William Styron

Author of 'Sophie's Choice' whose novels were informed by guilt and a sense of tragedy


William Clark Styron, writer: born Newport News, Virginia 11 June 1925; married 1953 Rose Burgunder (one son, three daughters); died Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts 1 November 2006.

William Styron, author of Sophie's Choice, was descended from wealthy Virginia slave-owners who suffered great hardship during the American Civil War. As with his fellow Southern writer William Faulkner, to whom his work was thematically though not stylistically linked, his fiction was informed by feelings of guilt towards social injustice and a strong sense of tragedy.

Of the guilt he once said: "On the one hand, I think it is ridiculous to feel guilt over something you had nothing to do with. But you can feel responsibility." His exploration of tragic themes in a five-decade writing career - his other novels included Set This House on Fire and The Confessions of Nat Turner, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize - led to comparisons with Dostoevsky and even Sophocles.

Intriguingly, pretty much all of Styron's fiction was inspired either by incidents and events from the early years of his life or by his family's colourful history. He was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1925, the son of William Styron, a shipyard engineer, and his wife, the former Pauline Abraham. The Styrons had been rooted in Virginia and North Carolina since the early 1700s. Family tradition held that William Styron inherited his temperament, storytelling ability and looks from his paternal grandfather, Alpheus.

Styron never knew him - Alpheus died in 1920 - but he was familiar with stories of his life as a Confederate courier in the Civil War and later as steamboat captain and tobacco manufacturer. Styron's grandmother had her own memories of Union troops from Ohio ransacking her Carolina plantation in 1862, leaving the family and slaves alike to live off roots, acorns and rats. The names of some of those slaves, as written in the family wills, later appeared in The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Styron's father was a disappointed man who felt miscast in life. Cultivated, sensitive and with a gift for language, he had been obliged for financial reasons when he left school to take a technical degree, for which he was awarded a scholarship, rather than study the liberal arts which were his preference. Qualified as an engineer, he spent nine months at sea, Jack London-like, visiting Mexico, the Netherlands, Germany and Wales. But then he settled in Newport News and took an office job on the docks, where he stayed until his retirement in 1955.

Pauline Styron had wanted to be a professional singer. Her affluent Pennsylvania family sent her and her sister to Europe for musical training; both women spent lengthy periods in Vienna in 1905 and 1907. They also toured Europe. Pauline remembered those times with great longing for the rest of her life. Back in the United States, she became a school music teacher until, to help the war effort, she moved to Newport News and met her future husband.

In consequence, William Styron had a cultured childhood. His mother's passion for music meant that he grew up listening to classical music on shellac records and on the radio, while his father inculcated in him a love of reading. William's academic performance was mediocre, but both parents were sensitive to their son's wish to be a writer, excusing his childhood rebelliousness and lack of academic discipline.

Anti-clericalism was a feature of William Styron's fiction and it developed early. As he explained many years later:

Newport News, where I grew up, had a huge black population. Because of the shipyard there were a lot of black labourers, with about 35 to 40 per cent black people in the city. To satisfy the religious needs of this large number of black people, we had two grandiose ecclesiastics. They were at each other's throats all the time because they were rivals.

And they had these magnificent baptisms. I mean they really had thousands and thousands of the faithful being baptised in Hampton Roads, there in the salt water. And so I saw these baptisms as a kid, and it made a tremendous impact on me. At the same time these characters were con men.

By the age of 13, Styron was writing for his high-school newspaper. He then went to Davidson College in North Carolina where, at the age of 17, he was writing poems and contributing to the student newspaper. In the same year, 1942, he volunteered for the Marine Corps (because the army "lacked glamour"). His education continued, as the corps sent their young officers to Duke University, essentially a military campus.

Styron studied every day like any other student but he wore his uniform and had reveille each morning - in good weather that meant a three-mile run. At weekends he learned close-order drill with imaginary rifles. "These guys who were supervising us were pretty tough, and you had to keep up a very high academic level of grades," Styron recalled.

He had his first short stories published at Duke University, in its literary magazine, the Archive. He never saw action in the Second World War, though he was so keen to fight the Japanese he persuaded his superiors to ignore the fact he had terrible eyesight (he had been born with cataracts).

Styron graduated in 1947, at the age of 22, and took an editing position at McGraw-Hill in New York (he was soon afterwards fired). His father provided financial and moral support as Styron worked on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness. He spent one six-week period in a boarding house whose other tenants included a mysterious Polish woman 10 years his senior - the inspiration for the central character of Sophie's Choice. He studied for a time at the New School for Social Research. His teacher, Hiram Haydn, was also at that time editor-in-chief of a leisure-interests publisher, and persuaded the publisher to launch a fiction imprint of promising young writers. Styron was one of them; he was paid an advance of $100.

Lie Down in Darkness was accepted for publication in 1950 but, before it hit the bookshops, as a Marine Corps reservist he was called back into service as a lieutenant for the Korean War. Whereas during the Second World War Styron had been keen to fight, he regarded the Korean conflict as "another standard stupid war" and managed to use his eyesight as a way to get a discharge from the service. This coincided with the publication of Lie Down in Darkness (1951).

He returned to New York hailed as one of the leading authors of his generation. His novel was awarded the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Styron moved for some months to Italy and France. In Paris in 1953 he was advisory editor on the new Paris Review alongside George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen. Plimpton later recalled a gathering in Matthiessen's Montparnasse studio when Styron read from the manuscript of a novella-in-progress, The Long March, about a lieutenant, weary of war, called back from the reserves to fight in Korea. James Baldwin, whose reputation had just been made with Go Tell It on the Mountain, was there and praised Styron's work. Plimpton recalled: "It must have been one of the first honours of Styron's career and perhaps the most cherished."

In 1953 Styron married Rose Burgunder, a poet. They settled in Roxbury, Connecticut, their home together for the rest of his life and where they raised their four children. The novella was published later that year but then there was a gap of seven years before Set This House on Fire was published in 1960. That novel, a big work set in Italy among artists and writers, established Styron as a master storyteller with an acute ear for dialogue and a gift for writing striking scenes, and also showed his interest in Sophocles and other Greek tragic writers. The Greek view of tragedy fascinated him. "The conscious turning away from the tragic aspect of life diminishes us," he commented later.

Styron was a painstakingly slow writer. He once declared that he had lost count of the number of novels he had abandoned. It was a further seven years before The Confessions of Nat Turner was published. It was a novel he had been thinking about writing since the 1940s, perhaps as a way of assuaging that Southern guilt, but its publication in 1967 gave its content added resonance as there was unrest once more in the country. The novel is written from the point of view of Nat Turner, who in 1831 led the Southampton slave uprising, the only significant rebellion in the history of black slavery in the US. It attracted rave reviews and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and, in 1970, the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

But Styron's introspective portrayal of Nat Turner caused considerable controversy too. A number of African-American authors - in William Styron's Nat Turner: ten black writers respond (1968) - dismissed him for having little understanding of the slave experience and declared that his Nat Turner was tinged with racism.

In 1979, Styron published his fourth novel, Sophie's Choice, an immediate popular and critical success which won the 1980 American Book Award and a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award. The anguished Holocaust story was made into a powerful film three years later, starring Meryl Streep in the lead role of the Polish Catholic mother faced with an impossible choice.

Styron never knew what became of the real Sophie he had met in his rooming house back in 1947. To write the book he researched the Holocaust closely, visiting Auschwitz in 1975 and reading widely. Even so, this novel too attracted sharp criticism for being anti-Jewish and anti-feminist.

Styron approached his writing in an unconscious way. Sophie's Choice one day popped into his head - he said that he had woken on a beautiful spring day with the complete idea for a novel in his mind. "I don't mean to say that when I had that particular inspiration that I saw the whole story. But I did see this particular moment - the choice." He recounted his experience in creating Sophie's father:

As she began to tell Stingo [the narrator of the novel] about him, I initially believed her - that she was telling the truth about how wonderful he was. When I got further into the book, it occurred to me that she was really lying. I didn't realise it at first, which is a perfect example of a character taking over your imagination.

Of the writing process, he said;

There's not one of them [his novels] that wasn't tough, but I would say that Sophie was the least tough. It had terribly tough moments, but I always knew where I was going.

His next publication was The Quiet Dust and Other Writing, in 1982, in which he looked at the nature of the American South, the dark side of the American Dream and the greats of American literature. By now, Styron was receiving many international honours. He was particularly feted in France, where he was even chair of the judges at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. "The French have given me honours far beyond what I would have imagined," he said:

When François Mitterrand was inaugurated as the President of France, he not only invited me to Paris to participate in the festivities, but he actually placed me at his right hand at the banquet table. He also told me that, during these three days, which represented the apex of his political career, he had spent all his free time immersed in Sophie, which was just then available in French. I still remember his term for this reading experience: "j'ai plongé".

Fidel Castro, too, was a fan. Gabriel García Márquez gave Castro Sophie's Choice and the Cuban leader apparently spent three nights reading it, then asked García Márquez to convey an open invitation to Styron any time he wanted to go to Cuba.

It was on a trip to France in 1985 to receive another literary honour that, after months of melancholy, Styron was struck by crippling depression:

Like anyone else, I have always had times when I felt deeply depressed, but this was something altogether new in my experience - a despairing, unchanging paralysis of the spirit beyond anything I had ever known or imagined could exist.

He later claimed that it was chemical in its origin - "relating to a pill I was taking for an old neck injury dating from my Marine Corps days" - but in Darkness Visible, his frank and disturbing 1990 account of the debilitating illness, he is less sure.

He talks of his abrupt intolerance for alcohol, a possible family history of depression and the curious fact that in his early writings he described several characters with symptoms strikingly similar to his own now. "Darkness Visible: a memoir of madness" first appeared as a piece in the newly revamped Vanity Fair in 1989. It went on to win a National Magazine Award before he expanded it to book length.

By now Styron and his wife were dividing their time between Roxbury, Connecticut, and Vineyard Haven in Massachusetts. He continued to write, albeit slowly and once more inspired by events from decades before. His last published work of fiction, A Tidewater Morning (1993), comprised three autobiographical tales from his youth told in the voice of a young boy who grew up in a tidewater town in Virginia.

Peter Guttridge

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