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William Styron

William Styron

William Styron (born 1925) was a Southern writer of novels and articles. His major works were Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Sophie's Choice. His major theme was the response of basically decent people to such cruelties of life as war, slavery, and madness.

William Styron was born January 11, 1925, in Newport News, Virginia, to a family whose roots in the South go back to the 17th century. After attending Christchurch, a small Episcopal high school in Middlesex County, Virginia, he entered Davidson College in 1942. In 1943 he transferred to Duke University but left school for service with the Marines. His experiences first as a trainee at Parris Island and then as an officer are the bases for the preoccupation with war, the military mind, and authority in his novels.

Discharged in 1945, Styron returned to Duke. There, under the guidance of William Blackburn, he became seriously interested in literature and began writing short stories. After he graduated in 1947 and took a job in New York, it was Blackburn who influenced him to enroll in a creative writing class taught by Hiram Haydn at the New School for Social Research. But Styron found that his job writing copy and reading manuscripts for McGraw Hill sapped his energy and creativity. Within six months he was fired "for slovenly appearance, not wearing a hat, and reading the New York Post." The loss of his job turned out to be beneficial, since, with financial support from his father and encouragement from Haydn, he could write full-time, and in 1952 he published Lie Down in Darkness.

This novel is about the disintegration of a southern family, the Loftises. The immediate setting is the funeral of one of the daughters, Peyton, a suicide. But the conflicts between the narcissistic, alcoholic father and the emotionally disturbed mother, the hate between mother and daughter, and the near incestuous love of the father for Peyton— all contributors to the characters' disillusionment and the suicide itself—are unfolded in flashbacks. Though the story is told in third person, the final section is a remarkable monologue recited by Peyton before she jumps out of a window. Lie Down in Darkness was an impressive first novel, and in 1952 Styron won the Prix de Rome of the Academy of Arts and Letters for his achievement.

During the Korean conflict, in 1951, just before Lie Down in Darkness appeared, Styron was recalled briefly to the Marines. Two incidents—the accidental killing of soldiers by a stray shell and a forced march—which occurred at the camp where he was assigned were the sources for the plot of a novella, The Long March. It was written during a tour Styron took of Europe directly after his discharge and was published in 1956.

The two-year stay in Europe had other results. Styron met and married Rose Burgunder, a native of Baltimore, and helped a group of young writers establish The Paris Review.

Styron's next novel, Set This House on Fire (1960), is a long book with rape and two murders at its center. Two friends, Peter Leveritt and Cass Kinsolving, visiting together in Charleston, recall the events which took place three years earlier when they were guests at a villa in Sambucco, Italy. Though Peter is the narrator, many critics consider Cass, who kills the man he wrongly suspects of raping and murdering a peasant girl, the protagonist because he progresses from weakness and despair to self-knowledge and faith. For many readers Set This House on Fire was a disappointment, the narrative disjointed, the characters incompletely realized. But the book received acclaim in France and marked an important step in Styron's development.

The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) is based on a true story, the 1831 rebellion of a group of slaves against their white oppressors. Nat Turner, the leader, in jail awaiting execution, dictates his "confessions" to his attorney. The book was a success; in 1968 it received the Pulitzer Prize. But it aroused controversy, particularly among African Americans, who felt that Nat represented a white man's condescending vision of them and that the story distorted history, a charge Styron answered by claiming the right of the novelist to "meditate" on history and augment facts with imagination.

Reactions to Sophie's Choice (1979) were also mixed. Stingo, the narrator, is a young Southerner, who, like Styron himself, comes to New York hoping to become a writer. In a Brooklyn rooming house he meets Sophie and her Jewish lover, Nathan, who alternates between brilliance, warmth, and charm and psychopathic fury. Most of the story centers on Sophie, a Polish Catholic refugee who was interned in a concentration camp during World War II. Tormented by her memories, particularly the loss of her children, she submits to Nathan's love and abuse up until the tragic conclusion, a double suicide. The book was a best seller, then a motion picture. But some critics claimed Styron had misrepresented the Holocaust, linking its horrors with eroticism and ignoring the plight of its major victims, the Jews. In 1982, the film version of Sophie's Choice, starring Meryl Streep, received several Academy Award nominations.

More recently, Styron's novels include, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990), which covers his own bouts with depression; and a trilogy of short stories, A Tide-water Morning: Three Tales from Youth (1993). Styron also co-authored, The Face of Mercy: A Photographic History of Medicine at War (1995) with Mathew Naythons, Sherwin B. Nuland, and Stanley B. Burns.

Aside from novels and articles, Styron also wrote a play, In the Clap Shack (1972), which was performed at Yale. A military novel, The Way of the Warrior, was in progress in the 1980s.

Styron is highly regarded as a Southern writer. The injustices of the old South and the materialism of the new are two themes which figure prominently in his novels. But he was more than a regional writer. His major characters generally are decent people thrust among the cruelties of the world: slavery, war, individual madness, and violence. Though he was not particularly optimistic, most of his protagonists achieve illumination or regeneration by observing or struggling with these forces. There are critics, in fact, who see his works as religious. In addition to religious imagery, the novels suggest that when one gets in touch with his humanity he finds some sort of salvation.

Further Reading

Studies entitled William Styron—by Robert Fossum (1968), Melvin Friedman (1974), Cooper Mackin (1969), Richard Pearce (1971), and Mark Ratner (1972)—include biography and criticism. More studies are Arthur Casciato/James West, Critical Essays on William Styron (1982) and Robert Morris, The Achievement of William Styron (revised edition, 1981), which contains a bibliography of numerous articles and books about and by Styron. In the mid-1990s, Styron was working on a semi-autobiographical novel about the Marine Corps.

In January of 1997, William Styron was the focus of a public television biographical series/documentary film, American Masters, during which he discussed the fact that his recent works often contain a theme of coping to understand the African American experience, which is autobiographical in nature. He has also written a commentary for the New York Times Magazine (1995), entitled, A Horrid Little Racist, discussing a boyhood incident where he was punished for making a racist remark. This and other experiences ultimately piqued his interest in trying to understand the African American experience. □

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Styron, William

William Styron, 1925–2006, American novelist, b. Newport News, Va., grad. Duke, 1947. His fiction is often powerful, deeply felt, poetic, and elegiac. He became well known for his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967; Pulitzer Prize), a fictional recreation of the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia led by Nat Turner. Because Styron's account does not strictly adhere to historical fact and because he was a white man depicting a black man's experiences, the novel elicited harsh criticism, especially from black intellectuals. Styron's other novels include Lie Down in Darkness (1951), Set This House on Fire (1960), and the best-selling Sophie's Choice (1979; film, 1982), the post–World War II tale of a Polish emigré living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and struggling with her haunting history as an Auschwitz survivor. Styron also wrote short stories, novellas, a screenplay, and a play. Many of his essays, reviews, and occasional pieces were collected in This Quiet Dust and Other Writings (1982) and a group of his mainly autobiographical essays were assembled in the posthumously published Havanas in Camelot (2008). Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990) describes Styron's harrowing 1980s bout with clinical depression, and A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth (1993) is a trilogy of autobiographical novellas.

See Conversations with William Styron (1985), ed. by J. L. W. West 3d; Selected Letters of William Styron (2012), ed. by R. Styron (his wife); biography by J. L. W. West 3d (1998); studies by M. J. Friedman (1974), R. K. Morries and I. Malin, ed. (2d ed. 1981), A. D. Casciato and J. L. W. West 3d, ed. (1982), J. K. Crane (1985), J. Ruderman (1987), S. L. Murthy (1988), S. Coale (1991), G. Cologne-Brookes (1995), E. Herion-Sarafidis (1995), and D. W. Ross, ed. (1995).

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Styron, William

STYRON, William

Nationality: American. Born: Newport News, Virginia, 11 June 1925. Education: Christchurch School, Virginia; Davidson College, North Carolina, 1942-43; Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1943-44, 1946-47, B.A. 1947 (Phi Beta Kappa). Military Service: Served in the United States Marine Corps, 1944-45, 1951: 1st Lieutenant. Family: Married Rose Burgunder in 1953; three daughters and one son. Career: Associate editor, McGraw Hill, publishers, New York, 1947. Since 1952 advisory editor, Paris Review, Paris and New York; member of the editorial board, American Scholar, Washington, D.C., 1970-76. Since 1964 fellow, Silliman College, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Awards: American Academy Prix de Rome, 1952; Pulitzer prize, 1968; Howells Medal, 1970; American Book award, 1980; Connecticut Arts award, 1984; Cino del Duca prize, 1985; MacDowell Medal, 1988; Bobst award, 1989; National Magazine award, 1990; National Medal of Arts, 1993; National Arts Club Medal of Honor, 1995; F. Scott Fitzgerald award, 1996. Litt.D.: Duke University, 1968; Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina, 1986. Member: American Academy, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Academy of Arts and Letters; Commander, Order of Arts and Letters (France), and Legion of Honor (France). Address: 12 Rucum Road, Roxbury, Connecticut 06783, U.S.A.



Lie Down in Darkness. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1951; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1952.

The Long March. New York, Random House, 1956; London, HamishHamilton, 1962.

Set This House on Fire. New York, Random House, 1960; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1961.

The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York, Random House, 1967;London, Cape, 1968.

Sophie's Choice. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1979.

Short Story

Shadrach. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphanos, 1979.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Autumn," and "Long Dark Road," in One and Twenty, edited byW.M. Blackburn. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1945.

"Moments in Trieste," in American Vanguard 1948, edited byCharles I. Glicksburg. New York, Cambridge, 1948.

"The Enormous Window," in American Vanguard 1950, edited byCharles I. Glicksburg. New York, Cambridge, 1950.

"The McCabes," in Paris Review 22, Autumn-Winter 1959-60.

"Pie in the Sky," in The Vintage Anthology of Science Fantasy, edited by Christopher Cerf. New York, Random House, 1966.


In the Clap Shack (produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1972). NewYork, Random House, 1973.


The Four Seasons, illustrated by Harold Altman. University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1965.

Admiral Robert Penn Warren and the Snows of Winter: A Tribute. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1978.

The Message of Auschwitz. Blacksburg, Virginia, Press de la Warr, 1979.

Against Fear. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1981.

As He Lay Dead, A Bitter Grief (on William Faulkner). New York, Albondocani Press, 1981.

This Quiet Dust and Other Writings. New York, Random House, 1982; London, Cape, 1983.

Conversations with William Styron (interviews), edited by James L.W. West III. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

Darkness Visible (memoirs). New York, Random House, 1990;London, Cape, 1991.

A Tidewater Morning (Three Tales from Youth). Helsinki, Eurographica, 1991; New York, Random House, 1993; London, Cape, 1994.

Editor, Best Short Stories from the Paris Review. New York, Dutton, 1959.


Film Adaptations:

Sophie's Choice, 1982; Shadrach, 1998.


William Styron: A Descriptive Bibliography by James L.W. West III, Boston, Hall, 1977; William Styron: A Reference Guide by Jackson R. Bryer and Mary B. Hatem, Boston, Hall, 1978; William Styron: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism by Philip W. Leon, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1978.

Manuscript Collections:

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Critical Studies:

William Styron by Robert H. Fossum, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1968; William Styron by Cooper R. Mackin, Austin, Texas, Steck Vaughn, 1969; William Styron by Richard Pearce, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1971; William Styron by Marc L. Ratner, New York, Twayne, 1972; William Styron by Melvin J. Friedman, Bowling Green, Ohio, Popular Press, 1974; The Achievement of William Styron edited by Irving Malin and Robert K. Morris, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1975, revised edition, 1981; Critical Essays on William Styron edited by Arthur D. Casciato and James L.W. West III, Boston, Hall, 1982; The Root of All Evil: The Thematic Unity of William Styron's Fiction by John K. Crane, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1985; William Styron by Judith Ruderman, New York, Ungar, 1989; The Novels of William Styron by Gavin Cologne-Brookes, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1995; The Critical Response to William Styron, edited by Daniel W. Ross, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1995; Gynicide: Women in the Novels of William Styron by David Hadaller, Madison, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996; William Styron: A Life by James L.W. West, III, New York, Random House, 1998.

* * *

Of the American novelists who have come onto the literary scene since the end of World War II, William Styron would seem to have worked most directly in the traditional ways of story-telling. As a writer from the American South, he was heir to a mode of fiction writing most notably developed by William Faulkner and practiced to striking effect by such fellow southerners as Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. It involvedas the mode of Hemingway did not involvea reliance upon the resources of a sounding rhetoric rather than upon understatement, a dependence upon the old religious universals ("love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice," as Faulkner once termed them) rather than a suspicion of all such external moral formulations, and a profound belief in the reality of the past as importantly affecting present behavioran "historical sense," as contrasted with the dismissal of history as irrelevant and meaningless.

His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, was strongly indebted to the example of Faulkner; Styron began it, he said, after reading Faulkner night and day for several weeks. Yet though Styron portrayed a young southern woman, Peyton Loftis, as she battled for love and sanity in a dreary family situation, doomed to defeat by her father's weak, self-pitying ineffectuality and her mother's hypocrisy and sadistic jealousy, and though the setting was a tidewater Virginia city among an effete upper-class society, what resulted was not finally Faulknerian. At bottom the causes of Styron's tragedy were familial, not dynastic; the deficiencies of Milton and Helen Loftis were not importantly those of decadent aristocracy whose concept of honor and pride has become empty posturing and self-indulgence, as they would have been for a writer such as Faulkner, but rather personal and psychological. When Peyton flees Virginia for New York City, there is little sense of her plight as representing isolation from the order and definition of a time and place that are no longer available. Instead, hers was a break for freedom, and the failure to make good the break is the result of the crippling conflict within her mind and heart imposed by the example of her parents, and which symbolizes the hatreds engendered by a society that does not know how to love. The suicide of Peyton Loftis represents a plunge into the moral abyss of a self-destructive modern world. Styron, in other words, wrote out of a tradition that taught him to measure his people and their society against the traditional values, and to see the absence of those values in their lives as tragic; but he did not depict that absence as a falling away from a more honorable, more ordered Southern historical past.

The success of Lie Down in Darkness was considerable, perhaps in part because a novel that could depict the modern situation as tragic, rather than merely pathetic, and could thus make use of the High Style of language to chronicle it, was all too rare. Styron followed it with The Long March, a novella set in a Marine Corps camp during the Korean War (Styron himself was briefly recalled to active duty in 1951). Depicting the irrationality of war and the military mentality, it demonstrates the dignity, and also the absurdity, of an individual's effort to achieve nobility amid chaos.

Eight years elapsed before Styron's second full-length novel, Set This House on Fire. The story of a Southern-born artist, Cass Kinsolving, who is unable to paint, and is married and living in Europe, it involved a man in spiritual bondage, undergoing a terrifying stay in the lower depths before winning his way back to sanity and creativity. In Paris, Rome, and the Italian town of Sambucco, Cass Kinsolving lives in an alcoholic daze, tortured by his inability to create, wandering about, drinking, pitying himself, doing everything except confronting his talent. The struggle is on existential terms. Kinsolving has sought to find a form for his art outside of himself, looking to the society and the people surrounding him for what could only be located within himself: the remorseless requirement of discovering how to love and be loved, and so to create.

Set This House on Fire encountered a generally hostile critical reception, to some extent because it was sprawling and untidy, occasionally overwritten, and therefore so very different from his well-made first novel. It seemed, too, even further removed than Lie Down in Darkness from the customary Southern milieu: not only were there no decaying families, no faithful black retainers, no blood-guilt, and no oversexed Southern matrons, but we are told very little about the protagonist's past, either familial or personal, that might explain how he got the way he was. Yet there was a past; but Styron gives it to a friend of Kinsolving's, Peter Leverett, who tells the story. The fact is that Leverett's failure to find definition in his Southern origins is what really accounts for Kinsolving's present-day plight. Styron apparently could not avoid grounding his tragedy in history one way or the other. And after Kinsolving has fought his way back to personal responsibility and creativity, he leaves Europe and returns to the South. There is thus a kind of circular movement involved in the first two novels. Peyton Loftis finds the Southern community impossible to live within and love within, and she goes to New York. Cass Kinsolving, equally at loose ends, goes abroad and conducts his struggle for identity and definition there, and then comes home to the South. He has had in effect to ratify the individual and social worth of his attitudes and values away from the place and the institutions of their origins, and make them his own, not something merely bequeathed automatically to him.

If so, it was not surprising that Styron's next and most controversial novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, once again was set in the Southin Southside Virginia, no more than an hour's automobile drive from Port Warwick where Peyton Loftis grew up and Newport News, Virginia, where Styron was born and raisedand that it concerned itself squarely with the southern past, as exemplified in the presence and the role of the black man. For though The Confessions of Nat Turner is based upon a famous slave insurrection that took place in 1831, its implications involve race and racism, integration and separatism, and the use of violent means in order to achieve political and social ends. Styron's strategy, for what he termed his "meditation upon history," was to tell his story from the viewpoint of the slave leader Nat Turner, of whose actual life almost nothing is known. Rather than restrict his protagonist's language, however, to that which a plantation slave in the early 19th-century might be expected to have used, Styron decided that the range and complexity of such a man's mind could not be adequately represented in any such primitive fashion, and he cast Nat Turner's reflections in the rich, allusive, polysyllabic mode of the early Victorian novel. Styron was thus able to have his slave leader utilize the resources of a sounding rhetoric in order to look beyond his immediate circumstance into the moral and ethical implications of his actions.

The initial critical verdict on The Confessions of Nat Turner was highly favorable, with such critics as Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, C. Vann Woodward, and others declaring it an impressive contribution both to contemporary American fiction and to the knowledge of slavery. Almost immediately, however, the book became embroiled in a controversy, not so much literary as sociological, which made both novel and novelist into a cause célébre. For in presuming, as a white man, to portray the consciousness of a black revolutionist of a century-and-a-half ago, Styron came into collision with the impetus of the black separatist movement. His novel appeared at a time when the black American was straining as never before to assert his identity and his independence of white paternalism, and the result was that numerous black critics, together with some white sympathizers, began heaping abuse on Styron for his alleged racism, his alleged unwarranted liberties with historical "fact," and his alleged projection of "white liberal neuroses" onto a revolutionary black leader's personality. A host of reviews and essays and even a book appeared in denunciation of Styron. Other critics rose to the rebuttal, and historians joined in to certify the authenticity of Styron's historical portrayal. The outcome has been a voluminous literature of controversy that may well interest future social historians almost as much as the Nat Turner insurrection itself.

In 1979 Styron entered the lists again with a lengthy novel on another controversial subject. Sophie's Choice involved the confrontation of a young and very autobiographically clued Virginian with a Polish refugee who has undergone the horrors of concentration camp existence, and her lover, a young New York Jew who is a brilliant conversationalist but turns out to be quite mad. Written very much in the mode of Thomas Wolfe's fiction of encounter with the metropolis, Styron's novel records the growing helplessness of a youthful American in the face of a developing acquaintance with the enormity of human evil and irrationality. The novel drew much criticism for its excesses of rhetoric and the apparent irrelevance of much of its sexual material; in effect it would seem to imitate the author's own difficulties in coming to terms with the subject matter described. Yet it contains powerful sequences, and as always represents Styron's unwillingness to seek easy ways out or avoid central human problems.

Louis D. Rubin, Jr.

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