WILLIAM STYRON REPLIES
DEAR SIRS: Since I don’t believe that history, once interpreted, remains impervious to new insights or that I should not be able to accept the wisdom which often evolves from a new understanding of the past, I think that I can explain the “fulsomeness” of 1961 and the “denunciations” of 1968 with little strain at all. We all have letters in our dusty files. I have been told that it is unlawful to quote from them in print without first obtaining the writer’s permission, as Mr. Aptheker has failed to do with mine, so I won’t follow suit; however, a letter was written to me in 1964 by Mr. Aptheker himself, who sought to solicit my favor by allowing him to use lines from the letter he has just quoted as part of the publicity which was to accompany the publication of his book on Nat Turner. Mr. Aptheker seems to have as good a nose as any bourgeois writer for the opportune plug. At any rate, I refused–I think politely-not because I am adverse to helping a fellow writer along, nor because I did not believe that some of the praise I had set down In my correspondence did not hold true (some of it still does today) but because the fulsomeness which Mr. Aptheker attributes to me was indeed fulsome, especially in the light of the fact that after several years, most of his historical insights no longer appeared to me valid. Exciting new investigations into the nature and effect of American slavery had become available to me, and were persuasive, and I had reread what scanty material existed on Nat Turner’s revolt.
While it was true that, in regard to Mr. Aptheker’s book on slave revolts, I had “made much use of it in laying the groundwork for a new novel” (for “much” read “some” though I might add that his chapter on Nat Turner is, generally speaking, a very competent job and can be read today as a primer on the revolt). I felt no longer that the entire work was “an admirable book”; I saw it to be, rather, tendentious, stonily ideological and filled with “evidence” about the prevalence of slave rebelliousness which now appeared to be dubious in the extreme. As for the other book–the thesis on Nat Turner, which I had read in manuscript–I remembered little about it; but three years after reading it and after having absorbed the work of historians keener, and wiser than Mr. Aptheker, I could hardly say to him that what I wrote in a letter in 1961 now struck me as wildly ridiculous without perhaps bruising Mr. Aptheker’s feelings. It is a tribute to the soundness of the law regarding the unauthorized publication of letters that it was designed with the knowledge that personal correspondence as such, being an intimate affair even among strangers, may flatter or please or enrage but it is almost never objective testimony to human feelings and their sovereign changeableness and hence comprises unworthy evidence.