University of South Carolina

Historian compiles literary letters of William Styron

By Craig Brandhorst,, 803-777-3681

Ask University of South Carolina’s R. Blakeslee Gilpin how he ended up editing “The Selected Letters of William Styron,” released this week by Random House, and he will explain how graduate school encourages the mind to wander.

In Gilpin’s case, he was three-quarters of the way through a dissertation on 20th-century attitudes toward 19th-century abolitionist John Brown when he chanced upon a trove of letters from Styron to fellow novelist Robert Penn Warren concerning Styron’s controversial 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”

“That stuff got me very interested very quickly,” Gilpin says. “John Brown was great – I’d been working on that a long time – but I was on fire for this.”

Partly he was drawn to Styron’s letters because they dovetailed with the research he was already doing. But he was equally interested in Styron the man – his creative processes, his battle with depression and his interactions with the most influential figures of the 20th century.

Gilpin, an assistant history professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, had also once spent two summers in college running a small post office near William and Rose Styron’s home on Martha’s Vineyard and had occasionally assisted the author.

“He was one of the most noted personalities on the island, and I wanted to be a writer when I was 19,” Gilpin says. “I’d put stamps on packages to Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez for him.”

Little did Gilpin know he’d eventually read much of that same correspondence – including a postcard he himself had processed – but that’s precisely what happened after he contacted Rose Styron in 2007 wanting to write a biography.

She invited him instead to help compile her late husband’s letters.

“I couldn’t turn it down, but I also had no idea what was really involved,” Gilpin says. Together, they read and transcribed the letters. Gilpin says Rose Styron was invaluable because of her ability to recall events and add explanations of relationships to each piece of correspondence.

“Rose is incredible. She remembers things in amazing detail,” he says.

Ultimately, Gilpin turned his John Brown dissertation into the book, “John Brown Still Lives!,” which was a finalist for the 2012 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, but it’s been Styron that’s continued to dog his imagination.

In fact, he is already working on two other books on the late author – a biography, plus “a more academic book” about the reception of “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1960s America.

“The letters are like the research base for everything else,” says Gilpin. “I now really know this stuff. I know this guy’s story, and it’s fascinating.”

About Blakeslee Gilpin

  • Assistant professor of history 
  • Finalist for the 2012 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for "John Brown Lives!"
  • Winner of the 2012 C. Vann Woodward Prize from the Southern Historical Association for best dissrtation in Southern history

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Posted: 12/03/12 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 12/03/12 @ 11:11 AM | Permalink