William Styron – expatriate Southerner, ancient modernist, and fearlessly grandiose prose stylist – has died. He was the coeval of Norman Mailer, the heir to Faulkner, and yet his significance has somehow gotten muffled. By 11am today, he was bumped from the featured headlines on the New York Times homepage (for a story on handcycles, whatever those are) and shunted down into the section links. You think they’d do that to Mailer? Hell no. Mailer’d be up there 24 hours, minimum, even if Brooklyn seceded from the Union.
Sorry. I’m a Southerner, and thus a creature of pure guilt, and also there’s an unfinished Styron thesis in my past – I feel a debt is owed, somehow. Styron’s perhaps best known for two massively controversial works: one enshrined in celluloid, the other too radioactive for Hollywood. I speak of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, two attempts to fuse a Continentally influenced, yet ultimately unreconstructed Southern style with worlds seemingly antithetical, even inimical to it: The guilt-limned, self-constructed cage of a gentile Holocaust survivor (Sophie’s Choice) and the guilt-limned, oppressor-constructed cage of a real-life rebel slave (Nat Turner). Both books were met with equal parts admiration and fury. Styron probably deserved both. A novel about the black experience by an aristocratic white Southerner? A Holocaust story focusing on a gentile survivor, with a manic Jew as the nemesis? Outrageous. He probably did overstep his bounds – and thank the muses for it. Today’s young American writers, sickened, I guess, by the casual imperialism of their nation, are isolationists in their art. But come on… artists should be imperial so governments don’t have to. Annex something every now and then, for crying out loud, even if you fail in the attempt! Exceed your borders – that’s the lesson of William Styron. That and… drink a lot.