William Styron

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William Clark Styron, Jr.

Birthdate: (81)
Death: November 1, 2006 (81)
Immediate Family:

Son of William Clark Stryon, Sr. and Pauline Styron
Husband of Rose Styron
Father of Susanna Styron; Alexandra Styron; Paola Styron; <private> Styron and <private> Styron

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Immediate Family

About William Styron


William Clark Styron, Jr. (June 11, 1925 – November 1, 2006) was an American novelist and essayist who won major literary awards for his work.

For much of his career, Styron was best known for his novels, which included

Lie Down in Darkness (1951), his acclaimed first novel, published at age 26 The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), narrated by Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 Virginia slave revolt; and Sophie's Choice (1979), a story "told through the eyes of a young aspiring writer from the South, about a Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz and her brilliant but troubled Jewish lover in postwar Brooklyn."

Styron's influence deepened and his readership expanded with the publication of Darkness Visible in 1990. This memoir, originally intended as a magazine article, chronicled the author's descent into depression and his near-fatal night of "despair beyond despair."

Early years

William Styron was born in the Hilton Village historic district of Newport News, Virginia. He grew up in the South and was steeped in its history. His birthplace was less than a hundred miles from the site of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, later the source for Styron's most famous and controversial novel.

Although Styron’s paternal grandparents had been slave owners, his Northern mother and liberal Southern father gave him a broad perspective on race relations. Styron’s childhood was a difficult one: his father, a shipyard engineer, suffered from clinical depression, which Styron himself would later experience. His mother died from breast cancer in 1939 when Styron was a boy, following a decade-long battle.

Styron attended public school until third grade, when his father sent him to Christchurch School, an Episcopal college-preparatory school in the Tidewater region of Virginia. Styron once said, "But of all the schools I attended ... only Christchurch ever commanded something more than mere respect — which is to say, my true and abiding affection."

On graduation, Styron enrolled in Davidson College and joined Phi Delta Theta. He dropped out to join the Marines toward the end of World War II. Though Styron was made a lieutenant, the Japanese surrendered before Styron’s ship left San Francisco. Styron then enrolled in Duke University, where he earned a B.A. in English. There he published his first fiction, a short story heavily influenced by William Faulkner, in an anthology of student work.

Early novels

After his 1947 graduation, Styron took an editing position with McGraw-Hill in New York City. Styron later recalled the misery of this work in an autobiographical passage of Sophie’s Choice. After provoking his employers into firing him, he set about writing his first novel in earnest. Three years later, he published the novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), the story of a dysfunctional Virginia family. The novel received overwhelming critical acclaim. For this novel, Styron received the prestigious Rome Prize, awarded by the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Military service

His recall into the military due to the Korean War prevented him from immediately accepting the Rome Prize. Styron joined the Marine Corps, but was discharged in 1952 for eye problems. However, he was to transform his experience at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina into his short novel, The Long March, published serially the following year. This was adapted for the Playhouse 90 episode The Long March in 1958.

Travels in Europe

Styron spent an extended period in Europe. In Paris, he became friends with writers Romain Gary, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, James Baldwin, James Jones and Irwin Shaw, among others. The group founded the magazine Paris Review in 1953. It became a celebrated literary journal.

The year 1953 was eventful for Styron in another way. Finally able to take advantage of his Rome Prize, he traveled to Italy. At the American Academy, he renewed an acquaintance with a young Baltimore poet, Rose Burgunder, to whom he had been introduced the previous fall at Johns Hopkins University. They were married in Rome in the spring of 1953.

Some of Styron’s experiences during this period inspired his third published book Set This House on Fire (1960), a novel about intellectual American expatriates on the Riviera. The novel received, at best, mixed reviews in the United States although its publisher considered it successful in terms of sales. In Europe, however, its translation into French achieved best-seller status, far outselling the American edition.

The Nat Turner controversy

Above the door to his writing studio, Styron posted a quotation from Gustave Flaubert:

“ Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work. ”

A dictum of sorts, Flaubert's words proved themselves prophetic over the intervening years. The unyielding originality of Styron's next two novels, published between 1967 and 1979, sparked much controversy and may have caused the violent responses they received. Styron, feeling wounded by his first truly harsh reviews for Set This House On Fire (1960), would spend the years after its publication both researching and composing his next novel, the fictitious memoirs of the historical Nathaniel "Nat" Turner, a slave who led a slave rebellion in 1831.

Styron was now an eyewitness to another time of rebellion in the United States. He was living and writing at the heart of the turbulent decade of the 1960s, a time highlighted by the counterculture revolution. So while Styron was researching and composing his next novel, narrated from the perspective of a militant slave, he was living in a time that coincided with the Black Power movement, political struggle, civil unrest, and racial tension. With increased media attention, both on television and in print, the public response to this social upheaval was furious and intense: battle lines were being drawn. In 1968, Styron signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.

In this atmosphere of dissent, many had criticized Styron's friend and fellow novelist, James Baldwin, for his novel Another Country published in 1962. Among the many criticisms of the book was outrage over a black author (Baldwin) choosing a white woman as the protagonist of a story that tells of her involvement with a black man. Baldwin was Styron's house guest and interlocutor for several months following the critical storm generated by Another Country. Baldwin was able to catch glimpses of the early drafts of Styron's new novel. Baldwin predicted that Styron's work would face even harsher scrutiny than the reception of Another Country. “Bill’s going to catch it from both sides”, he told an interviewer immediately following the 1967 publication of Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Baldwin's prediction was correct, and despite public defenses of Styron by leading artists of the time, figures such as Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, numerous other black critics reviled Styron’s portrayal of Turner as racist stereotyping. Particularly controversial was a passage in which Turner fantasizes about raping a white woman. Styron also writes of a situation where Turner and another slave boy have a homosexual encounter while alone in the woods. Several critics pointed to this as a dangerous perpetuation of a traditional Southern justification for lynching. Despite the controversy, the novel became a runaway critical and financial success, eventually winning the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the William Dean Howells Medal in 1970.

Sophie's Choice

Though it seems now that the critical response to Styron's next novel, Sophie's Choice (1979), could hardly match the reception sparked by the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner (a novel reflecting the turbulent decade in which it was born even as it seems to reinforce the social and political turmoil of that time), Styron's decision to portray a non-Jewish victim of the Holocaust generated various debates of its own.

The novel told the story of Sophie (a Polish Roman Catholic who survived Auschwitz), Nathan (her brilliant, mercurial and menacing Jewish lover), and Stingo (a Southern transplant in post WWII-Brooklyn who was in love with Sophie.) It won the 1980 National Book Award and was a nationwide bestseller. A 1982 film version was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Meryl Streep winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sophie. Kevin Kline and Peter MacNicol played Nathan and Stingo, respectively.

Later work and acclaim

William Styron was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca in 1985. That year he suffered his most serious and dangerous bout with depression. Out of this grave and menacing experience, he was later able to write the memoir Darkness Visible (1990), the work Styron became best known for during the last two decades of his life.

His short story Shadrach was filmed in 1998, under the same title, and was co-directed by his daughter Susanna. His two other daughters are also artists: Paola, an internationally acclaimed modern dancer, and the youngest daughter Alexandra, a novelist (All The Finest Girls [2001]) who published a book about her father in 2011 (Reading My Father: A Memoir). Styron's son Thomas is a professor of clinical psychology at Yale University.

Styron's other works published during his lifetime, not already mentioned, include the play In the Clap Shack (1973) and a collection of his nonfiction pieces, This Quiet Dust (1982).

Francois Mitterrand invited Styron to his first presidential inauguration and later made him a commander of the Legion of Honor. In 1993, Styron was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

In 2002 an opera by Nicholas Maw based on Sophie's Choice premièred in London at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Maw wrote the libretto and composed the music (Maw had at first approached Styron about writing the libretto, but he declined). Later the opera received a new production by stage director Markus Bothe at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Volksoper Wien, and had its North American premiere at the Washington National Opera in October 2006.


Styron died from pneumonia on November 1, 2006, at the age of 81 in Martha's Vineyard. He is buried at West Chop Cemetery in Vineyard Haven, Dukes County, Massachusetts, USA.

Port Warwick

Port Warwick in Virginia was named after the fictional city in Styron's Lie Down in Darkness. The "town" describes itself as a "mixed-use new urbanism development". The most prominent feature of Port Warwick is William Styron Square along with its two main boulevards, Loftis Boulevard and Nat Turner Boulevard, named after characters in Styron's novels. Styron himself was appointed to design a "naming plan" for Port Warwick in order to name the "remaining streets and parks in Port Warwick [and] Styron decided to honor great American writers".

Popular culture

In an episode of the television series Cheers titled "Thanksgiving Orphans" (this episode first aired in 1986), Styron is mentioned as an esteemed guest of a Thanksgiving party hosted by one of Diane Chambers' literature professors. Styron and other guests at the party are expected to recreate the first Thanksgiving.

Styron appears as himself in the 1993 movie Naked in New York. [edit] Quotes"It was a moment that was depthless and inexpressible. - William Styron on Apollo 8.

"A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end.

"The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis." "The madness of depression is the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained."

"I felt myself no longer a husk but a body with some of the body's sweet juices stirring again. I had my first dream in many months, confused but to this day imperishable, with a flute in it somewhere, and a wild goose, and a dancing girl."


Lie Down in Darkness, 1951

The Long March, 1952 (serial), 1956 (book)

Set This House on Fire, 1960

The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1967

Sophie's Choice, 1979

This Quiet Dust, and Other Writings, 1982, expanded 1993

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, 1990

A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth, 1993

Havanas in Camelot, 2008

Letters to My Father, 2009

The Suicide Run: Five Tales of the Marine Corps, 2009

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William Styron's Timeline

June 11, 1925
Age 29
November 1, 2006
Age 81