William Styron’s Paper Skin, etc.

Natalie Shapero
February 20, 2013
Comments 1

The top five surprises from the newly released Selected Letters of William Styron (Random House, 2012):

A yacht party with JFK and Jackie. In a letter to his father in 1962, Styron recounts the afternoon: “We were sitting around a big table in the open cockpit and occasionally she [Jackie] would put her feet up in JFK’s lap and wiggle her toes, just like you’d imagine the wife of the President to do. Lunch was served, rather dreary Navy officers’ chow—eggs in aspic and a tasteless salad of some kind…. The conversation became literary and although I don’t think JFK has really much profound understand of literature of all (his tastes are rather square and conventional; he liked Leon Uris’ Battle Cry), he has a remarkable interest in literary matters, as he does in other matters; his mind is wide-ranging and fantastically filled with facts, not a profound mind but an enormously sharp one….”

Styron was into sports cars, particularly a Jaguar he bought in 1972. To his friends: “I have no more money left, since I went crazy and bought a Jaguar XJ6 sedan that cost more than Nixon’s limousine.” To his daughter: “The Mustang is no more, since in an excess of reckless affluence I traded it in on the most beautiful Jaguar you’ve ever seen…. The enclosed piece of the brochure should give you an idea what it’s like…. It is truly elegant without being pretentious and I’ve just gotten over my guilt about buying it.” And, finally, to Philip Roth: “ I too have been brooding about mortality and have been filled with Kierkegaardian despair believe me. In the midst of this Angst, I found the solution. I bought a $9,000 XJ6 Jaguar, and feel much better.”

Speaking of Philip Roth, this: “Dear Philip: I ever so much enjoyed seeing you up here, and I have a confession to make. I adore your mustache and have had a single incredible fantasy: suppose I was a girl and you were going down on me with that mustache. What would it be like? Please destroy this letter.”

When it came to criticism of his slave revolt narrative The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron was thin-skinned and indignant, allergic to any suggestion that the book might be problematic from a racial history standpoint. While championing the notion that “a writer, black or white, must be able to write about any human being of whatever color,” he did not afford the same latitude to his detractors, painting all critics of the novel with a broad brush. In letters, Styron asserted that “the Negroes’ reaction was racist,” that a negative review in The New Republic was “appallingly subliterate,” and that one attack on pro-Nat Turner historians was “typical of the hyperbole and hysteria that every black intellectual has used when trying to lambaste me.” When Beacon Press released a book of critical essays in which ten black writers responded to Nat Turner, Styron sent a letter to the publisher objecting that ads for the book were libelous, threatening to bring legal action if they didn’t pull the campaign.

Styron, in general, displayed some rough insensitivity, even from within his ironic sense of humor. From a letter to Lillian Hellman: “I returned from a week-long trip to Mississippi to find your letter. I am hastening to answer it, because I am afraid that the young Chink lady reporter with her single quote from me … left you, and the general Times reader, with a sense of ambiguity which I certainly didn’t intend.” You may know this reporter better by her more common appellation, Michiko Kakutani.

And I’ll close with this hard-to-beat postscript: “Life is a big put-on. I am beginning to detest almost everything—especially (continued in next letter)”

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