William Styron (1925 – 2006)

William Clark Styron, Jr.

(June 11, 1925-November 1, 2006) was an eminent American novelist and essayist.

Before the publication of his memoir Darkness Visible in 1990, Styron was best known for his novels which included

* Lie Down In Darkness (1951), which he wrote at age 25;
* The Confessions Of Nat Turner (1967), narrated by Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 Virginia slave revolt; and
* Sophie's Choice (1979), which dealt memorably with the Holocaust.

Styron's influence deepened and his readership expanded with the publication of Darkness Visible. This memoir was a description of the author's devastating descent into Depression, the "despair beyond despair". By examining an illness that affects millions but is still widely misunderstood, Styron offered an intimate and very personal portrait of the agony of this ordeal, revealing the anguish of a mind "desperate unto death".

William Styron was born in Newport News, Virginia, not far from the site of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, later the source for his most famous and controversial novel. Though Styron's paternal grandparents had been slave owners, his Northern mother and liberal Southern father gave him a broad perspective on race relations unusual for his generation. Styron's childhood was a difficult one: his father, a shipyard engineer, suffered from clinical depression, which Styron himself would later experience, and his mother died of cancer before his fourteenth birthday.

His father soon sent the increasingly rebellious Styron to Christchurch School, an Episcopal college-preparatory school in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Styron once said, "But of all the schools I attended ...only Christchurch ever commanded something more than mere respect - which is to say, my true and abiding affection."

On graduation, Styron enrolled in Davidson College, but eventually dropped out to join the Marines toward the end of World War II. Though Styron was made a lieutenant, the Japanese surrendered before Styron's ship left San Francisco. Styron then enrolled in Duke University, which would later grant him a B.A. in English; here Styron also published his first fiction, a short story heavily influenced by William Faulkner, in an anthology of student work.

graduation, Styron took an editing position with McGraw-Hill in New York City. Styron later recalled the misery of this work in an autobiographical passage of Sophie’s Choice, and after provoking his employers into firing him, he set about his first novel in earnest. Three years later, he published the novel, the story of a dysfunctional Virginia family culminating in a young woman’s suicide, as Lie Down in Darkness (1951). The novel received overwhelming critical acclaim, including the prestigious Rome Prize, awarded by the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but Styron’s recall into the military owing to the Korean War prevented him from immediately accepting this award. After his 1952 discharge for eye problems, Styron transformed his experience at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina into his short novel, The Long March, published serially the following year.

Styron then spent an extended period in Europe. In Paris, he became friends with Romain Gary, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, James Baldwin, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw, among others. The group founded the celebrated Paris Review in 1953.

The year 1953 was eventful for Styron in another way. Finally able to take advantage of his Rome Prize, he traveled to Italy. At the American Academy, he renewed an acquaintance with a young Baltimore poet, Rose Burgunder, to whom he had been introduced the previous fall at Johns Hopkins University. They were married in Rome in the spring of 1953.

Styron's experiences during this period would later be recalled in Set This House On Fire (1960), a novel about intellectual American expatriates on the Riviera. The novel received, at best, mixed reviews, with several critics savaging it for what they described as its melodrama and undisciplined structure.

Above the door to his studio, Styron posted a quotation from Gustave Flaubert:
"Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work."

A dictum of sorts, Flaubert's words would prove prophetic over the intervening years. The response by others to Styron's next two published novels, published between 1967 and 1979, would indeed be violent. Wounded by his first truly harsh reviews for Set This House On Fire, Styron spent years researching and composing his next novel, the fictitious memoirs of the historical Nat Turner. During this period, James Baldwin was his guest for several months, composing his novel Another Country.

Ironically, Another Country would be criticized by some African-American groups for black author Baldwin's choice of a white protagonist, leading Baldwin to foresee even greater problems ahead for Styron; "Bill's going to catch it from both sides" he told an interviewer immediately following the novel's 1967 publication. Baldwin’s words also proved prophetic. Despite public defenses of Styron by both Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, a large group of African-American critics reviled Styron's portrayal of Turner as racist stereotyping.

Particularly controversial was a passage in which Turner fantasizes about raping a white woman, which several critics pointed to as a dangerous perpetuation of a traditional Southern justification for lynching. On the other hand, many critics have argued that despite his flaws, Turner remains a strong, sympathetic, and heroic figure throughout Styron's novel. Despite the controversy, the novel became a runaway critical and financial success, eventually winning the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Though Styron's next novel, Sophie's Choice (1979), could hardly match the fervor that followed Confessions of Nat Turner, his decision to portray a non-Jewish victim of the Holocaust sparked a minor debate of its own. The novel, which tells the story of the Polish-Catholic Auschwitz survivor Sophie, her brilliant but menacing Jewish lover Nathan, and her young admirer Stingo, won the 1980 National Book Award and was a nationwide bestseller. A 1982 film version was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Meryl Streep winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sophie.

William Styron was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca in 1985. That year, he suffered from a serious depression which he would later recall in his popular memoir Darkness Visible (1990), in which (in the experience for many readers) he was (arguably) able to describe his descent into madness from the inside. His other works include a play, In the Clap Shack (1973) and a collection of his nonfiction pieces, This Quiet Dust (1982).

Styron died from pneumonia on November 1, 2006, at the age of 81 in Martha's Vineyard.

Books by William Styron