair, he was the kinder, gentler man his wife remembers.