In April 1962, President John F. Kennedy hosted a remarkable dinner for more than four dozen Nobel Prize winners and assorted other luminaries drawn from the top echelons of the arts and sciences. With his characteristic wit, JFK pronounced it “The most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” One of the least prominent guests that evening was the novelist William Styron, who attended with his wife Rose, and recalled his surprise at the invitation. Styron was not yet then the critically-acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary icon he was to later become, but he was hardly an unknown figure, and it turns out that his most recent novel of American expatriates, Set This House on Fire, was the talk of the White House in the weeks leading up to the event. So he had the good fortune to dine not only with the President and First Lady, but with the likes of John Glenn, Linus Pauling, and Pearl Buck—and in the after-party forged a long-term intimate relationship with the Kennedy family.
My first Styron was The Confessions of Nat Turner, which I read as a teen. Its merits somewhat unfairly subsumed at the time by the controversy it sparked over race and remembrance, it remains a notable achievement, as well as a reminder that literature is not synonymous with history, nor should it be held to that account. I found Set This House on Fire largely forgettable, but as an undergrad was utterly blown away when I read Lie Down in Darkness, his first novel and a true masterpiece that while yet indisputably original clearly evoked the Faulknerian southern gothic. I went on to read anything by the author I could get my hands on. Also a creature of controversy upon publication, Sophie’s Choice, winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 1980, remains in my opinion one of the finest novels of the twentieth century.
I thought I had read all of Styron’s fiction, so it was with certain surprise that I learned from a friend who is both author and bibliophile of the existence of A Tidewater Morning, a collection of three novellas I had somehow overlooked. I bought the book immediately, and packed it to take along for a pandemic retreat to a Vermont cabin in the woods where I read it through in the course of the first day and a half of the getaway, parked in a comfortable chair on the porch sipping hot coffee in the morning and cold beer in late afternoon. Perhaps it was the fact that this was our first breakaway from months of quarantine isolation, or maybe it was the alcohol content of the IPA I was tossing down, but there was definitely a palpable emotional tug for me reading Styron again—works previously unknown to me no less—so many decades after my last encounter with his work, back when I was a much younger man than the one turning these pages. The effect was more pronounced, I suppose, because the semi-autobiographical stories in this collection look back to Styron’s own youth in the Virginia Tidewater in the 1930s and were written when he too was a much older man.
“Love Day,” the first tale of the collection, has him as a young Marine in April 1945 yet untested in combat, awaiting orders to join the invasion of Okinawa and wrestling the ambivalence of chasing heroic destiny while privately entertaining “gut-heaving frights.” There’s much banter among the men awaiting their fate, but the story of real significance is told through flashbacks to an episode some years prior, he still a boy in the back seat of his father’s Oldsmobile, broken down on the side of the road. War is looming—the very war he is about to join—although it was far from certain then, but the catastrophe of an unprepared America overrun by barbaric Japanese invaders is the near-future imagined in the Saturday Evening Post piece the boy is reading in the back of the stalled car. Simmering tempers flare when he lends voice to the prediction. His mother, stoic in her leg brace, slowly dying of a cancer known to all but unacknowledged, had earlier furiously rebuked him for mouthing a racist epithet and now upbraided him again for characterizing the Japanese as “slimy butchers,” while belittling the notion of a forthcoming war. Unexpectedly, his father—a mild, highly-educated man quietly raging at his own inability to effect a simple car repair—lashes out at his wife, branding her “idiotic” and “a fool” for her naïve idealism, then crumbles under the weight of his words to beg her forgiveness. It is a dramatic snapshot not only of a moment of a family in turmoil, but of a time and a place that has long faded from view. Only Styron’s talent with a pen could leave us with so much from what is after only a few pages.
The third story is the title tale, “A Tidewater Morning,” which revisits the family to follow his mother’s final, agonizing days. It concludes with both the boy and his father experiencing twin if unrelated epiphanies. It’s a good read, but I found it a bit overwrought, lacking the subtlety characteristic of Styron’s prose.
Sandwiched between these two is my own favorite, “Shadrach,” the story of a 99-year-old former slave—sold away to an Alabama plantation in antebellum days—who shows up unpredictably with the dying wish to be buried in the soil of the Dabney property where he was born. The problem is that the Dabney descendant currently living there is a struggling, dirt-poor fellow who could be a literary cousin of one of the Snopes often resident in Faulkner novels. The law prohibits interring a black man on his property, and he likewise lacks the means to afford to bury him elsewhere. On the surface, “Shadrach” appears to be a simple story, but on closer scrutiny reveals itself to be a very complex one peopled with multidimensional characters and layered with vigorous doses of both comedy and tragedy.
I highly recommend Styron to those who have not yet read him. For the uninitiated, (spoiler alert!) I will close this review with a worthy passage:
“Death ain’t nothin’ to be afraid about,” he blurted in a quick, choked voice … “Life is where you’ve got to be terrified!” he cried as the unplugged rage spilled forth. … Where in the goddamned hell am I goin’ to get the money to put him in the ground? … I ain’t got thirty-five-dollars! I ain’t got twenty-five dollars! I ain’t got five dollars!” … “And one other thing!” He stopped. Then suddenly his fury—or the harsher, wilder part of it—seemed to evaporate, sucked up into the moonlit night with its soft summery cricketing sounds and its scent of warm loam and honeysuckle. For an instant he looked shrunken, runtier than ever, so light and frail that he might blow away like a leaf, and he ran a nervous, trembling hand through his shock of tangled black hair. “I know, I know,” he said in a faint, unsteady voice edged with grief. “Poor old man, he couldn’t help it. He was a decent, pitiful old thing, probably never done anybody the slightest harm. I ain’t got a thing in the world against Shadrach. Poor old man.” …
“And anyway,” Trixie said, touching her husband’s hand, “he died on Dabney ground like he wanted to. Even if he’s got to be put away in a strange graveyard.”
“Well, he won’t know the difference,” said Mr. Dabney. “When you’re dead nobody knows the difference. Death ain’t much.” [p76-78]
NOTE: To learn more about JFK’s Nobel Dinner, check out this outstanding book, which contains a foreword by Rose Styron: Review of: Dinner in Camelot: The Night America’s Greatest Scientists, Writers, and Scholars Partied at the Kennedy White House, by Joseph A. Esposito