In Styron, a Literary Landmark Remains
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The celebrated American novelist William Styron died yesterday at the age of 81. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. His best known work is Sophie's Choice. Our book critic Alan Cheuse has this remembrance.
ALAN CHEUSE: When I was an undergraduate in the '60s and filled with dreams about the fiction I might try to make, I wrote William Styron a letter. I can't recall how I found his address, but I remember it well. William Styron, Styron's Acres, Roxbury, Connecticut.
And I remember what I wrote. It had to do with a story I was trying to write at the time. Who was I to know it was a silly shot in the dark to write to a man who by that time had established himself as one of the major literary figures of his generation.
But Styron wrote back in kindly avuncular fashion, saying to me that he himself had tried to write such a story when he was around the same age as I was then about the same subject. Not to worry, not to worry.
I wish I had kept the letter, but who knows where I tossed it after running my fingers a number of times across the embossed return address. Styron's Acres, Roxbury, Connecticut.
Needless to say, Styron was one of those stars I steered by for many years. A novelist who dared to take on the great subjects of his time - slavery, rebellion, the death camps and later depression and life's deep end. And he gracefully fielded the criticism, sometimes quite voluble and even threatening that his work drew.
He made it seem like a great enterprise. And like his cohorts and contemporaries, James Jones and Norman Mailer, gave us the impression that novel writing was a contact sport at which only the daring and brave tried their talents.
Lie Down in Darkness, which Styron published in 1951 when he was only 26, was one of the great debuts in 20th century American fiction and held the attention of droves of young writers hoping to make as big an entrance. From its hypnotic opening all the way through to its stunning, pathetic suicide of the main character.
Let me read a little from the beginning.
Riding down to Port Warwick from Richmond, the train begins to pick up speed on the outskirts of the city, past the tobacco factories with their ever present haze of acrid, sweetish dust and past the rose of uniformly brown clapboard houses which stretch down the hilly streets for miles it seems. The hundreds of rooftops all reflecting the pale light of dawn.
With more books like this, he'd won the respect of his generation and the admiration of those of us younger and younger. With the Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, he entered the great arena of the American conversation, or shouting match, on questions on race and history.
I met him for the first time decades and decades later, long after the uproar and debates about whether or not a white Southerner might permit himself to take on those dangerous subjects some of the commissars of literature declared out of bounds for him.
I was on a prize jury and he was speaking at a small dinner on a mellow autumn night in New York City where the winner would accept his award. Afterwards, we walked along Fifth Avenue and we talked a little, and miraculously without me reminding him, he asked if I hadn't once written him a letter. That was me, I said.
He laughed and threw his arm around my shoulder and we kept walking. I laughed along with him, embarrassed to remember the boy I once was.
In his last work of fiction, A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth, Styron turned his light on his own boyhood. In these inward looking, beautifully elegiac pages, he demonstrated once again that good novelists have good memories and great novelists have great memories. Because in the books they leave behind, they give to future generations scenes and stories and characters that will stand as the memory of us all.
To William Styron, late, of Styron's Acres, Roxbury, Connecticut - thank you for writing.
BLOCK: That's Alan Cheuse, who teaches writing at George Mason University, remembering William Styron. Styron died yesterday in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. He was 81.
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