This Day In Literary History
On June 11th, 1925, the famous American writer William Styron was born in Newport News, Virginia. His paternal grandparents were conservative slave owners, but his father and mother raised him to be liberal.
His father was a shipyard engineer who suffered from depression, an illness Styron would later struggle with himself. Styron's mother died when he was a boy, after a long battle with breast cancer.
When Styron was in third grade, his father took him out of public school and enrolled him in an Episcopal prep school, which he enjoyed immensely. He later enrolled in Davidson College, but dropped out to join the Marines near the end of World War II.
He was promoted to lieutenant, but Japan surrendered before his ship was to depart from San Francisco. The war over, Styron enrolled at Duke University, where he earned a degree in English and published his first short story in a student anthology. The story was heavily influenced by the writings of William Faulkner.
In 1947, after graduating from Duke, Styron took a job for the McGraw-Hill publishing house in New York City - a position he came to hate. Styron got himself fired and began writing his first novel, Lie Down In Darkness, which was published in 1951.
The novel, which received great critical acclaim, told the story (partly in a stream-of-consciousness narrative) of a troubled young woman named Peyton Loftis, whose emotionally distant, oppressive, and dysfunctional Virginia family ultimately drives her to suicide.
Lie Down In Darkness won William Styron the prestigious Rome Prize, which was awarded by the American Academy In Rome and the American Academy Of Arts And Letters. Unfortunately, he couldn't go to Rome to accept the award because he was recalled to active duty in the Korean War.
He was discharged a year later due to eye problems. Styron used his experience at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina as the basis for his novella The Long March, which was published in serial format in 1953. The novella would be adapted as a play for an episode of the famous Playhouse 90 TV series in 1958.
After his discharge from the Marines in 1952, Styron embarked on an extended trip to Europe. In Paris, he met and became friends with a group of writers including James Baldwin, Romain Gary, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, James Jones, Irving Shaw, and others.
The group founded the famous literary magazine The Paris Review in 1953. That same year, Styron went to Italy and finally accepted his Rome Prize for Lie Down In Darkness. At the American Academy, he was reunited with a young poet from Baltimore whom he had met before. Her name was Rose Burgunder, and he married her that same year.
Styron used his experiences in Europe as the basis for his novel Set This House On Fire, which was published in 1960. It told the story of a group of American expatriate intellectuals living on the Riviera. In the U.S., the novel received mixed reviews at best, but it was successful in Europe. The French translation of the novel was a bestseller.
Several years later, in 1967, Styron published his most controversial novel, The Confessions Of Nat Turner. It was a fictional memoir of Nat Turner, a real life historical figure who led his fellow slaves in a violent revolt against their evil white masters.
James Baldwin accurately predicted that the book would be controversial with black and white readers alike, saying that "Bill's going to catch it from both sides." Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, who were both prominent and respected black writers, defended Styron's novel publicly.
Despite this, several black critics assailed The Confessions Of Nat Turner for its allegedly racist stereotyping and a scene where Turner fantasizes about raping a white woman. Southern white readers weren't thrilled with the book, either. Nevertheless, it became a huge critical and commercial success, and won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
In 1979, Styron published Sophie's Choice, another acclaimed novel that sparked controversy. Narrated by Stingo, a Southern writer Styron modeled after himself, the novel told the story of Stingo's love triangle with Sophie, a Polish Catholic who survived Auschwitz, and her Jewish lover, Nathan, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia.
Though he medicates himself with drugs (including cocaine) that he obtains from his employer, Pfizer, Nathan sometimes becomes frighteningly jealous, violent, and delusional. Haunted by her experiences during the Holocaust, Sophie finally reveals the secret that continues to torment her.
In Auschwitz, Sophie was forced to choose which of her two children would live. She sacrificed her daughter Eva so that her blond, blue-eyed, German-speaking son Jan could leave the death camp and be raised as a German.
Three years after its publication, Sophie's Choice was adapted as an acclaimed feature film that was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Meryl Streep winning the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Sophie. In 1998, Styron's short story Shadrach was also adapted as a feature film.
In 1985, Styron won the Prix Mondial Cino Del Luca, a major international literary award. That same year, he suffered from severe depression. He wrote a memoir of his struggle with the mental illness called Darkness Visible: A Memoir Of Madness. It was first published in Vanity Fair magazine in December, 1989.
William Styron died in of pneumonia in 2006, at the age of 81.
Quote Of The Day
"The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis." - William Styron
Today's video features a Paris Review interview with William Styron. Enjoy!