I didn’t know my father. I didn’t know him, and I never had. Not only that, but all the rich and textured memories I had once possessed were lost, buried under the horrors of his last few years. All I had were a few painful memories from childhood – ones I didn’t know that I wanted to share, and the image of a frail, wizened husk of a man, drowning in despair. I couldn’t and wouldn’t make a book out of that. I considered giving the money back. But in the end, I pulled myself together and did what everyone does when they want to know more about a person. I Googled him. Then I went to the library. To say I found my father at the Duke University library would not be an overstatement. There, among more than 20,000 documents that comprise the William Styron Papers, I met the man I never knew and became reacquainted with the father I thought I’d lost. The archive had first been established in the early 1950s with a series of donations from my grandfather, who had kept every scrap of paper ever written by and about his only son. Between 1943 and 1953, Daddy wrote 104 letters to his father, chronicling everything from his boarding school travails to college life, his two stints in the Marines, his apprenticeship as a young writer, and the precocious triumph of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951). My father, I learned, had been a terrible student, just like me. And he also had a father who tacitly encouraged his son’s far-fetched dreams. Over the years Grandpop, and eventually Daddy, contributed ever more Styronalia to Duke. Scrapbooks, manuscripts, monographs, magazine articles, speeches, and thousands of pieces of correspondence, all of which have been exquisitely preserved and curated. My father didn’t edit his contributions much. He seemed to realise his finest legacy, like the literature he created, relied on the diamond-like beauty of hard truths. The William Styron Papers is an unparalleled resource for scholars, biographers, and students interested in 20th-century literature. But for me it is something of incomparable personal value: a key to my greatest mystery.
more from Alexandra Styron at the FT here.