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.
the strength of your imaginative gift and indeed of your vision, but also a potential danger. Just in so far as the decent recognizable every-day bread was present in Lie Down in Darkness, was the rich and wonderful jam that you spread on it really digestible.” Haydn’s lack of encouragement, coupled with the difficulties of composing a historical novel about Southside Virginia while living in Italy, convinced Styron that he should postpone writing about Nat Turner. He would continue to read
intelligentsia or as an oracle who was predicting future racial turmoil. He went to some lengths, in interviews and news stories, to disavow such a role and such intentions, but he was not wholly successful in doing so. Styron had not expected a fully favorable reaction, and most of the initial attacks did not surprise him. He had been toughened to bad reviews by the reception of Set This House on Fire. On balance he felt that he had received a decent press for The Confessions of Nat Turner, and
northerners, a fact that caused some resentment among white Virginians but also gave the institute much freedom in determining its own course. Hampton existed in a kind of precarious harmony with the surrounding white society, many of whose members were wary of its aspirations. Hampton Institute was famous for its vocal groups, some of which preserved and sang Negro spirituals. Young William Styron went to some of these performances; as a grown man he could remember feeling chills when he heard
committee members said that you seemed to demonstrate a ‘pertinacity in the desire to fail.’ We had to consider how such a trait might appear to the people at Oxford. …” Styron nodded, and Branscomb, after a pause, continued to speak. Perhaps it was better that Styron had not won, he said. “I’ve watched hundreds of Rhodes Scholars come back to America and begin their careers and I’ll be dogged if I can name a single writer—a single poet or playwright or short story writer or novelist—that came
becomes an invalid. Near the end he confesses to Dolly that “he had slept in the same bed with his mother until he was past thirty, first as a little child, to protect her from the bears, and then during his adolescence—after his father died—to ward off and keep her secure against thieves, and finally for no reason at all: out of habit he had crept into bed with the old woman until the night she died.” Albert himself passes away about a year after marrying Dolly, and she is left alone. Styron