24-Year-Old William Styron on Happiness, Presence, and the True Measure of Maturity, in a Letter to His Father
By Maria Popova
William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most influential writers of the past century, a man as doggedly dedicated to the craft of writing as he was to his unflinching faith in the human ability to discern right from wrong and, based on that discernment, to act nobly, however difficult the choice might be. Nowhere does the wholehearted idealism for which he is most beloved shine more luminously than in a letter Styron sent to his father in the spring of 1949, found in Selected Letters of William Styron (public library) — the same marvelous compendium that gave us the young man, while still a senior at Duke, on why a college education is a waste of time for writers.
Right around the time Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West, formulating his enduring ideas on happiness and how to live with presence, 24-year-old Styron arrives at these eternal truths through incredibly insightful introspection, articulated with the intellectual elegance and pulsating prose of a great writer.
Having just moved to New York and settled into an apartment in Brooklyn, Styron begins with an endearing rant on rent — second only to Vonnegut’s — certain to delight and mildly infuriate any past or present New Yorker with its embedded testament to the collusion of time, capitalism, and rent gouging:
I am writing this letter from my new home in — you wouldn’t believe it — Brooklyn. I arrived in New York a little over a week ago, immediately began hunting around for an apartment, but found that places to live in are still terribly difficult to get, even though I had heard beforehand that things had loosened up somewhat. The last isn’t true at all. You’d think that everyone in the country had converged upon New York, and that each was making a concerted effort to get an apartment, room — even an alcove somewhere. I suppose that it all involves some terrifically complicated economic theory, but it still strikes me as being a gigantic sort of fraud — that one has to knock his brains out and pay away his soul to boot to be able to get a roof over his head and a minimum of the necessities of life.
But such struggles, young Styron precociously intuits, feed the empathetic muscle that fortifies the heart of all idealism and creative purpose:
I guess it’s merely the fact that I’m politically naïve, and that the way to knowledge is mainly through experience — such experience as I am going through now. I suppose, too, that 99% of the radicals, so-called liberals, and Communists are only that way, not through any a priori, bookish idealism, but because they were broke once, or out in the rain, and had to turn to some politico-economic father confessor. Which from my point of view is all the more reason for bucking life as you see it — artistically speaking, that is — or accepting it, or making the most of it — writing about it faithfully, in the long run, and not getting mixed up with the soothsayers. I suppose that if you really catch hell from life — as an untouchable, say, or a sharecropper — your artistic instincts wither, and you become political. That’s natural enough. But Americans are political enough as it is. We’ve got nearly everything, and we still bitch about this and that at every turn.
Which is all by way of saying that though I somehow resent not being able to settle down in a cozy Greenwich Village apartment at $40 a month, I am still glad to be in Brooklyn in a clean and decent place…
Actually I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m complaining, because this is a pretty nice place by anyone’s standards. It’s in an old weatherbeaten house overlooking Prospect Park. There are plenty of trees around, plenty of grass, and big windows to look at the grass through. I’m in an apartment on the ground floor — two rooms, bath, kitchen, all furnished, $70 a month — the rent being impossible were it not for the fact that I am — or will be in June — sharing the apartment with Bob Loomis of Duke, who is coming to N.Y. to get a job. Split, the rent will be $9 a week, utilities included, which isn’t bad.
Quite apart from the gobsmacking amusement of the then-and-now rent comparison — my own tiny apartment in Brooklyn, mere blocks from Styron’s, costs about fiftyfold as much — there is a deeper reward to his reflections, one found in the mindfulness with which he counters his complaints with an antidote of gratefulness.
Decades before Pico Iyer asserted that “what gives you lasting happiness is not the stuff you have but the use you make of it,” young Styron reflects on the real source of happiness, which has to do with mastering the art of presence, and the true measure of maturity, which requires learning how to be alone and savor one’s own company. He writes:
For some reason, although I’m not exactly ecstatic about the world and life in general, I’m very happy. I don’t know why that should be, as I’ve always thought of myself as an exceptionally melancholy person.* Maybe the melancholy was merely adolescent, and maybe, though I can’t really sense it, I’m growing up, or reaching an “adjustment,” as the psychologists say. Whatever it is, it’s nice.
It’s not love — love of a girl, that is, because I haven’t found her yet.** It’s not the excitement of being in New York, because I’ve been in New York before and now know how to take with a grain of salt its synthetic stimuli (though I still love New York). Actually I don’t know what it is. For the past four or five days I’ve been alone, not seeing anyone or talking to anyone I know except over the phone. Ordinarily this aloneness would have made me miserable, utterly wretched. But I haven’t minded it at all. I haven’t drunk hardly anything — a few beers, that’s all. And yet I’ve been quite content, suffused with a sort of pleasant well-being that demanded really nothing strenuous of myself, or of anyone else.
Perhaps it’s merely that I’ve gained a measure of Emerson’s self-reliance. Perhaps it’s just that, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel surer of myself than I ever have before — more confident of my worth and my ultimate success, and less fearful of failure.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s wonderful notion of “a seizure of happiness,” Styron describes a quality of vibrant presence at the heart of his contentment:
Maybe — again for some reason I haven’t quite been able to analyze — I’m finding that life excites me, appeals to me in a way I’ve never felt before. I still have awful moments of despair, and I guess I always will, but they don’t seem to be as overpowering as in the past. I don’t take so much pleasure in my despondency any more; I try to throw my bleak moods off — which again perhaps is a sign that I’m growing up.
I don’t know how this novel will turn out. Naturally, I hope it’s good. But best of all is the fact that I’m not afraid of its being bad, literarily speaking, provided I know I’ve done my best. In the meantime I’m taking great pleasure in living, and in being alone without being a recluse. At night, after I’ve worked through the day, I walk up Church Avenue to Flatbush and thence down Flatbush, enjoying every minute of the walk.
But his most heartening insight is the precocious awareness that kindness, selflessness, and empathic understanding are not merely a gift to others but, above all, a gift to ourselves. Nearly a decade before Jack Kerouac advised that you should “practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now” and three decades before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Styron tells his father:
It’s somehow all of a sudden wonderfully exciting. Maybe it’s just forgetting one’s self for a minute, not trying to be smug and self-centered and aloof. And I’ve learned to do finally — at least with far less effort and self-consciousness — something that three or four years ago you told me was one of the touchstones of maturity: being nice to people even when they’re not nice to you… I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.
Styron considers the ever-elusive art of balance in his closing lines, planting the seed for the beautiful credo that would come to define his literary legacy:
It’s incredible how one runs about frantically at times like a rat in a maze, not really knowing right from wrong (and often really not caring), victim of one’s own passions and instincts rather than master of one’s own soul. I suppose the proper thing to do is just to stop every now and then and say, Where am I heading? Actually, though I’m still much like the psychologist’s rat, I find myself asking myself that question almost too often. I suppose the very fact that I realize my indulgence in too much introspection is another sign (I hope) of maturity. Too much brooding is unhealthy and, although I still have my slumps, I’ve begun to realize that one of the great secrets is striking a balance between thought and action… Living, acting, thinking; not just vegetating neurotically, on one hand, or blundering about, on the other hand, like so many people do, like trapped flies. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I think it can be done, and that in this exciting-sorrowful age of ours it can make great literature.
Nineteen years later, Styron would win the Pulitzer Prize for transmuting that hard balance into great literature.
Selected Letters of William Styron is a trove of wisdom in its hefty totality. Complement it with young Hunter S. Thompson’s equally precocious, if bittersweet in hindsight, letter of advice on living a meaningful life and young Sylvia Plath’s breathtaking, and at least as bittersweet in hindsight, letters to her mother on living wholeheartedly.
* Decades later, Styron became painfully reacquainted with his melancholy nature and its deeper pathology — an experience he would come to recount in the 1990 masterwork Darkness Visible, perhaps the most powerful memoir of depression ever written.
** Styron did find the girl four years later in a young Baltimore poet named Rose Burgunder, who soon become Rose Styron and, after loving Bill until his dying day, brought to life this very collection of letters.
Published June 11, 2015