Bygone perks of campus life: Free smokes

“I was born and reared in a major tobacco-growing and manufacturing state, Virginia, and was educated and lived for a long time in an even more important tobacco state, North Carolina. In that environment it was difficult not to be seduced at an early age into making cigarettes part of one’s way of life.

“Back in the 1940s salesmen from such nearby cigarette-producing citadels as Richmond, Durham and Winston-Salem used to swarm like grasshoppers all over the campuses of the upper South, hustling their wares. Usually dressed in seersucker suits and wearing evangelical smiles, they’d accost you between classes and press into your palm little complimentary packs of four Lucky Strikes or Chesterfields, give you a pep talk and try to sell you their brand. If you were not a smoker, which was rare at a time when cigarettes were not only in vogue but the norm, you would soon become one, made helpless by the unremitting largesse….”

— From “My Generation: Collected Nonfiction” by William Styron (2015)


‘[Most] kids in Chapel Hill are amazingly on the ball’

“As soon as I got back here [to Roxbury, Conn.] from Paris I had to go down south for that wretched lecture tour in Va. and N.C. The U of Va was a drag — I felt like a pariah in that smug place, almost no one showed up for my talk! — but this was cancelled out by my turn-out at the U of N.C. — nearly a thousand students, all rapt and worshipping except for the usual phalanx of a half a dozen or maybe a dozen black folk who did their usual childish gig of trying, unsuccessfully, to embarrass me by walking out.

“Anyway, I think I’m going to transfer my state allegiance from Va. to North Carolina. The kids in Chapel Hill are really amazingly on the ball.”

– William Styron, writing to his daughter Susanna, March 28, 1972

Although “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” Styron’s imagined memoir of the real-life leader of a Virginia slave revolt,  brought accusations of racial stereotyping, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1968.

Why William Styron had to write ‘Nat Turner’

“Born in 1850 on an eastern North Carolina plantation, my father’s mother was the proprietress of two slave girls who were her age, 12 or thereabouts, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many years later, when she was an old lady in her 80s and I was 11 or 12, she told me at great length of her love for these children and of the horror and loss she felt when that same year, 1862, Union forces…  under General Burnside swept down on the plantation, stripped the place bare and left everyone to starve, including the little slave girls, who later disappeared.

“It was a story I heard more than once, since I avidly prompted her to repeat it and she, indulging her own fondness for its melodrama, told it again with relish, describing her hatred for the Yankees (which remained undiminished in 1937), the real pain of her starvation (she said they were reduced to eating ‘roots and rats’), and her anguish when she was separated forever from those little black girls, who were called, incidentally, Drusilla and Lucinda, just as in so many antebellum plantation novels.

“All of the deliciously described particulars of my grandmother’s chronicle held me spellbound, but I think that nothing so awed me as the fact that this frail and garrulous woman whom I beheld, and who was my own flesh and blood, had been the legal owner of two other human beings. It may have determined, more than anything else, some as-yet-to-be-born resolve to write about slavery.”

— From “Nat Turner Revisited” by William Styron in American Heritage, October 1992

Death noted: William Styron’s roommate

“Am now rooming [at Duke] with Art Katz of Memphis and Claude Kirk of Montgomery, Ala. Both are transfers from Emory, and they’re good guys.”

— Letter from William Styron to his father, March 12, 1944

“[Florida Gov. Claude Kirk] rises to the challenge, occasionally with a fine and almost classic use of the language… ‘Styron taught me about language, about balance and words and how to put them together and get the most out of them.’ ”

— Harper’s magazine, 1968

“Styron settles down to his second Bloody Mary, made with lemons sent him every year by his college roommate….”

— Yale Literary magazine (Fall 1968)

Hard to imagine odder roomies than the saturnine man of letters and the “spectacularly colorful” demagogue…. also hard to imagine that Kirk absorbed such an appreciation of the language while bunking with Styron — couldn’t have been more than a semester or two. I think I once asked Styron about their relationship but can’t find any evidence thereof.