Friday, December 2, 2016

William Styron ~ "William Blackburn"

Featured Author ~ William Styron

William Clark Styron Jr. (1925 – 2006) was born in Newport News, Virginia, the son of a liberal Southerner whose grandparents were slave owners.  After graduation from university, Styron worked for McGraw-Hill in New York City as an editor.  Three years later, he published his first novel Lie Down in Darkness.   Styron’s other works include The Confessions of Nat Turner – for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – and Sophie’s Choice, about a Catholic Polish woman who survives detention in a Nazi concentration camp.

The following is an excerpt from Duke Encounters, Duke University Office of Publications, 1977, from the book My Generation:  Collected Nonfiction, edited by James L. W. West III.  Random House 2015


William Blackburn cared about writing and had an almost holy concern for the language.  I realized this the first time out, with a brief theme in which we were required to describe a place – anyplace.  In my two-page essay I chose a Tidewater river scene, the mudflats at low tide; attempting to grapple with the drab beauty of the view, groping for detail, I wrote of the fishnet stakes standing in the gray water, “looking stark and mute.”  A pretty conceit, I thought, until the theme came back from Blackburn covered with red corrections, including the scathing comment on my attempt at imagery:  “Mute?  Did those stakes ever say anything?”  This was my first encounter with something known among grammarians as “the pathetic fallacy.”

Blackburn readily admitted that there was a great deal of logic in the accusation, so often leveled at “creative writing” courses, that no one can actually be taught to write English narrative prose.  Why, then, did he persist?  I think it must have been because, deep within him, despite all doubts (and no man had so many self-doubts) he realized what an extraordinarily fine teacher he was. 

He must have known that he possessed that subtle, ineffable, magnetically appealing quality – a kind of invisible rapture – which caused students to respond with like rapture to the fresh and wondrous new world he was trying to reveal to them.  Later, when I got to know him well, he accused himself of sloth, but in reality he was the most profoundly conscientious of teachers; his comments on students’ themes and stories were often remarkable extended essays in themselves.

This matter of caring, and caring deeply, was of course one of the secrets of his excellence.  But the caring took other forms:  it extended to his very presence in the classroom – his remarkable course in Elizabethan poetry and prose, for instance, when, reading aloud from Spenser’s Epithalamion with its ravishing praise, or the sonorous meditation on death of Sir Thomas Browne, his voice would become so infused with feeling that we would sit transfixed, and not a breath could be heard in the room.

It would be too facile a description to call him a spell-binder, though he had in him much of the actor manqué; this very rare ability to make his students feel, to fall in love with a poem or poet, came from this own real depth of feeling, and, perhaps, from his own unrequited love, for I am sure he was an unfulfilled writer or poet too.

Whatever – from what mysterious wellspring there derived Blackburn’s powerful and uncanny gift to mediate between a work of art and the young people who stood ready to receive it – he was unquestionably a glorious teacher.  Populate a whole country and its institutions of learning with but a handful of Blackburns, and you will certainly have great institutions of learning, and perhaps a great country.


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