Havanas In Camelot Personal Essays
William Styron, (born June 11, 1925, Newport News, Virginia, U.S.—died November 1, 2006, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts), American novelist noted for his treatment of tragic themes and his use of a rich, classical prose style.
Styron served in the U.S. Marine Corps before graduating from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, in 1947. During the 1950s he was part of the community of American expatriates in Paris. In 1953 he became an advisory editor to the Paris Review.
Styron’s first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), set in his native tidewater Virginia, tells of a young woman from a loveless middle-class family who fights unsuccessfully for her sanity before committing suicide. His next work, The Long March (1956), chronicles a brutal forced march undertaken by recruits in a Marine training camp. The novel Set This House on Fire, complexly structured and set largely in Italy, appeared in 1960.
Styron’s fourth novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), is an account of a historical incident, a slave rebellion led by the title character in Virginia in 1831. Based on a transcript of Turner’s testimony and told from his point of view, the book sympathetically portrays a man who is denied happiness because of his degrading enslavement. Embittered and alienated, he undertakes a bloody revolt that ends in his capture and execution. The novel’s publication at the peak of the civil rights movement helped make it a best seller. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1968, but it also stirred wide controversy, with critics accusing the book of racism and of misrepresenting African American history.
Styron’s final novel, Sophie’s Choice (1979; filmed 1982), portrays the growth of a friendship between a young Southern writer and a Roman Catholic woman from Poland who survived the Nazi death campAuschwitz. It too became a controversial best seller. His other works include the playIn the Clap Shack (1972) and This Quiet Dust (1982), a collection of essays that treat the dominant themes of Styron’s fiction. Darkness Visible (1990) is a nonfiction account of Styron’s struggle against depression. A Tidewater Morning (1993) consists of autobiographical stories. Havanas in Camelot (2008), a collection of personal essays on topics ranging from the author’s friendship with Pres. John F. Kennedy to his morning walks with his dog, was published posthumously. Compilations of his correspondence were issued as Letters to My Father (2009) and Selected Letters of William Styron (2012).
DARKNESS VISIBLE: A MEMOIR OF MADNESS by William Styron (New York: Vintage Books), 1990, 84 pp.
HAVANAS IN CAMELOT: PERSONAL ESSAYS by William Styron (New York: Random House), 2008, 162 pp.
Two late autobiographical books by a writer I’ve always liked—-the first somewhat disappointing, perhaps because I came to it with the wrong expectations, the second a pleasurable surprise.
I guess what I was hoping to encounter in DARKNESS VISIBLE, Styron’s brief and somewhat sketchy account of his own excruciating bouts with depression in the 1980s, was some clarification or extension of what I found so powerful about his treatment of bipolar behavior in SOPHIE’S CHOICE (1979)–specifically the depiction of Nathan, which seemed to derive from some deep personal understanding of this condition. But Styron points out early on that his own malady was “unipolar,” not the same thing at all. Still, I admire the scrupulous way he avoids leaping to too many conclusions about a condition that he’s still far from fully understanding.
The late essays collected in HAVANAS IN CAMELOT deal with such topics as a few amicable encounters with John F. Kennedy (the title essay), an apparent contraction of syphilis during his youth (as a fledgling Marine at a naval hospital in South Carolina), his friendships with fellow novelists (Truman Capote, James Baldwin, and Terry Southern), some late prostate trouble, and walks with his dog in his early 80s. What’s surprising as well as pleasurable about all of them is how genuinely and naturally cheerful they manage to be, in striking contrast to the hopeless gloom he is trying to describe and diagnose in DARKNESS VISIBLE. Something suggesting the wisdom that derives from both aging and suffering seems to emerge. [5/21/08]