Obit: William Styron, Leading Novelist, 81

The New York Times

 


November 1, 2006

William Styron, the novelist from the American South whose explorations of difficult historical and moral questions earned him a place among the leading literary figures of the post-World War II generation, died today in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he had a home. He was 81.

William Styron in 1998. Kathy Willens/The Associated Press

The cause was pneumonia, coming after many years of illness, his daughter Alexandra Styron said.

Mr. Styron’s early work, including “Lie Down in Darkness,” won him wide recognition as a voice of the South and the heir to William Faulkner. In subsequent fiction, like the critical and commercial success “Sophie’s Choice,” he transcended his background and moved across cultural lines.

Critics and readers alike ranked him among the best of the generation that succeeded Hemingway and Faulkner. His peers included James Jones, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.

“I think for years to come his work will be seen for its unique power,” Mr. Mailer said of Mr. Styron in a telephone interview. “No other American writer of my generation has had so omnipresent and exquisite a sense of the elegiac. That is no mean virtue in these years of oxymoronic uproar.”

For Mr. Styron, success came early. He was 26 when “Lie Down in Darkness,” his first novel, was published, in 1951. It was a brooding, lyrical meditation on a young Southern girl’s suicide, as viewed during her funeral by various members of her family and their friends. In the narrative, language played as important a role as characterization, and the debt to Faulkner in general and “The Sound and the Fury” in particular was obvious. A majority of reviewers praised the novel for its power and melodiousness — although a few complained of its morbidity and its characters’ lack of moral stature — and the book established Mr. Styron as a writer to be watched.

Although elated by this response, Mr. Styron balked at being pigeonholed as an heir to Faulkner. “I don’t consider myself in the Southern school, whatever that is,” he told The Paris Review in the spring of 1953, during one of the earliest of that magazine’s celebrated Writers at Work interviews. “Only certain things in the book are particularly Southern.” The girl, Peyton, for instance, he said, “didn’t have to come from Virginia. She would have wound up jumping from a window no matter where she came from.”

Besides, he could have added, he had been reared in Newport News, Va., a city of the New South, not the Old, whose leading industry was the shipyard where Mr. Styron’s father worked. And while historically rich, it was an area Mr. Styron wanted to escape and a history that he wanted to explore from a distance.

So after moving north and writing “Lie Down in Darkness” in (and just outside) New York City, he traveled to Paris in 1952 and wrote a novella based on his experiences in the Marines. Published in 1953 in the first issue of the journal Discovery under the title “Long March,” it appeared as a Vintage paperback in 1955 under the title “The Long March.”

After a year in Italy, in 1954 he bought a house in Roxbury, Conn., and set about completing his second novel, “Set This House on Fire.” A technical advance over “Lie Down in Darkness,” this novel was richer in its storytelling and distinctly not Southern, full as it was of the latest in Continental existentialism.

And it sold well. But still it remained a somewhat melodramatic portrait of a group of Americans in Italy, and while it was admired in France, it got largely negative reviews in the United States.

In 1960, Mr. Styron returned home in his imagination by undertaking a project he had contemplated since his youth: a fictional account of an actual violent rebellion led by the slave Nat Turner that occurred in 1831 not too far from where Mr. Styron grew up.

The timing of the book was superb, appearing in 1967 on the crest of the civil rights movement. Mr. Styron prepared for it by immersing himself in the literature of slavery.

The reaction to “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was at first enthusiastic. Reviewers were sympathetic to Mr. Styron’s right to inhabit his subject’s mind, to speak in a version of Nat Turner’s voice and to weave a fiction around the few facts known about the uprising. George Steiner, in The New Yorker, called the book “a fiction of complex relationship, of the relationship between a present-day white man of deep Southern roots and the Negro in today’s whirlwind.”

The book sold well all over the world, and it won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 1970 William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

But as the social turmoil of 1968 mounted, a negative reaction set in. Influential black readers in particular began to question the novel’s merits, and Hollywood, reacting to the furor, decided against making a movie version. In August, some of the angrier criticisms were published in a book edited by the African history scholar John Henrik Clarke entitled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.”

Mr. Styron was accused of having misunderstood black language, religion and psychology, and of having produced a “whitened appropriation of our history.” In the furious debate that followed, several admirers of “Nat Turner” recanted, and the question was raised whether white people could even understand black history — a position that to some seemed racist in itself.

Embittered, Mr. Styron withdrew from the debate and gradually moved on to his next project, “Sophie’s Choice,” a novel about a fictional Polish Catholic woman, Sophie Zawistowska, who struggles to survive the aftermath of her wartime internment in Auschwitz.

Once again Mr. Styron read extensively, beginning with Olga Lengyel’s memoir of her family’s internment in Auschwitz, “Five Chimneys,” which had haunted him since he first became aware of it decades earlier. Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” suggested the central plot development. After reading the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the actual commandant of Auschwitz, Mr. Styron made him a character in the novel.

Working slowly and deliberately, Mr. Styron evolved a complex narrative voice in the novel, more Southern and garrulous than any he had used before. This voice ranged so widely that Mr. Styron was able all at once to answer the critics of “Nat Turner” and to document his extensive reading of Holocaust literature while distancing himself ironically from a youthful, somewhat callow version of himself, a central character who somehow mixes up his revelation of Sophie’s tragedy with the comic rite of his own sexual initiation.

Once again, Mr. Styron achieved commercial success and won prizes. “Sophie’s Choice” rose to the top of The Times Book Review’s best-seller list, won the 1980 American Book Award for fiction and was made into a successful movie, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, and an opera by the English composer Nicholas Maw. And once again, Mr. Styron’s project aroused controversy.

The initial reviews were mixed. Some critics seemed to find the complexity of the narrative troubling. But in time, critics focused on two particular objections. One was that the Holocaust so surpassed moral comprehension that it could not be written about at all; the only appropriate response was silence. The other was that even though non-Jews had also been victims of the death camps, for Mr. Styron to write about one of them, a Polish Catholic, was to diminish the true horror of the event, whose primary purpose, these critics pointed out, was the destruction of European Jewry.

Mr. Styron stood his ground. To the criticism that the Holocaust was beyond art, he told an interviewer that however evil the Nazis were, they were neither demons nor extraterrestrials but ordinary men who committed monumental acts of barbarism. To the comment that he was wrong to write about a non-Jew, his response, set down in an essay on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, was that the Holocaust had transcended anti-Semitism, that “its ultimate depravity lay in the fact that it was anti-human. Anti-life.” William Clark Styron Jr. was born on June 11, 1925, in Newport News, Va., the only child of William Clark Styron, a shipyard engineer with roots so deep in the Old South that his mother had owned two slaves as a child, and Pauline Margaret Abraham Styron, whose ancestors were Pennsylvanians.

Mr. Styron’s childhood was in some ways idyllic. Doted on by his family, precocious, an early reader fascinated with words, he made friends easily and happily explored the waterfront and environs of Newport News. In 1940, his father sent him off to Christchurch, a small Episcopal preparatory school in West Point, Va., for his last two years before college. He graduated in June 1942.

World War II shaped his college career and military training, which matured him and prepared him to be a writer. He started at Davidson College, a conservative Christian school, only a few days after graduating from Christchurch. But following an unhappy year of chafing at the school’s strict religious and academic standards, he was transferred to Duke University by the Marines in June 1943.

Active duty followed in October 1944, and after nearly a year of hard training, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in late July 1945 and assigned to participate in the invasion of Japan. A month later, the atomic bomb attacks forced Japan’s surrender, and he was discharged in December, feeling relieved yet frustrated by his lack of combat experience but proud of having survived his training.

He returned to Duke in the fall, where he renewed his friendship with Prof. William Blackburn, who had become his devoted writing mentor. Graduating in the spring of 1947, he came away with a lasting contempt for academic criticism and a determination to be a novelist.

. Mr. Styron moved to New York City (“I just found intellectual life here more congenial,” he told an interviewer years later.) After completing “Lie Down in Darkness,” he put in a second, three-month stint in the Marines in the summer of 1951. When the novel won the Prix de Rome, which entailed a year’s expenses-paid residence at the American Academy in Rome, to begin in October 1952, he spent the preceding summer in Paris.

This interlude involved him in the founding of The Paris Review; made him lifelong friends among the expatriate literary set there, among them Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton and Irwin Shaw; and gave him the time to write “The Long March.” The year in Italy provided him the material for “Set This House on Fire,” and it was in Rome that he became reacquainted with Rose Burgunder, at the American Academy, after having been introduced to her the previous fall in her hometown, Baltimore.

They were married in Rome on May 4, 1953. She survives him. Besides Alexandra Styron, of Brooklyn, Mr. Styron is also survived by two other daughters, Susanna Styron, of Nyack, N.Y., and Paola Styron, of Sherman, Conn.; a son, Thomas, of New Haven; and eight grandchildren.

When the Styrons settled in their Connecticut farmhouse and began a family, his life became the ideal of any aspiring writer, productive yet relaxed, sociable yet protected. On the door frame outside his workroom he tacked a piece of cardboard with a quotation from Flaubert written on it: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

The precept seemed to work for him, but it was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30 p.m.; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4 p.m. Then up to the workroom and write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9 p.m.; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.

With Rose to guard the door, run the household, organize their busy social life and look after the children, Mr. Styron followed this routine over the next 30 years. He turned out his novels slowly, yet he found time not only for occasional short stories, novellas, a movie script and a play about his wartime scare with venereal disease, “In the Clap Shack,” produced by the Yale Repertory Theater in 1972, but also for essays, reviews and occasional pieces, the best of which he collected in “This Quiet Dust and Other Writings” (1982).His life seemed to expand outside the door of his workroom as well. In 1966, he bought a house on harbor-front property on Martha’s Vineyard, where the family regularly vacationed and where he began to live from May through October. His circle of friends grew over the years to include people like Lillian Hellman, Art Buchwald, Philip Roth, James Jones, James Baldwin, E. L. Doctorow, Candice Bergen, Carly Simon, John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mike Wallace and even Norman Mailer, with whom he had feuded fiercely early in their acquaintanceship.

He traveled abroad frequently, especially to France, where he continued to be admired and where “Lie Down in Darkness” was chosen as one of the books on the reading list in English for a comprehensive examination taken by all candidates for teaching positions in French universities. Mr. Styron was the only living author on that list and one of only three Americans, the others being Poe and Hawthorne. He befriended President François Mitterrand, who presented him with the medal of the Commander of the Legion of Honor to go with his accumulating American awards.

Yet if the aura of his life was golden, it was also bordered with dark shadows. At only 13, he suffered the trauma of his mother’s death, which, perhaps because of the time and place he lived in, he was never allowed to mourn properly. A predisposition to depression was evident in his family’s emotional history. For whatever reasons, suicide is a recurrent theme in his fiction. By his own admission, he drank as heavily as he did in part to ward off ghosts.

In the summer of 1985, when he turned 60, he suddenly found that alcohol no longer agreed with him. But giving it up brought on mood disorders for which he had to be medicated. These drugs in turn produced destructive side effects, and he was dragged into a deep, prolonged suicidal depression that did not lift until he was hospitalized from December through early February 1986.

He recovered and wrote a harrowing account of his experience, which began as a lecture and became the best-selling book “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” (1990). Three years later he collected three stories previously published in Esquire magazine in a volume titled “A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales From Youth” (1993), each of which treats the confrontation of mortality and the title story of which deals with the death of his mother.

But depression continued to stalk him, and he was hospitalized several more times. In “Darkness Visible,” he concluded, referring to Dante: “For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as ‘the shining world.’ There, 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.”

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One thought on “Obit: William Styron, Leading Novelist, 81

  1. An Appreciation
    Styron Visible: Naming the Evils That Humans Do

    By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
    Published: November 3, 2006

    At a time when many of his contemporaries were documenting the domestic travails of middle-class suburban life, or excavating the geological layers of their own psyches, William Styron – who died of pneumonia Wednesday at 81 – was boldly tackling the big, unwieldy themes of crime and punishment and redemption, and creating big-boned dramatic narratives set against the great conflagrations of history: slavery in “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and the Nazi death camps in “Sophie’s Choice.”

    “Human beings are a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe at all times.”

    It was a tropism that stemmed in part from Mr. Styron’s appreciation for the gravity and swoop of the great modern writers of tragedy like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann – his conviction, in Herman Melville’s words, that “to produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme”; and in part from his own belief that “human beings are a hair’s breadth away from catastrophe at all times – both personally and on a larger historical level.”

    All his novels, Mr. Styron once observed, focused on one recurrent theme: “the catastrophic propensity on the part of human beings to attempt to dominate one another.” He speculated in a 1982 interview that this theme found him, as a result of being a young soldier in World War II, contemplating “the forces in history that simply wipe you out”:

    “You’re suddenly a cipher – you find yourself on some hideous atoll in the Pacific, and if you’re unlucky you get a bullet through your head.” He added that “within the microcosm of the Marine Corps itself, you’re just a mound of dust in terms of free will, and Ithink this fact of being helpless enlarges one’s sensitivity to the idea of evil.”

    A native of Virginia, Mr. Styron wrote with a Southerner’s fierce sense of history – guilt over the region’s legacy of slavery, overlaid with a resentment of Yankee sanctimony. There was an elegiac tone to much of his work, a heightened awareness of loss and longing and regret.

    The long shadow of William Faulkner, along with those of Thomas Wolfe and Robert Penn Warren, fell over Mr. Styron’s work, and like many members of the postwar generation, he struggled, at least initially, to come to terms with the daunting achievements of his predecessors. His prose bore the full imprint of the Southern tradition: it was lush, luxuriant, sometimes purple, and it was often put in the service of decidedly violent and gothic storylines.

    From the start, a sense of melodrama informed Mr. Styron’s work, and it would thread its way through his entire oeuvre. Evil, both personal and institutional, continually stalked his protagonists, leaving them haunted by a sense of guilt and mortality – a personal apprehension, in the words of Norman Mailer, of “the gulfs and hazards that lie beneath the surface of social life.” Many of Mr. Styron’s people would turn out to be victims – of history’s random corkscrew twists, of malign social ideologies, of an individual’s pathological power games, of their own cowardice and weakness.

    Mr. Styron’s debut novel “Lie Down in Darkness” (1951), a hothouse pastiche of Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Wolfe, chronicled the dissolution of a Southern family and its members’ bouts with alcoholism, madness and suicide. “Set This House on Fire” (1960), set in Italy and the United States, turned the story of a murder into a brooding, pseudo-Dostoyevskyian inquiry into the nature of guilt and salvation. And “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967), a fictionalized account of the slave leader’s 1831 revolt, was a “meditation on history” that explored the bloody tragedies of the era, even as it reverberated with echoes of the civil rights struggles and social upheavals of the 1960s.

    As for “Sophie’s Choice,” Mr. Styron’s 1979 magnum opus about a young American writer and his friendship with an Auschwitz survivor, it opened out into a harrowing meditation on the destruction of innocence. The novel was constructed around two intertwining story lines. The first recounted the story of the tormented Sophie, the survivor who was forced to make an impossible choice: decide which of her two children would go to the gas chambers and which would have a chance to live.

    The second story line recounted the story of Sophie’s neighbor, a young Southern writer named Stingo, who was based on the author’s own younger self. Sophie would initiate Stingo into a knowledge of the world; he would acquire an intimate apprehension of evil and its terrible imprint on one woman’s life, and in doing so, come to some acknowledgment of his own family’s complicity in the racial crimes of the South.

    The sections of “Sophie’s Choice” dealing with Stingo’s coming of age – his harried and sometimes comical literary apprenticeship, his emotionally fraught sexual awakening – were the most keenly observed parts of the book, and in many respects, the most persuasive, avoiding the grandiosity that sometimes afflicted his work. Instead they left us with a classic portrait of the artist as a young man while reminding us just how strong the autobiographical impulse was in Mr. Styron’s fiction.

    After his father and stepmother died, he said that “Lie Down in Darkness” was a projection of his “own sense of alienation” from his family, and the stories in “A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales From Youth” (1993), he later wrote, represented an “imaginative reshaping of real events” from his own childhood in Virginia.

    In 1990, with “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness,” Mr. Styron dropped the scrim of fiction he had used in his earlier books, and wrote openly about the suicidal depression that overtook him in 1985. He wrote about feeling a sense of foreboding. He wrote about being unable to write. He wrote about seeing the kitchen knives as a suicide’s tools and the garage as a place to inhale carbon monoxide. He wrote about entering a dark, Dantean wood of madness and somehow emerging intact at the end.

    Although Mr. Styron’s ouevre seems somewhat slender in retrospect, each of his major novels built upon its predecessor’s achievements, working variations on earlier ideas, while amplifying them through the echo chamber of history. Mr. Styron observed after “Sophie’s Choice” that he no longer saw a writer’s career as “a series of mountain peaks” but rather as a “rolling landscape” with vistas perhaps less spectacular, yet every bit as resonant as those “theatrical Wagnerian dramas with peak after peak.”

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