Selected Letters of William Styron

Selected Letters of William Styron


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In 1950, at the age of twenty-four, William Clark Styron, Jr., wrote to his mentor, Professor William Blackburn of Duke University. The young writer was struggling with his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, and he was nervous about whether his “strain and toil” would amount to anything. “When I mature and broaden,” Styron told Blackburn, “I expect to use the language on as exalted and elevated a level as I can sustain. I believe that a writer should accommodate language to his own peculiar personality, and mine wants to use great words, evocative words, when the situation demands them.”
In February 1952, Styron was awarded the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which crowned him a literary star. In Europe, Styron met and married Rose Burgunder, and found himself immersed in a new generation of expatriate writers. His relationships with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen culminated in Styron introducing the debut issue of The Paris Review. Literary critic Alfred Kazin described him as one of the postwar “super-egotists” who helped transform American letters.
His controversial The Confessions of Nat Turner won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize, while Sophie’s Choice was awarded the 1980 National Book Award, and Darkness Visible, Styron’s groundbreaking recounting of his ordeal with depression, was not only a literary triumph, but became a landmark in the field.
Part and parcel of Styron’s literary ascendance were his friendships with Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, John and Jackie Kennedy, Arthur Miller, James Jones, Carlos Fuentes, Wallace Stegner, Robert Penn Warren, Philip Roth, C. Vann Woodward, and many of the other leading writers and intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century.
This incredible volume takes readers on an American journey from FDR to George W. Bush through the trenchant observations of one of the country’s greatest writers. Not only will readers take pleasure in William Styron’s correspondence with and commentary about the people and events that made the past century such a momentous and transformative time, they will also share the writer’s private meditations on the very art of writing.

Advance praise for Selected Letters of William Styron
“I first encountered Bill Styron when, at twenty, I read The Confessions of Nat Turner. Hillary and I became friends with Bill and Rose early in my presidency, but I continued to read him, fascinated by the man and his work, his triumphs and troubles, the brilliant lights and dark corners of his amazing mind. These letters, carefully and lovingly selected by Rose, offer real insight into both the great writer and the good man.”—President Bill Clinton

“The Bill Styron revealed in these letters is altogether the Bill Styron who was a dear friend and esteemed colleague to me for close to fifty years. The humor, the generosity, the loyalty, the self-awareness, the commitment to literature, the openness, the candor about matters closest to him—all are on display in this superb selection of his correspondence. The directness in the artful sentences is such that I felt his beguiling presence all the while that I was enjoying one letter after another.”—Philip Roth
“Bill Styron’s letters were never envisioned, far less composed, as part of the Styron oeuvre, yet that is what they turn out to be. Brilliant, passionate, eloquent, insightful, moving, dirty-minded, indignant, and hilarious, they accumulate power in the reading, becoming in themselves a work of literature.”—Peter Matthiessen

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400068067
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/04/2012
Pages: 704
Product dimensions: 6.64(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.72(d)

About the Author

Rose Styron is a poet, journalist, translator, and human rights activist. She has published three books of poetry: Thieves’ Afternoon, From Summer to Summer, and By Vineyard Light. At the forefront of the field of international human rights since she joined the board of Amnesty International USA in 1970, she has chaired PEN’s Freedom to Write Committee and the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. Currently, for the Academy of American Poets, she co-chairs, with Meryl Streep, Poetry and the Creative Mind.
R. Blakeslee Gilpin is the author of John Brown Still Lives! America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change, winner of the C. Vann Woodward Prize for the best dissertation in Southern history. His writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. An assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, Gilpin specializes in the history, literature, and culture of the American South. He is currently at work on a new biography of William Styron.


Roxbury, Connecticut, and Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts

Date of Birth:

June 11, 1925

Date of Death:

November 1, 2006

Place of Birth:

Newport News, Virginia

Place of Death:

Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts


Davidson College and Duke University, both in North Carolina; courses at the New School for Social Research in New York

Read an Excerpt

Styron reported to Duke University in June 1943 for summer school and military training. He was assigned to the V‑12 Navy College Training Program for officer candidates, which ran university classes on an accelerated schedule.

To William C. Styron, Sr.

September 15, 1943Duke University

Dear Pop,

Well, it’s been a while since I last wrote you, but things have been just about the same around here. My grades, with the exception of Physics, are pretty good. Physics has thrown me and the rest of the Marines for a loop. To show you how hard the last test was: the average grade in the whole class of about 700 was 38; I got a 21. History, still about B; Polit., up to a B; French up to a C; English still a B; and Psychology still a B. Which all in all isn’t so very bad.

Right now I am writing my chef d’oeuvre in English. It’s a short story about a woman evangelist in the deep South who is jilted in love. The theme of the Song of Solomon runs throughout. If it’s good enough, I might try to get it published somewhere--as the editors of most magazines need material badly. One of my stories is being considered for publication in the Archive, the Duke literary magazine. If it’s accepted, I’ll send a copy to you.1

We’re studying boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu. They’re all very educational--especially jiu-jitsu. My partner is the son of a Marine officer who was stationed in Japan before the war--just my luck! I am continually being thrown on my can.

Still getting up at six o’clock for exercise. The “cadet” system is still in effect. They rotate officers, and any day now I expect to be made a platoon leader or something. Hope I don’t get nervous giving those “right and left flanks.” By the way, you can tell Eliza to have no fear of my oversleeping, as the early morning routine has now become pretty much of a habit.2

I still have hopes of getting home in October. I may bring Don Strotz, my roommate, but I’ll let you know later. In the meanwhile, I’ll content myself with occasional trips to Durham and dates with the newly arrived girls on East Campus.

Write soon and give my best to Eliza.

Your son,

Bill, Jr.

To William C. Styron, Sr.

September 28, 1943Duke University

Dear Pop,

I got your letter and enjoyed it very much. I’m glad you had such a fine time on your vacation. I know you and Eliza must have painted the town red. When at Davidson I saw “Arsenic and Old Lace” and if the New York production was as good as the Davidson one (I doubt if it could equal the Wildcat Dramatic Society), you all must have been rolling in the aisles. It certainly was funny. I heard that “Watch on the Rhine” was excellent, but I suppose it’ll be a long time before it gets to Durham.3

I told all the guys about your unique toast to all the states in the Union. They said we’ll have to try the same toast before Durham runs out of beer.

So far Duke has played two games and won two. We have scored 101 points, beating Camp Lejeune 40-0 and U. of Richmond 61-0. Pretty good, eh?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot--mostly Thomas Wolfe.4 I think he’s the greatest writer of our time. I read “Of Time and the River” and “Look Homeward, Angel” and am starting on “The Web and the Rock.” Did you know that Tom Wolfe worked in Newport News during the last war? He speaks of the old home town, not too complimentary, in a couple of his books. He even worked in the Shipyard for five minutes, but was kicked out because he knew too little about carpentry--even for a Carolinian. He was born in Asheville and went to U.N.C. In his novels, the saga of Eugene Gant (which is really an autobiography), he speaks of the University at “Pulpit Hill,” the sprawling Tobacco Town of “Exeter” (Durham), and Sydney (Raleigh).

I got a letter from Aunt Edith and she sent me ten bucks. Also asked me to come and visit her on my furlough. Should I?

I certainly appreciate you and Eliza sending me the candy. It tasted good on those “hungry nights.”

Write soon, and give my love to Eliza.

Your son,

Bill, Jr.

To William C. Styron, Sr.

November 23, 1943Duke University

Dear Pop,

I’m sorry to be so late in writing you, but I’ve been reading a lot lately and I’d get so engrossed in a book, planning to write all the time, that when I had finished reading I’d have to go to bed and postpone the letter.

Things, as usual, are about the same. I’m making out all right in my studies, nothing spectacular, but about par. So far we haven’t had any quizzes, so I can’t evaluate my grades.

I’ve been reading some good books--Hemingway, Wolfe, Faulkner, Dos Passos and short stories by Balzac, Thurber, de Maupassant, Joyce, Poe, and others. “U.S.A.” by John Dos Passos, while rather long, is especially good. It’s the writer’s attempt, through fiction, to portray America and its people. Mentions Newport News and Norfolk, and the Northern Neck--to quote: “. . . you’d ride slowly home hating the goddam exhausted land and the drought that wouldn’t let the garden grow and the katydids and the dryflies jeering out of the sapling gums and persimmons ghostly with dust along the road and the sickle-shaped beach where the sea nettles stung you when you tried to swim out and the chiggers and the little scraps of talk about what was going on up to the Hague or Warsaw or Pekatone and the phone down at the cottage that kept ringing whenever any farmer’s wife along the line took up the receiver to talk about things to any other farmer’s wife and all down the line you could hear the receivers click as they all ran to the receiver to listen to what was said. . . .”5

Sounds just like the Northern Neck and Dolph Chowning.6 Brings back old memories.--About that story I wrote I was telling you about: It’s scheduled to be published in the Christmas issue of the Archive.7 The Editor said it would have won the prize in their short story contest, but I didn’t know anything about it (the contest), so I didn’t win. They were going to run another story of mine, entitled “Home Again,” but the MS. was lost, and I didn’t feel like doing it over. We get three days leave Xmas so I’ll see you then. Write soon and give my best to everyone.

Your son, Bill Jr.

P.S. I enjoy Mech. Drawing very much. Take after Pop, eh?!8

To William C. Styron, Sr.

March 12, 1944Duke University

Dear Pop,

I got your letter a few days ago, and I certainly enjoyed it. I was glad you enjoyed my story. Another one of my opuses (or operas, I think, is the plural) is going to appear in the April issue of the Archive. It is, appropriately enough to my faculty for picking primitive subjects, a story about a lynching, and the psychological effect of it on a young boy. The title is Delta Night.9

Dr. Blackburn, in his comment on the story said: “I take great pride in your progress this term. While I don’t usually urge undergraduates to make writing their livelihood, you are definitely one to be encouraged . . . you have grown . . . in both strength and wisdom. This story is the strongest you have done.”

My studies are coming along pretty well. We’ve had no tests as yet, so consequently I’ve gotten no grades. But I’m coming along.

We got paid this week, and I got $45. So I suppose I’m all set financially, for the time being anyhow. Incidentally, I was 45 minutes late coming back from furlough, so I was put on a week’s restriction, that is, no liberty at night, having to sign in at the N.C.O. “every hour on the hour.” That’s O.K., though; I won’t spend so much money.

Leon is now at Miami Beach, taking pre-flight training.10 I hope he makes out O.K. But I think he will.

Last week-end, four of us went to Danville and had dates at Averett college. We came back Sunday night, starting out at 10:30 hitch-hiking. We got stuck in Yanceyville, N.C. for four hours, and we just barely made reveille at 6:30. I almost froze to death! What a detail!

Am now rooming with Art Katz of Memphis, and Claude Kirk of Montgomery, Ala.11 Both are transfers from Emory, and they’re good guys.

Give my regards to Eliza. Write soon.

Your son,

Bill, jr.

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