14 September 2009

William Styron:Child of the South


Writing the things one reads- Telling the story, Explaining the story, Switching it up, Words moved about for a fresh take and new look- and then sometime just the story you read.-The story can not be touched.

It is just right this way.

Photograph by Hans Namuth

William Styron, a child of the South, of Virginia, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer, poet in prose. Some things are beautiful to return to- even within its dark shadows.

Brandon c. 1765

excerpt from William Styron's Architectural Digest Children of a Brief Sunshine, first published in 1984

(all italics Styron)

If the accident of birth caused you to spend most of your early life, as I did, on what is known as the Virginia historic peninsula, you were apt to grow up with a ponderous sense of the American past... Part of my spirit was always mysteriously drawn to the James River mansions. They spoke to me in a secret, exciting way that the other landmarks could never speak, and I still consider them among the state’s truly captivating attractions.

the Jame River
from the AD photographs

Westover and Brandon. Shirley and Carter’s Grove. There are other fine Colonial structures in the Tidewater, but these four remain the exemplars of the noble species of dwelling that the early planters built on the banks of the James, creating, from native brick and timber, likenesses of the country houses of England they had left behind, but in each case, out of some quirky genius, imparting to the whole an individuality that remains arrestingly American.
The mansions have of course undergone much restoration since the mid-18th century, when they were built. (William Byrd’s Westover, perhaps the most splendid of the group, was badly mutilated by fire during the Civil War.) But one of the remarkable things about these houses is the way they have escaped the look of having been prettified by the embalmer’s hand. Although they are linked in spirit by their obviously Georgian origins, part of the charm of each lies in its almost defiant distinctiveness—Shirley, with its absence of wings, having a lofty solidity, in contrast, say, to the dignified horizontal expansiveness of Brandon and its rectangular wings attached to the center by connecting passageways. Each is unique, and a surprise.

Brandon staircase

There are perhaps few habitations anywhere that ever so successfully fused aesthetic delightfulness with unabashed commerce. The plantation houses were really the headquarters for complex business enterprises. Their situation on the river happened not primarily because of the ingratiating view, but because the James was the means whereby each estate’s golden harvest of tobacco was shipped back to the insatiable pipe smokers and snuff dippers of England and the Continent. What strikes one, then, is that the homes—created by gentlemen for whom profit was a paramount concern—are so fastidious yet so sensuous in their elegance, so satisfying in terms of all those components that make up the nearly perfect human abode. And all of this took place on the breast of a raw and primitive continent whose often violent settlement began not many years before.
How easy the temptation must have been to erect something tacky and utilitarian and to make one’s getaway; the banks of the waterways of the earth have been littered by exploiters’ shameless eyesores. But Virginia planters like William Byrd and his fellow proprietors, entrepreneurial though they were, made up a rare breed whose sense of environment was subtle and demanding. We know from the records they left that they responded with passion to the music of Purcell and Lully, to the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil; why should they not be determined that their surroundings be imbued with equal serenity and refinement?
Among other things, these fog-dampened Britons were plainly intoxicated with the flowering of Virginia’s lush and sun-drenched countryside. And so what impressed me as a boy, perhaps unconsciously, impresses me now with logic and force; the harmonious connection between the mansions and their natural surroundings, each of them seeming to grow like an essential ornament in a landscape of huge, hovering shade trees, boxwood-and-rose-scented gardens, and a sumptuous lawn undulating to the river’s edge. Two hundred and fifty years later this mingling of elements has a flowing integrity and authenticity. Also, humanity and wit.
Look for humanity and wit almost everywhere in one of the James River mansions. In the great downstairs hall, the visitor will see how two doors facing each other allowed guests to arrive from opposite directions: by way of a tree-lined carriage road or, for people coming by barge or boat, across the lawn from the bank of the river. In the solitude of that barely civilized wilderness, guests were welcome and fussed over, and they came incessantly. Isolation made hospitality more than a ritual: It was part of a hungry need for communion, and the splendidly paneled rooms that give off the main hall saw manic activity: dancing and reading aloud; parlor games; music played on spinet and mandolin and harpsichord; gossip, flirtation and seduction; card games; much drinking of local applejack and fine Bordeaux wine around fireplaces that were everywhere and fueled from inexhaustible sources of Tidewater timber. Early on, Virginia developed a serious cuisine. At tables in the big dining room, the food—usually supplied from outside cookhouses—was served to the household and to the endless stream of visitors in orgiastic plenty that still makes one marvel..One discordant presence was usually forgotten, or overlooked, even then. ..
As the present-day visitor looks out across the tidy beds of flowers bordered by boxwood and traversed by brick walls, his gaze may linger on the outbuildings (or the spot where they once stood), and they too will seem to fall symmetrically into place. These smaller buildings—servants’ quarters, cookhouse, tannery and smokehouse, carpenter’s shop, all decently contrived of honest and workmanlike construction—were, of course, the demesne of the black slaves, whose toil had been essential to the creation and success of the mansions, and continued to assure their perpetuation. The “people,” as they were so often called, had been generally treated with care and kindness, so it is understandable that the planters suffered vexation over their common plight and cursed heaven for their predicament. However, not knowing what else to do, they allowed the problem to pass into the hands of later generations, who resolved the matter in one of the most murderous wars ever fought. Meanwhile, the beautiful mansions endured, and still endure.

all plantation photographs from William Styron's AD article Children of a Brief Sunshine (here)

all Photography by Hans Namuth (here)

JCB "southern views" a post on the plantation

read more about STYRON
Duke here
his obituary here
from PBS here
his writing here
Paris Review interview here


  1. A lovely read and a wonderful insight into his part of the world. Thank you for the links, I am going to enjoy learning more about this talented man, xv.

  2. I have read several of his books. This topic seems to run through all his work in a way. It must be this way with many writers especially those from the South. AW

  3. An inspired post. Thank you. I have often thought that one of the best things to come out of the south is its writers; certainly, Styron figures prominently among them. Sophie's Choice was a masterpiece. The Confessions of Nat Turner was instrumental in forming my early education on civil rights and Styron's gifted prose as applied to the ravages of depression, his own, welcomed a whole new readership.

    I particularly loved this commentary on the role of the blacks on plantations and forgive me for repeating it, but I thought it exceptional:

    The “people,” as they were so often called, had been generally treated with care and kindness, so it is understandable that the planters suffered vexation over their common plight and cursed heaven for their predicament. However, not knowing what else to do, they allowed the problem to pass into the hands of later generations, who resolved the matter in one of the most murderous wars ever fought. Meanwhile, the beautiful mansions endured, and still endure.

  4. Brandon is oone of the few James River plantations I have not seen. Just beautiful. And a beautiful tribute....

  5. Styron was a Southern writer that will endure along with all great writers from the South. Southern writers are far and beyond in their greatness. A constant sense of good and evil prevails. This excerpt is what makes Styron great. It has a purity,guilt and a Southern reality,something the S. will struggle with and that will continue to produce the best literature in the country.

  6. Janet- Brandon is lovely-isn't it. There are many along there that are turning to dust.

  7. Vicki- thank you for stopping. I hope to find more things to post that shed light on this era Styron speaks about. GT

  8. Anon 10:48.I have read all his major books, Sophies Choice is a favorite. His book on depression is brilliant. Read that if you haven't

  9. EA- it is the sad tale of the South. I find having been born here the South has the classic Madonna/Whore complex- It complicates but also I think produces fine literature because of it. GT

  10. Anon 5:56. I agree. Styron is a fine writer. I especially hold this excerpt dear.GT

  11. LA, you're making me late, but I thank you for this post! You have really touched me with Styron's own words today. Such sensitive intelligent prose. I recognize everything here. Do we from the South have an even closer attatchment to the home, our surroundings, our nostalgia?

  12. Now I know I will have to get up to speed on Styron. This is another great post & again great links with the post. AW

  13. Anon- You won't be disappointed in WS. Thanks glad you like the blog. G



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