SELECTED LETTERS OF WILLIAM STYRON. Edited by Rose Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin. Knopf. 672 pages. $40.
When William Styron’s wife, Rose, was cleaning out their Roxbury, Conn., house to sell it, she came across something unexpected: a trove of letters to her husband. Reading them, she wondered what his side of the correspondence looked like.
So began a project to collect and catalog Styron’s letters, resulting in this volume of more than 1,000 pieces of mail sent to the likes of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and a who’s who of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Styron turns up all over the place: founding the “Paris Review” with his friends George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, sailing on the presidential yacht with the Kennedys, attending the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, hosting a dinner for Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Bill and Hillary Clinton (“I look forward to the Clintons’ arrival with mixed fascination and dread”).
Styron had a gift for friendship and sustained strong relationships over the course of his life. Rose Styron, in her introduction, describes him as a “kind, physically gentle man who flew into legendary, short-lived rages at all of us.”
Anyone seeking soulful introspection about the creative act will be disappointed by Styron’s letters. Rose’s kind, gentle man is in evidence, especially in letters to his father and to William Blackburn, his writing teacher at Duke, but the rageful Styron dominates. Once the books are written, Styron goes into literary combat. He’s in a hand-to-hand fight for the top spot. Who gets the prizes, who gets the love and sales?
From the beginning to the end of the “Selected Letters,” Styron stews over the politics of bookdom.
For someone so tuned to the lit scene, Styron is often out of whack when appraising other writers. Finding Eudora Welty’s “stuff ... fairly pale,” he judges that she “commits the crime of women writers in general — seeing life through pastel-tinted spectacles.”
His praise can be likewise off-kilter. The generation of the ’20s “really had it made,” Styron declares, “Yet not one of them, to my mind, except Faulkner, ever wrote a novel as fine as ‘The Naked and the Dead’ ” (by Norman Mailer).
The relationships are everything here, and not knowing them, we may be missing the tone. Most of Styron’s letters were written unguardedly, to friends.
Although he was so ambitious, Styron wasn’t (at least judging from “The Selected Letters of William Styron”) unctuous. He is not writing to please. In an early letter, he speculates that seeing one of his letters in print would make him feel “naked” — and so he is in this volume.
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.