William Styron Styron, William (Vol. 3) - Essay

Styron, William (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Styron, William 1925–

Styron is a prodigiously talented Southern American novelist whose The Confessions of Nat Turner was one of the most controversial fictions of recent years. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

What saves [Styron's Lie Down in Darkness]—makes it, indeed, one of the most imaginative novels of the postwar period—is Styron's ability to experience … doom as a moral fact. Though he has borrowed his form, his themes and much of the pattern of his action from others, (especially from Faulkner and Fitzgerald) there is for him nothing mechanical or abstract about the downfall of the Loftis family. It is lived out in the anguished, crowded consciousness of characters in whom Styron really believes or who re-enact what he himself has obviously deeply felt. Every moment is a living present in places which for that moment are the world—a hospital waiting room, a football game at the University of Virginia, a fashionable wedding, an open grave in potter's field. For the characters what is happening is not something literary but the only life they will ever have, a life in which there is no turning back or undoing the past.

Robert Gorham Davis, "The American Individualist Tradition: Bellow and Styron," in The Creative Present: Notes on American Fiction, edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons (© 1963 by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), Doubleday, 1963, pp. 111-41.

Styron apparently writes the way he does because he honestly believes that is the way serious literature sounds—and he is right: it does or, at any rate, it did. His charlatanism—if it can be called that—is of the unconscious and therefore wholeheartedly sincere kind…. Styron is an example—and a very rare one indeed in the present younger generation—of the still talented novelist who has achieved a certain measure of middlebrow success without having to sell out at all. He is what the middlebrows want just as he is—or, to be exact, he was until the appearance of Set This House on Fire raised new questions concerning his status in the middlebrow club.

But that again is a simplification. Styron is better than this, and deserves better than this. Let us say that he is a victim of his age in that he happened to form himself on standards of literary seriousness that have unfortunately become too widely known and too thoroughly conventionalized to be taken very seriously any more. He formed himself, that is, on the standards set by his eminent predecessors, and now he is condemned to writing like them, to achieving his effects in the way they achieved theirs, while today seriousness can ultimately be measured only in the degree to which a writer refines upon his predecessors or goes them one better, with another kind of power and a different degree and quality of emphasis….

He … never commits the unpardonable sin of the truly original writer: he never confronts the reader with what, disturbingly, the reader has never seen before; he never educates the consciousness by demanding that it go to work here and now, as if for the very first time, on him and his unique vision of reality. Instead, he comforts the reader, however unintentionally, with a vision of the familiar and the previously envisioned, skillfully projected through a literary manner with which the reader feels thoroughly at home. Yet Styron is a sufficiently good writer never to seem merely imitative. In everything he has done up to now he has managed to strike a fine balance between sounding familiar enough to be acceptable and not sounding so familiar as to seem entirely unoriginal.

His writing style, which has been justly praised for its evocative power and great verbal ingenuity, is an excellent example of this kind of equilibrium. It belongs to a category of literary expression that the middlebrows—and, for that matter, many highbrows—have come to identify as the "major" modern American style, the traditional language of our native form of modern literary genius. It is rich, reckless, bombastic, melodramatic, poetical, rhetorical, metaphorical, and sentimental; and in Styron's hands it clearly shows the marks of the hard usage already given it by most of our native modern literary geniuses….

[What] is most wrong with [the characters of Lie Down in Darkness] is that they suggest a dilemma that, to change the figure, they cannot deliver because Styron never received it. It got lost in transit somewhere between Faulkner's imagination and his. They suggest a dilemma of apocalpytic importance, as important as the fall of dynasties or some doomed defiance of the wrath of God. Yet the dilemma that the novel actually records is merely psychological, merely a matter of neurosis, marital incompatibility, father fixation, and dipsomania….

In spite of his great talent and ambition, he has still not found it possible to operate outside the system of ideological and dramatic conventions that have become the clichés of the highbrow world even as they remain the intellectual status symbols of the middlebrow world. The result is that although his books are written wonderfully well, they continue to exist in a dimension of irrelevance and unreality that is the dimension neither of life nor of literature but of something in between. They have many of the qualities of literature, just as they bear considerable resemblance to life, but they are essentially skilled adaptations of the already formulated modes of seeing and judging life and of portraying it in literature. Styron's talent seems at the present time to be imprisoned within the circle of these modes and condemned to moving round and round in a monotonous and unending routine of coming at experience over and over again from exactly the same direction and reacting to it in exactly the same way. The explanations it finds for human conduct inside the circle are always fashionable and always predictable: the motives of women are finally reducible to Oedipus complexes and the Sickness of the Age; the troubles of men can finally be traced to an inordinate fondness for the bottle, a suppressed fondness for other men, or some Topical Problem involving the "controversial" issues of race, creed, or color.

John W. Aldridge, "William Styron and the Derivative Imagination" (1964), in his Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis, McKay, 1966, pp. 30-51.

The Confessions of Nat Turner is a very wise book. Styron's understanding of his material is most impressive. When one thinks about it, the possibilities for melodrama and easy pathos inherent in the subject matter of this novel are very broad. What a less gifted novelist might have produced, one shudders to think. Styron, for example, barely mentions the period of ten weeks that actually elapsed between the suppression of the insurrection and the capture of Nat Turner, during which Nat himself hid out in the woods and fields. Another novelist might have attempted to make this episode the occasion for a long, pseudo-philosophical meditation by Nat on the meaning of what has happened. But Styron lets Nat's thoughts about what he has done arise in the actual retelling of the story—in, that is, his confession—so that by the time the actual insurrection itself takes place, what it means has been convincingly anticipated and prepared for us. The events of the insurrection, therefore, bloody as they are, are not merely horrible; they are the motivated, terribly meaningful violence climaxing an intolerable situation.

Louis D. Rubin, Jr., "William Styron and Human Bondage: The Confessions of Nat Turner," in Hollins Critic, December, 1967, pp. 1-12.

[The Confessions of Nat Turner] is the most profound fictional treatment of slavery in our literature. It is, of course, the work of a skilled and experienced novelist with other achievements to attest his qualifications. It is doubtful, however, if the rare combination of talents essential to this formidable undertaking, a flawless command of dialect, a native instinct for the subtleties and ambivalences of race in the South, and a profound and unerring sense of place—Styron's native place as it was Nat Turner's—could well have been found anywhere else.

C. Vann Woodward, "The Confessions of Nat Turner" (1967), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 388-94.

Styron's omissions of fact in depicting Nat Turner as a unique Negro leader reveal his vision of Negro character and his interpretation of Nat Turner. His narrator-hero is simply improbable and implausible, yet another Negro character stereotyped to hide the militant black rebel whose actual deeds vigorously undercut the stereotypic image of the slave as a contented and docile child. Styron calls his book "a meditation on history," and it is clearly a meditation by and about a white Southerner who, consciously or not, is trying not to violate his own sense of the past and a certain vision of the Negro. This book is Styron's own dramatic confession that he still does not know Negro character nor understand Nat Turner.

Bernard Bell, in Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall, 1968, p. 282.

Lie Down in Darkness was … a plunge into chaos, and … a dismissal of more pervasive traditional "answers" to that chaos and an enumeration of contemporary absurdities. In the structure of this book is something of the baroque glory that abounds in Sir Thomas Browne's "Urn Burial," from which Styron took his title. Styron has admitted that the greatest problem which faced him in writing this first novel was the problem of "the progression of time," but the many complex episodes of the novel are so smoothly handled that the reader may tend to slight the enormous skill and concentration which were necessary to bring them off. A rereading of the book is clearly essential if the reader is to be conscious of Styron's exceptional technical virtuosity.

What we might call the centralizing action of Lie Down in Darkness occurs in the space of a few hours, beginning as Milton Loftis awaits the arrival of the train that bears the disfigured body of his daughter, and concluding shortly after her burial on the same day. With apparent casualness, the book manages to embrace all the events of more than a quarter century which bring Loftis, his estranged wife, and his mistress together for this tragic funeral. Styron's debt to the interior monologues of Joyce (especially in Peyton's final, frenzied, Molly Bloom-like soliloquy) and to Faulkner's experiments with time—most notably those in The Sound and the Fury—is obvious and tremendous. "I'm all for the complexity of Faulkner, but not for the confusion," Styron once commented, later extending those comments to include Joyce. That Styron is able to succeed so well and so personally with techniques that are associated with Faulkner and Joyce is in part, of course, a tribute to his enormous skill as a writer, but in part, too, the result of historical accident; for Styron is not essentially an experimenter, and therefore does not run the dangers which Joyce and Faulkner often ran of becoming overwhelmed by technique itself. Character and story are of immense importance to Styron, and his intense, fully drawn characters give the novel concentration and unity, just as such characters give substance to Faulkner's best work….

For all his psychoanalytic inclinations, Styron tends to see his characters as figures from a Greek drama, as bared, tormented, and destined souls, in essence far removed from the aid of the analyst. That Peyton has an Electra complex and that much of the tension of the novel derives from repressed Oedipal desires is obvious, but it is equally obvious that all of the characters are somehow doomed to play out their fates without external interference. They do not, and Styron seems to say cannot, achieve any personality integration, can never reach full or complete identification because their incompleteness, like the writer's knowledge of "the human self," is part of the status quo of this first novel. Psychoanalysis can help to describe existing conditions, but it seems to offer no hope of resolving them….

There is a … contrast between the prose styles of Lie Down in Darkness and Set This House on Fire. In the former book Styron was largely concerned with a somewhat static enumeration and articulation of the various absurdities of modern life, while in the latter his involvement is direct and energetic. The two novels reflect stylistically the different impulses from which they were written. In Lie Down in Darkness Styron avoided any passionate moral commitment, but in Set This House on Fire his commitment was specifically and passionately an affirmation, through the attempted creation of a tragic hero, of the order of the universe.

In Set This House on Fire … Styron has given considerable time to establishing the absurdity of the environment in which his characters are placed. Like his earlier work, this novel suggests an environment dominated by a profound desuetude of order and value, and again the action centers around the events of a single day. Unlike the day described in Lie Down in Darkness, that in Set This House on Fire does not simply centralize what would otherwise be the chaotic action of the book, but contains the central action of the novel. Set This House on Fire opens, several years after the tragic events which occurred in Sambuco, Italy, with the reminiscences of Peter Leverett, the fairly detached observer of the results of the two acts of horror which occurred on that day. Leverett serves much the same function in the novel that Nick Carraway served in The Great Gatsby, that of synthesizer and commentator. He does not, as did Nick, tell the story solely through his own reminiscences (the story is so much bigger and more complex that a single-narrator retelling would be virtually impossible), but he does provide the catalyst which induces Cass Kinsolving to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge of that day in Sambuco and offer a passive but critical commentary on the other characters. Peter Leverett further resembles Carraway in that he represents to some degree the older values of rural America and remains the only uncorrupted male character in the book….

If the … speech … in which Cass announces his choice of being … makes no affirmation of the idea of knowledge, it does suggest hope that he will eventually achieve something like knowledge. Indeed he seems to demonstrate such an acquisition in one of the two letters appended to the novel, in which he writes, "Who was it in Lear who said ripeness is all. I forget, but he was right."… As an artist he has turned social critic out of a desire for reform, and he thus demonstrates the increasing tendency of the existential hero to return to society. In triumphing over himself, in defeating his sense of guilt, in establishing a love for humanity, Cass has achieved a singular victory, and it is necessary to think of him as Camus intended that we think of Sisyphus, as "happy."

David D. Galloway, "The Absurd Man as Tragic Hero," in his The Absurd Hero in American Fiction, revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1970, pp. 51-81.

William Styron … is an altogether … literary writer … in the sense that he does not allow his style to be intruded upon by other styles, other voices which it might not find easy to accommodate. Thus in The Confessions of Nat Turner he is unable at any point to give Nat a voice distinguishable from that of the elegantly rhetorical narrator. In the book there are no scenes where for any sustained period of time Nat is shown capable of talking to his fellow slaves in a language that would explain how he managed to lead any of them, or indeed anyone, to rebellion.

Here, too, there is a connection between the kinds of language with which the writer has dared to involve himself and his political vision. Whether or not the Nat Turner of the novel is consistent with the Nat Turner as described in historical documents and hearsay is not at all the issue. The issue is whether or not Styron's novel succeeds in giving Nat a voice that at once allows him to delude the white world and lead the black one to rebellion against the whites. Nothing in the book suggests that Styron could give voice to or even imagine such a character. It is on those grounds that I would have to agree with Black critics who object to the politics of Styron's book. Its politics are of a piece, however, with his writing, which is what most of the Black critics, with their hangup on literature as "relevant" or as mere attitudinizing, are unable to see. The trouble with the book is that it reduces what should be a multitude of competing sounds to a predominant tone and then makes the hero so submissive to that tone that the only way then to dramatize his rebelliousness is through evidences of private neurosis. These take the place of what should have been public scenes in which his effectiveness as a leader could have been dramatically rendered. It isn't, then, that Styron was not historical enough. He was in a sense too historical. Aside from his quite proper refusal to be bound by details in a historical record which is itself of questionable authenticity, the larger design of his book allowed history to do the work of imagination. It is as if Styron felt that the historical fact of Nat's having led a rebellion sufficiently disguised the literary fact that Styron in the novel has shown him incapable of doing so.

Richard Poirier, in his The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life (copyright © 1971 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 5-6.

Six years after [The Confessions of Nat Turner] survived the attack of angry black writers and intellectuals who, understandably enough, assailed Styron's "white liberal" distortion of Nat Turner as a black Hamlet, one can assess Styron's imaginative recasting of black history as the foremost literary event of 1967. No other writer who responded to the new black awareness of the period was to achieve Styron's historical range and his unsettling literary power. Rereading his "meditation on history" now, we can recognize more clearly that his controversial portrait of Nat Turner was a paradigm of the passions and deferred hopes of both militants and pacifists in the black movement of the 1960s. Like his thwarted successors 130 years later, Nat suffered the disabling inner conflict of the black revolutionary racing ahead of history, tormented by the contradictions of American religiosity and social injustice. The historical correlative served Styron as ballast and revelation, for 1831 "was, simultaneously, a long time ago and only yesterday."

Kermit Vanderbilt, "Writers of the Troubled Sixties," in The Nation, December 17, 1973, pp. 661-65.