In an especially revealing essay in this collection, the late novelist William Styron tells of what he shared with another American literary great, Mark Twain.
"Our early surroundings possessed a surface sweetness and innocence - under which lay a turmoil we were pleased to expose - and we both grew up in villages on the banks of great rivers that dominated our lives," Styron writes in "A Literary Forefather," a 1995 essay that originally appeared in The New Yorker.
Styron was referring to the Mississippi River of Twain's Hannibal, Mo., and the James River of his own Tidewater Virginia. But he was also alluding to the dark whispers of slavery both writers experienced as Southern whites related to slaveholders, a trauma simmering just beneath the surface of sanguine social convention that they explored in their most celebrated and controversial works, Twain's 1885 "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and Styron's 1967 "Confessions of Nat Turner."
Gracious rage characterizes these essays, as Styron's fierce convictions on matters from discrimination to censorship seethe through his gentle, leisurely voice. Written from 1981 to 1998, and assembled largely by the Pulitzer Prize winner before his death, in 2006, they are like a languid, pastoral river itself, one whose serenity belies its force.
Several essays take up the idea of cultural taboo and how virtues from freedom of expression to human rights to simple honesty have been repressed and must be defended. The charisma of former President John F. Kennedy emerges in the title essay, "Havanas in Camelot." Other essays examine cultural attitudes over the last 50 years about everything from the moral stigma of syphilis to the political promise of socialism to the distorted perspective of a slavery theme park. Styron champions high ideals throughout, applauding their gradual emergence over the decades.
Similarly, essays that celebrate other writers - Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Terry Southern, and Twain - focus modestly but assuredly on such shared ideals. "Like me, Terry was an apostate southern Protestant, and I think that one of the reasons we hit it off well together was that we both viewed the Christian religion - at least insofar as we had experienced its puritanical rigors - as a conspiracy to deny its adherents their fulfillment as human beings," Styron writes of Southern in "Transcontinental With Tex."
The final essays are the most affirming, as in a simple, heartfelt way Styron lives the convictions he has shouldered through his life. "Walking With Aquinnah" celebrates the pleasures of morning strolls with his dog. "In Vineyard Haven" is an appreciation of his Martha's Vineyard summer home, of "the small-town sidewalks and the kids on bikes and the trespassing gangs of dogs and the morning walk to the post office past the Café du Port, with its warm smell of pastry and coffee." Styron exhales in these essays, displaying an ease that conveys even more intensely the fire within, and aptly closes this resonant collection.
Robert Braile reviews regularly for the Globe.