A Man, A Writer, and An American Century: William Styron and Friends

Selected Letters of William Styron.

William Styron’s "Selected Letters," edited by his wife Rose, and R. Blakeslee Gilpin, offers abundant insight into the writer’s relationships with “family, close friends from childhood through middle age, writers contemporary and aspiring, mentors, Marine buddies, and neighbors and editors with whom he had deep connections over the years.” Styron was a prolific correspondent, and his letters reveal the growth of an eager, searching writer into one of the pillars of the twentieth-century literary establishment. Among his closest associates and friends were George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, James Jones, Willie Morris, and Philip Roth -- whose own life stories we explore in this roundup.

Styron’s later life was shadowed by a disabling depression. His memoir, "Darkness Visible," first published in book form in 1990, was a groundbreaking first-person account of suffering under the weight of a misunderstood and often taboo illness. In "Reading My Father," Styron’s youngest daughter Alexandra offers an intimate and often contradictory view of life inside her parents’ turbulent, creative, culturally prominent household, revealing the blind spots and willful omissions in Styron’s account of himself.

After his first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness," won the Prix de Rome, Styron moved to Europe, where in 1953 he became one of the founding editors of The Paris Review. In the first issue, his editor’s letter was presented as a response to his friends’ revisions of an earlier draft -- perhaps to underscore the magazine’s collaborative ideals. The letter stated the aims of the new journal in simple, modest terms, which rejected critical posturing: “I think The Paris Review should welcome these people into its pages -- the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they’re good.” Styron’s friend George Plimpton edited the review until his death in 2003; both in Paris and in New York, he was a legendary editor, a gregarious host, and a linchpin of the literary scene. In "George, Being George," Styron is one of more than 200 of Plimpton’s friends to contribute his memories to a multilayered and affectionate portrait of (in Norman Mailer’s phrase) “the best-loved man in New York.”

As editor of Harper’s Magazine, Willie Morris helped launch Styron’s career and remained one of his closest friends. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Morris revisited his Southern childhood in his memoir "North Toward Home," recalling the turbulent era of desegregation and the pride, grace, and cruelty of the old South. In his sequel, "New York Days," he evoked his heady experiences as one of the youngest ever editors-in-chief of a major American literary magazine, in the late 1960s when New York City was “throbbing with possibility.” Morris knew everybody, from the intellectuals to the tycoons to the actresses to the athletes, and had a ringside seat to the center of everything -- until his liberal editorial policies and conflicts with publishers led to his resignation and the collapse of the empire he had built.

Another of Styron’s close friends from the early 1950s was James Jones, best known for his World War Two novels "From Here to Eternity" and "The Thin Red Line." Closely based on Jones’s own wartime experiences, "From Here to Eternity" follows the army experiences of Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt in a novel that was heavily censored on its original release, and is newly available in unexpurgated form.This edition of the book includes a foreword by Styron and an afterword by Jones scholar George Hendrick, who recounts the novel’s censorship, success, and its roots in Jones’s own journey from small-town Illinois to Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal.

One of Styron’s most frequent correspondents and his sometime neighbor, Philip Roth has drawn extensively on his own life in his novels. In his slyly titled "The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography," he offers up a fragmentary, decidedly selective version of his own life. The book focuses on five formative episodes, and is bookended by letters between the writer and his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, which reflect on -- and raise doubts about -- the very possibility of writing an autobiography. In the more intimate "Patrimony," Roth reflects on the connections between self and family in a memoir of his ebullient father, and the pain of watching him slowly destroyed by an inoperable brain tumor.

Styron was for years a close friend of Norman Mailer’s, until he allegedly insulted Mailer’s wife Adele, and became one of the famously pugnacious writer’s many sworn enemies. After a quarter century of sniping and backbiting, the two reconciled in 1985. In the same year, Peter Manso first published "Norman Mailer: His Life and Times," a sweeping oral history based on Mailer’s own words and the recollections of his family, friends, lovers, wives, and enemies -- in which Styron featured prominently, along with a who’s who of literary New York in the fifties, sixties, and seventies.  Although his rambunctious biography was officially authorized by Mailer, Manso also wound up on Mailer’s long list of antagonists -- but approved or not, the book creates a flamboyant, freewheeling portrait of a unforgettable figure in a rapidly changing world.