The author of five critically acclaimed novels in a writing career of more than thirty years, William Styron has published his first nonfiction work. This Quiet Dust collects essays, book reviews, and other occasional pieces of varied length, style, and tone from two decades of what Styron calls “sideline” writing. Many of the pieces relate variously to his novels or to his life and experience, and thus the book seems, as Styron suggests, a “very personal” one.
The long title essay, “This Quiet Dust,” is both an explanation and a vigorous defense against what Styron regards as an unjust and intensely prejudiced group of attacks on him and his fourth novel in William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968). The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) was intended as a historical novel, not as history, and Styron asserts the right and privilege of a novelist to substitute imagination for fact. Through research, he discovered that the factual record about Turner was slight. Thus, he felt free to create the protagonist of his novel from the nearly forgotten historical Nat Turner, a slave who led a murderous but quickly aborted insurrection against the whites in an eastern Virginia county in 1831.
What Styron attempted in the novel was to see Turner from both outside and inside, since he believed that “to come to know the Negro, has become the moral imperative of every white Southerner.” A chief complaint of the black critics was that Styron’s Nat was a white man’s portrayal of a black man and was therefore distorted and false. For many readers of the novel, the complaint may have seemed justified, yet the fictional Nat is an arresting character, almost certainly more complex and intellectually introspective than the real Nat and a truly memorable creation.
In a group of three book reviews that Styron has titled “Forebears,” he looks backward to earlier years when he came under the spell of Thomas Wolfe and of the Lost Generation writers of the 1920’s and 1930’s such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. He thinks it unfortunate that the young men and women of the 1970’s do not read Wolfe, and he recalls how at eighteen he raced through Wolfe’s novels, stories, and other writings and then decided that he too would be a writer.
Many readers returning to Wolfe in middle age have learned, as Styron did, that he is best read when one is young and impressionable. “Rereading Wolfe,” says Styron, “is like visiting again a cherished landscape or town of bygone years where one is simultaneously moved that much could remain so appealingly the same, and wonderstruck that one could have thought that such-and-such a corner or this or that view had any charm at all.” Yet he still finds Look Homeward, Angel (1929) “alive” and its characters “fully fleshed and breathing from the pages.” Wolfe’s later novels, though they contain many fine and moving passages, such as Oliver Gant’s death scene, now appear filled with too much “detritus.” Styron, like many earlier critics, regrets Wolfe’s inability to control his torrential flow of words.
In “An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald,” a review of Andrew Turnbull’s edition of Fitzgerald’s letters, Styron praises Fitzgerald’s unconscious artistry in his private writing, as in the beautifully phrased letter to Sara and Gerald Murphy after the loss of their two young sons. There is an admiration for Fitzgerald’s general avoidance of self-pity in his final Hollywood years, when he wrote trashy film scripts and brooded on the madness of his wife Zelda and the wreckage of their lives.
Reviewing Malcolm Cowley’s A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation (1973), Styron considers the plethora of information, studies, analysis, and scattered memorabilia on the Lost Generation writers, and he wonders how much of this is really needed. Yet...
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