Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Whole Art

Over the summer, I read a piece in Garden & Gun by Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron who was the author of Sophie’s Choice, Lie Down in Darkness, and The Confessions of Nat Turner.  About Styron senior’s devotion to a special type of Virginia ham he prepared, the article was called, of all things, “My Father’s Ham.”  It was accompanied by an antique-y looking photo of a curing room that I wasn’t ready to explore because I associate whole sides of ham with Thanksgiving and Christmas and it was June, July, finally August.  

After several rounds with the issue, hiding it intermittently from Samantha who is obsessed with a recurring Caribbean ad inside its first pages, I finally got around to reading the piece and something about its tone haunted me. 

Then, earlier this fall, while reading the new anthology Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers, I came across an exquisite essay by Alexandra Styron, an excerpt from her book Reading My Father. Suddenly, I wanted to read every.single.thing I could by her.  Now.  

I feel embarrassed that I haven’t read
any William Styron and in fact was only dimly aware of some of his highly lauded work. A friend of mine from college once told me Sophie’s Choice was her favorite book ever, but warned me that it would basically destroy me with sadness.  If you can imagine, I didn’t dive right into reading it. 

What I loved about Styron’s essay in
Every Father’s Daughter, though, and wanted more of, was her relationship to the man who labored successfully as a writer but was distant, tempestuous, and sometimes downright scary as a father.  I didn’t want to know about these details for the whiffs of scandal they might provide in the story of a famous family, but rather because in her writing, Styron is such a compelling narrator, especially as a child.  Reading her essay, I felt so much for her. I wanted to be closer and hear what she had to say. 

In her book Reading My Father, she writes:

“Until 1985, my father’s tempestuous spirit ruled our family’s private life as surely as his eminence defined the more public one…(If there was a golden rule in our house when I was growing up, it was, unequivocally, “Don’t ask Daddy about his work.”) First and foremost, my father was a novelist. ‘A high priest at the altar of fiction,’ as Carlos Fuentes describes him, he consecrated himself to the Novel….With a kind of sacred devotion, he kept at it, maintaining his belief in the narrative powers of a great story – and he suffered accordingly in the process.”

She also writes:

“Descendants of the so-called Lost Generation, my father and his crowd, including Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw, embraced their roles as Big Male Writers.  For years they perpetuated, without apology, the cliché of the gifted, hard-drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of twentieth-century-literature a muscular, glamorous aura.”

And while I loved the education about this particular time in American literary history (you better believe I ate up confirmation that Norman Mailer was every bit of the nut I thought he was), what I came away with more than anything was a sensory experience of what it was like to be a little girl in that environment.  The Styrons lived in Connecticut but had an open, interactive communication line to New York City where her parents kept an apartment and where the family spent holidays being led in carols by Leonard Bernstein at his apartment.  I don’t have an excess of glamour in my life but I did grow up in Connecticut in a town that was heavily influenced by New York City, a place we frequented when I was growing up.  No matter what was happening in the narrative, it was comforting for me to imagine the homes, the weather, the horses, the sweaters and button-down shirts of rural, yet urbane Connecticut, and to hear about all of it from someone as trustworthy and present a narrator as Styron ends up being in her memoir.

She writes about her shock that her mother knew about a child of good family friend, Arthur Miller, a child who was institutionalized and never talked about:

“Until 2003, when Martin Gottfried wrote about Daniel in a biography of Arthur, there was no public reference to him anywhere, including Arthur’s six-hundred-plus-page autobiography,
Timebends.  That my parents were complicit in the conspiracy of silence troubled me long after I had begun to make some sense of it.  It affirmed my suspicion that here, among all these people who traded in great truths, keeping secrets was still the coin of the realm.  And that one could spend a lifetime examining the human heart but remain personally, confoundingly, unexamined.  If you were good enough at the former, the world would always forgive you the latter.”

In case it sounds like this book is full of dirt on her father and his friends, I think the better thing to say is, at times it reminded me of Susan Cheever’s meticulous portrait of the Transcendentalist community in Concord, Massachusetts in her wonderful book American Bloomsbury, about Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louise May Alcott, although it is also, of course, a highly personal account of growing up with a famous artist father. 

True to its title,
Reading My Father is mostly about William Styron and his family, but in writing about him, Alexandra paints a portrait of a fascinating, destructive, highly masculinized time in American letters, and does so with expert research, as well as a flawless tone:

“The archives at Duke went a long way toward bringing my father back for me.  He came alive in all that paper, the medium in which he lived most purely.  I was utterly charmed by the soldier writing home to his father.  I communed with the funny and profane young writer abroad.  And I ached with maternal sorrow for the grieving boy who couldn’t shed well-earned tears.  All those words irrigated the arid soil that was my past.  Up sprung life in fresh stalks.  Voice, flesh, smell.”
Throughout the book, Styron takes a long, hard look at her father’s recurring depression, a subject which I feel personally unqualified to discuss at length, because everyone’s emotional terrain is deeply personal, and also because I am not a medical expert.

I do have some experience in the upkeep of mental
wellness, however, which for me includes tenets of nutrition, meditation, yoga, and creative expression, as well as any and every type of therapy you could want: massage, talk, girlfriends, art, baking, decorating, exercise, yada yada.  While reading about Styron senior’s battles with mental illness, I was several times reminded of something I read in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words, a book I previously wrote about here.

Speaking about the vulnerability being an artist requires, and the blues that can swoop in on anyone at any point in their life, Mitchell says:

“There comes a point where you just kind of bleed onto the pages….Maybe it’s best to face your inner self in your teens when your body’s strong….In other cultures, that would be called a shamanic conversion.  In this culture, it would be called a nervous breakdown.  Your nerves are on fire.  Since we’re not a shamanic people, we don’t realize that sharper senses are coming in.”

Later in the book Mitchell says:

“In retrospect, I’ve learned that depression is necessary for growth….You couldn’t be a novelist without sensitivity, without a sense of detail.  And you can’t be deep without sensitivity.  And emotionality, God, without emotionality in the arts, it’s merely intellectual.  It’s boring, except to an intellectual.  If you’re trying to make a whole art, you really need all of those things.”

I love that phrase: a whole art.  I put about seven sticky notes next to that graph when I read it and then drove around for days wondering how the title of Wilco’s album
The Whole Love plays into that phrase.

If you listen to this Dear Sugar episode, you’ll hear India Arie talk about her take on this very topic of breakdown and breakthrough.  She says:

“The truth is, it wasn’t that I came to a point of realizing that I wasn’t living my truth, it’s that I came to a point where I couldn’t ignore it anymore.  And that’s the point, that you feel something different than what you’re living.  You feel the rub, and I always felt the rub.  I always felt it all along, but then it got to a point where I kept having health issues and ulcers and skin eruptions and I finally just had a breakdown.  And I still went on for a few moments after having a breakdown.  Now in hindsight I look at it as my personality and my soul separating so that my soul could say “No” to these people [managers, her business team, etc.].  But at the time it just felt like a nervous breakdown.”

Finally, there’s a somewhat amazing interview with Paul Simon on World Café in which he says something only Paul Simon could say about David Bowie: that he might not have been a terrific songwriter but rather he was a great performer.  He also talks about how the drum sound was recorded in the song “The Boxer,” and plays some new songs including “Wristband” which I found to be a pretty powerful song, particularly for this time in our history where so many longstanding systemic oppressions are coming to light in our culture.

That is all, my friends.  Thank you for taking a small trip down Connecticut lane with me. If you are aching for a few more female voices in your life right now, I highly recommend Reading My Father or even Every Father’s Daughter, which I’m only halfway through but which won me over right away with its introduction by Philip Lopate, because I would read a grocery list written by Philip Lopate.  Before having a child, I didn’t quite “get” anthologies.  They felt contrived and random to me.  Now that my days are sometimes scrambled and life is a chaotic (whole) mess, I’m coming around.  Anthologies now feel like cocktail parties introducing me to voices I haven’t heard before, like Melora Wolff, who stole the show for me in Every Father’s Daughter, or parties reuniting me with beloveds like Ann Hood, whom I wish would move into my house and wear cozy slippers and cook soups while reading aloud to me from whatever she wants.

(All drawings by Tim, as requested by Samantha)

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