William Styron: A Life

Overview

On the door to William Styron's writing studio is a quotation from Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." Styron has lived by that injunction, addressing major subjects—slavery, the Holocaust, mental illness—with a power that has gripped readers around the world.

Though reared in the South, Styron spent most of his adult working life in the North. His first book, Lie Down in ...
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Overview

On the door to William Styron's writing studio is a quotation from Flaubert: "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work." Styron has lived by that injunction, addressing major subjects—slavery, the Holocaust, mental illness—with a power that has gripped readers around the world.

Though reared in the South, Styron spent most of his adult working life in the North. His first book, Lie Down in Darkness, was a brilliant debut, which inspired him to go abroad for the first time. In Paris, he fell in with other young American writers and helped found The Paris Review along with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen. Styron spent a year in Rome, married, and returned to the States.

After writing Set This House on Fire, an ambitious novel set in Italy, he began working on The Confessions of Nat Turner, the moving story of a slave rebellion in Virginia. James Baldwin, who lived in a small house on Styron's property in Connecticut during this period, became a sounding board, as well as an inspiration, for the novel. It was also about this time that Styron began lifelong associations with Philip Roth, Arthur Miller, Carlos Fuentes, Willie Morris, and, in particular, James Jones. Readers will be fascinated by the full story of Styron's feud with Norman Mailer, an estrangement so severe that each refused to speak to the other for almost twenty-five years.

Styron's political life has been active, from his presence at the riot-torn l968 Democratic national convention in Chicago to his controversial long-term opposition to the death penalty.

The Confessions of Nat Turner made Styron famous, but it alsobrought him under attack. At one point, the explosive reaction to the novel led Styron to imagine that his wife, Rose, had been abducted.

In Sophie's Choice, Styron turned to another charged subject—the Holocaust—and Auschwitz became the focus of his life for several years. The result was a novel that added a major tragic figure, Sophie Zawistowska, to the enduring literature of our time.

In the aftermath of a mental breakdown, Styron produced the unflinchingly candid Darkness Visible, a book that dramatically altered the nation's negative perception of clinical depression.

James West has studied William Styron's life and career for over twenty years. He has had complete access not only to Styron's papers, letters, and manuscripts, but also to his friends, and has produced an outstanding portrait of one of the most controversial and admired authors of his generation.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Often thwarted by writer's block despite his literary successes, Styron had his most fortunate failure, West notes, when, late in 1985, the novelist, in deep depression worsened by dependency on the tranquilizer Halcion, tried to compose a suicide note. "He wanted to write a document of eloquence and dignity, but... [i]n extremis, words had failed him." Although West's biography (his first) begins so worshipfully as to be off-putting and continues with a largely irrelevant genealogy going back to the Viking warrior Styr the Strong in A.D. 700, the workmanlike, low-key narrative proceeds then to evoke the author of Lie Down in Darkness, Set This House on Fire, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice and, more recently, Darkness Visible. In the postwar generation in which he was first seen as a Southern gothic inheritor of Faulkner, Styron (b. 1924) emerged as an original, residing well north of the Mason-Dixon line and becoming best known for the striking Holocaust novel Sophie's Choice, in which the heroine is, paradoxically, Polish and Catholic, and no scene is set inside the death camps. For the texture of Styron's life and the sources of his characters and situations, West, Distinguished Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, is authoritative. However, he is sometimes less assured when he strays, alleging, for example, that the workaholic Anthony Trollope wrote only one hour a day; misplacing Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement in both time and country; and labeling U.S. (and U.K.) involvement in the Korean War (in which Styron was recalled to duty) "immoral." Authorized lives of living subjects are delicate challenges, but West brings off his biography well, covering events from Styron's unpromising beginnings to literary elder statesman attempting to cope with his fame. Photos not seen by PW. (Apr.)
Atlantic Monthly
Immediate and energetic.
George Core
William Styron will immediately join the distinguished critical biograhies of our time. -- The Sewanee Review
Johanna Berkman
West, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, excels in describing the arduous creative process by which Styron developed an architecture for each of his novels. -- Johanna Berkman, The New York Times Book Review
Washington Post Book World
West's biography details the life-in-progress of a passionate writer, a novelist of great artistry and conviction, a well-spent life, a well-told tale.
Kirkus Reviews
This meticulously crafted, well-paced biography should go a long way toward burnishing Styron's reputation. Unlike most modern novelists of acknowledged weight, Styron has also enjoyed enormous popular and commercial success. Many of his eight books, such as The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice, have become international bestsellers. However, though in some circles—notably France—he is considered a writer of the first rank, Anglo-American critics have been less kind to Styron, believing that anyone of his range, accessibility, and ‚clat is, perhaps, not meant for the ages. Not that Styron has much heeded the opinions of critics. Rather, he conceives of writing as an existential compulsion. As he wrote in the inaugural edition of the Paris Review, "The writer . . . must go on writing, reflecting disorder, defeat, despair, should that be all he sees at the moment, but ever searching for the elusive love, joy, and hope—qualities which, as in the act of life itself, are best when they have to be struggled for. . . ." While, as West illustrates, Styron's life has included its share of turmoil—a difficult childhood in Virginia, the heated controversy that greeted publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner, and a devastating bout with depression—on the whole he has followed Flaubert's hopeful dictum: "Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." And unlike all too many writers, he has contrived to spend very little time struggling financially. Early fame and a good marriage provided world enough and time for his slow, painstaking writing process. His gift for friendship—withJames Baldwin, Peter Mathiessen, George Plimpton, to name just a few—also served him well. West (English/Pennsylvania State Univ.) deftly transforms the solitary, drudging life of a writer into an absolutely compelling narrative, welding astute criticism and assiduous research into an eloquent whole. A masterful achievement. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679410546
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/10/1998
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 506
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 1.62 (d)

Meet the Author

James L. W. West III is Distinguished Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Humanities Center, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and  has been a Fulbright scholar to England and Belgium. His previous books include a study of professional authorship in America and scholarly editions of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt. West is general editor of the Cambridge edition of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
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