A rich collection by an estimable writer.
In advance of a future collected edition of Styron’s (1925-2006) work, West (English/Pennsylvania State Univ.; Making the Archives Talk, 2012, etc.) has selected 92 pieces—essays, reviews, articles, speeches—including eight previously unpublished, which testify impressively to the power of Styron’s nonfiction. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize for the Confessions of Nat Turner (1968), a National Book Award for Sophie’s Choice (1979), and many other honors, Styron is acclaimed primarily as a novelist, but he contributed regularly to the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and many other venues, with pieces notable for their intelligence, verve, and crystalline prose. Born and raised in Virginia, the grandson of a slave owner, Styron devoted many essays to race, and one of his long essays follows “the stormy career” of his novel about the insurrectionist slave Nat Turner, which incited accusations that he was racist. Styron defined his generation—including writers such as Mailer, Baldwin, Salinger, Joseph Heller, and Walker Percy—as traumatized not only by their war experiences and the deployment of nuclear weapons, but by the chilling intimation of future conflicts. After the Korean War, “the cosmos seemed so unhinged as to be nearly insupportable,” and he, like others, became mistrustful of power, nationalism, and political hawks. More than a quarter of the collection reflects these views: several essays focus on the Holocaust; one hard-hitting essay profiles a “horribly maimed” Vietnam veteran. Styron marvels that Douglas MacArthur’s memoir is “almost totally free of self-doubt.” Several pieces reflect movingly on Styron’s experience with severe clinical depression. His literary debts emerge in elegies for Faulkner and Fitzgerald, Robert Penn Warren and James Baldwin, Peter Matthiessen and Truman Capote.
Wide-ranging, lucid, and incisive.