From the book, Selected Letters of William Styron, edited by Rose Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin. Copyright © 2012 by Rose Styron. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House. All rights reserved.
After William Styron died, his wife Rose was cleaning up their Connecticut house in preparation for it to be sold when she discovered an enormous pile of letters in her husband’s old writing room. The letters had been sent to him from family, friends, colleagues, old girlfriends, literary luminaries, nearly everyone he had come in contact with during his long career. Rose did not find any letters, though, written by Mr. Styron himself. Evidently, he did not write letters with one eye on posterity, saving carbons as some writers did. He wrote letters for the sheer joy of keeping in touch, to unlock problems in his novels and to recount the comings and goings of his days.
With the help of historian R. Blakeslee Gilpin, Mrs. Styron set about trying to find some of the letters Mr. Styron had written. Mr. Gilpin is an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina and was especially suited to the project. As a boy spending summers on Martha’s Vineyard, he worked at the Vineyard Haven post office where, among other duties, he sold many, many stamps to Mr. Styron.
The two scoured libraries, contacted friends and even put out advertisements in various periodicals. They soon accumulated thousands of letters written by Mr. Styron beginning as a boy in grade school and continuing up to his death.
Mrs. Styron and Mr. Gilpin culled from the pile to create the Selected Letters of William Styron, recently published by Random House. What follows are three of these letters. The first letter to William Blackburn, his literature professor at Duke, was written when Mr. Styron was 19 years old. The second letter is to Maxwell Geismar, a literary critic and biographer. The third letter is to his eldest daughter Susanna.
To William Blackburn
May 8, 1945 Quantico, Virginia
Dear Professor Blackburn,
I got your note last Saturday, and was both surprised and pleased to learn that my story had been received so favorably by the judges of the Story contest. Since I was home last weekend, and saw the letter which you had written to my father, I was still more surprised to learn that the story stood among the top ten or so.
As you might have noticed from my address, I am at Quantico now, taking a “refresher course” which will ostensibly prepare me for the O.C.S. So far it has proved to be nothing much more than a relief from the atrocities of New River, since the program here is designed more to treat us like gentlemen and future officers, and less like recruits. I am scheduled to enter O.C.S. in about two weeks, and from then on out I can only keep my fingers crossed, and hope I make it.
I have an idea for another story germinating, but I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to write it down. I also see more and more every day which might go toward that novel, and I hope to come back to Duke after the war and complete it.
Whenever I finish writing the story I have in mind I’ll send it to you for criticism, approval, and disposition. Thanks again for all the help you’ve given me, and I hope to see you sometime before very long — with bars, I hope.
Styron was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps in July 1945. Following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945. After commanding a guard platoon on Hart’s Island in Long Island Sound, Styron was discharged in December and he returned to Duke in March 1946.
To Maxwell Geismar
April 4, 1960 Via San Teodoro, 28, Rome, Italy
Though I suspect that my erstwhile pal, Norman Mailer, would consider a letter like this simply another example of literary politicking, I wanted to write and tell you how really pleased I was by your reaction to SET THIS HOUSE ON FIRE. Bob Loomis delightedly sent me your quote and I think I can say without qualification or sentimentality that it touched me like nothing in a long time to see how you responded to the book, and how you understood it. Though I’m all too well aware that the book has its faults, in my better moods I believe in this work, and think it will eventually get its just due and recognition; you have been one of the very few people who professionally has cared for my work, and has spoken up for me, so I would like to think that this new book—and your understanding of it and belief in it— will eventually prove to be vindication for both of us. Loomis tells me that John Aldridge didn’t particularly go for the book, having gotten hung up on, of all things, “Mason’s repressed homosexuality,” an infinitesimal factor in the book which here perhaps reveals a lot more about the secret life of Aldridge than it does about Mason, or the book. Naturally, and as usual, I am looking forward to being ignored by the Partisan highbrows, etc. In an age when horrifying anal fantasies like The Naked Lunch are all the rage, I have no doubt that the schoolmasters will find this book of mine too broad, too “social,” in short, too full of life. But most of the time I find myself feeling so much faith in the book that it really doesn’t matter. I can only sense a certain kinship with Stendhal and say to myself: “My work is there. Try to move it, you bastards, try in vain.”
We have the whole gang over here in a nice apartment overlooking the Forum. The reason I am here is mainly to get away from Roxbury for a while— from the scene of my wrestling for so long with Cass and Mason—and to get a breath of fresh air, a momentary new slant on things. Loving Italy as much as I do, I am no expatriate, and I have no doubt that we will be back in the U.S. toward the end of this summer. The book will be published around the first of June and I am of course going to be very interested in seeing how it goes. It would be fine if Fate ordains that you review it for the Times, but those things as we both well know are in the hands of God + Francis Brown. Give my very best to Ann. Rose sends love, as do I, and I hope you’ll let me hear from you.
All the best, Bill
To Susanna Styron
August 18, 1982 Vineyard Haven, MA
Dear #1 Daughter:
I am sitting out at the end of the dock in beautiful sunlight writing this in a chair. If the handwriting is a little goofy looking it’s because of the unaccustomed position. Aquinnah is next to me, looking very self- satisfied (she’s so spoiled) and has her eyes trained on the lawn, ready to howl at any intruder, canine or human. Thus, the lazy pace of these summer days. Carlos and Sophia Fuentes have left, with plans afoot for Carlos and me to go to Nicaragua this winter. I would probably try to make the trip coincide with a trip to see Castro, after Carlos and I huddle with GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez in Mexico City. All this, I might add, I would like to think might come after a trip to Italy to see #1 daughter. I miss you so much, as does all of the fam., and I am plotting a way to get to Rome before too long. I love your various communications. Your description of a week-end in the country with the Russians was wonderful.
Eddie Bunker and his girl Jennifer were here and that was fine. Eddie got on especially well with Gene Genovese, also visiting—the chemistry between the San Quentin alumnus and the ex-Brooklyn slum kid was just right. Other social events have included a mammoth party your mother gave for Bill and Wendy Luers (guests included Buchwalds, Kay Graham, and Carl Bernstein and his current companion Margaret Jay, wife of the ex–British ambassador), and last night a horrible party at the Edgartown Yacht Club that Walter Cronkite gave for his 90-year old mother. It was supposed to be a traditional dance for the old lady, but about a week or so before she had been knocked down on the beach by a gigantic poodle, breaking her leg, so she showed up in a wheelchair. The Buchwalds and Styrons were the youngest guests by about 20 years, the others being drunken old retired admirals and other of the Edgartown Yacht Club ilk.
The enclosed article does not quite do justice to my Mayhew Seminar appearance. The reporter describes the audience as being “perplexed,” but I think my approach went over the head not of the audience but the reporter himself who is about 18, very solemn and wanted, I think, a pompous lecture on Art and Life and Other Important Topics. Also, if I was “uncomfortable” at the lectern it was because the temperature was about 98°.
I’m finishing the galleys of my book of essays, This Quiet Dust, and Random House has done a most fine printing job. The book is much longer than I thought it would be— you’ll get one of the first copies. Also, the book of Mitterrand’s writings, to which I wrote the introduction, has received to my surprise a great deal of attention, and that’s nice.
Your brother Tom has broken silence in Texas to say that he’s having a fine and busy time. Polly has taken over the Roxbury house, which pleases us and Al— well, Al is the No. 1 swinger of the H.T.R. and the island in general, as you can imagine.
More guests tonight— Francine and Cleve Gray, my friend Marie-EugÃ©nie de Pourtales from Paris. Will the madness never end?
I’ll write more soon. Meanwhile, much love from Aquinnah and me, on the dock.