‘Selected Letters’: William Styron’s life in correspondence

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I always enjoy reading the collected letters of famous people.

It’s fun to see how a great writer or celebrated performer communicated with his or her friends and business associates (as well as the occasional fan).

In many of these posthumous collections, there can be a queasy feeling as well, however, when the subject shares gossip or putdowns that were meant to be private.

More so than in a biography, we get to snoop and look at material we would never get to see when a celebrity was alive.

Random House has just published the hefty 600-page “Selected Letters of William Styron” which serves as an unofficial autobiography of the great writer, starting with his college days and military service in the early 1940s and running up to just a few years before his death in 2006.

Styron is quoted as having said that he didn’t care one way or the other about his letters being published after his death.

What’s interesting in the volume of letters edited by Styron’s widow, Rose, and R. Blakeslee Gilpin (who is working on a full-scale biography) is the incredible detail and high-quality writing in the correspondence the author maintained with so many people — in between the long and hard work he put into his books.

Styron was not nearly as prolific as such peers as Philip Roth and Norman Mailer and the letters illustrate the many years of thinking and research and false starts that went into “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and “Sophie’s Choice.”

The scope of the “Selected Letters” should give it a wider audience than other books of this kind. In addition to his literary career, Styron had ties to Hollywood through the film adaptations (and attempted film adaptations) of his work, and he spent much of his life in Litchfield County where his neighbors and friends included folks like Mia Farrow, Arthur Miller and Meryl Streep.

One of the remarkable things about Styron was the way he kept strong links to his Tidewater Virginia roots while forging new relationships with the rich and famous.

Some of the most interesting letters in the book were written to William Blackburn. who taught Styron at Duke and became both a lifelong friend and a trusted adviser on matters literary. We get to see the development of Styron as a writer and as a person through his relationship with his professor.

The way Styron struggled to write his novels — working and reworking the manuscripts for many years — is played out in the letters to his friends, so we get to see how “Nat Turner” and “Sophie’s Choice,” in particular, took much more than a decade to grow from ideas into fully realized novels.

“Selected Letters” also delves into the challenges of the publishing business and the way that such once-mighty commercial entities as the Book-of-the-Month Club bolstered Styron’s considerable financial success.

The gossip quotient is high too as we get an insider’s view of Styron’s volatile relationships with Norman Mailer and Lillian Hellman. The latter was a neighbor of Styron’s on Martha’s Vineyard — the relationship turned cold when Hellman believed Styron was not sufficiently loyal to her in the libel suit she filed against Mary McCarthy (who claimed on a TV show that much of Hellman’s acclaimed non-fiction was fabricated).

“Selected Letters” follows the writer through the bouts of depression that he turned into the bestselling memoir “Darkness Visible” after then-Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown asked him to write about his illness.

The book draws us so close to Styron that it’s a terribly abrupt shock at the end of “Selected Letters” when the letter writing simply stops — four years before his death in 2006 — because of the depression that reclaimed him and the cancer that eventually killed him.

Joe Meyers

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