Styron, William

views updated May 14 2018

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.

Styron, William

views updated May 21 2018

STYRON, William

Nationality: American. Born: Newport News, Virginia, 11 June 1925. Education: Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina, 1942-43; Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1943-44, 1945-47, B.A. 1947. Military Service: United States Marine Corps, 1943-45, 1951. Family: Married Rose Burgunder; three daughters and one son. Career: Associate editor, McGraw-Hill, 1947; moved to Paris and helped establish the Paris Review, 1952; writer-in-residence, American Academy, Rome, 1952-53. Awards: American Academy of Arts and Letters Prix de Rome, 1952, for Lie Down in Darkness; Pulitzer prize, 1968, and American Academy of Arts and Letters William Dean Howells medal, 1970, both for The Confessions of Nat Turner; American Book Award, 1980, for Sophie's Choice; Connecticut Arts award, 1984; Prix Mondial del Duca, 1985; Edward MacDowell medal and Duke University Distinguished Alumni award, both in 1988; Bobst award, 1989; National Magazine award, 1990, for Darkness Visible; National Medal of Arts, 1993; National Arts Club medal of honor and Common Wealth award, both in 1995. D.Litt.: Duke University, 1968; Davidson College, 1986. Commandeur, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), 1987; Commandeur Legion d'Honneur (France). Fellow, Silliman College, Yale University, 1964. Member: American Academy of Arts and Sciences; American Academy of Arts and Letters.



Lie Down in Darkness. 1951.

The Long March. 1952.

Set This House on Fire. 1960.

The Confessions of Nat Turner. 1967.

Sophie's Choice. 1979.

A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth. 1993.


This Quiet Dust and Other Writings (essays). 1982.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. 1990.


Film Adaptations:

Sophie's Choice, 1982.


William Styron: A Descriptive Bibliography by James L.W. West III, 1977; William Styron: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism by Philip W. Leon, 1978.

Critical Studies:

William Styron: A Critical Essay by Robert H. Fossum, 1967; William Styron by Cooper R. Mackin, 1969; Guilt and Redemption in the Novels of William Styron by Peter Nicholas Corodimas, 1971; William Styron by Marc L. Ratner, 1972; William Styron by Melvin J. Friedman, 1974; The Achievement of William Styron, edited by Robert K. Morris and Irving Malin, 1975; William Styron: A Reference Guide by Jackson R. Bryer and Mary Beth Hatem, 1978; William Styron: An "Unfamous" Great Writer Brings Out a New Novel, Sophie's Choice by Andrew Fielding, 1979; Critical Essays on William Styron by Arthur D. Casciato and James L.W. West III, 1982; William Styron, or, The Pangs of Mediocrity by James J. Thompson, 1982; William Styron by Judith Ruderman, 1987; Violence and Compassion in the Novels of William Styron: A Study in Tragic Humanism by Murthy S. Laxmana, 1988; William Styron Revisited by Samuel Coale, 1991; The Critical Response to William Styron by Daniel William Ross, 1995; The Novels of William Styron: From Harmony to History by Gavin Cologne-Brookes, 1995; Gynicide: Women in the Novels of William Styron, by David Hadallar, 1996; William Styron, A Life by James L.W. West III, 1998.

* * *

William Styron, elder statesman of American letters, has earned a reputation for tackling big events and themes in provocative ways. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, which came out in 1951 when the author was only 26, introduced the fascination with mental illness, addiction, victimization, guilt, and doom that would characterize Styron's entire canon—the heaviness leavened not only by a sense of humor but also by an affirmation of the redemptive power of love.

Lie Down in Darkness is closely connected to Sophie's Choice (1979), Styron's one Holocaust novel. After graduating from Duke University in the late 1940s and setting off for New York City to find his calling as a writer of fiction, Styron worked on a novel about a disturbed and suicidal young woman from Tidewater, Virginia, married to a New York Jew who tries in vain to save her from destruction. Styron put his struggles with that novel to use in the autobiographical Sophie's Choice, published 30 years later. In that book the narrator recounts how as a young man he had met a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz in his Brooklyn boarding house and, through their friendship, had gained the recognition of darkness and the power of love that enabled him to go on to write important works of literature—beginning with Lie Downin Darkness itself (called, in Sophie's Choice, Inheritance of Night, its real-life early title).

In actuality Styron's postwar encounter with this Holocaust survivor was brief and superficial; the story behind her tattooed numbers remained elusive to him until one morning in 1974 when, awakening from a dream about this woman, Styron decided to create an imaginative portrayal of her ordeal. The novel was also stimulated by a memoir of Auschwitz entitled Five Chimneys, by survivor Olga Lengyel , which he had read at Duke in 1947. Lengyel's story of how she had inadvertently sent her mother and son to the gas chambers provided for Styron a lasting impression of a horrific action that he could adapt for his own literary purposes.

The inspiration that Styron found in large historical events and grand themes had already led to what may be Styron's most famous, some would say infamous, novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Taking on the subject of slavery, Styron crafted a "meditation on history" (as he characterized it in his foreword) about the 1831 slave rebellion fomented by Nat Turner near the Styron home place in Virginia. Although the work won a Pulitzer Prize, Styron not unexpectedly was also lambasted: for writing in the first person as Nat, for inventing situations, and for attributing Nat's actions in large part to sexual frustration. Similarly intrigued by the inhumanity evidenced in the slave societies of the concentration camps, Styron refused to be intimidated by the notion that a Gentile could not, indeed should not, write on the Holocaust, especially if he had no firsthand experience of it and certainly not if his protagonist was not Jewish. Criticism of this novel came from several sources, among them Holocaust survivors and Poles, but it has been tame compared to the furor that arose at the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner at the height of racial tensions in the United States.

Perhaps the criticism has been tempered by the thorough research on the Holocaust that the narrative structure permits Sophie's Choice to foreground; among the many formative works that Styron read to prepare him for this novel are George Steiner 's Language and Silence, Richard Rubenstein's The Cunning of History, and the memoirs of Rudolph Höss. He also traveled to Kraków, the childhood home of his Sophie, and to Auschwitz itself; an essay on Auschwitz is included in Styron's 1982 collection of nonfiction prose, This Quiet Dust.

By the time he wrote Sophie's Choice, Styron—whose childhood in Newport News, Virginia, was largely spent in the company of fellow Protestants—had married a Jew (the poet Rose Burgunder) and formed solid friendships with Jews. Jews play pivotal roles in each of his novels and his play, as outsiders, rebels, and/or moral touchstones. Although Styron's Holocaust novel gives voice to the millions of non-Jews who perished under the Nazi regime, it simultaneously and on several levels underscores the anti-Semitism that led to Hitler's attempts at extermination of the Jewish people. Honored with the American Book Award for Fiction and the subject of an Academy Award-winning film starring Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice, like all of Styron's works, makes "darkness visible"—to use the title of Styron's 1990 account of his clinical depression—in order that, by confronting the darkest reaches of the human soul and psyche, we might see the imperative for, and the possibilities of, redemption.

—Judith Ruderman

See the essay on Sophie's Choice.

William Styron

views updated May 14 2018

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. □

Styron, William

views updated May 17 2018

Styron, William

Born June 11, 1925, in Newport News, VA; died of pneumonia, November 1, 2006, in Martha’s Vineyard, MA. Author. Though William Styron won acclaim for his 1951 literary debut and several other works, including the 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, in his later years he was best known for chronicling his own experience with clinical depression with characteristic literary polish in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. In it he recounted the depths of desolation and gloom he occasionally experienced, but concluded that “whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair,” he asserted in it, according to his New York Times obituary by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.

Styron was born in 1925 in Newport News, Virginia, a city whose shipbuilding industry employed his engineer-father. Styron’s mother was a Pennsylvania native who died when he was 13—a tragedy that shaped his life and writing—but his father hailed from an old Southern family and Styron’s grandmother had even owned two slaves as a child. After completing his high school education at a private academy in Christchurch, Virginia, Styron enrolled in the Marine Corps’ officers training school in the midst of World War II, studying at Duke Uni- versity and being sent to war only in its final days as the United States planned for an invasion of Japan that never happened. After his return, he completed his degree at Duke in 1947 and moved to New York City, where he briefly held a job as a copy editor at a publishing house before being uncer-emoniously fired for reasons that included, he later said, his slovenly attire and a penchant for reading the New York Post at his desk.

With financial support from his father, Styron finished his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, which earned a raft of critical accolades when it was published in 1951. Its story recounts the unhappy life of a young woman, Peyton Loftis, her dysfunctional Southern family, and the series of events that bring on her suicide. Styron was immediately hailed as the new literary voice of the South and the successor to novelist William Faulkner. It also earned international acclaim and led to his being awarded the Prix de Rome, a prestigious literary honor. With the award came a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, which he took up once he finished a second stint in the Marines during the Korean War. Following that he moved to Paris and wrote his second work, The Long March, while joining with other American literary talents living in the city to found the Paris Review.

Styron married a poet he began dating while in Rome, the American Rose Burgunder, and the pair eventually returned to the United States, settled in Connecticut, and began a family. Set This House on Fire, his next novel, followed the travails of a set of American expatriates in Italy, but critics panned it as ponderous and bleak when it appeared in 1960. It took several more years to write a follow-up—not atypical for Styron, who spent about four hours a day at his desk—but The Confessions of Nat Turner returned him to literary fame when it was published in 1967. Its story was a fictionalized account of a real-life event, the 1831 slave revolt that took place near Styron’s childhood home, and even won him the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1968, but then became the target of criticism from by prominent scholars as inauthentic and an unfair appropriation of a seminal event in African-American history.

Styron stood by his work despite the critics, an un-apologetic commitment to creative license that he continued when some faulted his next work, the 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice. Here he tackled the topic of a Polish woman struggling with her experiences as a Roman Catholic who survived a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, but at great psychic cost. It won the American Book Award for 1980 and was made into a Hollywood movie two years later that won Meryl Streep an Academy Award for the title role.

A father of four, Styron lived in Roxbury, Connecticut, and took his family to a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard every year, where he became one of the Massachusetts’s community’s many literary celebrities. He was a social drinker for many years, but later admitted he overindulged as a way to stave off his darker moods. Once he stopped drinking altogether in the mid1980s, his brain chemistry was thrown off-balance, and he was diagnosed as clinically depressed. He was hospitalized for a time, but recovered and became an advocate for mental-health treatment on both the lecture circuit and in his bestselling 1990 memoir Darkness Visible.

Styron died at the age of 81 on Martha’s Vineyard, ostensibly from a bout with pneumonia, on November 1, 2006, but friends and family noted his health had been in decline for some time before that. Survivors include his wife, Rose; his son, Thomas; his daughters Alexandra, Susanna, and Paola; and eight grandchildren. Though he was not as prolific a writer as some of his contemporaries, he left behind a body of work that was unparalleled in its near-perfection as literary legacies. “No other American writer of my generation,” fellow Pulitzer recipient Norman Mailer told Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times, “has had so omnipresent and exquisite a sense of the elegiac.” Sources: Chicago Tribune, November 2, 2006, sec. 3, p. 7;, (November 2, 2006); Entertainment Weekly, November 17, 2006, p. 18; Los Angeles Times, November 2, 2006, p. A1, p. A17; New York Times, November 2, 2006, p. C17; People, November 20, 2006, p. 53; Times (London), November 3, 2006, p. 78.

—Carol Brennan

Styron, William

views updated Jun 11 2018

STYRON, William

STYRON, William. American, b. 1925. Genres: Autobiography/Memoirs, Novels, Plays/Screenplays, Novellas/Short stories. Career: Yale University, Silliman College, New Haven, CT, Fellow, 1964-. Advisory Ed., Paris Review, Paris and NYC, 1952-; The American Scholar, Washington, DC, Member, Editorial Board, 1970-. Publications: Lie Down in Darkness, 1951; The Long March, 1956; (ed.) Best Short Stories from The Paris Review, 1959; Set This House on Fire, 1960; The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1967 (Pulitzer Prize); In the Clap Shack (play), 1973; Sophie's Choice, 1979 (American Book Award); This Quiet Dust and Other Writings, 1982; Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, 1990; Inheritance of Night, 1993; A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth, 1993; (with M.R. Cook) Fathers and Daughters: In Their Own Words, 1994. Address: 12 Rucum Rd, Roxbury, CT 06783, U.S.A.

About this article

William Styron

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic