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.
received for an essay published in a magazine. Many of these letter writers thanked Styron for having described, in such evocative language, what they themselves had experienced but had been unable to recount. Many depressives had passed “Darkness Visible” along to their families and friends in an effort to educate them and make them begin to understand the illness. Styron said later that he was overwhelmed by the volume and character of these letters. He was accustomed to mail from readers of
there, and they petted and humored him. He would be brought in to see his tiny grandmother and hug her, but very gently, since she was now past eighty and quite frail. Her hands were warm, but her skin was so pale and translucent that it felt like tissue paper. She would tell him her stories—of life on the Clark plantation as a girl; of Drusilla and Lucinda, her two little slave girls; of the perfidious Yankees who had ransacked the Clark homestead and burned Little Washington; and of Grandfather
129–30, 133–37, 139–41, 158–66, 273 Durr, Virginia Foster, 422 Eastern State Sanitarium, 177, 199, 200 Edwards, Holland, 61–62 Edwards, Leon, 25, 56, 61–62, 126, 261–62, 290, 292, 293, 422 Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt), 411, 412 Eisenhower, Dwight D., 241, 310 Elkins, Stanley M., 341–42 Ellison, Ralph, 298, 392–94 England, 3–4 209–12, 308–10, 364–66, 383–85 “Enormous Window, The” (Styron), 149 Erikson, Erik H., 340 Esquire, 68, 135, 164, 306, 319–23, 346–48, 368, 401, 403, 420, 424,
went south to Camp Lejeune. He had retrieved the boxes and now kept them stored under his cot. He was working in a desultory way on some short stories but was mostly letting his pen run fallow. He had enough cash to get by for the time being and could see, as the weeks passed, that more money was going to come his way from Lie Down in Darkness. Much of his attention and emotion during this period was absorbed by an affaire de coeur with a young married woman. He had written almost daily to this
moral stance. “Few recent writers have had the courage of this affirmation,” wrote Jones, “and few have had the capacity to mingle beauty, wisdom and narrative art as he has done.” Maxwell Geismar was even more laudatory in the Saturday Review of Literature, naming Lie Down in Darkness as “the best novel of the year by my standards—and one of the few completely human and mature novels published since the Second World War.” Interviews with Styron appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The