Rose Styron is William Styron's widow and co-editor of Selected Letters of William Styron ($40, Random House) with R. Blakeslee Gilpin
"Yours in the slime we sometimes find ourselves up to our asses in-- Bill"
This closes a long, literary letter to Philip Roth. It's one of the myriad letters my late husband William Styron wrote--to his family, friends, colleagues, mentors, marine buddies, older and younger scribes and fans--I had the astonishing pleasure of reading over the past couple of years. Ones to Robert Penn Warren, James Jones, Norman Mailer, Vann Woodward, and Willie Morris, for instance, about writing itself, intrigued me most. Ones to his dad and older daughter Susanna expanded my vision of him as a good son and loving father in privileged relationships. Ones to Peter Matthiessen and others revealed a depth of intimate friendship that is enviable. And letters about his own writing, to Professor William Blackburn or editor Bob Loomis, and the frank assessment (clearly mutual) of his contemporary novelists' prose, and achievement often included humorous advice on dealing with the critics he pretended not to read. Bill wrote in many different moods, in voices respectful, affectionate, or indignant, always with trenchant wit--instinctively tailored for each correspondent. In life he flew into legendary rages. In letters he was passionate and measured.
How did I come upon these letters?
When I was beginning to dismantle for possible sale the old Connecticut homestead we had inhabited together for over a half century--raised four children in, wrote fiction, essays, poetry in, and spent fine evenings reading the pages Bill had composed after a walk with a favorite dog, talking together and with visitors like James Baldwin or the Carlos Fuenteses or the Tom Wickers or neighbors like the Arthur Millers and the Lew Allens and Richard Widmarks, members of our family-oriented Roxbury community--I decided to secure first whatever I could find in the way of Bill's papers. I sent them to his beloved alma mater, Duke, which had archived most of his work.
Having sorted through stacks of lined vari-faded yellow pads in his familiar hand--leftover pieces of manuscripts and unfinished stories unearthed from closet-bottoms of the barn-turned-studio we had dwelled in as a family, 1955-58, until a second child and our first
Newfoundland (who with his exuberant tail knocked over the large Christmas tree we'd just decorated) crowded us out, and we fixed up the abandoned farmhouse beyond the sagging grape arbor. Charmed by its picket-fenced unkempt gardens of roses and rhubarb, its tumbling outbuildings that seem to have been craft centers for the Russians who fled the 1917 revolution and set up new lives here, we'd bought the property for a song.
It must have been 2008 when I went into our daughter Polly's former bedroom which Bill had made his literary headquarters the last decade of his life. (Was he lonely across the lawn in the dark study he'd worked in solo for 40 years?) Opening white bureau drawers next to the white tilt-top desk that had been our son's, then mine, then Bill's, I found scores of letters and a few postcards he'd jammed in, written to him by people he particularly valued: Mia Farrow and John Updike were the first two I discovered. I sent the lot to Duke. Then I began to wish I could read the letters he wrote that provoked them, or his responses. From a vast list of correspondents already noted at the Duke Library, I chose a few dozen to write to personally, asking if they still had any letters from Bill they might share with me. Bob Silvers kindly put a small ad in the New York Review of Books, and I waited. Not long.
Daily I'd open the mailbox on Rucum Road. Sometimes a sorcerer's apprentice cache of envelopes spilled out. Over a thousand, some quite thick, were soon stacked in my office. Half the time that I'd believed he was upstairs creating fiction, the man I thought I knew so well must have been writing letters. From the prefab backyard shack which was his workplace each summer on Martha's Vineyard (the sign on the door, VERBOTEN, pretty effective) he must have written and mailed countless more. He walked daily to post offices in Vineyard Haven and West Chop.
At first I was hesitant about opening the missiles. Would I be invading his privacy, breaking the mutual code of privacy we'd lived by? Would I discover things unpleasant or hurtful? No. Of course I experienced sadness, plus a few regrets and leftover resentments, but basically I relaxed into reading a Man of Letters' work of literature, a re-creation of our lives together, so much of which I'd forgotten. I was running around as mom or hostess while he sat still, observing, recording. He was the first-person protagonist, we his characters in a saga that embraced every emotion from joy in successful work and the changing beauty of nature to his depression and fear of death. Sometimes he admitted to intense anxiety about his or his kids' health and safety, and his own late night drinking. The recounting of our travels with friends to Paris, later through France-Switzerland-Italy-Tanzania-India-Mexico-the Caribbean are recounted in hilarious detail, especially the parts he hated. A day sail with JFK yielded particular insights into the president's mind. One letter from Rome, sent soon after we'd met and caroused with Truman Capote in the early '50's also mentioned the execution of Caryl Chessman. It reminded me, because we were both on the anti-death-penalty hustings then and forever, how often we'd stood together on platforms of protest and politics, and how deeply concerned Bill was, always about man's inhumanity to man. Racism, suppression of free speech, stigma and injustice were the wars he fought publicly and eloquently. What an odyssey. What a gift for me.
Now, I wonder: will fiction writers of the future, faced with the distractions of constant technology-created communication and its demands for quick response find the time and discipline to agonize alone for months and years creating profound fictional masterpieces? The savvy speed-oriented quirkily humorous, global-reality-consumed younger generation of Americans surely does not venerate the quiet or raised voices--the slow wordsmithing--of the older generations of novelists as we did. Nor does our government find the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Graham Greene or Carlos Fuentes so dangerous it would deny them visas today as they did in the '80's. Bill Styron could write most compellingly in letters what he might never say aloud. Is it possible that graphic novels or the breezy tomes featured at airports or the confessions or the most titillating memoirs we're obsessed with now will endure? I worry that future readers may not enjoy the journeys of surprise we have been treated to by the troves of deeply thought and felt letters penned by writers these past centuries.