By YVONNE FRENCH
William Styron, 73, made a rare public appearance at the Library of Congress, where he defended The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was labeled racist in the 1960s, and announced that Spike Lee may make a movie about it.
"Even as we speak, Spike Lee is negotiating to have a movie made," Mr. Styron told a Montpelier Room audience during the Nov. 4 Center for the Book "Books & Beyond" lecture. He was accompanied by his biographer, James L.W. West III, who made use of the Styron papers at the Library to write William Styron: A Life (Random House, 1998).
The event also included a special screening of "Shadrach," a first-run film by Mr. Styron's daughter, Susanna Styron. It is based on Mr. Styron's short story of the same name.
Ten of Mr. Styron's original manuscripts, typescripts and galleys were on display at the reading. American Literature Manuscript Historian Alice L. Birney brought a magnifying glass so people could see Mr. Styron's tiny handwriting in the manuscript of Set This House on Fire. She learned that he still writes in pencil on legal paper and has a typist transcribe it. "Handwritten manuscripts reveal questions about the author's creative process," said Ms. Birney, who also displayed the handwritten manuscript and original printer's typescript of The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Nat Turner was published in 1967 to wide acclaim and criticism. It is based on the true story of Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in southeastern Virginia in 1831.
"When I began The Confessions of Nat Turner in the summer of 1962 ... Martin Luther King was offering the hand of fellowship to the American communmunity, preaching reconciliation, amity and antidischord. In the evolution of a revolution, 1967, when it was published, was a time of cataclysmic change in the United States. 'Black power' reared its head, and when it pounced, it pounced partially on my book. I was especially lacerated and hurt that it was labeled racist. That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery." He spoke of trying to figure out Turner's motivation. "It was a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel."
His voice wavering audibly for the only time during the discussion, he added: "Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation and put it into the soul and heart of a black man."
Yet later, in answer to a question from the audience about the outcry that his book Sophie's Choice had "poached on someone else's turf," as Mr. Styron rephrased the question, the author defended the right of an artist to portray what he wants. "There will always be a complaint from people who see writing as a province where one should remain rooted in one's own experience. My view is that one of the glories of artistic creation is to transcend the barriers of race and gender and exploit talent to its fullest and to hell with barriers of race, gender, etcetera."
Susanna Styron said she knew when she first read "Shadrach," in 1973, that she wanted to make a movie of it. "The characters were vivid and full; the themes were clear and rich." She quipped that it took her 90 minutes to tell in film what her father told in 28 pages.
Mr. Styron prefaced the screening by telling his inspiration for the short story. He had been in Auschwitz, Poland, doing research for Sophie's Choice and had just arrived home in Virginia, only to run in to an old high school friend at a "juke joint." The friend told him of an aged former slave who had walked from Alabama to his father's place in town and asked to be buried on the farm where he had grown up. The story is about how the friend's family looked after Shadrach in his last days. In the film, Harvey Keitel portrays the father, a prototype of a moonshine-brewing, hard-drinking Southern man who uses his jalopy to drive Shadrach back to the former plantation in King and Queen County on Virginia's Eastern Shore and obliging his last wishes despite some interference from the law.
The film is rich in visual and aural texture. Weathered houses have bowed-out screen doors that slam amid the thick incidental sound of summer crickets singing in nighttime fields.
This was the very milieu that Mr. West had begun to investigate in Newport News, Va., in 1985, ostensibly for a study of Mr. Styron's Lie Down in Darkness. Later, when he saw Mr. Styron at Martha's Vineyard, he told him: "I seem to be working on a biography."
"Why don't you go on and see what happens," Mr. Styron graciously replied.
Mr. West said that as Mr. Styron's first biographer he wanted to establish the discourse as "high and serious." To do so, he used the Styron papers at both the Library and Duke University, interviewed friends and relatives and talked with Mr. Styron himself. Mr. Styron was generally helpful, but one question Mr. West asked of him in 1987 was not answered until 1993, Mr. West said. "Finally [Mr. Styron] said, 'You and I are working on the same territory.' He didn't want my vision to interfere with his."
Mr. Styron and his wife, Rose, who attended the discussion, read the book before publication and made a few suggestions when things weren't exactly as they remembered.
Mr. West has studied Mr. Styron's life and career for more than 20 years, chronicling not just the literary career but his family background and political activism, including his presence at the 1968 Democratic national convention in Chicago, and his long-term opposition to the death penalty. Mr. West is Distinguished Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and general editor of the Cambridge edition of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
During a question and answer period, Mr. West said Set This House on Fire is central to the Styron canon. "It gives you a blueprint for the intellectual concerns and approach to life of all the books that would follow." All, that is, except perhaps for Mr. Styron's widely read nonfiction book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990), which helped destigmatize the clinical depression from which he at one time suffered.
The discussion was broadcast on the World Wide Web simultaneously with people tuning in to an audio link on their computers that day and people linking to an audio and video version the following day. The "cybercast" is the second in the Library's pilot program with broadcast.com. The first was Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky's lecture "Poetry and American Memory." Both are currently available through the Library's cybercasting site.
The third cybercast in the pilot project was a Motown symposium Nov. 20.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.