Phillip Lopate at the Times Literary Supplement:
Styron remains a dimly realized figure in his personal essays. We are told repeatedly the same facts about his childhood in Tidewater, Virginia, his grandmother who owned two slaves, his enlistment in the Marine Corps, his annus mirabilis in 1952 when his first novel was published and he went to France, found a circle of friends who would start The Paris Review, and met his wife. Of course any writer serially engaged in autobiographical accounts will be forced to repeat material; but Styron never rethinks or questions any of it. He uses practically the same language each time. It isn’t that he’s dishonest, but his public presentation of self lacks a more probing honesty: he always seems to be holding back. To get a sense of Styron the man you would have to turn to his daughter Alexandra Styron’s perceptive, frank portrait, Reading My Father (TLS, September 30, 2011). She claims her father had a wicked sense of humour, but there is precious little in evidence here, except maybe for a tongue-in-cheek takedown of Flo Aadland’s pop tell-all about Errol Flynn, The Big Love, and a sweet, whimsical piece about walking his dog, previously uncollected.
In the fallow decades when Styron struggled to bring off a new novel after the success of Sophie’s Choice, he dedicated considerable, if reluctant, energy to non-fiction. Many of the best pieces here, including the brilliant “This Quiet Dust” about how he was moved to write the story of the Negro slave, Nat Turner, appeared in the 1982 collection of that name. Styron was taken to task for The Confessions of Nat Turner by a group of African American critics, who objected to his having had the temerity to write a novel in the voice of a historic black rebel. He seems never to have got over the sting of that controversy, as evidenced by his follow-up piece, “Nat Turner Revisited”. In a tribute to Philip Roth, he singles out Roth’s having been the target of censorious rabbis as his point of identification.