William Styron (STI-ruhn) was born in Newport News, Virginia, which he later called “a very Southern part of the world.” His mother, Pauline Margaret Abraham Styron, was from the North, but his father, William Clark Styron, a shipyard engineer, came from an old, if not aristocratic, land-poor Virginia family, and Styron remembered his grandmother telling him as a little boy of the days when the family owned slaves, a memory he incorporated years later into Sophie’s Choice. Styron’s father was a “Jeffersonian gentleman,” liberal in his views for a Southerner, who implanted in his son much of the philosophical curiosity that characterized the young Styron’s novels. His mother, a gentling influence, died when Styron was twelve after a long, painful siege with cancer, an experience that also left a mark on his fiction in the form of an almost obsessive concern with physical pain, suffering, and the vulnerability of the flesh. After his mother’s death Styron began “going wild,” and his father sent him to an Episcopal boys’ school in Middlesex County, where he was an indifferent student but a voracious reader. After graduating, he enrolled in Davidson College during World War II but soon dropped out to enlist in the Marines.
Styron’s service in Officers Candidate School marked the beginning of his writing career, for while there he enrolled in a creative writing course at Duke University under William Blackburn, whom Styron acknowledges as the most powerful formative influence on his work. One of his stories, about a Southern lynching, similar in tone and execution to William Faulkner’s “Dry September,” appeared in a student anthology, Styron’s first published fiction. Toward the end of the war Styron was commissioned and sent to the Pacific, arriving on the island of Okinawa after the fighting was over. Styron spoke later of his sense of guilt at not having seen action, as well as his feeling of horror at the waste and destruction of the war and the terrible, almost casual way in which life could be lost. Back in the United States Styron resumed his studies at Duke and graduated in 1947. He took a job in New York as an associate editor in the book division at McGraw-Hill. His senior editor and immediate superior was Edward C. Aswell, the second editor of Thomas Wolfe and an éminence grise to rival Maxwell Perkins; Aswell was to appear grotesquely as “The Weasel” in an autobiographical passage in Sophie’s Choice nearly thirty years later. Styron found McGraw-Hill humorless and confining, and after six months he was fired.
Living in a Brooklyn boardinghouse on a tiny legacy from his grandmother, Styron took another creative writing course, this time from Hiram Haydn at the New School for Social Research. He began work on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, the story of a star-crossed upper-middle-class Southern family whose failure to find love and meaning in life drives the sensitive daughter, Peyton Loftis, to insanity and suicide. The complex treatment of time in the novel and its high Southern rhetoric showed the influence of William Faulkner, whom Styron had been reading intensely, but Lie Down in Darkness was manifestly the work of a powerful and original talent. Styron found that the writing of the book, although exhausting, went surprisingly fast, and he finished it and saw it accepted for publication by Bobbs-Merrill before he was recalled by the Marines for service in the Korean War. The novel was published in 1951. Styron was then on active reserve duty, and his experiences during that time became the basis for his second novel, The Long March.
Lie Down in Darkness was an immediate critical success and a moderate popular one, winning the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1952. At that time Styron had decamped to Paris and fallen in with a young crowd of American expatriate intellectuals, many of whom would later make names for themselves in literature. George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen were at the center the group, which also included Harold Humes, John P. C. Train, Donald Hall, and, on the fringe, writers such as James Baldwin, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw. In 1952 and 1953 the group began compiling a literary magazine, The Paris Review, which became one of the most influential literary periodicals of the postwar period. Plimpton became the first editor, Matthiessen became the fiction editor, and Styron wrote the statement of purpose for the first issue. He also gave the periodical one of the first of its famous “Writers at Work” interviews. It was recorded by Matthiessen and Plimpton at Patrick’s, the Paris Review crowd’s favorite bar, and in it Styron claimed that “this generation . . . will produce literature equal to that of any other generation . . .” and that “a great writer . . . will give substance to and perhaps even explain all the problems of the world. . . .” From the start his ambitions were large.
Although he later said he drank enough brandy in bistros to develop a crise de foie and that he spent months in the summer of 1952 on a sybaritic “Ovidian idyll” on the Riviera with Humes, Styron was also writing at top speed during this period. In just six weeks he wrote a novella based on his Marine Corps training-camp experience, The Long March, which was accepted for publication in the fall by discovery, a literary magazine (Knopf published it as a book four years later). In 1953 he used the money from his Prix de Rome to travel in Italy, an experience that laid the groundwork for his 1960 novel of expatriates, Set This House on Fire, and during this time he met Rose Burgunder, a Jewish poet with some family money from Baltimore, whom he soon married. They returned to America, to Roxbury, Connecticut, which thereupon became Styron’s home. Here he began work on the “big novel” that he planned to follow up the success of Lie Down in Darkness.
This “big novel” was Set This House on Fire, a sprawling account of American intellectuals living a life of self-indulgence and self-destruction in postwar Italy. The book contains fine lyrical passages of description, particularly of the physical beauty of Italy and the horrifying squalor and suffering of its people, but as Styron later admitted, the novel is seriously flawed. The reviews were mixed, some of them savage. Styron’s former friend Norman Mailer called Set This House on Fire “a bad, maggoty novel,” suggesting that Styron could “write like an angel about landscape, but like an adolescent about people.” The novel was better received by Styron’s European critics–it is still highly regarded in France–but Styron was wounded by his first really bad press, and he retreated to Roxbury to work on his next book, a novel he resolved to make so thoroughly a work of craftsmanship as to defy criticism.
It took Styron years to research and write The Confessions of Nat Turner, and true to Styron’s expectations it was immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece. Styron had long had his mind on Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion as a subject for fiction. It had taken place close to his own Tidewater Virginia home, and Styron saw the suffering, the violence, and the misunderstanding of the revolt as emblematic both of the South’s guilt and pain and of his personal concerns as a writer. Styron claimed that reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942) furnished him with the technique he was to use in presenting Nat Turner’s story–the narrative persona reflecting from jail–and there is no doubt that much of the novel’s perspective on black people and black problems was derived from Styron’s friend, the black writer James Baldwin, who was a guest of Styron for months while writing Another Country (1962), Baldwin’s first major novel about black/white relations. Styron called The Confessions of Nat Turner “less a ‘historical novel’ than a meditation on history,” but despite almost unanimous critical accolades, including the praise of Baldwin, who suggested that the novel might be considered the beginning of a black/white “mutual history,” Styron became the target of a group of black critics who protested vehemently the right of a white man to consider himself qualified to interpret the black experience. Nat Turner, as Styron presented him, was a strong and sensitive character, unquestionably the hero of the novel, but so volatile was the political climate of America in the late 1960’s that for some critics, any black character who was not a warrior saint was unacceptable as a fictional creation, particularly the creation of a white writer.
The critical assaults provoked by the The Confessions of Nat Turner left Styron bruised, but he was encouraged by the praise for the novel’s powerful rhetoric and masterly structure, not to mention its enormous financial success. Of the controversy, he said, “It really had very little effect on me . . . largely because of the fact that I knew that it was politically motivated and hysterical, and that I had not violated any truth that a novelist is capable of doing.” He turned to new work, first to a lengthy projected novel exploring the psyche of a career army officer, which he finally shelved, then to Sophie’s Choice. The book began as an autobiographical reminiscence of his aimless days as a junior editor at McGraw-Hill, when he found himself frustrated artistically, philosophically, and sexually. As he worked through his memories in the character of his narrator, Stingo, whose fictional background is almost identical with Styron’s own, he found his real theme: the life and eventual death by suicide of a woman who survived the Nazi concentration camps but emerged terribly scarred emotionally. This woman, the Sophie of the title, becomes the vehicle through which Stingo confronts the potential horror of life, and through whom he matures.
Sophie’s Choice took five years to write, but Styron was richly rewarded when it was finally published in 1979. A few critics, notably John Gardner, raised questions about its structure, and about the sometimes jejune intrusions of the shallow Stingo, but for the most part the novel was accepted as a fine and satisfying offering by a major writer. “It has the feel of permanence,” Peter Prescott wrote. The gratifying large sales were capped by a spectacular sale of the film rights. In 1983 Meryl Streep won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sophie in the film version.
In 1985 Styron was hospitalized with acute clinical depression. His struggle to overcome his suicidal feelings and to return to health are recounted in his memoir Darkness Visible, published five years later. Styron credited the peaceful seclusion of his hospital stay and the loving patience of his wife and grown children (three daughters and a son) as the principal factors in his recovery. After a many years of declining health, Styron died of pneumonia on November 1, 2006 in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.