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This review is from: Havanas in Camelot: Personal Essays (Hardcover)
Although he wrote precious little, compared to some of his contemporaries, surely William Styron was one of the best American writers of his generation and produced fiction that will be read as long as there are any readers left. I would argue that SOPHIE'S CHOICE is one of the ten best twentieth century novels by an American writer even though Shelby Foote didn't care for it. It is a treat then to have this posthumous collection of essays to read, most of which have been previously published in magazines and newspapers. There are fourteen in all on a variety of subjects. In "Havanas in Camelot," the first essay included and from which the volume is named, Mr. Styron manages to capture the magic of the short Kennedy years and makes us realize that we will probably never see such glamour in government again. In his essays on other writers, James Baldwin who lived at his home briefly, Truman Capote whom he graciously acknowledges affected his own writing-- at least his first novel LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS-- and Mark Twain, Styron reveals a great deal about himself, that he apparently had both great respect and affection for other writers sans jealousy, a quality not always found in even the most talented and successful of artists.
These essays are called "personal," as indeed they are. Mr. Styron, as is the case with many writers whose background is Southern, does not always take the shortest route home; but the walk is always a pleasant one. I had not seen the phrase "sine qua non" in print in years. It is thrilling to see Ayn Rand described as "hectoring." And the writer's view of the Christian religion is worth remembering. He sees it, at least in its "puritanical rigors--as a conspiracy to deny its adherents their fulfillment as human beings. . . High among its prohibitions was sexual pleasure." That puritanism of course leads to censorship, whether it be the refusal to publish a work of literature or the insistence of editors that words be changed (in LIE DOWN IN DARKNESS, Styron had to change "ass" to "bottom" to satisfy his publisher) or the policing librarian intent on perserving the morals of the youth. The writer's remembrance of the humiliation of being told by Miss Evans, the librarian of Styron's hometown library in Tidewater Virginia that at fourteen he was too young to read Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH made me smile since my own mother took the book away from me when I was about thirteen. My grandmother had read it and did not find it the sort of novel that I should be reading.
Mr. Styron certainly made up for lost time as SOPHIE'S CHOICE is replete with four-letter words and here he discusses in "A Case of the Great Pox" syphilis in the military and tells us more than we ever need to know about his urinary problems in "Too Late for Conversion or Prayer." A contemporary of his, the great Eudora Welty-- something tells me-- would have remained mum on the subject.
There is, as I said, much to enjoy on the walk home, not the least of which is Styron's list of writers who walked rather than jogged: Immanuel Kant, Walt Whitman, Einstein, Lincoln, Thoreau, Nakokov, Emerson, Tolstoy, Matthew Arnold, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Mann at al. Finally there is his love for literature and his reading everything he could get his hands on in the Duke University Library when he feared he would be shipped out to fight in the Pacific (World War II of course) and would face certain death, A line from Sir Thomas Barowne gave him solace: "The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying." Another beautiful example of why we read.