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The Life of William Styron

And I gave my heart to know wisdom,

and to know madness and folly:

I perceived that this also

is vexation of spirit.

For in much wisdom is much grief:

and he that increaseth knowledge

increaseth sorrow.


William Clark Styron, Jr. was born to Pauline and William Clark Styron, Sr. on June 6, 1925 in Newport News, VA. Pauline was shocked and excited to have given birth to her first-born son with no difficulties at the age of 36. The proud parents immediately took to calling their son by the shorter and sweeter Billy , and he was spoiled from the very beginning. A sickly baby, Billy s illnesses only completely subsided when he ceased to suffer from ear infections upon entering college.

Even in the first grade, William Styron showed a love of literature. Reading was his favorite subject, and her surpassed the levels of his classmates immediately. Throughout his early years of schooling, Billy excelled in reading, did all right in his math classes, and showed a general enjoyment of his history courses. When he was interested, he paid attention and did well.

On July 20, 1939, when Billy was 14, his mother died of cancer. Styron s guilt was strong and haunting. Many years later when he wrote Sophie s Choice, the description of the torture his character Stingo goes through after feeling responsible for his mother s demise was created by drawing upon this experience. The following year, both Styron s grades and his attitude began to deteriorate. Having before been a well-liked student by his teachers and well accepted by his comrades, Styron started to drink and skip class. When he received a report card containing only C s and D s, William Senior decided to send his namesake away to prep school to complete his secondary education.

William Styron spent his junior and senior years of high school at Christchurch school, just across Urbana Creek from the small town of Urbanna. By Styron s own account, his time there was happy. He became co-editor of the school s newspaper, Stingaree, within weeks of his enrollment, and was also very active in theater. His grades, just as before, were high in English and history, but this time Styron nearly failed math. It was only the late-night tutorage of his friends that kept Styron in good standing at the school.

After graduating, Styron first entered Davidson College, then transferred later in the year to Duke University. Always having had an interest in English, in Durham, NC, he became infatuated with the language and its usage. His writing ambitions became centered around Duke s literary magazine, The Archive. He had many short stories published, and one poem, with which he used the pseudonym of Martin Kostler for authorship. The second Great War had broken out in Europe months before, and America was now becoming entangled. In October of 1944, Styron received his call-up for service, and he left Duke behind for a brief period of time.

The experience changed him greatly. For the majority of his adolescence Styron had been scrawny and small, and after serving in the Marine Corps found new strength in both his attitude and his physique. His improvements only came through hard experiences, as he later commented on, and he was shaped by them. Styron later wrote, In many ways the onrushing was made me what I became.

In 1946 Styron returned to Duke for his senior year with a schedule filled only by English, history, and psychology classes. He had found his calling for sure. A teacher named William Blackburn had become Styron s mentor prior to his enlistment, and the proffesor had written a letter describing his young prot g s talents as a writer to an editor at Crown Publishing named Hiram Hadyn. It was this same man brought Styron s first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, into print in 1951.

In 1947 Styron relocated to New York City and took up residence in a heavily Semitic area of Brooklyn. The boarding house in which he lived is almost identical in description to Yetta s Boarding House, the Pink Palace where the plot of Sophie s Choice came to life. He spent a few years in the Big Apple, and in the summer of 1949 met a Polish Catholic woman who had survived Auschwitz. It was this woman who would later be reincarnated as Styron s tragic character Sophie.

Lie Down in Darkness, with the help of Hadyn, was published officially on September 10, 1951. Some reviews were extremely complimentary; The New York Times described the novel as having blazing power . Newspapers around the country printed critiques of the book, and Styron s first attempt at fiction received positive, negative and mixed reviews. All of these served to distinguish him as a young author to be watched in the future. The public was taking notice.

Lie Down in Darkness won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters prize later that year. Styron moved to Europe and decided to write his next piece of fiction about Nat Turner s rebellion, but the difficulties of describing southern Virginia while living in Italy forced him to postpone that idea. In June 1951, Styron decided to convert a manuscript of his accounting his experiences in Camp Lejeum during the war into what would eventually become The Long March. This second novel was published in 1953.

1960 saw the publication of Set This House on Fire+ a story of post World-War II Americans in Italy and much closer to Styron s actual life at the moment. The Confessions of Nat Turner came later and won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1968. Best-selling Sophie s Choice came into print in 1970.

In 1985, during a trip to Paris, Styron officially was diagnosed with depression. His own theories for the sickness include his intolerance for alcohol, the possibility of a family history of the illness, and characters in his early writings that embodied symptoms remarkably alike to those he had now developed. In 1990 Styron published Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, describing his time of depression and the healing process that eventually occurred. His most recent book was published in 1993, entitled Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth. Styron is still alive today.

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