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William Styron Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Newport News, Virginia, 1925. Education: Christchurch School, Virginia; Davidson College, North Carolina, 1942-43; Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, 1943-44, 1946-47, B.A. 1947 (Phi Beta Kappa). Military Service: Served in the United States Marine Corps, 1944-45, 1951: 1st Lieutenant. Career: Associate editor, McGraw Hill, publishers, New York, 1947. Since 1952 advisory editor, Paris Review, Paris and New York; member of the editorial board, American Scholar, Washington, D.C., 1970-76. Since 1964 fellow, Silliman College, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Awards: American Academy Prix de Rome, 1952; Pulitzer prize, 1968; Howells Medal, 1970; American Book award, 1980; Connecticut Arts award, 1984; Cino del Duca prize, 1985; MacDowell Medal, 1988; Bobst award, 1989; National Magazine award, 1990; National Medal of Arts, 1993; National Arts Club Medal of Honor, 1995; F. Scott Fitzgerald award, 1996. Litt.D.: Duke University, 1968; Davidson College, Davidson, North Carolina, 1986. Member: American Academy, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and American Academy of Arts and Letters; Commander, Order of Arts and Letters (France), and Legion of Honor (France).

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Lie Down in Darkness. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1951; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1952.

The Long March. New York, Random House, 1956; London, HamishHamilton, 1962.

Set This House on Fire. New York, Random House, 1960; London, Hamish Hamilton, 1961.

The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York, Random House, 1967;London, Cape, 1968.

Sophie's Choice. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1979.

Short Story

Shadrach. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphanos, 1979.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Autumn," and "Long Dark Road," in One and Twenty, edited byW.M. Blackburn. Durham, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 1945.

"Moments in Trieste," in American Vanguard 1948, edited byCharles I. Glicksburg. New York, Cambridge, 1948.

"The Enormous Window," in American Vanguard 1950, edited byCharles I. Glicksburg. New York, Cambridge, 1950.

"The McCabes," in Paris Review 22, Autumn-Winter 1959-60.

"Pie in the Sky," in The Vintage Anthology of Science Fantasy, edited by Christopher Cerf. New York, Random House, 1966.

Play

In the Clap Shack (produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1972). NewYork, Random House, 1973.

Other

The Four Seasons, illustrated by Harold Altman. University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1965.

Admiral Robert Penn Warren and the Snows of Winter: A Tribute. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1978.

The Message of Auschwitz. Blacksburg, Virginia, Press de la Warr, 1979.

Against Fear. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Palaemon Press, 1981.

As He Lay Dead, A Bitter Grief (on William Faulkner). New York, Albondocani Press, 1981.

This Quiet Dust and Other Writings. New York, Random House, 1982; London, Cape, 1983.

Conversations with William Styron (interviews), edited by James L.W. West III. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1985.

Darkness Visible (memoirs). New York, Random House, 1990;London, Cape, 1991.

A Tidewater Morning (Three Tales from Youth). Helsinki, Eurographica, 1991; New York, Random House, 1993; London, Cape, 1994.

Editor, Best Short Stories from the Paris Review. New York, Dutton, 1959.

*

Film Adaptations:

Sophie's Choice, 1982; Shadrach, 1998.

Bibliography:

William Styron: A Descriptive Bibliography by James L.W. West III, Boston, Hall, 1977; William Styron: A Reference Guide by Jackson R. Bryer and Mary B. Hatem, Boston, Hall, 1978; William Styron: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism by Philip W. Leon, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1978.

Manuscript Collections:

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Critical Studies:

William Styron by Robert H. Fossum, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1968; William Styron by Cooper R. Mackin, Austin, Texas, Steck Vaughn, 1969; William Styron by Richard Pearce, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1971; William Styron by Marc L. Ratner, New York, Twayne, 1972; William Styron by Melvin J. Friedman, Bowling Green, Ohio, Popular Press, 1974; The Achievement of William Styron edited by Irving Malin and Robert K. Morris, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1975, revised edition, 1981; Critical Essays on William Styron edited by Arthur D. Casciato and James L.W. West III, Boston, Hall, 1982; The Root of All Evil: The Thematic Unity of William Styron's Fiction by John K. Crane, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1985; William Styron by Judith Ruderman, New York, Ungar, 1989; The Novels of William Styron by Gavin Cologne-Brookes, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1995; The Critical Response to William Styron, edited by Daniel W. Ross, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1995; Gynicide: Women in the Novels of William Styron by David Hadaller, Madison, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996; William Styron: A Life by James L.W. West, III, New York, Random House, 1998.

* * *

Of the American novelists who have come onto the literary scene since the end of World War II, William Styron would seem to have worked most directly in the traditional ways of story-telling. As a writer from the American South, he was heir to a mode of fiction writing most notably developed by William Faulkner and practiced to striking effect by such fellow southerners as Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Wolfe, Eudora Welty, and Katherine Anne Porter. It involved—as the mode of Hemingway did not involve—a reliance upon the resources of a sounding rhetoric rather than upon understatement, a dependence upon the old religious universals ("love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice," as Faulkner once termed them) rather than a suspicion of all such external moral formulations, and a profound belief in the reality of the past as importantly affecting present behavior—an "historical sense," as contrasted with the dismissal of history as irrelevant and meaningless.

His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, was strongly indebted to the example of Faulkner; Styron began it, he said, after reading Faulkner night and day for several weeks. Yet though Styron portrayed a young southern woman, Peyton Loftis, as she battled for love and sanity in a dreary family situation, doomed to defeat by her father's weak, self-pitying ineffectuality and her mother's hypocrisy and sadistic jealousy, and though the setting was a tidewater Virginia city among an effete upper-class society, what resulted was not finally Faulknerian. At bottom the causes of Styron's tragedy were familial, not dynastic; the deficiencies of Milton and Helen Loftis were not importantly those of decadent aristocracy whose concept of honor and pride has become empty posturing and self-indulgence, as they would have been for a writer such as Faulkner, but rather personal and psychological. When Peyton flees Virginia for New York City, there is little sense of her plight as representing isolation from the order and definition of a time and place that are no longer available. Instead, hers was a break for freedom, and the failure to make good the break is the result of the crippling conflict within her mind and heart imposed by the example of her parents, and which symbolizes the hatreds engendered by a society that does not know how to love. The suicide of Peyton Loftis represents a plunge into the moral abyss of a self-destructive modern world. Styron, in other words, wrote out of a tradition that taught him to measure his people and their society against the traditional values, and to see the absence of those values in their lives as tragic; but he did not depict that absence as a falling away from a more honorable, more ordered Southern historical past.

The success of Lie Down in Darkness was considerable, perhaps in part because a novel that could depict the modern situation as tragic, rather than merely pathetic, and could thus make use of the High Style of language to chronicle it, was all too rare. Styron followed it with The Long March, a novella set in a Marine Corps camp during the Korean War (Styron himself was briefly recalled to active duty in 1951). Depicting the irrationality of war and the military mentality, it demonstrates the dignity, and also the absurdity, of an individual's effort to achieve nobility amid chaos.

Eight years elapsed before Styron's second full-length novel, Set This House on Fire. The story of a Southern-born artist, Cass Kinsolving, who is unable to paint, and is married and living in Europe, it involved a man in spiritual bondage, undergoing a terrifying stay in the lower depths before winning his way back to sanity and creativity. In Paris, Rome, and the Italian town of Sambucco, Cass Kinsolving lives in an alcoholic daze, tortured by his inability to create, wandering about, drinking, pitying himself, doing everything except confronting his talent. The struggle is on existential terms. Kinsolving has sought to find a form for his art outside of himself, looking to the society and the people surrounding him for what could only be located within himself: the remorseless requirement of discovering how to love and be loved, and so to create.

Set This House on Fire encountered a generally hostile critical reception, to some extent because it was sprawling and untidy, occasionally overwritten, and therefore so very different from his well-made first novel. It seemed, too, even further removed than Lie Down in Darkness from the customary Southern milieu: not only were there no decaying families, no faithful black retainers, no blood-guilt, and no oversexed Southern matrons, but we are told very little about the protagonist's past, either familial or personal, that might explain how he got the way he was. Yet there was a past; but Styron gives it to a friend of Kinsolving's, Peter Leverett, who tells the story. The fact is that Leverett's failure to find definition in his Southern origins is what really accounts for Kinsolving's present-day plight. Styron apparently could not avoid grounding his tragedy in history one way or the other. And after Kinsolving has fought his way back to personal responsibility and creativity, he leaves Europe and returns to the South. There is thus a kind of circular movement involved in the first two novels. Peyton Loftis finds the Southern community impossible to live within and love within, and she goes to New York. Cass Kinsolving, equally at loose ends, goes abroad and conducts his struggle for identity and definition there, and then comes home to the South. He has had in effect to ratify the individual and social worth of his attitudes and values away from the place and the institutions of their origins, and make them his own, not something merely bequeathed automatically to him.

If so, it was not surprising that Styron's next and most controversial novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, once again was set in the South—in Southside Virginia, no more than an hour's automobile drive from Port Warwick where Peyton Loftis grew up and Newport News, Virginia, where Styron was born and raised—and that it concerned itself squarely with the southern past, as exemplified in the presence and the role of the black man. For though The Confessions of Nat Turner is based upon a famous slave insurrection that took place in 1831, its implications involve race and racism, integration and separatism, and the use of violent means in order to achieve political and social ends. Styron's strategy, for what he termed his "meditation upon history," was to tell his story from the viewpoint of the slave leader Nat Turner, of whose actual life almost nothing is known. Rather than restrict his protagonist's language, however, to that which a plantation slave in the early 19th-century might be expected to have used, Styron decided that the range and complexity of such a man's mind could not be adequately represented in any such primitive fashion, and he cast Nat Turner's reflections in the rich, allusive, polysyllabic mode of the early Victorian novel. Styron was thus able to have his slave leader utilize the resources of a sounding rhetoric in order to look beyond his immediate circumstance into the moral and ethical implications of his actions.

The initial critical verdict on The Confessions of Nat Turner was highly favorable, with such critics as Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, C. Vann Woodward, and others declaring it an impressive contribution both to contemporary American fiction and to the knowledge of slavery. Almost immediately, however, the book became embroiled in a controversy, not so much literary as sociological, which made both novel and novelist into a cause célébre. For in presuming, as a white man, to portray the consciousness of a black revolutionist of a century-and-a-half ago, Styron came into collision with the impetus of the black separatist movement. His novel appeared at a time when the black American was straining as never before to assert his identity and his independence of white paternalism, and the result was that numerous black critics, together with some white sympathizers, began heaping abuse on Styron for his alleged racism, his alleged unwarranted liberties with historical "fact," and his alleged projection of "white liberal neuroses" onto a revolutionary black leader's personality. A host of reviews and essays and even a book appeared in denunciation of Styron. Other critics rose to the rebuttal, and historians joined in to certify the authenticity of Styron's historical portrayal. The outcome has been a voluminous literature of controversy that may well interest future social historians almost as much as the Nat Turner insurrection itself.

In 1979 Styron entered the lists again with a lengthy novel on another controversial subject. Sophie's Choice involved the confrontation of a young and very autobiographically clued Virginian with a Polish refugee who has undergone the horrors of concentration camp existence, and her lover, a young New York Jew who is a brilliant conversationalist but turns out to be quite mad. Written very much in the mode of Thomas Wolfe's fiction of encounter with the metropolis, Styron's novel records the growing helplessness of a youthful American in the face of a developing acquaintance with the enormity of human evil and irrationality. The novel drew much criticism for its excesses of rhetoric and the apparent irrelevance of much of its sexual material; in effect it would seem to imitate the author's own difficulties in coming to terms with the subject matter described. Yet it contains powerful sequences, and as always represents Styron's unwillingness to seek easy ways out or avoid central human problems.

—Louis D. Rubin, Jr.

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