by Peter Tonguette
A review of My Generation: Collected Nonfiction by William Styron,James L.W. I West II,Tom Brokaw
The career of William Styron (1925–2006) was highlighted by a quartet of long, ambitious, and widely praised novels, including the sensational debut Lie Down in Darkness (1951) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). It would be fair to assume, on the basis of such a record, that Styron’s legacy is built on his fiction.
Yet, nine years after his death, our sense of his accomplishments has grown murky. Posthumous books have come fast and furious, but few have emphasized the main current of his work—that is, as a novelist and short story writer. Instead, Styron’s heirs have brought out a selection of personal essays (2008’s Havanas in Camelot), a compilation of his correspondence (2012’s Selected Letters), and now My Generation, a gargantuan assemblage of essays and reviews of all kinds. (The sole exception is 2009’s The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps.)
This attempt to recast Styron as a writer of nonfiction is not entirely unexpected. 1979 marked the last year in which Styron published a novel (Sophie’s Choice)—and this from an author who had, until then, produced a new novel about once a decade. Instead, Styron looked inward for inspiration—and, in at least one instance, his self-reflection paid off mightily. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990) concerned Styron’s mid-1980s tussle with depression, using lean, clean prose to mirror the desolation that plagued the author. In a typically tough passage, Styron writes of the illness’s “unrelenting” quality: “One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes.” Pithy and tightly wound, the book has the focused ferocity of a howl. And it is perhaps axiomatic that Darkness Visible is read by more people—and provides more of a salve to those who need it—than any of the fiction that preceded it. Is In the Clap Shack (a play published in a paperback edition with an equally forgettable short novel, The Long March) read today at all, and was it ever helpful to anyone?
It would be heartening to report that the pieces in My Generation live up to Darkness Visible. Alas, the collection is wildly uneven, the result of injudicious editing by Styron biographer James L. W. West III; the book’s all-inclusive heft is the polar opposite of the slim discipline of Darkness Visible. Individual essays on the large topics that informed several of Styron’s novels—such as slavery in America or the Holocaust—remain powerful, but many other pieces are insubstantial.
Most of the material already appeared in 1982’s This Quiet Dust and Havanas in Camelot (the latter of which Styron was preparing when he died). Yet this only goes to show how quickly essays on the passing parade can date; in a piece on the Vietnam War (one of several), passages implicating the conflict as “approach[ing] being totally depraved”—in contrast to the “few idealistic principles” of the U.S. in the Civil War and World War I—read like polemics of a past time and place, as does Styron’s stern condemnation, in an unpublished 1991 essay, of the Gulf War, which he sees as a fulfillment of his father’s ominous prophecy that “we will be fighting wars forever—as long as we have the money and the guns!”
Other pieces accompanied by the scent of mothballs include reporting on the 1968 Democratic National Convention (admirers of Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago can rest easy) and a transcription of an address given at Lillian Hellman’s memorial service (Styron admits that he and Hellman “had more fights per man-and-woman contact than probably anyone alive,” but is careful to clarify that they rarely concerned “abstract things like politics or philosophy or social dilemmas”). A sanctimonious essay on Barbara Bush’s use of the term “family values” did not make it to print in 1992, rendering its inclusion here doubly pointless: it is both passé and lacking in interest as a historical artifact.
Part of what makes Darkness Visible so memorable is its consistently surprising descriptions of depression; Styron even argued with the word, writing that “depression”—with its “bland tonality” and absence of “any magisterial presence”—ought to be supplanted with the more suggestive “melancholia.” And there is painful poetry in his account of verbalizing his state for the first time to a French acquaintance (“ ‘I’m sick,’ I said, ‘un problème psychiatrique’ ”) or his description of a hellaciously “blustery and raw” rainstorm that seems to mock him—the pathetic fallacy writ large.
Alas, the essays in My Generation are seldom as distinctive or unpredictable—too often they sound routine liberal themes. Take, for instance, “Les Amis du President”: though ostensibly an account of the 1981 inauguration of the French president François Mitterrand, Styron does not miss the opportunity to reference—most unimaginatively—the recent presidential election in his home country. “As for Reagan . . . it was not at all surprising that Americans would finally elect a movie actor as president,” Styron writes. “To the contrary, it was inevitable, since the American people have glorified movie stars to the point of lunacy and ever since the dawn of the cinema have yearned for a matinee idol to run the ship of state.”
This is an odd position for the author to take since, in an amusing essay written two years later for Le Figaro, he confesses to having been an eager and “undemanding” moviegoer in his youth—and odd, too, since three out of the five essays included in the section entitled “Presidency” refer to Styron’s own worshipful (“to the point of lunacy”?) stance toward François Mitterrand. In 1998, defending Bill Clinton against Kenneth Starr in The New Yorker, Styron invokes the example of Mitterrand, writing admiringly, “Mitterrand had a wife and he had a mistress, who bore him a daughter—this is old news by now—and he also had a slew of girlfriends.” It is one thing to bemoan the invasion of privacy endured by modern leaders, but quite another to ask the reader to join in celebrating boorishness.
Not that Styron is a thoroughgoing libertine—boringly enough, the sin of smoking cigarettes is a favorite topic, occasioning not one but two pieces. Writing in 1963, Styron judges the act to be second only to “nuclear fallout” in its “gravity as a public health problem.” By 1987, his view has only barely softened: “No possible claim can be made for cigarettes as enhancers of life on any level.” In the mid-1980s, the author reconsiders his religious skepticism when brought low by issues with his prostate—only fleetingly, of course. But when Styron writes, “I thought about expressing contrition, but the seriousness of my symptoms convinced me that it was too late for conversion or prayer,” one longs for the unswerving atheism of, say, Christopher Hitchens, totally unwooed by religion’s temptations, even in the face of a trying medical condition. Pieces written in homage to Styron’s wife and daughters are, simply, disposable for anyone other than those who are being honored.
My Generation serves as a useful reminder that a gift for writing is not necessarily transportable from one genre to the next; a great novelist may make a middling essayist. It is unsurprising, then, that many of the best pieces in this book are appreciations of novelists of Styron’s epoch—“my generation,” as he calls them in the fine title essay. He smartly intuits the “tragic sense of life” that inhabits the work of Truman Capote, and he recognizes the hidden dimensions within James Jones (expressing fascination in how the author’s “gravelly drill sergeant’s voice” could enthuse about such “recherché loves” as Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton). And, of course, the essays related to depression have something of the force of Darkness Visible—it was, sadly, a subject about which Styron the essayist spoke with the most originality.
On balance, though, to encounter these offerings after re-reading any of Styron’s novels is to witness a legacy in the process of shrinking.
Peter Tonguette’s writing on the arts has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Columbus Dispatch, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 September 2015, on page 75
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