Styron: A shining author with a ‘dark view of life’

Styron: A shining author with a \’dark view of life\’ William Styron, who died Wednesday at 81, once said, “I suppose some of us are cursed with a dark view of life.”
Cursed perhaps, but no 20th-century novelist wrote more beautifully about life’s dark side. His work dealt with depression, suicide, slavery and the Holocaust, not the usual topics for best sellers, but that’s what he made them.

He burst onto the literary scene at 26. His debut novel, Lie Down in Darkness, deals with the suicide of a young Southern woman and its effects on her family. Nearly 40 years later, Styron wrote Darkness Visible, a remarkably uplifting account of his own depression, what he called his “shutdown,” which nearly led to his own suicide.

He sought to create “characters whom people do not want to consign to oblivion,” he said. “A great book should leave you … slightly exhausted at the end.”

His best-known work, Sophie’s Choice, did just that. Published in 1979, it features a Polish Catholic woman forced into making a “choice” between her two children at Auschwitz. It was No. 2 on Publishers Weekly’s best-selling fiction of the year list and was made into a movie in 1982 starring Meryl Streep and into an opera in 2002 by composer Nicholas Maw.

The grandson of a slave owner in North Carolina, Styron was praised and denounced for his 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. It’s narrated by the black man who led what Styron called “the only effective sustained revolt in the annals of American Negro slavery,” an 1831 massacre that killed about 60 whites, including Turner’s master.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize and was No. 2 among the year’s best-selling fiction. But at the height of the Black Power movement, it was sharply criticized by black writers who questioned whether a white writer could ever understand a black slave.

Styron, who said he wrote the novel to “help effect some kind of reconciliation” between whites and blacks, was defended by his close friend James Baldwin, who said: “He has begun the common history — ours.”

Styron’s depression grabbed hold in 1985, and it took four years to find his way “upward out of hell’s black depths.” The underlying cause, he told The Guardian of London in 2003, was the death of his mother, Pauline, when he was 14: It was a “wound from which I never fully recovered. At the time, I was rather amazed by the coolness with which I accepted it. It bothered me that I could not weep. I could not mourn.”

He grew up in Newport News, Va., an only child who learned to read before he started school. By 13, he was writing short stories.

During World War II, he served in the Marines, reaching Okinawa just as the war was ending. He was part of the planned invasion of Japan that was canceled after the atomic bomb was dropped.

After graduating from Duke, he briefly worked as a low-level editor at McGraw-Hill in New York but was fired for tossing balloons out of an office window.

He wrote his father that he had lost his job but was starting to write a novel: “Writing for me is the hardest thing in the world, but also a thing which, once completed, is the most satisfying. … I am not a prodigy, but fate, willing, I can produce art.” He never had a salaried job after that.

As a writer, Styron was never prolific. His depression, he said, “sapped my creative juices.” He liked to write in longhand on an old school desk and was content at the end of the day if he had written 500 words he liked.

“I am solaced by the belief that if my work has any quality at all, it has this quality because of its long germination time,” he once said.

Styron and his wife, Rose, split their time between Roxbury, Conn., and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., which is where he died of pneumonia after a series of illnesses. When President Clinton went there on summer vacations, he’d have dinner with the Styrons.

But mostly Styron stayed out of the limelight, content to live a solitary, literary life. At his studio in Roxbury, he posted a copy of a note that Flaubert, the great French writer, sent his mistress:

“Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Which is what Styron was and did.

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY
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Updated 11/2/2006 12:43 AM ET

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