Reading My Father [NOOK Book]

Overview

PART MEMOIR AND PART ELEGY, READING MY FATHER IS THE STORY OF A DAUGHTER COMING TO KNOW HER FATHER AT LAST— A GIANT AMONG TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN NOVELISTS AND A MAN WHOSE DEVASTATING DEPRESSION DARKENED THE FAMILY LANDSCAPE.

In Reading My Father, William Styron’s youngest child explores the life of a fascinating and difficult man whose own memoir, Darkness Visible, so searingly chronicled his battle with major depression. Alexandra ...
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Reading My Father

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Overview

PART MEMOIR AND PART ELEGY, READING MY FATHER IS THE STORY OF A DAUGHTER COMING TO KNOW HER FATHER AT LAST— A GIANT AMONG TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICAN NOVELISTS AND A MAN WHOSE DEVASTATING DEPRESSION DARKENED THE FAMILY LANDSCAPE.

In Reading My Father, William Styron’s youngest child explores the life of a fascinating and difficult man whose own memoir, Darkness Visible, so searingly chronicled his battle with major depression. Alexandra Styron’s parents—the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Sophie’s Choice and his political activist wife, Rose—were, for half a century, leading players on the world’s cultural stage. Alexandra was raised under both the halo of her father’s brilliance and the long shadow of his troubled mind.

A drinker, a carouser, and above all “a high priest at the altar of fiction,” Styron helped define the concept of The Big Male Writer that gave so much of twentieth-century American fiction a muscular, glamorous aura. In constant pursuit of The Great Novel, he and his work were the dominant force in his family’s life, his turbulent moods the weather in their ecosystem.

From Styron’s Tidewater, Virginia, youth and precocious literary debut to the triumphs of his best-known books and on through his spiral into depression, Reading My Father portrays the epic sweep of an American artist’s life, offering a ringside seat on a great literary generation’s friendships and their dramas. It is also a tale of filial love, beautifully written, with humor, compassion, and grace.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Alexandra Styron is the daughter of major novelist William Styron (1925-2006), an author who sparked almost as many controversies as he won awards. A novelist herself, Alexandra (All the Finest Girls) knew her father not just as the literary giant Sophie's Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, but also as a brilliant man tormented by alcohol-abetted depression. Her stories about growing up in the domain of her troubled father and her poet-activist mother possess an immediacy missing from author biographies.

Heller McAlpin
At the heart of Reading My Father, Alexandra Styron's beautifully honest memoir of her father…is her attempt to make sense of the discrepancy between his deeply moral novels, whose focus on man's inhumanity to man elicits so much pathos, and his egregious behavior "to the people closest to him"…Zigzagging through time with the finesse of a skier attacking a mogul-ridden slope, Alexandra Styron gives us a multi-dimensional, continually fascinating portrait of William Styron's life…
—The Washington Post
James Campbell
In recording a family history as rich and fascinating as this, as any privileged author is entitled to do, the trick is to tell the tales without seeming to be showing off. Alexandra Styron has no difficulty in this respect. For her purpose in Reading My Father, by turns brilliant and shocking, is to play the high-society tune in counterpoint with another, harsh and discordant one: life with Father was practically unbearable…Alexandra Styron's account of "the whole crazy-town scene in which I was raised"…and of the slow dawning of the severity of her father's condition, is handled with great skill…she paints each scene in vivid colors.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
Ms. Styron's ardent, sophisticated and entirely winning memoir…is a pointillistic accounting of the drama that brewed throughout her young life…her touch throughout this memoir is quite fine and very sure. As tough as she is on her father, she sees clearly the better man he could sometimes be…This is a grown-up memoir, taut and true.
—The New York Times
Booklist
8220;Readers passionate about American literature will be fascinated by Alexandra’s insightful tales about her complicated father and his circle, which included Peter Matthiessen, Norman Mailer, and Arthur Miller.”
Booklist [starred review]
Entertainment Weekly
“[Styron] draws subtle comparisons to other giants of her father’s literary fraternity—pugnacious, capricious, and sometimes cruel men like Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller—to outline the question at the heart of her reflection: Is his art enough of an excuse? The memoir’s eloquent prose and fluid structure suggest his talent may be hereditary. A–”
Entertainment Weekly
California Bookwatch
“A memoir perfect not just for general audio collections, but for any interested in literature and literary biographies.”
California Bookwatch
The Washington Post
“A multi-dimensional, continually fascinating portrait of William Styron’s life.”
The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“Ardent, sophisticated and entirely winning… Her touch throughout this memoir is quite fine and very sure. As tough as she is on her father, she sees clearly the better man he could sometimes be…. This is a grown-up memoir, taut and true.”—Dwight Garner, New York Times

“Alexandra Styron is a natural writer, fluid and engaging… A consummate guide to her father’s tumultuous life. Styron fans will delight in this unique portrait of a true literary lion.”—Eric Liebetrau, Boston Globe

Reading My Father is the memoir of a childhood in an intellectually glittering, artistically engaged and emotionally precarious household. In this portrait, by turns tender and unsparing, we meet William Styron, the charming bon vivant undone by depression, the gifted and prolific writer whose long struggle to finish his final novel may have imperiled his sanity. Fluid and fascinating, dark and funny, Alexandra Styron’s book brings her father before us in all of his complexity, a literary lion, roaring his way through America's post-war landscape.”—Geraldine Brooks, author of March and People of the Book

“A gene has been passed from father to daughter. Alexandra Styron, a born writer, tells the story of her father and the price he and his wife and children paid for his gift. Hers is a shocking book, painful in its truthfulness and moving in the love that holds this remarkable family together as depression and darkness claim the great man who is the center of their lives.”—Mike Nichols

Reading My Father is a beautiful, utterly absorbing portrait of the artist, and moving proof of how his youngest daughter grew up to become a writer who would make her father proud.”—John Burnham Schwartz, author of The Commoner and Reservation Road

“William Styron’s autobiographical writings were both candid and withholding, and this penetrating memoir shines light on what they left out; it does so with tenderness and compassion. This would be a bracing examination of the father-daughter relationship even if its suffering hero were not famous.”—Andrew Solomon, National Book Award-winning author of The Noonday Demon

“Alexandra Styron's account of her father is clear-eyed, frightening, and compassionate: an often lyrical view of Styron's struggle with despair, writing, and living. She is unsentimental about the toll his depression and alcoholism took on his work, and even less sentimental about the damage it did to his family. William Styron was a great writer and complex person; his daughter does him justice..”—Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry, The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of An Unquiet Mind and Nothing Was the Same

“By turns brilliant and shocking… Alexandra Styron’s account of ... the slow dawning of the severity of her father’s condition is handled with great skill.”—New York Times Book Review

The Barnes & Noble Review

After writing four novels, including The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, William Styron wrote a heart-rending account of depression, Darkness Visible. His daughter, Alexandra Styron, has written her own memoir, Reading My Father, described on its jacket as a "journey toward understanding and forgiveness." In its first chapter, she writes that, as she spent weeks alone with her father while her mother traveled and older siblings attended school, she hid "failings and fears behind a . . . mask of self-sufficiency." So I expected a recovery story about being related to a famous genius. However, while Alexandra Styron mentions her well-developed "carapace," nothing she recounts about herself or her siblings -- they grew up to have long marriages, impressive careers, abiding affection for each other -- suggests that more than ordinary forgiveness is necessary, the kind most of us stumble toward when we see our parents as human. Reading my Father isn't Daddy Dearest. It's a stellar biography, informed by memory and careful research.

Billy Styron, a child of the Great Depression, roamed the house while his father worked and his mother died a death so agonizing he heard her scream. His father later married a woman who sent Billy away. She mocked him -- "Billy thinks he's a writer" -- and sent a letter to his fiancée, Rose Burgunder, whom she'd never met, warning Rose not to marry him. Rose ignored the letter. Though she had money and an advanced degree, gender assumptions -- including the myth of the Great Man around whom the woman orbits -- meant that she became a lonely mother, a betrayed wife, a famous hostess. By today's standards, William Styron self-medicated too much. At the time, however, drinking to avoid pain while creating objective correlatives for pain, was SOP. His best friend told Alexandra Styron that her father was "spoiled." Then added: "Your father was a real artist. . . You have to indulge somebody like that." Alexandra's own friend, who balances fatherhood with a writing career, put it differently: "Your father's generation, I call them the Big Babies."

Big Babies made Big Art. Styron's books were simultaneously literary and mass-market. A divide separates William Styron's era from his daughter's -- one so deep it signifies seismic change. William Styron took a night class from a teacher who was also an editor at Crown, who offered Styron a contract for a yet-unwritten book. This editor provided generous advances, found Styron cheap places to live, and, when Styron was called up for the Korean War, procured a deferment until Lay Down In Darkness was finished. It won international awards. Styron was 26. "Boy writer! Boy writer!" Bennett Cerf whispered.

Today, by contrast, it's barely hyperbolic to say that almost as many people write books as buy them, and editors are buried under an avalanche of good manuscripts. But William Styron's writing was exceptional. A white Southerner in the midst of the civil rights movement, he made Nat Turner not a martyr, not a bloodthirsty firebrand, but human. In Sophie's Choice, he depicted a Holocaust survivor as both victim and accomplice. He wrote Darkness Visible when mental illness wasn't visible. Styron was an "author" in the etymological sense: leader, enlarger, founder, authority. (Today we just say "writer.")

While researching this book, Alexandra Styron found thousands of scrambled pages for unfinished novels. "It's like A Beautiful Mind in there," she told her sister. She wonders: did her father's inability to finish novels make him depressed, or did his depression keep him from finishing novels? His long-time editor said, "Illness made it impossible. . . Not the other way." But Alexandra Styron knows the novel was her father's "all-consuming artistic imperative." When he died, he hadn't published a novel in twenty-seven years. He'd written or tried to write, meanwhile presiding over a "banquet of positive attention" that kept him from focusing on the diffuse threads and through-lines that eventually interlock to make a novel. To comprehend how distracting his celebrity might have been, consider that the list of those who sought his company included the President and Mrs. Kennedy, Joan Baez, Montgomery Clift, Leonard Bernstein, Frank Sinatra, and James Baldwin.

For William Styron, writing was the "bid to be loved." His family did love him through years of neglect and then all-out dependency, but he was never happy long because he was happiest being celebrated. Even for a writer as talented as he was, accolades are rare. Solitude and self-doubt are constant. Some self-doubt is generative: too much is crippling. It's hard not to wish that William Styron could have been happy having written five books, three of which not only depicted history but influenced it. Or not to notice that Alexandra Styron -- who has written one good novel and this extraordinarily sensitive biography of her father -- has done for him what he did for Nat Turner and Sophie Zawistowski: she found the human behind the carapace.

--Debra Monroe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416595069
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/19/2011
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 362,367
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Alexandra Styron
ALEXANDRA STYRON is the author of the novel All the Finest Girls and a graduate of Barnard College and the MFA program at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications, and she has taught memoir writing in the MFA program at Hunter College. She lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn, NY.
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Read an Excerpt

One

WE BURIED MY father on a remarkably mild morning in November 2006. From our family’s house on Martha’s Vineyard to the small graveyard is less than a quarter mile, so we walked along the road, where, it being off-season, not a single car disturbed our quiet formation. Beneath the shade of a tall pin oak, we gathered around the grave site. Joining us were a dozen or so of my parents’ closest friends. The ceremony had been planned the way we thought he’d have liked it—short on pomp, and shorter still on religion. A couple of people spoke; my father’s friend Peter Matthiessen, a Zen priest, performed a simple blessing; and, as a family, we read the Emily Dickinson poem that my father had quoted at the end of his novel Sophie’s Choice.

Ample make this bed.

Make this bed with awe;

In it wait till judgment break

Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,

Be its pillow round;

Let no sunrise’ yellow noise

Interrupt this ground.

My father had been a Marine, so the local VA offered us a full military funeral. Mindful of his sensibilities, we declined the chaplain. We also nixed the three-volley salute. But we were sure Daddy would have been pleased by the six local honor guards who folded the flag for my mother, and the lone bugler who played taps before we dispersed. Of military service, my father once wrote, “It was an experience I would not care to miss, if only because of the way it tested my endurance and my capacity for sheer misery, physical and of the spirit.” The bugler, then, had honored another of my father’s quirks: his penchant for a good metaphor.

A year and a half later, I was walking across the West Campus Quad of Duke University, my father’s alma mater. Passing beneath the chapel’s Gothic spire, I opened the heavy doors of Perkins Library and headed for the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. It is there that the William Styron Papers, 22,500 items pertaining to his life and work, are housed. I was at the end of my third trip to North Carolina in as many months. Before I flew home to New York that afternoon, there were two big boxes I still hoped to get a look through.

In 1952, when he was twenty-six, my father published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness. The book was an immediate success, and he was soon hailed as one of the great literary voices of his generation. Descendants of the so-called Lost Generation, my father and his crowd, including Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw, embraced their roles as Big Male Writers. For years they perpetuated, without apology, the cliché of the gifted, hard-drinking, bellicose writer that gave so much of twentieth-century literature a muscular, glamorous aura. In 1967, after the disappointing reception of his second novel, Set This House on Fire, my father published The Confessions of Nat Turner. It became a number one bestseller, helped fuel the tense national debate over race, and provoked another one regarding the boundaries of artistic license. Sophie’s Choice, published in 1979, won him critical and popular success around the world. Three years later, with the release of the film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, that story also brought him an extraliterary measure of fame. Winner of the Prix de Rome, American Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and France’s Légion d’Honneur, my father was considered one of the finest novelists of his time. He was also praised, perhaps by an even larger readership, for Darkness Visible, his frank account of battling, in 1985, with major clinical depression. A tale of descent and recovery, the book brought tremendous hope to fellow sufferers and their families. His eloquent prose dissuaded legions of would-be suicides and gave him an unlikely second act as the public face of unipolar depression.

As it turned out, the illness wasn’t finished with my father. I think we all recognized, in the aftermath of his cataclysmic breakdown, that Bill Styron had always been depressed. A serious drinker, he relied on alcohol not only to self-medicate but to charm the considerable powers of his creative muse. When, at sixty, liquor began to disagree with him, he was surprised to find himself thoroughly unmanned. For many years after his ’85 episode, he maintained a fragile equilibrium. But the scars were deep, and left him profoundly changed. He was stalked by feelings of guilt and shame. Several setbacks, mini major depressions, humbled him further and wore a still deeper cavity in the underpinnings of his confidence. It seems that my father’s Get out of Jail Free card had been unceremoniously revoked. And though he went about his business, he’d become a man both hunted and haunted.

* * *

ONE DAY WHEN I was still a baby, not yet old enough to walk, my mother went out, leaving me in the care of my seven-year-old brother, Tommy, and nine-year-old sister, Polly. Before she left, my mother placed me in my walker. For a while, Polly, Tommy, and the two friends they had over played on the ground floor of our house while I gummed my hands and tooled around the kitchen island. Then, one by one, the older kids drifted outside. Maybe a half hour later, they found themselves together at Carl Carlson’s farm stand at the bottom of our hill. On the makeshift counter of his small shed, Carl sold penny candy; no one could resist a visit on the couple of days a week he was open. It took a little while, scrabbling over bubble gum and fireballs, before, with a sickening feeling, my siblings realized that nobody was watching the Baby. Racing back up the hill, Polly burst into the kitchen but couldn’t find me. After a minute or so, she heard a small moaning sound and followed it to the basement door. I was still strapped in my walker, but upside down on the concrete floor at the bottom of the rickety wood stairs. My forehead had swelled into a grotesque mound. My eyes were glassy and still. Cradling me, Polly and Tommy passed another stricken, terrified hour before my mother got home and rushed me to the hospital.

I’ve known this famous family story for as long as I can remember. But I was in my thirties before Polly confessed a detail I’d never known: our father was upstairs napping the whole time. Afraid for her own life as much as for mine, she couldn’t bring herself to wake him.

Until 1985, my father’s tempestuous spirit ruled our family’s private life as surely as his eminence defined the more public one. At times querulous and taciturn, cutting and remote, melancholy when he was sober and rageful when in his cups, he inspired fear and loathing in us a good deal more often than it feels comfortable to admit. But the same malaise that so decimated my father’s equanimity when he was depressed also quelled his inner storm when he recovered. In my adult years, he became remarkably mellow. A lion in winter, he drank less and relaxed more. He showed some patience, was mild, and expressed flashes of great tenderness for his children, his growing tribe of grandchildren, and, most especially, his wife.

He also managed, for the first time, to access some of his child-hood’s unexamined but corrosive sorrows. In 1987 my father wrote “A Tidewater Morning,” a short story in which he delivered a poignant chronicle of his mother’s death from cancer when he was thirteen. The story would become the title of a collection of short fiction, published in 1993, that centered on the most significant themes of his youth. During these years he also wrote several essays for The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times, Newsweek, and other magazines. He published a clutch of editorials; wrote thirty some odd speeches, commencement addresses, eulogies, and tributes; and traveled frequently to speak on the subject of mental illness.

As for long fiction, it was less clear what he was doing. (If there was a golden rule in our house when I was growing up, it was, unequivocally, “Don’t ask Daddy about his work.”) First and foremost, my father was a novelist. “A high priest at the altar of fiction,” as Carlos Fuentes describes him, he consecrated himself to the Novel. He wrote in order to explore the sorts of grand and sometimes existential themes whose complexity and scope are best served by long fiction. With a kind of sacred devotion, he kept at it, maintaining his belief in the narrative powers of a great story—and he suffered accordingly in the process. His prose, laid down in an elegant hand on yellow legal pads with Venus Velvet No. 2 pencils, came at a trickle. He labored over every word, editing as he went, to produce manuscripts that, when he placed the final period, needed very little in the way of revision. But, even at the height of his powers, this meant sometimes a decade or more between major works. Like that of a marathoner running in the dark, my father’s path was sometimes as murky as it was long.

© 2011 Alexandra Styron
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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 6, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    Fascinating Biography!

    Alexandra Styron wrote a fascinating biography of her father, William Styron, a fiction novelist. After his hugely successful novel Sophie's Choice, was published, Styron, apparently spent the rest of his life attempting to write another long novel on the subject of war. He received instant success with his first novel Lie Down in Darkness. He suffered from depression. This book is filled with wonderful anecdotes about Styron and his family, and should be required reading, not only for Styron's fans but for the dynamics between a loving daughter and her father. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for many reasons.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2013

    Enjoyable, insightful

    Very well written, and great for anyone who has enjoyed styron's books

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  • Posted March 28, 2011

    Question unanswered

    Were Hemmingway and Styron known to each other on a personal basis? In his book on writers, E.H. references Styron's writings as a "required read"

    0 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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