Novelist plumbed the soul's depths

By Martin Miller
Times Staff Writer

November 2, 2006

WILLIAM STYRON, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose skillful explorations of evil, domination and redemption made him one of the finest writers of his generation, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 81.

The author of "The Confessions of Nat Turner," "Sophie's Choice" and "Lie Down in Darkness," Styron died of pneumonia at Martha's Vineyard Hospital, according to his daughter Alexandra Styron.

He had been in generally failing health over the last several years, she said, with a variety of ailments.

In addition to his literary skills, Styron became well known because of his public battle with severe depression. His open, searching, personal accounts did much to heighten awareness of the often misunderstood condition.

Styron's novels were imbued with a tragic sense of history and were usually set in his native South or at least featured a central Southern character.

A painstakingly methodical writer who wrote at most a page-and-a-half a day on yellow legal pads, Styron produced fewer than a dozen novels, far fewer than his postwar contemporaries. His modest output, however, won him the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award and the Howells Medal and thrust him to the forefront of modern American literature.

"He was very much in the Faulkner tradition," novelist Tom Wolfe told The Times on Wednesday. "He very much had Faulkner's ability to create a mood. You could read 10 pages of Styron and find yourself, without even knowing it, in very deep water. Even his short things were awfully good in that way."

Shortly after he graduated from Duke University, Styron's literary career took off with the 1951 publication of "Lie Down in Darkness." The book borrowed heavily from his experiences of growing up in the South. It followed Peyton Loftis, a young woman who commits suicide after being overcome by the pressures of a middle-class Virginia family.

Critics embraced the work and its author, comparing him favorably to other Southern writers, particularly William Faulkner. Styron also enjoyed critical success with his next two novels, "The Long March" (1957) and "Set This House on Fire" (1960).

A force established

But it was "The Confessions of Nat Turner" that established him as a force in American literature. His fourth novel garnered the Pulitzer and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In the 1967 novel, Styron boldly wrote in the first person as Nat Turner, the leader of the most memorable slave revolt in U.S. history. Styron, who grew up near the rebellion's flash point, built the work upon a Turner transcript made shortly before he was hanged in 1831.

Amid the turbulent late 1960s, the book found a large audience and was widely praised. One critic wrote in the New York Review of Books: "This narrative is something more than a novelistic counterpart of scholarly studies of slavery in America; it incarnates its theme, bringing home to us the monstrous reality of slavery in a psychodynamic manner that at the same time does not in the least neglect social or economic aspects."

According to Wolfe, Styron "was one of the few white writers to write from inside the mind of a powerful black figure or a black figure at all."

"There are so few novelists today who will even do that," Wolfe said. "It was unusual and difficult, and he seemed to have pulled it off pretty well."

But the book drew intense criticism, especially from the African American community, which deeply resented a white Southerner adopting the voice of a black man. Critics argued that blacks should be exclusively creating their own sense of identity.

In an essay called "The Confessions of Willie Styron," critic John Oliver Killens blasted Styron's version of Turner. Killens, whose essay appeared in a 1968 book titled "William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond," wrote: "Americans [love] this fake illusion of reality because it [legitimizes] all of their myths and prejudices about the American black man, and further, because it cut yet another great American black man down to the size of a boy."

Bitter over the criticism, Styron defended his right, and that of other artists, to take the voice of any character. In accepting the Howells, he pointedly answered his critics: "By recognizing Nat Turner, this award really honors all of those of my contemporaries who have steadfastly refused to write propaganda or indulge in myth-making but have been impelled to search instead for those insights which, however raggedly and imperfectly, attempt to demonstrate the variety, the quirkiness, the fragility, the courage, the good humor, desperation, corruption and mortality of all men."

Wrenching tale

It took Styron a dozen years to produce his fifth novel, "Sophie's Choice," a wrenching tale of a Polish woman who survives the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Regarded by many critics as his most accomplished fictional work, the novel, which won the American Book Award and spawned a 1982 movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, is a sweeping story of human loss and suffering.

The main character is based on a woman Styron met when — like the book's narrator, Stingo — he was an aspiring writer living in a Brooklyn rooming house. The author told Newsweek: "I woke up with the remembrance of a girl I'd once known, Sophie. It was a very vivid half-dream, half-revelation, and all of a sudden I realized that hers was a story I had to tell."

Once again, Styron was criticized for his literary choices. Though not as vociferous as those who attacked "Nat Turner," some Jewish critics took issue with centering a Holocaust novel around a Catholic, rather than a Jew.

The weighty topics seem a long way from the writer's roots in Newport News, Va. An only child, Styron was the son of William Clark Styron, a marine engineer of old Southern English slave-owning stock, and Pauline Margaret Styron, a Northerner of Scottish-Irish-Welsh descent.

The writer's lifelong interest in reading originated in his childhood chore of riding his bike to the library and picking up books for his chronically ill mother. By 5, Styron had learned to read.

His early education was spent in the Newport News public schools and later at Christchurch, a boys' prep school near Urbanna, Va. He attended Davidson College in North Carolina for a year, 1942-43, and then enlisted in the Marines. During much of his academic career, he was a middling student.

After the war he finished his education at Duke University, where he majored in literature and read voraciously, especially the works of Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Penn Warren.

Although he demonstrated remarkable skills at writing, Styron apparently did not consider it as a profession until a professor encouraged him to do so.

From his earliest works, Styron's method appears to have been the same: a pursuit of literary perfection. Unlike other writers, who suffer through countless drafts, Styron typically suffered through one. He refused to move with his narratives until the previous sentence or paragraph was as close to perfect as possible.

"Writing is an agony," he said. "Yet if I don't do it, I'm defeating myself. It breaks my heart and my back and my fingers. It's never as right as I want it to be."

Styron also made a mark in the world of nonfiction with the publication of 1990's "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness." In the 84-page book, he became one of the first American writers to address depression on a first-person, confessional basis.

"To most of those who have experienced it," wrote Styron, "the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression."

Sudden descent

His descent into illness began suddenly at age 60. After a lifetime of using alcohol "abundantly, almost mercilessly," Styron one day discovered he could no longer stand even the slightest amount. The cessation brought his literary work to a grinding halt. "Drinking was built into my behavior pattern," he wrote. "I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria, and to the enhancement of the imagination."

In spite of his admissions about alcohol use, Styron firmly maintained that he wasn't addicted to the substance.

"I was not, and I am not, an alcoholic," he said. "But I had a huge capacity to abuse alcohol, and I now realize it was abuse."

To relieve the malaise that had befallen him, he began taking powerful prescription medicines like Halcion, which preceded the era of Prozac and other popular mood stabilizers. Halcion, which he later blamed for accelerating his downward slide, was unable to reverse his declining mental state.

Indeed, it was around this time in the spring of 1984 that he entertained thoughts of suicide. Finally, he checked into the psychiatric unit of the Yale-New Haven Hospital, a move that he believed saved his life.

Once he had emerged from depression, Styron traced the source of his pain to incomplete mourning of his mother's death from cancer when he was 14. "So if this theory of incomplete mourning has validity, and I think it does, and if it is also true that in the nethermost depths of one's suicidal behavior one is still subconsciously dealing with immense loss while trying to surmount all the effects of its devastation, then my own avoidance of death may have been belated homage to my mother," he wrote in "Darkness Visible."

Styron also speculated that his condition could have been inherited. His father was treated for depression as well.

Depression was a recurring theme in Styron's novels. The title character of "Sophie's Choice," for example, spent days in her room, paralyzed by despondency. Styron said later that he imagined this powerful sadness and yet was unprepared when it invaded his own life.

As he struggled with depression, Styron drew strength from a tight literary coterie on Martha's Vineyard. Every day, friend Art Buchwald called him to promise that he would pull out of the well of gloom. When Styron balked at hospitalization, fearing that it would jeopardize his status as a writer, Buchwald countered that the experience might actually enhance his standing.

In addition to his daughter Alexandra, Styron is survived by his wife, Rose, and three other children, Susanna, Paola and Thomas; and eight grandchildren.

Times staff writers Jocelyn Y. Stewart and Elizabeth Mehren contributed to this report.



Excerpt from 'Sophie's Choice'

The doctor was a little unsteady on his feet. He leaned over for a moment to an enlisted underling with a clipboard and murmured something, meanwhile absorbedly picking his nose. Eva, pressing heavily against Sophie's leg, began to cry. "So you believe in Christ the Redeemer?" the doctor said in a thick tongued but oddly abstract voice, like that of a lecturer examining the delicately shaded facet of a proposition in logic. Then he said something which for an instant was totally mystifying: "Did he not say, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me'?" He turned back to her, moving with the twitchy methodicalness of a drunk.

Sophie, with an inanity poised on her tongue and choked with fear, was about to attempt a reply when the doctor said, "You may keep one of your children."

"Bitte?" said Sophie.

"You may keep one of your children," he repeated. "The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?"

"You mean, I have to choose?"

"You're a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege — a choice."