Monday, December 10, 2012

Sibling rivalry

I'm traveling for work this week, so posting will be more of the quote-and-run variety than the usual longform, print-and-bind-that-brilliance-and-be-sure-to-put-a-copy-in-the-next-Voyager-as-an-example-of-the-best-humanity-has-to-offer sort that you're used to in this space.

Today, I offer an example of why I love writers' letters. Oh, sure, barring Byron, you go to a writer's letters to learn more about the work, or his literary opinions, or her relationships with other writers. But while you're there, you're so often offered a bonus: ordinary scenes from everyday life observed and recorded memorably. Like this, found in the brand-new volume of William Styron's letters, from the closing of a letter to Robert Penn Warren of November 11, 1966, right after Styron's wife had given birth to a new daughter:
Our new offspring is just beautiful, and Tommy is meaner than hell about her. On the first day after she was born, when his grandmother called up to ask what he wanted her to bring him, he said quite slowly and deliberately, ‘Some wire . . . and some . . . batteries . . . and some nails . . . and some heavy weights.’ I really think he was building an electric chair for the baby in the cellar.
In a footnote, the editor cites a Styron quote found in James L. W. West's biography that reassures us that Styron's supposition was incorrect: in reality, said Styron,
after a long and sinister silence, he emerged with a wondrous artifact: a wooden bird with metal wings, a gift for Alexandra.
Had the boy emerged with an electric chair, would Styron ever have been able to shake the suspicion that he'd been cuckolded by Charles Addams?

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