When William Styron died at the age of 81 in 2006, almost thirty years had passed since his last substantial work of fiction. That novel was Sophie’s Choice, which came out in 1979, a notable commercial and critical success, which was also made into an award-winning film. His two most recent works had been Set This House on Fire (1960) and Confessions of Nat Turner (1973), both robustly attacked by critics, the latter book for what we would now call its lack of political correctness. This fusillade set Styron back on his heels, a writer whose early work had been showered with praise. But Sophie’s Choice marked a return to the front ranks, a crucial recovery of an ebbing reputation, but unfortunately an achievement that Styron would not surpass.
No doubt relieved by the triumph of Sophie’s Choice, Styron may well have felt that his powers as a novelist were back, that he was poised once more to occupy the heights. But a silence of three decades followed, punctuated only by excursions into minor regional subject matter. To his critics, Styron may have appeared to be searching for a graceful place of exit, which Sophie had clearly offered him. His wilderness period would soon be exacerbated when his literary silence collided with a debilitating experience of clinical depression, a bout with what Styron called “madness,” which ultimately became the subject of his coruscating memoir, Darkness Visible. It was a departure into deeply personal space, from which Styron would come out the victor, his final emergence into literary sunlight.
The uneven nature of Styron’s career, fluctuating between eloquence and silence, is a case of unusual literary extremes. Because Styron was born in the South, in Tidewater Virginia, it’s natural to begin any examination of his writer’s psyche, as well as his writer’s output, with his attitude toward the region of his birth. In Styron’s case, that relationship seems to have been ambivalent. He had gone to college at Davidson and Duke, both in North Carolina, but on graduation he headed straight for New York where he got a job in publishing. He didn’t like being an editorial assistant, and the story goes that he deliberately got himself fired from his job so he could devote himself to becoming a novelist.
Two years later, he published Lie Down in Darkness, a novel set in a place that closely resembled his childhood environs, written in a style that in places had conspicuous Faulknerian flourishes. The novel explored themes of sex and betrayal, family deceit, and the death by suicide of a main character. It was a celebrated debut, propelling Styron into a glaring spotlight. In the midst of this heady success, he told a Paris Review interviewer that he didn’t want to be judged as a “Southern writer,” a category he thought was limiting. He was aiming, he said, for something more universal, for work that would put him in the continuum of twentieth century literature and its concerns.
In fact, Styron’s subsequent novels had increasingly attenuated Southern connections. They usually were limited to characters who were born in the South but who were living in New York or Europe. His last fully realized male character was Stingo, in Sophie’s Choice, a Southerner who’s moved to New York to become a novelist. Easily recognizable as a version of the young Styron, Stingo serves in the novel as the moral arbiter in an affair between Sophie and Nathan Landau, a pair of anguished lovers attempting to find in each other a refuge from mutually troubled pasts. As the novel’s tangled plot unfolds, it’s Stingo, the boy from rural Virginia, the budding and ambitious writer, who ultimately emerges as the hero of this Holocaust survivor’s complex tale. In the end, with his own and his friends’ tragedies haunting him, Stingo leaves New York and goes home again, seeking refuge and redemption in his Southern roots.
If Styron himself was ever tempted, like Stingo, to return to the South, it’s not apparent from the places of residence he chose for home. With the success of Lie Down in Darkness still swirling in his head, he set out for Paris and later to Rome, glorying in their ancient cultural allurements. On returning to America, he lived in Connecticut and then Massachusetts, finally settling in Martha’s Vineyard, cultivating there an exclusive social milieu that included writers like Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, not to mention having glamorous neighbors like Jackie Kennedy and Carly Simon. He and his wife Rose were known for their parties, where Styron insisted on doing the honors when the time came for cocktail rituals and his favorite lobster dishes.
If those years of silence hadn’t produced novels, they had made him into the complete realization of the haute bourgeois model that Flaubert had recommended for writers. “Be orderly in your life,” he said, “in order to be violent in your works.” Another significant book would come, though, but it wouldn’t be a novel. When his depression struck, a decade after the success of Sophie, Styron curiously blamed it on having given up alcohol, a stimulant that he apparently believed excited his life force. The suicidal tendencies that followed finally led to hospitalization and recovery. The book he wrote about it, Darkness Visible, was his last bid for literary distinction, a bid that met with commercial and critical success.
Styron’s literary life afterward consisted mainly of collecting the booty offered by the American cultural establishment to writers with distinguished but sometimes distant achievements—readings at universities, lectures, medals and prizes, the coveted awards of cash that made his comfortable life possible. Although Styron’s output was relatively small compared to many of his contemporaries, it had been accomplished by his devotion to an exacting work ethic that resulted in highly polished work. In his last years he enjoyed an enviable life, as described in the New York Times obituary of him:
Sleep until noon; read and think in bed for an hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to workroom to write for 4 hours. Have cocktails and dinner with family and friends until 8 or 9 and stay up until 2 or 3, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.
Perhaps Styron’s greatest Southern attribute was that he knew how to fill his silences with meaningful personal moments. Though often fighting off the pain of depression, he was all the while imbibing the pleasures of the good life surrounded by beloved family and friends, like any good Southern patriarch.