William Styron: A Life
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On the door to William Styron's writing studio is a quotation from Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." Styron has lived by that injunction, addressing major subjects--slavery, the Holocaust, mental illness--with a power that has gripped readers around the world.
Though reared in the South, Styron spent most of his adult working life in the North. His first book, Lie Down in Darkness, was a brilliant debut, which inspired him to go abroad for the first time. In Paris, he fell in with other young American writers and helped found The Paris Review along with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen. Styron spent a year in Rome, married, and returned to the States.
After writing Set This House on Fire, an ambitious novel set in Italy, he began working on The Confessions of Nat Turner, the moving story of a slave rebellion in Virginia. James Baldwin, who lived in a small house on Styron's property in Connecticut during this period, became a sounding board, as well as an inspiration, for the novel. It was also about this time that Styron began lifelong associations with Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, Carlos Fuentes, Willie Morris, and, in particular, James Jones. Readers will be fascinated by the full story of Styron's feud with Norman Mailer, an estrangement so severe that each refused to speak to the other for almost twenty-five years.
Styron's political life has been active, from his presence at the riot-torn l968 Democratic national convention in Chicago to his controversial long-term opposition to the death penalty.
The Confessions of Nat Turner made Styron famous, but it also brought him under attack. At one point, the explosive reaction to the novel led Styron to imagine that his wife, Rose, had been abducted.
In Sophie's Choice, Styron turned to another charged subject--the Holocaust--and Auschwitz became the focus of his life for several years. The result was a novel that added a major tragic figure, Sophie Zawistowska, to the enduring literature of our time.
In the aftermath of a mental breakdown, Styron produced the unflinchingly candid Darkness Visible, a book that dramatically altered the nation's negative perception of clinical depression.
James West has studied William Styron's life and career for over twenty years. He has had complete access not only to Styron's papers, letters, and manuscripts, but also to his friends, and has produced an outstanding portrait of one of the most controversial and admired authors of his generation.
in WCS’s Scrapbook I, at Duke. The death certificate for Pauline Styron, completed and signed by Dr. Russell Buxton, who performed surgery on her, is in the Commonwealth of Virginia Division of Vital Records, doc. 16874. Styron’s recollections of the James River plantations are taken from “Children of a Brief Sunshine,” Architectural Digest, March 1984, 32ff. Quotations:—“the South of pine forests …” “A Voice from the South,” TQD, 59;—“I wrote an imitation Conrad thing …” from “William Styron,”
to write out Hamlet’s soliloquy from beginning to end, with the correct punctuation. During the week preceding the quiz, the top floor of Brown Hall would echo with the lines and pointing. “To be or not to be—semicolon—that is the question.” Bill Styron’s marks in history and English were good during both of his years at Christchurch, but in the other subjects his work was mediocre and in math his performance was abysmal. Only some crash tutoring from his friend Tom Peyton, in the spring of his
These inconsistencies would have been found almost anywhere in the United States in 1942. The Negro was at once a figure of fun and a human being whose problems needed attention. What William Styron was witnessing at Davidson College was a microcosm of a struggle over race that was beginning to gather momentum. Many years later he would play a controversial role in that struggle, but in 1942 he could laugh at the malapropisms of Tambo and Bones in the minstrel show and applaud the speech by
and ulcerates the soul. Armed only with short billy-clubs of hickory, the Marines sauntered safe and serene and with a wisecracking arrogance among the fidgety horde, poking ribs and facetiously whacking behinds. The prisoners were gray with the grayness of men who seldom are exposed to light, and suffer the sick, constant ache of loneliness. It was the peculiar grayness somehow stamped only upon the perpetually browbeaten—a lack-luster and forlorn complexion, the hue of smoke. … Then there was
squeamishness about language, was promoting the book strongly, and initial reactions were good. Haydn passed along the comment of an experienced Bobbs-Merrill book salesman who had been taking advance orders: “I think that Mr. Styron will—like Byron—go to sleep and wake up famous.” The poet and critic Louis Simpson, then a junior editor at Bobbs-Merrill, wrote to tell him that “outside of Faulkner, and probably with Faulkner too, it is, in my opinion, the finest novel in English written in a long