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Uncovered Letters Reveal A New Side Of William Styron

William Styron was one of the flamboyant literary figures of the 20th Century. He was a Southerner whose novel Lie Down in Darkness received immense acclaim when he was just 26 years old. He would go on to write the Confessions of Nat Turner, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1968.

But for the last 27 years of his life, Styron did not write a novel. He battled depression, and wrote a seminal work about it, Darkness Visible, in 1990.

Styron's literary voice, and life, were large. He and his wife, Rose, knew everyone, it seemed. They were hosts to presidents, poets and performers.

Now, six years after Styron's death at age 81, Rose Styron and editor R. Blakeslee Gilpin, have compiled more than 1,000 of his letters in the Selected Letters of William Styron.

Rose Styron spoke with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends All Things Considered, about the collection.


Interview Highlights

On why Rose Styron collected the letters

"So few people write letters anymore, myself included, and there was such an incredible trove of letters to Bill that I found squashed in drawers in his study when I was putting the house in Connecticut we lived in for 50 years on the market. I thought there must be troves of letters from him to these same friends, and other friends, and I wanted to save them."

On William Styron's "secret life"

"Bill and I had both a private and public life, and then Bill had a sub life that I found in his letters. He secretly felt a great many things that he did not say aloud, and he wrote them to special friends, and he allowed his sense of humor a lot of free play, his brilliant words took a lot of interesting turns that they may not have in our daily life. ... Mainly I had no idea of how much he had observed and recorded of our life together, it was a revelation and really almost a piece of literature in itself. ... I had not a clue he had written thousands of letters. I thought he was upstairs working on his fiction all the time."

On what the letters revealed to Rose

"I think I see it as a reaffirmation of the wonderful marriage I remember. Wonderful marriages, of course, have ups and downs if they last for a half century. The love, and understanding, and conviction that I was married to a good, tender, caring man who might fly off the handle frequently, at me and everybody else, was restored in the best way possible. ... He had such an incredible memory, and he recorded everything — my memory is terrible, and I recorded nothing — that I was given a whole new picture of our lives together that I really, really cherish."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. William Styron was one of the most flamboyant literary figures of the 20th century, a Southerner who first received acclaim at just 26. He'd go on to write "The Confessions of Nat Turner," which earned him the Pulitzer Prize. For the last 27 years of his life, though, William Styron didn't write another novel. He battled depression.

From that experience, he wrote a seminal work in 1990 called "Darkness Visible." Now, six years after his death, his wife, Rose Styron, and coeditor, R. Blakeslee Gilpin, have compiled over 1,000 letters spanning Styron's life. The collection is called "Selected Letters of William Styron." Welcome to the program, Rose.

ROSE STYRON: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

LYDEN: This had to be something between a labor of love and, I don't know, maybe a real work of frustration. Why did you decide to do it?

STYRON: Because so few people write letters anymore, myself included. And there was such an incredible trove of letters to Bill that I found squashed in drawers in his study when I was putting the house in Connecticut we've lived in for 50 years on the market. I thought there must be troves of letters from him to these same friends and other friends, and I wanted to save them.

LYDEN: And there are letters in here to James Jones, to James Baldwin, to John Marquand, Norman Mailer, Mia Farrow. I get the idea that at your table - whether in Roxbury, Connecticut, or on Martha's Vineyard - the two of you really knew many, many of the literary artists of our age.

STYRON: I think that's true. We were incredibly lucky and had close friendships when we were young and everybody else was young. And many of our friends became pretty well known as artists of one kind or another.

LYDEN: You call these letters a secret life. As you're collecting them, what's coming back to you? What did you mean by that, a secret life?

STYRON: I meant that Bill and I had both a private and public life, and then Bill had a sub life that I found in his letters. He secretly felt a great many things that he did not say aloud, and he wrote them to special friends. And he allowed his sense of humor a lot of free play.

His brilliant words took a lot of interesting turns they might not have in our daily life. But mainly, I had no idea how much he had observed and recorded of our life together. It was a revelation and really almost a piece of literature in itself as I read it. It was like a novel.

LYDEN: Let's pick one to read. You've got some great ones here. I was kind of looking at the one from page 374 to his mentor William Blackburn.

STYRON: William Blackburn was Bill's favorite professor. And he wrote many, many letters to Blackburn from the time he arrived at Duke until Blackburn died. And this is from 1966: Quite frankly, I feel that the publication of personal letters, as distinct from public letters, correspondents to newspapers, et cetera, while the writer is still alive, has somewhat the quality of gratuitous exposure. To be honest, when I read that letter of mine which you sent and thought of it appearing in print, I felt terribly naked all of a sudden.

Certainly, as I say, the letter has nothing in its content to really embarrass me, an earnest youth worrying about his future, et cetera. Nonetheless, it was not written for public display. And since I'm still quite alive - or feel myself to be so from time to time - I would quite simply not want to see these very private meanderings in print.

When a writer is dead, certainly that becomes a different matter. Presumably, then, there evolves enough interest in the writer's private self that the very publication of his correspondence wipes out the element of gratuitousness.

LYDEN: You know, that is so interesting. Do you think he had any hint that after his death you might do exactly what you - and I know you had a colleague here, Blakeslee Gilpin - what the two of you have done?

STYRON: If so, I had no hint of it when he was alive. I had not a clue that he'd written thousands of letters. I thought he was upstairs working on his fiction all the time. And he expressed the feeling that one needed to write letters to stave off tedium or panic, but I don't think he had that kind of an eye for posterity.

LYDEN: The two of you are known for having a long, loving but sometimes tempestuous marriage. Lots of things happened over the course of 53 years. How do you review your life with him now that these letters have come to light?

STYRON: I think I see it as a reaffirmation of the wonderful marriage I remember. Wonderful marriages, of course, have ups and downs if they last for a half century. The love and understanding and conviction that I was married to a good, tender, caring man who might fly off the handle frequently - at me and everybody else - was restored in the best way possible.

And he had such an incredible memory, and he recorded everything - my memory is terrible, and I recorded nothing - that I was given a whole new picture of our lives together that I really, really cherish.

LYDEN: I've been speaking with Rose Styron who, with a coeditor, has compiled a collection of her late husband's letters called "The Selected Letters of William Styron." Rose Styron, thank you for joining us.

STYRON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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