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 on William Styron

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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