My Generation is the definitive gathering of William Styron’s nonfiction, exposing the core of this greatly gifted, highly convivial, and profoundly serious artist from his literary emergence in the 1950s to his death in 2006.
Here are fifty years of Styron’s essays, memoirs, reviews, op-eds, articles, eulogies, and speeches, reflecting the same brilliant style and informed thinking that he brought to his towering fiction and to a deeply committed public life. Including many newly collected and never-before-published items, this compendium ranges from the original mission statement of The Paris Review, which Styron helped found in 1953, to a 2001 tribute to his friend Philip Roth—creating an essential overview of arts and letters during the post–World War II years.
In these pages, Styron writes vividly of childhood days in Tidewater Virginia spent going to movies, not reading books. (“It does not mean the death of literacy or creativity if one is drenched in popular culture at an early age.”) He recalls being among the group of soldiers who would have been sent to invade Japan and were saved by Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb, which Styron feels was the right choice, “even though its absolute rightness can never be proved.” And he writes as few others have about midlife battles with clinical depression, “a pain that is all but indescribable, and therefore to everyone but the sufferer almost meaningless.”
Here, too, are Styron’s personal encounters with world leaders, fellow authors, and friends, each of whom comes memorably to life. Styron recalls sharing contraband Cuban cigars with JFK (“a naughty memento, a conversation piece with a touch of scandal”), getting lost in the snow with Robert Penn Warren, and party-hopping with the young James Jones (an experience he likens to “keeping company with a Roman emperor”). The beginnings of his masterpieces The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice are chronicled here, along with the controversy that greeted the former upon its 1967 publication. Throughout, Styron celebrates the men and women of his generation, whose lives were forged in the crucible of World War II.
Whether he’s recounting a walk with his dog, musing on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century, or contemplating America’s fraught racial legacy from his point of view as the grandson of a woman who owned slaves, William Styron writes always in urgent, finely calibrated prose. These fascinating pieces bring readers closer to this great writer and the world he observed, interacted with, and changed.
Praise for My Generation
“William Styron’s My Generation: Collected Nonfiction is both unsurpassably charming and unflinchingly honest, whether recounting the fallout from The Confessions of Nat Turner or reminiscing about the slave-owning grandmother who warned him never to forget he was a Southerner.”—Vogue
“At its most accomplished, Styron’s non-fiction mixes a conscientious, richly traditional prose style with a strong current of fellow feeling, a certain awe at the human condition, which is what gives power to his best fiction. . . . Styron stood tall in his generation, and the best of him will stand up over time.”—USA Today
“A must for every Styron fan’s library.”—BBC
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About the Author
Hometown:Roxbury, Connecticut, and Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts
Date of Birth:June 11, 1925
Date of Death:November 1, 2006
Place of Birth:Newport News, Virginia
Place of Death:Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Education:Davidson College and Duke University, both in North Carolina; courses at the New School for Social Research in New York
Read an Excerpt
I was born in Newport News, Va., in June of 1925, and after two and a half years in the Marines and a brief editorial job, I met Hiram Haydn, who encouraged me to start a novel, which I did. It took me three years to finish, writing steadily and living variously in Durham, N.C., Nyack, N.Y., and on West 88th Street. The process of writing the book was very painful. I wrote it in longhand on large yellow sheets, and some days, after three or four hours of pacing and thinking and listening to music, I managed to put down as much as forty or fifty words. Toward the end, though--last winter--the thing became clearer to me, and the Marine Corps was breathing down my neck again, so I began to write pretty fast; the final seventy or eighty pages, in fact, I wrote in less than three weeks.
I was called up last spring to the 8th Marines training at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Though I have now been returned to inactive duty, like all my fellow Marine reservists, who for the second time in ten years have had their families, jobs, and lives generally disrupted, I am pretty much in the dark about the future.
I would like to go to Europe, and to read a lot more than I've been doing lately. I would like to discover the moral and political roots of our trouble, and to learn why it has come about that young men, like my friends at Lejeune and, more particularly, in places like Korea, have to suffer so endlessly in our time. If I found out why all this has come about I'd be able to write intelligently and without so much of the self-conscious whimper that characterized a lot of the writing of the '20s, and consequently perhaps I'd be able to commemorate not a lost generation but a generation that never was even found, and work out, to my own satisfaction at least, a vision of hope for the future. But it will require more study and more thinking.
[New York Herald Tribune Book Review, October 7, 1951. Written for the publication of Lie Down in Darkness, by invitation from the newspaper.]
The Prevalence of Wonders
I hardly think that anyone in so short a space can do much justice to what he believes, and perhaps least of all should this be attempted by any writer, whose works, finally, should be sufficient expression of his credo. Lots of writers find themselves hopelessly baffled when it comes to dealing with ideas, and even though I suspect that this is a grave and lazy weakness, I nonetheless count myself among the group and, in a symposium of this sort, flounder about in a vague wonderland of notes and inconclusive jottings. But I was asked to write a "frank and honest statement of your feelings about your art, your country, and the world," so I will proceed, as frankly and as honestly as I can.
About my art: I know little of the mechanics of criticism and have been able to read only a very few critics, but I respect those people--critics and readers--who feel that the art of writing is valuable, since, like music or sailing or drinking beer, it is a pleasure, and since, at its best, it does something new to the heart. I for one would rather listen to music or go sailing, or drink beer while doing both, than talk about literature, but I am not averse to talking about it at all, just as lawyers talk about law and surgeons about surgery. And I take it quite seriously. I have no conscious illusions of myself as teacher or preacher; I do know that when I feel that I have been writing my best I am aware of having gathered together some of the actualities of myself and my experience, projected these whole and breathing on the page, and thereby have enjoyed some peculiar poetic fulfillment. This is a self-indulgence; but I trust that it sometimes approaches art, a word which I'm not ashamed to use from time to time, and I trust that it might also please some reader, that person who, in my most avid self-indulgence, I am not so ingenuous as ever really to forget. So I might say that I am not interested in writing propaganda, but only in that sort of personal propaganda engendered by afternoons of vicious solitude and the weird, joyful yearning which it pleases oneself to think, just for a couple of seconds, that Bach must have felt. If out of all this, placed as vividly as I can place them in their moment in time, there are people who emerge worthy of a few moments of someone's recollection, I am satisfied. Good people and bad people--bad enough to justify the truth at every signpost in one's most awful nightmares, good enough to satisfy every editor on Time magazine and so much the worse.
I would like to say something in regard to my feelings about America. I have lived in France and Italy for something over a year now--not a long time but long enough for me to feel well ahead in my postgraduate education. I have been here under a large handicap, though a handicap which, as I will try to demonstrate, might have its redeeming qualities. This handicap may be explained simply by the fact that I am one of those people who are unable to enjoy a painting, a piece of sculpture, a work of architecture, or, for that matter, practically any visually artistic representation. To suffer such a lack while in Italy is somewhat like being let loose, while suffering from ulcers, on one of those wonderful, large West Side delicatessens; yet, as Clive Bell, to whom I have run for refuge as apologist, so sympathetically points out in his essay called "The Aesthetic Hypothesis," there are people congenitally incapable of such an experience, just as there are people born without the sense of smell, and no more to be blamed than their equally sensitive friends who can visualize in the aerial, clear abstractions of a Vivaldi concerto, only horses galloping, nymphs and shepherds, or the first girl they ever kissed.1 So, deprived as I am in a place so rich in wonders as Rome of the means to assimilate those wonders, I have been thrown a bit on my own devices, so that my viewpoint, as an American living abroad, has probably often been closer to Burbank and his Baedeker among the ruins of Venice than any number of generations of comfortably adjusted artists.2 Many people can feel the true rapture at the façade of Chartres, and these are no doubt a step further toward an affection for France and its people than the aesthetically more limited who, attuned to the nightclubs of Montparnasse or escargots primarily, are outraged, stricken, and resentful when it dawns upon them that the French consider them jackasses. Not all art lovers, of course, are nice people. But a warm and tolerant feeling of brotherhood for man is, I believe, often measured by the extent of one's love for man's monuments and man's artifacts; and not a few American tourists, like myself, don't know a Piero from a peanut.1
I think this blindness of mine, though, has had its worthy effects, for if it has helped to keep me from understanding the more beautiful things about Europe it has also conspired with a sort of innate and provincial aloofness in my nature to make me much more conscious of my modern environment, and self-consciously aware of my emotions as an American within that environment. And thus at last, after more than a year, I think that I am as "adjusted" as I ever will be, having succumbed neither to the blandishments of exile nor to any illusions of a faultless America. There cannot be much dogma about nations when one lives in One World, eighteen hours from home, and for me now things are pretty well balanced.
The "U.S. Go Home" signs no longer offend me, since I have learned that they are the work of Communists and don't mean me but the American army encamped nearby. I have even come to the point where I can sympathize with the signs and ask myself: "Suppose New York were full of Swedish soldiers all mouthing orders for beer in an alien, thick, jaw-breaking tongue. Would I not want to scrawl 'Swedes go home!' on every available wall?" I have learned, too, that anti-Americanism is many different things: unjustified among the spoiled and snobbish Italian upper class, with whom it's currently in vogue, and among whom was the famous actress heard at a party recently to utter the most slanderous anti-American remarks, and enplane the next day, via TWA, for New York; justified when a Parisian reads about McCarthy in Le Figaro, or when our most widely read weekly editorializes upon France and compares it to a whore; nonexistent, finally, among most Italians whose happiest tradition has been an inability to be anti-anything and each of whom has a cousin in Brooklyn.
What I suppose I've really learned is the elderly truism that all of us can learn something from each other. That whereas our radios are better, no car from Detroit can match a fleet, shiny Alfa Romeo; that our planes work, crack up less often, and are generally on time, but that the dreadful snarl on Madison Avenue might be alleviated by a study of the marvelous Paris bus system; that, on the other hand, a bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is ambrosia, indeed, but that there's still nothing like a Coca-Cola on a hot summer day, as every Frenchman knows but won't admit; that the man from Chicago gobbling hamburgers on the Champs-Elysees is undoubtedly a fool, but there is something wonderful to be said about his brother, the July tourist with his straw hat and his lurid tie and his camera, and his almost pathetic eagerness to find, in a strange land, some kind of dazzling and miraculous enlightenment: sometimes his manners are bad but he's making the effort at least, and one finds few French tourists outside of France; that our mass production is the world's finest: "Oh," says the American, "your Italian sports cars are great, but in the States everyone can own a car." "But Signore," is the reply, "here not everyone wants a car"; that our Park Avenue head-feelers are the very best: "But Signore, here we do not need psychoanalysis." It's simply a matter of balance.
One must end a credo on the word "endure," but I think we will do just that--Americans and Italians and Frenchmen, in spite of all those who threaten us momentary harm. Humans have become involved too much in life, and the wonders are too thick about us, to be daunted by a handful of madmen who always, somehow, fall. The hope of heaven has flowered so long among us that I just can't envision that hope blighted out in our time, or any other, for that matter; perhaps the miseries of our century will be recalled only as the work of a race of strange and troublous children, by the wise men in the aeons which come after us. Meanwhile, the writers keep on writing, and I should like to think that what we write will be worth remembering.
[Nation, May 2, 1953. This was Styron's contribution to a symposium on creativity. The other contributors were James Jones, Maude Hutchins, Leonard Bishop, Jefferson Young, and John H. Griffin.]
For seven or eight months during my fourteenth year I kept a diary. This was in the late 1930s, when I was living in southern Virginia with my father and a male cousin a little older than I--my mother having died a year before. Because of the absence of my mother there was considerably less discipline in the household than there ordinarily might have been, and so the diary--which I still possess--is largely a chronicle of idleness. The only interruptions to appear amid the daily inertia are incidents of moviegoing. The diary now records the fact that hardly a day went by without my cousin and me attending a film, and on weekends we often went more than once. In the summertime, when we had no school, there was a period of ten days when we viewed a total of sixteen movies. Mercifully, it must be recorded, movies were very cheap during those years at the end of the Great Depression. My critical comments in the diary were invariably laconic: "Pretty good." "Not bad." "Really swell movie." I was fairly undemanding in my tastes. The purely negative remarks are almost nonexistent.
Among the several remarkable features about this orgy of moviegoing there is one that stands out notably: nowhere during this brief history is there even the slightest mention of my having read a book. As far as reading was concerned, I may as well have been an illiterate sharecropper in Alabama. So one might ask: how does a young boy, exposed so numbingly and monotonously to a single medium--the film--grow up to become a writer of fiction? The answer, I believe, may be less complicated than one might suppose. In the first place, I would like to think that, if my own experience forms an example, it does not mean the deaths of literacy or creativity if one is drenched in popular culture at an early age. This is not to argue in favor of such a witless exposure to movies as I have just described--only to say that the very young probably survive such exposure better than we imagine, and grow up to be readers and writers. More importantly, I think my experience demonstrates how, at least in the last fifty or sixty years, it has been virtually impossible for a writer of fiction to be immune to the influence of film on his work, or to fail to have movies impinge in an important way on his creative consciousness.
Yet I need to make an immediate qualification. I do not wish to argue matters of superiority in art forms. But although I cannot be entirely objective, I must say here that as admirable and as powerful a medium as the cinema is, it cannot achieve that complex synthesis of poetic, intellectual, and emotional impact that we find in the very finest novels. At their best, films are of course simply wonderful. A work like Citizen Kane or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (by one of the greatest of directors, John Huston, who, interestingly enough, began his career as a writer) is each infinitely superior, in my opinion, to most novels aspiring to the status of literature. But neither of these estimable works attains for me the aesthetic intensity of, say, William Faulkner in a book like The Sound and the Fury, or comes close to the profound beauty and moral vision of the novel that, more than any other, determined my early course as a writer: Madame Bovary.
1 Piero della Francesca (ca. 1415-1492), Italian painter of the early Renaissance period.--J.W.