Remembering William Styron

January 31, 2007
William Styron

Duke University Archives

Although he came to love his alma mater, William Styron '47 was initially unhappy when he learned that the U.S. Marine Corps had assigned him to Duke for officer training. "I had attended Davidson College as a freshman, and there the general feeling about Duke had been that it was not a very enlightened place (perhaps because it was Methodist)," he wrote in 1976. "My disappointment was intense, then, when one black night in late June, a bus transported me through the drab tobacco-fragrant streets of Durham and deposited me on the West Campus at the feet of James B. Duke himself."

Duke redeemed itself in Styron's eyes by introducing him to English professor William Blackburn, a serious teacher who became his mentor and encouraged him to pursue writing as a profession. In a 1984 profile in Duke Magazine, Styron called Blackburn "far and away the man who made me become the person I became. He saw in me whatever potential I had to be a writer, which is important because, at that age especially, even though you have the fire burning in you, you might not really feel that you've got it."

His old English professor clearly was gifted at spotting—and nurturing—literary potential. Styron, before his death on November 1, produced eight books over a fifty-five-year career. He always carried a thread of himself through his works, drawing on his personal experiences—as a child troubled by a difficult home life (Lie Down in Darkness, 1951), as a Marine caught between World War II and the Korean War (The Long March, 1953), as a scholar studying abroad (Set This House on Fire, 1960), as a Southerner growing up on the edge of the cauldron that gave rise to the civil-rights movement (The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1967, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize), and as a would-be-writer living in Brooklyn (Sophie's Choice, 1979).

William Styron

Duke University Archives

"He wrote books that he lavished a lot of time on; he might spend eight or ten years writing a book," says English professor Victor Strandberg, who teaches Styron's novels in his courses and in 1990 interviewed him at his Connecticut home. Even as Styron grappled with cosmic themes of good and evil, he imbued his writing with a Southern sensibility. He grew up in Newport News, Virginia, and spoke of tracing his family to Virginia and North Carolina "as far back as you can go in this country, practically—to 1635, the Southern equivalent of the Mayflower."

With some of the themes he explored, Styron's work produced controversy. His best-known books—Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice—are written from the perspective of a black man who led the United States' most significant slave revolt and from that of a Polish Holocaust survivor. The former even provoked the publication of a collection of essays, William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, "mostly disparaging that he was alleged to have appropriated Nat Turner, and that he had no right to do so to begin with," says Judith Ruderman Ph.D. '76, vice provost for academic and administrative services and a former English professor, who wrote a book about Styron. "He took on controversial themes and characters. And he got flak for doing it, but he stood firm."

In an interview for the Duke Magazine profile, Styron talked about the challenges of the creative process. "It evolves very slowly and sometimes very haltingly," he told writer Georgann Eubanks '76. "I admire writers who have it all worked out and seem to churn them out organically. I find I'm always in a state of extreme unhappiness. I wish I were one of those spontaneous writers who could let it determine itself. But it doesn't seem to work that way for me."

That interview captured Styron in a melancholy mood. And one of his most celebrated works—the subject of an appreciative New York Times editorial on the occasion of his death—chronicled his battle with depression. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, just eighty-four pages long, became a bestseller. Psychiatrists, and other readers, embraced it as an eloquent illustration of the toll exerted by mental illness—and the slow process of healing.

Despite his struggles, Styron kept a sharp wit and had great personal warmth, according to his friend and fellow novelist Peter Matthiessen. "He was very intelligent and very charming. He could be very exhilarated and happy," Matthiessen says. "He and I are old friends, going back really to 1950 and 1951. We're going to miss him."

An appreciative readership will miss him as well. Ruderman says the complexity of Styron's characters and his ability to reconcile life's pains and joys make his novels appealing. "He wrote about the most grievous injustices perpetrated on humans by each other. One of them is slavery, and the other is the Holocaust. And yet he also recognized the very light sides of human existence, if you will, the leaven. So he's not just doom, gloom, angst, anxiety, depression, horror. He is also love, redemption, humor, sex, and all the other things that keep us going."