"Selected Letters of William Styron" could be one of the last collections of written letters, a long and distinguished literary tradition. In the future, volumes of collected e-mails, tweets, text messages and Facebook posts may arise, though these will be unlikely to have the depth of thought and feeling and complexity of personality reflected in long letters written on paper. Would Keats have worked out his negative capability reflections using Twitter?
Styron's letters are his first draft of history about a life that has been thoroughly examined through the refined lens of biographers, critics, fellow writers, family members and Styron himself in memoirs and personal essays. As with other letters by famous people, Styron's reveal him with immediacy and frankness: caring, affectionate, serious, and tender as well as self-righteous, opinionated, vindictive, racist and sexist.
His widow, Rose Styron, edited the volume along with R. Blakeslee Gilpin. From William Styron's youth as a struggling writer through the rich years of his literary success to his sad final years beset by depression and other illnesses, the letters range from chatty and jokey messages to chums like Philip Roth, Willie Morris and Mia Farrow to earnest, detailed reports to intimates such as his father, William Sr., and his writing mentor at Duke, William Blackburn. Literary feuds, parties, conferences, politics and the editorial business of writing and publishing come alive.
He gives fewer thoughts on writing and literary theory than might be expected, although he often reflects on such matters as critical reaction to his books. A grievance that endured to death was the fierce criticism of some black critics to his "Confessions of Nat Turner" and some Jewish commentators to "Sophie's Choice."
The letters' conversational tone sounds close to Styron's speaking voice, giving the impression that he is there talking to you through every step of his life.