William Styron, who died in 2006, wrote a lot of nonfiction in addition to his celebrated novels. The editor of this collected edition tells us that the 92 essays he chose, written from 1951 to 2001, are by no means all; there may be a complete volume down the line. Some of the pieces are bagatelles, like a description of his home on Martha’s Vineyard and a grumpy observation of Christmas, but a large number have the high moral seriousness characteristic of his novels, such as “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and “Sophie’s Choice.”
Quite a few pieces grapple with the meaning and legacy of slavery. Styron remarks that the paradox of Southern life is that its racism was grounded not upon friction and nearness but on an almost complete lack of contact. Growing up in Virginia, Styron didn’t live near or go to school with any black people. Black servants would appear from nowhere in the morning and vanish at night.
Putting the 1831 uprising of Nat Turner and a few hundred other slaves in perspective, Styron writes bitterly, “American Negro slavery, unique in its psychological oppressiveness — the worst the world has ever known — was simply so despotic and emasculating as to render organized revolt next to impossible.” Slaves were not human beings, but merely property. Turner’s rebellion was unique in the history of the vile institution.
Styron’s novel got him into trouble with most black writers and intellectuals, who attacked him for venturing onto their turf and impersonating a black man with condescension. But John Hope Franklin and James Baldwin defended him. Styron got into trouble again with “Sophie’s Choice” for daring as a Gentile to depict the Holocaust.
In a group of essays, he takes on war and the military life he knew firsthand. He describes the strange commingling of exultation and anguish that war and confrontation with death rouses in many soldiers. War was “as fascinating as it was repulsive,” he said, quoting Philip Caputo.
In other essays he examines the Chicago riots of 1968 and a trip down the Nile, gives us some autobiography and shares his views on politics. There is a rousing defense of the novel, which is forever declared to be dying. “Words themselves — this tumbling riot of dithyrambs and yawping apostrophes and bardic cries — had the power to throw open the portals of perception so that one could actually begin to feel and taste and smell the very texture of existence.” And there’s the astounding feat of inventing human beings on the page.
The collection contains a few too many eulogies to mentors and fellow writers. They are heartfelt, I have no doubt, but praise and gratitude don’t make very interesting reading. Still, there’s enough variety and accomplished style to please different readers.
Brigitte Frase is a past winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for excellence in criticism, awarded by the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Minneapolis.