I adore your moustache

James Wolcott

  • Selected Letters of William Styron edited by Rose Styron and R. Blakeslee Gilpin
    Random House, 643 pp, £24.99, December 2012, ISBN 978 1 4000 6806 7

Big bash at the Styrons – Lennie Bernstein in an orange shirt, some sort of exotic ‘prayer’ shawl draped over his expressive shoulders, smoking away, talking to eager young girls. Mike Nichols, the serpent in the garden … Claggart to the life, said not enough money was coming in just now, wanted to get unused to the money. Arthur Miller a bit tight addressing me as usual on the subject of his latest openings. Benevolent, even comradely in a Jewish-1915 way, but would never think of saying a word, asking a word, about anyone else’s work … Caroline Kennedy (Schlossberg) was there. The Pete Gurneys, daughter a graduate of the Yale English school, now a financial officer at the ad agency whose long name still ends in Benton and Bowles. That little rat, Jerzy R. Kosinski, thought Conrad was a good subject to bring up with him, but it didn’t interest him very much. All the while, host Bill Styron looking a bit subdued as usual these days; we talked about Randall Jarrell’s possible suicide, Bill’s own depression. And I talked to him about William James’s own breakdown and his resuscitation through faith.

What in hell am I doing with all these theatre types?

Alfred Kazin’s journals, 26 December 1986

Discount Kazin’s weary, load-bearing sigh in this characteristic entry from his journals, which record him enduring party after party, decade after decade, as if it were his suffering duty, a Calvary of cocktails and canapes.[*] Had Kazin not been invited, he would have been even sorer, nursing a fine, bitter grudge, his other favourite hobby. Guest lists meant something then. The novelist William Styron and his wife, Rose (respected worldwide as a human rights activist), had drawing power as party hosts, the cultural cachet to net composers, playwrights, directors, ratfink fabulists and a former president’s daughter to toast the holidays and air out their egos. Such dos were among the last hurrahs of the postwar literary era dominated by heap big novelists now facilely grouped as a cetacean school of Great White Males (Styron, Norman Mailer, James Jones, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, J.D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, the recently retired Philip Roth), whose ghostly father and bearded Neptune disturbing the liquor cabinet deep into the night was Ernest Hemingway. Even those least influenced by Hemingway’s style couldn’t fail to register the impact of his hold on America’s consciousness: he established the co-ordinates of celebrity and masculinity that turned literary life at the highest level into a spectator sport. Styron would enjoy his first taste of fame at a party thrown in 1952 by Leo Lerman, who decades later became the editor of Vanity Fair and whose own journals, The Grand Surprise (2007), are the aesthetic flipside of Kazin’s. Lerman, who had written about Styron’s clarion debut novel, Lie Down in Darkness, for Mademoiselle, asked the young author to a little thing he was hosting. Who was there? Oh, you know, the usual crew: Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and Hemingway’s great chum, the one he called ‘the Kraut’: Marlene Dietrich. ‘You could have knocked me over with a pin,’ Styron wrote to his aunt Edith, ‘when Leo took me over to meet Dietrich and she took my cold clammy hand in hers and said she had not only “rad” LDID, but “lawved” it! It was pure Elysium, I can tell you that.’

If the literary histories of the future have less wattage, it will be because such parties (mingling writers, movie stars, choreographers, socialites and theatre folk from All About Eve) have disappeared in a spiral of cigarette smoke, replaced by book festivals and literary panels, where nothing interesting ever happens between judicious sips of bottled water. Friends of the playwright Lillian Hellman, whom Edmund Wilson would describe in his journals as the queen bee of the Martha’s Vineyard ‘cocktail belt’, Styron and Rose would become champion party-throwers themselves up in Roxbury, Connecticut, between work-slogs. But by the year of Kazin’s Christmas report, the festivities had begun to fray, private shadows creeping into the social minglings. A year earlier, on 15 December 1985 to be exact, Styron had entered a mental hospital for suicidal depression, a nosedive precipitated by a sudden cessation of alcohol intake and the effects of Halcion medication. He emerged from treatment a couple of months later shaken and depleted, but optimistic in the belief that depression in most cases was ‘self-limiting’ and eventually runs its course ‘until the victim comes out the other end of his nightmare more or less intact. In the meantime, however, it’s Auschwitz time in the heart of the soul – a form of madness I wouldn’t wish upon a literary critic.’ A few years later Styron wrote about his bout with what Churchill called ‘the black dog’ in a memoir, originally published in Vanity Fair, called Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990). It was an instant bestseller with staying power. ‘Curious to think that a slender little volume about lunacy may provide a meal ticket for my superannuated years,’ Styron muses in Selected Letters, edited by his widow with R. Blakeslee Gilpin. The irony of Styron’s career is that as a literary son of Faulkner, Wolfe and Hemingway, he expended massive energy and mountaineering stamina into making himself a major prestigious novelist – and succeeded! – yet that ‘slender little volume’ has left its big brothers behind. It is the one book of Styron’s that everyone can relate to, a modern classic of despair and endurance, like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Without it, Styron’s reputation might have joined his pal James Jones’s, bobbing in and out of the purgatory of posterity, big-novel authors in danger of being dragged down by their own bulk.

I was never a fan of Styron’s fiction or his well-oiled, august persona. Each attempt at fording his fiction left me stranded somewhere in the marshy thickets, pushing the canoe, up to my armpits in sonorities. As a student at Duke in 1943, Styron loaded his literary imagination with the brawny prose of Balzac, Faulkner, Hemingway, the Wolfe of Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again, John Dos Passos, and similar colossi. (Women writers the young Styron found a little too pale and pastel for his white-heat liking, a men’s club mentality that he never really outgrew. And mostly a straight men’s club at that, if the patronising reference to ‘that nice faggot John Ashbery’ is any indication.) For such an aspirer at such a time, with the entire world engulfed in war, beautiful miniatures – glass menageries – were out of the question: life was to be absorbed in great gobs and gulps in lusty pursuit of masterpieces. A Marine stationed at Parris Island, South Carolina in 1945, Styron wrote to his father about the difficulty of tackling war as a subject:

Now the crux of the situation lies in the fact that, to the writer, war is a gigantic, inexorable, relentlessly terrible panorama which, although at every hand fraught with mists of beauty and pathos, swirls about him so swiftly and chaotically that he is unable to find a tongue to utter his thoughts. And after the war, if he has extricated himself from the whole mess with a sound mind and body, he is usually so terribly cynical and embittered that those golden words turn to dust. To be platitudinous, it changes one’s viewpoint immensely. Like Wolfe’s Eugene Gant I see ‘Time, dark time, flowing by me like a river’ – and that is all one can say.

As the critic Wilfrid Sheed wryly noted, everybody’s writing got a little windy around the Second World War, so blowsy with intoning radio-drama pronouncements and humanistic platitudes that even Hemingway’s white-boned prose acquired loose flaps. Two years later, still stricken with Thomas Wolfe elephantiasis, Styron sends haunted dispatches from the asphalt jungle. ‘New York is vast, hideous and strewn with the wrecks of lost and fidgeting souls.’ Unlike so many others of his word-besotted WWII-vet generation, he would retain this Old Man River rumble in prose, a purple majesty. As the titles of his books indicate – Lie Down in Darkness (taken from Sir Thomas Browne), Set This House on Fire (John Donne) and Darkness Visible (Milton) – he strove for canonical grandeur and stature, never dallying in quick-buck genre fiction, as Jones and Norman Mailer would do with A Touch of Danger and Tough Guys Don’t Dance respectively.

He had a clairvoyant gift for launching long-range assaults on major themes from a counterintuitive angle: the leather hide and audacity required for a Southern white novelist to take on a black slave legend in The Confessions of Nat Turner and then the Holocaust with Sophie’s Choice. That both of these novels became blockbuster successes doesn’t mean that they were cynically, commercially conceived. Styron had no way of knowing way back in 1952 when he began contemplating ‘a novel based on Nat Turner’s rebellion’ – with literary soul brother James Baldwin’s blessing, no less – that Black Power would be waiting to shake its fist at him when the book was finally published in 1967, that militant black authors and radical honkie critics from the burning ghettos of academe would consider him a presumptuous carpetbagger. He couldn’t appear on a college campus without an uproar ensuing and in 1968 the novel was the target of an almost unprecedented counterblast, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, which whammed him from every angle. (Styron, reading the galleys, goes down the checklist: ‘I’m a racist, a distorter of history, a defamer of black people, a traducer of the heroic image of “our” Nat Turner.’)

Sophie’s Choice, published in 1979, was a more calculated risk, the non-Jewish author having to know he was juggling nitro in using a non-Jewish victim – a Polish Catholic – for tragic universality. In March 1979, Styron wrote to his daughter Susanna that sinister mutterings had reached him that at least one powerful Jewish organisation had it in for him, ‘that Sophie was violently anti-semitic and would be “dealt with” accordingly’. Not the sort of news a novelist wants to hear on the eve of publication. ‘Can it really be that the furor over Nat Turner is going to be duplicated?’ The furor turned out to be less than he feared, the most withering attacks originating from the high parapets at the New Yorker and New York Review of Books, but resentment would recur like a rash. In 1997, Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond was reprinted under the even angrier title The Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner. Eventually a younger generation of African-American scholars, prominent among them Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr, came round and paid respects to The Confessions of Nat Turner, and some even designated Styron the inadvertent father of the postmodern slave narrative, but by then he may have been so bruised by the initial beatdown that it wasn’t much consolation. In 1999, Cynthia Ozick published an essay in Commentary imposingly titled ‘The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination’ that called Styron’s intent into suspicion. ‘The investigation of motive is history’s task, and here a suspicion emerges: that Sophie in Styron’s novel was not conceived as a free fictional happenstance, but as an inscribed symbolic figure, perhaps intended to displace a more commonly perceived symbolic figure – Anne Frank, let us say.’ That’s a pretty loaded insinuation. As late as 2005, Ozick, speaking at Harvard, was still condemning Styron’s decision to position a non-Jewish protagonist at the narrative centre, thereby diluting, obscuring and ultimately expunging ‘the real nature of the Holocaust’.

My own problem with Styron’s ennobled potboilers was not his subject matter, point of view, historical accuracy, pale-male effrontery or any other heavy carbs, but the sheer awful self-conscious succulence of the prose, a fruit orchard in every scene-painting description. In her memoir Reading My Father, Styron’s youngest daughter, Alexandra, describes dipping into Sophie’s Choice when she was 12 years old. She’s embarrassed by the lubricity of an erotic reverie recounted by Stingo, her father’s narrator and alter ego in the novel, over a recently deceased maiden. Here’s the passage:

For now in some sunlit and serene pasture of the Tidewater, a secluded place hemmed around by undulant oak trees, my departed Maria was standing before me, with the abandon of a strumpet stripping down to the flesh – she who had never removed in my presence so much as her bobbysocks. Naked, peach-ripe, chestnut hair flowing across her creamy breasts, desirable beyond utterance, she approached me where I lay stiff as a dagger, importuning me with words delectably raunchy and lewd. ‘Stingo,’ she murmured. ‘Oh, Stingo, fuck me.’ A faint mist of perspiration clung to her skin like aphrodisia, little blisters of sweat adorned the dark hair of her mound. She wiggled towards me, a wanton nymph with moist and parted mouth, and now bending down over my bare belly, crooning her glorious obscenities, prepared to take between those lips unkissed by my own the bone-rigid stalk of my passion.

In the absence of Maria, our hero might have diddled one of those undulant oaks.

Like Susan Cheever’s Home before Dark and Kaylie Jones’s Lies My Mother Never Told Me, Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father is further evidence that growing up as the daughter of a famous writer can mean growing up feeling like a background drawing, even an impediment to the full flex of daddy’s genius. Once Styron was deep into the black lagoon of his latest project, everyone was on verbal tiptoe, prohibited from bugging daddy with questions about what he was working on, and from idle chatter. For the youngest daughter these heavy-hung silences were often preferable to her father’s idea of funning, which was terrorising her with stories about the nearby institution for the mentally retarded (‘When we drove by the rolling campus, I gripped the door handle, or pushed myself back into the car seat. “Some of the really dangerous ones,” Daddy liked to tell me, “they escape and do vile things … They’re imbeciles. Deranged.”’), or joking about having her favourite pony put down, claiming it was now the new law. As a former Marine, Styron may have felt he needed to toughen her up – so Alexandra speculates – but why does a young girl need toughening up, and when in the history of child-rearing has sadistic teasing done anyone any good? Surly, sullen, selfish, alcoholic, Styron could be far from the Southern gent he presented to the gallery. Submerging herself in the vortex of letters that readers wrote to her father regarding Darkness Visible, relating their own tales of depression or asking for counsel, Alexandra writes that she ‘thought, not for the first time, of the exquisite irony embedded in my father’s relationship with his readers, an irony I was still trying to reconcile as I worked to make sense of the man after his death: how could a guy whose thoughts elicit this much pathos have been, for so many years, such a monumental asshole to the people closest to him?’

Given the grandiloquent gunk of so much of his prize-winning prose and the mottled portrait of his character that has surfaced since his death, the Selected Letters offer a surprising, substantial, likeable lift, an act of literary restoration that shows us the dedicated man inside the sacred monster and doubles as a time machine travelling through a championship season of American letters, when writers were more than content-providers and had the medals and scars to prove it. The novelists and poets in these pages – the stellar cast includes Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, Truman Capote, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Penn Warren, Peter Matthiessen, Philip Roth, Irwin Shaw and the always vivacious William Burroughs (‘He is an absolutely astonishing personage, with the grim mad face of Savonarola and a hideously tailored 1925 shit-coloured overcoat and scarf to match with a grey fedora pulled down tight around his ears. He reminded me of nothing so much as a mean old Lesbian’) – may have drunk, drugged, whored, boasted, feuded, flipped out and ploughed their talents into misbegotten mammoths (Jones’s Some Came Running, Mailer’s Ancient Evenings), but, even through a distorting lens, larger-than-life beats the small-time pantomime we have today.

Styron’s later immodesty was hard-earned. He paid his apprentice dues and the early letters to his father, William Styron Sr, and his writing professor, William Blackburn (whose creative writing programme taught and mentored Styron, Reynolds Price, Mac Hyman, Fred Chappell and Anne Tyler), show a commendable respect, seriousness, idealism and work ethic. Right at the start he zeroed in on his weakness as a writer, his over-reliance on rhetorical trumpets, and even in the acutely self-conscious larval stage of young author he establishes kinship with those also at the starting gate, membership in the guild. ‘Before I left Whittlesey House’ – a publisher where Styron had been briefly employed – ‘I asked Diarmuid Russell to let me be the first to read Guy Davenport’s novel,’ he writes to Blackburn. ‘I stayed up for seven hours last night reading it, and I think it’s an overwhelming, sorrowful, beautiful job of writing, and I frankly went to bed at 5.00 in the morning disturbed, shaken and humble in the light of its unmistakeable signs of true, burgeoning genius.’ If Guy Davenport doesn’t become one of America’s best writers in the next decade or so, Styron declares, his faith in the gods will be shattered. Davenport’s novel – Effie Garner – went unpublished; it was shorter fiction and criticism where he would make his name, justifying Styron’s precocious talent-spotting (a posthumous anthology, The Guy Davenport Reader, will appear this summer). It was a gift that didn’t desert him later in his career. With younger authors, among them Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Philip Caputo (A Rumour of War) and Michael Mewshaw (Walking Slow), he is the encouraging old pro, spreading the largesse. He recognised and recommended Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road), ‘an all-around swell cat’.

The literary shoptalk in these letters is free of jargon and brimming with embattled fellow-feeling. Commiseration and comradeship are the dominant chords, although the competitive drive to be the king of the ring led to verbal scufflings that threatened to brew into genuine fisticuffs, as witness the ugly falling-out with Norman Mailer. Mailer entered the heavyweight division of postwar novelists with his debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, but at the time of his epistolary back and forth with Styron, his ranking had slipped badly. He was in danger of becoming publishing’s version of box-office poison. Barbary Shore, his second novel, was a cramped political allegory that creaked as slowly as a Val Lewton movie (without the dream languor), and his third, a sun-bleached scroll of Hollywood decadence called The Deer Park, suffered agonies of editorial rebuff and Benzedrine-fuelled rewrites; it was met by a spate of mortifying reviews (‘Love among the Love-Buckets’ was how Time magazine headlined its beating of the book), a shredded-nerves saga Mailer would recount in Advertisements for Myself. In the beginning Styron and Mailer buck each other up, forming a party of two. Thanking him for his praise of The Long March, a novella which Mailer called ‘as good an 80 pages as any American has written since the war’, Styron confesses: ‘I swear, I can hardly read any of our contemporaries. I’m either deafened by them, or find them practising onanism in the corner.’ An editorial footnote informs us that ‘practising onanism’ means ‘masturbation’, in case anyone thought it referred to oboe lessons. One of the offending onanists was their mutual irritant Gore Vidal, another WWII prodigy (with the novel, Williwaw, written when he was 19), whom Styron refers to as ‘that talentless, self-promoting, spineless slob you mentioned’, a compact marvel of mischaracterisation, except for the self-promoting part. Courtesy of the postal service, Styron/Mailer share not only dislikes, but confidences, expressions of vulnerability. When Mailer begins a letter admitting he’s been ‘kind of depressed lately’, Styron owns up to his own low spirits, lifting the curtain on his depressive sloughs. ‘Perhaps I’ll change some as I get older but it seems to me that life (and I wonder how closely it parallels the experience of other men) is a long grey depression interrupted by moments of high hilarity.’ It is Styron’s fraternal affinity for Mailer’s creative funks that enables him to discern the underlying mood of The Deer Park. ‘Anxiety runs through the book like a dark river – the true torturous anxiety – and gives to the book this deep sense of depression, which is totally divorced from purely literary concerns.’ Styron proceeds to address those literary concerns with a tactful candour:

Here, then, is my final pompous verdict: you’ve written a book like sour wine, a lethal draught bitter and unlikeable, but one which was written with a fine and growing art, and about which I think you can feel proud. It doesn’t have the fire of ‘Naked’ but I think has primer and maturer insights. It is not an appealing book, but neither does it compromise, and for that alone you should be awarded a medal. If lacking the large universe of ‘Naked’, it doesn’t have ‘Naked’’s impact, it is also a book which burns with a different, somehow keener light. I don’t like the book, but I admire the hell out of it, and I suppose that’s all I have to say for the moment – or until I can talk to you face to face.

Four years later, in March 1958, Mailer would propose a very different ‘face to face’, one in which he would mail his fist into Styron’s meretricious mug. The friendship had gone south with a vengeance. The provocation was word from a ‘reliable source’ that Styron had spread disparaging remarks about Mailer’s wife, Adele, whereupon Mailer challenged Styron ‘to a fight in which I expect to stomp out of you a fat amount of your yellow and treacherous shit’. Styron responded to this vivid proposition with a raised chin or two of Southern Yankee pride, declining to trade knuckle sandwiches over such a calumnious accusation, ‘so utterly false, that it does not deserve even this much of a reply’. Despite the starchy stage exit on which his note ended, Styron had in fact attached a list of point-by-point rebuttals to Mailer’s accusation which his wife and others urged him not to send. He didn’t, but the addendum is included in the Selected Letters and its closing item is Styron’s surmise that ‘something is, and must have been, eating you that has nothing to do with the “viciousness” you so meanly and falsely saddle me with.’ Styron is being a bit Scarlett O’Hara here, because, as he admitted decades later, he probably had been badmouthing Adele, but he was also right that something else was eating Mailer: status envy. Mailer may have been the greater literary lion, but as a social lion Styron left him back at the watering hole.

After the dissolution of diplomatic relations following the Adele affair, Mailer reamed Styron something fierce in Advertisements for Myself, and Styron retaliated by caricaturing Mailer in Set This House on Fire (1960), using a variant of the treacherous-shit-stomping threat. The mayhem escalated. In a notorious St Valentine’s Day massacre of his literary rivals in Esquire in 1963 called ‘Some Children of the Goddess’, Mailer not only performed a gruesome autopsy of Set This House on Fire – ‘the magnum opus of a fat spoiled rich boy’, ‘a bad maggoty novel’ where ‘four or five half-great short stories were buried like pullulating organs in a corpse of fecal matter’ – but also sought to jam a crowbar between Styron and James Jones, of whose friendship he was jealous, revealing that Styron had hosted a gathering where the evening’s entertainment consisted of reading aloud choice execrable passages from the galleys of Some Came Running for everyone’s merriment. It was a little low of Mailer to squeal on Styron’s perfidy, since he had been at the party and joined in the laughter at Jones’s clunkers, albeit with a somewhat sick feeling that was presumably his conscience calling. But he wasn’t going to let a little bit of hypocrisy arrest his trigger finger. The anecdote fitted too nicely into the evidence folder of Mailer’s bill of indictment, which charged Styron with being a first-class literary operator oiling the levers of influence and laying on the flattery with forked tongue – a courtly racketeer. Given Mailer’s own prodigious politicking – ‘I have been running for president these last ten years in the privacy of my mind,’ he wrote in Advertisements for Myself – Styron’s real offence wasn’t that he played the insider game, but that he was so good at it. Styron had married a woman of means, the former Rose Burgunder, whose parents owned a department store in Baltimore (they first met at a graduate seminar at Johns Hopkins University), and, despite heavy turbulence, the two remained married for more than half a century. Whereas Mailer would find himself batting out magazine assignments for money and pulling a wagon train of alimony payments, unable to afford Styron’s luxury of discreet pauses between novels lasting years at a time.

What perhaps rankled most was Styron’s fleshy proximity to Camelot and Jacqueline Kennedy’s Chiclet cool. The Selected Letters feature an amusing, theatrical account of the Styrons’ attendance at a White House dinner hosted by President and Mrs Kennedy in honour of Nobel Prize winners. After the ‘splendid’ meal, ‘there was a boring reading by Fredric March of a garbled and wretched piece of an unpublished Hemingway manuscript; it was done in semi-darkness, and most of the Nobel Prize winners – many of whom are over 70 – nodded off to sleep.’ The reading completed, reprieve seemed at hand. But then the Styrons are invited to the president’s private quarters (‘Aha! It’s just as I suspected. The son of a bitch is after my wife’), and up they troop, joined by March, Robert Frost and Lionel and Diana Trilling, not exactly the snappiest bunch. ‘Diana Trilling had the look of a woman who had just been struck a glancing but telling blow by a sledgehammer,’ Styron notes. The evening’s coup: ‘I spent most of the hour talking with Jackie, who I must say has a great deal of charm, and I treasure her promise to take us out on the presidential yacht when we are across the Sound from Hyannisport this summer.’

The injustice of it all! First Arthur Miller captures Marilyn Monroe – or, in Styron’s words, ‘that sexually endowed barrel of pineapple Jello, Miss Mmmmarilyn Monroe’ – and then that boll weevil Bill Styron becomes the literary darling of Camelot, yachting with the president and the First Lady, who dispense with formalities. ‘We were sitting around a big table in the open cockpit and occasionally she would put her feet up in JFK’s lap and wiggle her toes, just like you’d imagine the wife of the president to do.’ With his famous bugle-call essay in Esquire, ‘Superman Comes to the Supermarket’, Mailer could justifiably feel that he had emblazoned the Kennedy mystique on the American consciousness, yet it was the pullulating-organ donor who was granted a season ticket to Camelot after Mailer bungled whatever chance he had to ingratiate himself with the First Lady with an ill-considered comment about the Marquis de Sade. (That far even a Francophile such as Jackie wasn’t willing to go.) It might have made Mailer’s mustard even hotter had he known that a few years later, after the president was assassinated, Styron would be water-skiing with Jackie and rubbing ‘a good deal of Sea n’ Ski foam on the widow’s thighs’, thighs to which Mailer would never be granted visiting privileges. Styron and Mailer would eventually lower their sabres, as Mailer and his arch-villain adversary Gore Vidal would do, setting aside their differences in the wintry satisfaction of outlasting the other bastards.

Knock each other as they may in print, old-pro novelists harbour a crusty collegiality borne of the awareness of the attrition involved in pushing that cannon up the hill, enduring false starts, racking fatigue, spent livers, sunken eyeballs, crises of faith, year-round seasonal affective disorder and carpal tunnel syndrome, only to stagger into publication day and have Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times nail them in the neck with a poison blowdart. Kakutani, referred to in these pages with an ethnic slur that needn’t be repeated, is one of the many bête noire reviewers and critics against whom Styron vents, from the ‘spineless, gutless parasites’ of the Partisan Review to ‘deadly young squirts’ such as Norman Podhoretz (who fermented into a deadly old squirt, forsaking criticism largely to devote himself to hawkish fist-waving and falling out of friendships), to the literary rabbis scolding Philip Roth for breaking curfew and playing his bongos too loud. As authors, Styron and Roth broadcast on two very different wavelengths, but they bonded over the scuffmarks both nursed from critics trying to stuff them into boxes.

The Styron-Roth correspondence gets off on a jaunty, racy note. ‘I ever so much enjoyed seeing you up here,’ Styron writes, ‘and I have a confession to make. I adore your moustache and have had a single incredible fantasy: suppose I was a girl and you were going down on me with that moustache. What would it be like? Please destroy this letter.’ It was the 1970s, after all, the decade when porn ’taches came into furry fashion, and a fine bromance was born. After Roth suffers a tag-team shellacking in the pages of Commentary from Norman Podhoretz and the redoubtable Irving Howe, Styron rallies to Roth’s beleaguered side by recounting his own pummellings at the hands of Stanley Kauffmann and Richard Gilman over Nat Turner before zeroing in on the Jewish-elder paternalism – ‘an old-fashioned Jewish defensiveness’ – that seems to animate Howe’s distemper. Howe makes Roth look guilty of some woeful act of frivolity, literature being serious business, not some branch of vaudeville.

His entire attack on Portnoy, for instance, is to me nearly incomprehensible since it fails to acknowledge the fact that whatever its defects the book works: the animating spirit behind the novel is of such vigour as to make it quite academic whether the book is a group of skits, or has imperfect ‘development’, or whatever. This is why earlier on [in the letter], rather self-indulgently, I made the comparison with Gilman’s treatment of Nat. The point is that, whatever its flaws, Nat Turner worked in a very special way for people.

And once something clicked with the public and catapulted into a media phenomenon, it overshot the strictly literary jurisdiction of stern disciplinarians such as Howe, Podhoretz, Gilman et al, and if there was one thing the high-minded pulpits of the time couldn’t abide, it was middlebrow acclaim and the money that formed the comet tail. Critics with their daily crab haul of niggling complaints would never know what it was like to roll big.

February 25, 1971 Roxbury, CT

Dear Philip:

What has happened about your super country Joint? Let me know. We need some friendly neighbours. This is a great house.

I too have been brooding about mortality and have been filled with Kierkegaardian despair believe me.

In the midst of this Angst, I found the solution. I bought a $9,000 XJ36 Jaguar, and feel much better.

Stay in touch,

W.S.

If you’re keeping tabs, that would be about $50,000 or so in today’s money. Perhaps it doesn’t signify, but the coruscatingly brilliant poet-critic-novelist Randall Jarrell, whose descent into depression and possible (probable) suicide haunted the literary world, was also a sports car guy, owning a Mercedes and an MG. Speed only gets you so far.

With the publication of Darkness Visible in 1990, the last portion of the Selected Letters tails off (only two letters from 1991, for example, just one from 1993), even though Styron lived for another decade and a half. He extends birthday wishes to the editor, author and fellow Southerner Willie Morris, who had just turned sixty, welcoming Willie to the wonders that the sixties hold: meet your new nemesis, your prostate gland, and ‘learn the pleasures of slow motion, like the three or four minutes [it takes] to get out of the front seat of a car’. And he informs the critic Robert Brustein that ‘according to our friend Philip Roth, it is only the prospect of the Nobel Prize that keeps Arthur Miller alive October to October.’ Between these sporadic letters loom large blanks of time. Alexandra Styron’s memoir traces the bleak trajectory of these years of public acclamation and King Lear unravelling, but for readers of the Selected Letters a brief editorial note tolls the bell: ‘In the spring of 2000, Styron’s depression returned, much more seriously than ever before. He ended up having shock treatments against his will and was contemplating suicide.’ In the letter that follows this insertion, dated 14 June 2000, Styron apologises to a friend for requesting a suicide cocktail (‘a half insane idea of mine’) and adds a PS: ‘Do call me, though. I’m suffering.’ This plain statement of pain is the most piercing moment in the book.

The final letter included here is dated 11 February 2002, after which falls a cliff drop of silence until Styron’s death in 2006, the book concluding with a posthumous note addressed to the readers of Darkness Visible: ‘I hope the readers of Darkness Visible – past, present and future – will not be discouraged by the manner of my dying. The battle I waged against this vile disease in 1985 was a successful one that brought me 15 years of contented life, but the illness finally won the war.’ He must have been hell to live with, especially toward the ragged, drawn-out end, but the worst hells can be within, and the visible darkness he showed us may have been only the tip of the abyss.

[*] Alfred Kazin’s Journals edited by Richard Cook (Yale, 598 pp., £18.99, July 2012, 978 0 300 18795 3).