This Quiet Dust

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1569

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....

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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 he has only high regard for Cowley’s “angle of vision” and his insights and portraits. Recalling such writers as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and others, Styron comments: “Many of them indeed had a hunger for self-destruction and were spendthrift livers, but when it came to their talent they were passionate conservationists.”

“Hell Reconsidered” is a review of Richard L. Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History (1975), the first section of which concerns the Nazi labor and death camps where millions of men, women, and children died. Rubenstein’s account influenced Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (1979)—on which he was working at the time of the review—as earlier his reading of Stanley Elkins’ Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (1959) had influenced The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron’s interest was especially drawn to Rubenstein’s argument that the Germans’ use of many of their prisoners as laborers before they were killed represented a continuation of the practice of slavery which had been present in Western civilization for centuries.

The section of This Quiet Dust entitled “Victims” is dominated by a series of articles on a young black murderer who was condemned to death. “The Death-in-Life of Benjamin Read” is a meditation on capital punishment and an argument strongly opposing it. Though Read had been scheduled to die, he was not executed. In “Benjamin Read: Aftermath,” Styron condemns Connecticut law regarding murderers and reports that through the efforts of many sympathizers, including the original prosecutor (later a judge), Read was saved. Styron develops so much sympathy for Read that the reader rejoices at his escape. “Aftermath of ’Aftermath’” suggests the power of the printed word to sway opinion and to achieve far-reaching changes in public policy. It also narrates a surprising turn in the Read story. Styron’s first article stirred sympathizers to action. The suggestions in his second article led to changes in Connecticut law—a considerable accomplishment for an author whose fame had been based only on his writing of novels.

The long travel essay, “Down the Nile,” is an account of Styron’s visit to the Aswan Dam and his voyage down the river to Cairo. Many scattered quotations from Flaubert in Egypt (translated and edited from various French sources by Francis Steegmuller, 1972) are used to compare and contrast the voyage of Gustave Flaubert and a friend in 1849 with that of Styron more than a century later, and Styron highly recommends Flaubert’s book for prospective Nile voyagers.

Styron’s comments on the four Abu Simbel colossi that were rescued from the rising waters behind the dam remind one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” with its theme of man’s foolish vanity. Styron broods on the “enigmatic smiles that so often seem to possess the faintest shadow of a smirk,” and he sees the “redundant” colossi as “simply intimidating, vainglorious, invoking the idea not of true grandeur but of pelf, influence, power.”

Styron joined the Marine Corps at seventeen and served more than three years during World War II and the Korean War. This experience provides the background for the attitudes and opinions one finds in the reviews in “The Service.” The fascination of combat quickly dissipated for the youthful Styron, and his introduction to the horrors of war removed forever any desire to make a career in the service, yet he greatly respects the men who do. “If the ordeal caused me to loathe war utterly,” he says, “it also has allowed me to take quick offense at any easily expressed contempt for men who dedicate themselves to fight our battles.”

Reviewing General Douglas MacArthur’s Reminiscences (1964), Styron recoils from the “disappointingly juvenile” writing, which he suspects was in part “blandly plagiarized” from Major General Courtney Whitney’s “sycophantic” MacArthur: His Rendezvous with History (1956). Styron admires MacArthur the general’s brilliant, aggressive warfare in his return to rout the Japanese from the Philippines and his “undoubtedly fine achievements as the absolute dictator of a conquered Japan.” He is repelled, however, by MacArthur the man, romantic, vainglorious, humorless, self-congratulating, and a lover of war.

Styron’s review of The Court-Martial of Lt. Calley, by Richard Hammer (1971), and Lieutenant Calley: His Own Story, as told to John Sack (1971), reveals his disgust and his contempt for Calley, whom he regards as a disgrace to the American army for what he did and permitted or ordered others to do at My Lai during the Vietnam War. Styron holds a similar view of the inept, fanatical Lieutenant Commander Arnheiter in his review of The Arnheiter Affair, by Neil Sheehan (1971), though his attitude is tempered somewhat by the comic absurdity of many aspects of the affair as recounted by Sheehan. To Styron, Arnheiter is a combination of Captain Queeg in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny (1951) and Captain Morton in Thomas Heggen’s Mister Roberts (1946).

The seven brief pieces making up “Portraits and Farewells” were variously occasioned. Several are tributes to departed friends. Honoring Robert Penn Warren in an amusing speech delivered in New York in 1975, Styron tells of how, reading All the King’s Men (1946) during a 1947 blizzard in the city, he was inspired to begin his own first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951). He recalls, in “William Faulkner,” his visit to Oxford, Mississippi, and to the author’s home the day of Faulkner’s funeral in 1962. There are affectionate tributes to Philip Rahv, James Jones, and Bennett Cerf, who was Styron’s publisher.

Though not a major work, This Quiet Dust is an interesting and important companion to William Styron’s novels.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 27

America. CXLVIII, March 19, 1983, p. 217.

Booklist. LXXIX, October 1, 1982, p. 147.

Library Journal. CVII, November 1, 1982, p. 2098.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, November 21, 1982, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, October 8, 1982, p. 52.

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