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William Styron was a prominent twentieth-century American novelist noted for tackling some difficult moral questions in his fiction. A Southerner by birth, Styron is often associated with the Southern Gothic tradition in literature, along with prominent writers William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Carson McCullers. His most famous novels, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979), tackle such difficult subject matter as slavery and the Holocaust.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Southern Upbringing and World War II
William Styron was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1925. His father, William Clark Styron, was a shipyard engineer who battled clinical depression, and his mother was Pauline Styron, a native of Pennsylvania whose father had served as a Confederate officer during the Civil War. His paternal grandparents had owned slaves, but his parents were liberal and discussed race relations in the home. The subject matter would later find its way into his writing.
Styron’s mother died from a long battle with cancer when the writer was thirteen. Styron was a rebellious child, and because of this, his father moved him from Hilton Elementary School to Christchurch School, an Episcopal preparatory school located in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He then went on to Davidson College, where he enrolled in the Marines’ reserve officer training program. He soon transferred to Duke University, only to be called into active duty in 1944. World War II had begun in 1939, with Germany invading Poland, and the United States had entered the conflict in 1941, following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. Because Japan and Germany were allies, this put the United States in the difficult position of engaging in large-scale warfare on two fronts: in the Pacific and in Europe. Styron trained for a year, became a second lieutenant, and was assigned to aid in the planned invasion of Japan. Later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The attacks destroyed the cities and killed tens of thousands of civilians instantly. Japan surrendered, and Styron was discharged before he had the chance to engage in combat. He later earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Duke.
Following graduation, he worked as an associate editor for McGraw-Hill in New York City. During this time, he began work on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951). This first novel is set in Virginia and focuses on a Southern girl’s suicide, as it is viewed by her friends and family members during the funeral. Using flashbacks to explain the events leading up to Peyton Loftis’s death, Styron exposes a dysfunctional family, full of secrets and tragedies. The atomic bomb is a major metaphor in the novel: Peyton’s suicide coincides with the dropping of the bomb. The novel’s focus on a deeply troubled Southern family and Styron’s lyrical language, prompted critics to compare him to such Southern Gothic writers as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
The Civil Rights Movement and His Confession
In 1967, Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel that revisited the story of a notorious rebellion led by the slave, Nat Turner, in 1831, in which fifty-five white people were killed. The timing of the novel helped it as much as its story: the movement for African American civil rights was reaching its zenith in the late 1960s. Many of the major milestones of the civil rights movement had already occurred. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., had led his 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and had given his famous ”I Have a Dream” speech. The Civil Rights Act of1964 was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. This Act outlawed racial segregation in schools, in the workplace, and in public places. The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended many of the discriminatory practices that had prevented African Americans from voting in the United States. This act made it illegal to require voters to pass a literacy test as a prerequisite for voting, something that specifically targeted potential African American voters. It was a time of great change in the United States, and Styron’s novel, which offered a somewhat sympathetic picture of Nat Turner, sparked many discussions about race, the history of slavery, and the role of literature in activism and history. The novel won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, among many other awards.
Morality and Sophie’s Choice
Styron’s next novel was the equally provocative Sophie’s Choice (1979). Much had been written about the atrocities of World War II, especially the torture and murder of Jews, gays, and other groups of people in Nazi-run concentration camps. Styron’s novel was different because it focused on the things people had to do to stay alive while in such camps, and the aftermath of such difficult decisions. The book won the 1980 American Book Award. The 1982 film adaptation of the book was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Actress Meryl Streep won a Best Actress Oscar for her acclaimed performance as the title character, Sophie, a beautiful Polish immigrant to the United States, haunted by memories of her fight to survive the war.
Depression and the Last Years
In 1985, at the age of sixty, Styron quit drinking alcohol. The following year, he was hospitalized for depression. His 1990 memoir, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, would recount his bouts with serious and sometimes debilitating depression. With an increased interest in mental health that was emerging in the 1990s, and an increased diagnosis and medication for illness, his memoir was timely. He described his battle with depression as ”despair beyond despair.”
Depression plagued Styron for many years. He was hospitalized a number of times following the publication of his memoir and stories. Styron would continue to receive awards and attention until his death, in 2006, of pneumonia while in Martha’s Vineyard. He was eighty-one years old.
Works in Literary Context
Styron’s work is as famous for its subject matter as it is its rich, lyrical language. An important member of the post-World War II generation of writers, he tackled issues of race, class, and ethnicity in his many novels. His work is highly regarded for not only its strong characters and Southern Gothic influences, but also for its willingness to address the complexities of moral dualities such as good and evil. Throughout his lifetime, Styron was influenced by such writers as William Faulkner, James Baldwin, and James Jones, among others.
William Styron is considered one of the great American writers writing in the Southern Gothic tradition. This literary style is focused around the culture and issues specific to the southern regions of the United States. Much Southern Gothic work is critical of Southern society, and tragedies are used as a means of social critique. Southern Gothic works generally focus on someone ostracized or isolated due to societal expectations. Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1948), for example, suggests that behind the Southern belle stereotype lies vanity and mental instability.
Many of Styron’s characters in Lie Down in Darkness and The Confessions of Nat Turner are Southern. Additionally, the story of Nat Turner is told in the context of the South and is meant to break down stereotypes of slaves. However, Styron’s work is more about the individual dealing with internal struggles rather than with society and its effects. Styron himself did not think his work fit into the Southern Gothic genre, despite critical claims. He responded in The Paris Review in the spring of 1953 by stating:
—– I don’t consider myself in the Southern school, whatever that is. Only certain things in the book are particularly Southern … [Peyton] didn’t have to come from Virginia. She would have wound up jumping from a window no matter where she came from.
The slave narrative is a literary form inspired and influenced by the experiences of enslaved Africans. Many former slaves in the United States, Canada, and other countries told accounts of their life during slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These first-person slave narratives were distributed by abolitionists in an effort to show both the cruelty with which slaves were subjected, and the eloquence with which slaves could express themselves. Eventually, the narratives became more and more popular and sold in the tens of thousands. Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Harriet Jacobs were three of the most popular figures in the slave narrative tradition. They focused their writings on how African Americans rebelled and survived during slavery and focused on the pursuit of freedom.
Styron’s work, along with that of Toni Morrison and Sherley Anne Williams, helped to popularize the neo-slave narrative. These pieces of fiction are inspired by the slave narratives of the past. They use existing documents, such as the slave narratives and court documents, along with oral histories, to craft works that seek to give former slaves a voice across time.
Works in Critical Context
During his lifetime, Styron was both praised and criticized for taking on such controversial subject matter as slavery, the Holocaust, and mental illness. His work was praised for its lyrical language and criticized for its wordiness. Often, because of the narrators and subject matter of his stories, critics wondered whether Styron had the experience and authority to tell the stories he told.
The Confessions of Nat Turner
Many critics of Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner worried that Styron was rehashing stereotypes of both blacks and whites, and that the book was more destructive than it was educational. A critic from Negro Digest criticizes Styron’s discussion of Turner’s sexuality by writing:
—- In the name of fiction, Mr. Styron can do whatever he likes with History. When his interpretation, however, duplicates what is white America’s favorite fantasy (i.e., every black male—especially the leader—is motivated by a latent (?) desire to sleep with the Great White Woman), he is obligated to explain (in the structure of the novel, of course) this coincidental duplication—or to be criticized accordingly.
Still, his work had many defenders. George Steiner once commented about Styron’s relevance as a writer by stating in The New Yorker, ”The crisis of civil rights, the new relationships to each other and to their own individual sensibilities that this crisis has forced on both whites and Negroes . . . give Mr. Styron’s fable [The Confessions ofNat Turner] a special relevance.” Styron’s friend, the writer James Baldwin, praised the novel, saying it had ”begun to write the common history—ours.”
Styron was criticized for his treatment of the African American experience in The Confessions of Nat Turner, with critics questioning whether a white man could ever do such a subject justice. Similar criticism was launched at Styron after the publication of Sophie’s Choice, which focused on the life of a Polish Catholic victim of the Nazi regime. Alvin Rosenfeld criticized Styron for trivializing the Holocaust by including elements of sexuality and sensationalism in the novel’s plot. He argues that the novel is not about the Holocaust, but is more concerned with the characters’ sexuality and the narrator’s growth as an artist.
Most critics, however, had high praise for the novel. In the New Statesman, David Caute comments on the influences present in the book by writing that ”neo-Biblical cadences of Southern prose, of [Thomas] Wolfe and Faulkner, jostle with the cosmopolitan sensibility of an F. Scott Fitzgerald.”
- Casciato, Arthur D., and James L. W. West III, eds. Critical Essays on William Styron. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.
- Clark, John H., ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Boston: Beacon, 1968.
- Coale, Samuel. William Styron Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
- Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. The Novels of William Styron: From Harmony to History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
- Davis, Robert Gorham. ”The American Individualist Tradition: Bellow and Styron.” The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary Fiction. Edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963, pp. 111-114.
- Finkelstein, Sidney. ”Cold War, Religious Revival, and Family Alienation: William Styron, J. D. Salinger, and Edward Albee.” Existentialism and Alienation in American Literature. New York: International Publishers, 1965.
- Fossum, Robert H. William Styron: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1968.
- Friedman, Melvin J. William Styron. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1974.
- ”The Holocaust According to William Styron.” Midstream vol. 25 (10) (December 1979): 43-9.
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. ”William Styron, Novelist, Dies at 81.” Retrieved November 8, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/02/ books/02styron.html. Last updated on November 4, 2006.
- Row, Jess. ”Styron’s Choice.” Retrieved November 8, 2008, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/ 07/books/review/Row-t.html. Last updated on September 5, 2008.
- ”William Styron.” Retrieved November 8, 2008, from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/ database/styron_w.html/. Last updated on November 1, 2006.
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