William Styron Biography

William Styron, author of

William Styron was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1925, to William and Pauline Styron.

The Styron ancestors, named Stireing, were of Scandanavian stock and settled in Virginia in the early 1700's. Although his family did not own slaves, Styron's grandfather served in the Confederate Army, and young William loved to hear stories about his adventures.

Styron was not much of a student in either high school or college, but he knew that he wanted to write. His father, a mechanical draftsman with a literary bent, indulged his son and encouraged his writing. After high school, Styron served in the Marines during World War II.

When the war ended, Styron enrolled at Duke University. After graduating in 1947, he went to New York and briefly worked as an assistant editor. His first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness," was published in 1951, to good reviews. In 1953 he married Rose Burgunder, and they moved to Roxbury, Connecticutt. In 1960, Styron's second novel, "Set This House on Fire," was published.

Nothing prepared Styron for the firestorm that surrounded his 1968 novel, "The Confessions of Nat Turner," the story of an 1831 slave uprising. The book won a Pulitzer Prize, but many in the African-American community were harshly critical of it, accusing Styron of exploiting slavery and pretending to know how his black protagonist felt. Even today, Styron is often asked to defend this book in interviews. At a forum in 1998, he said, "I was especially lacerated and hurt that it was labeled racist. That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery... Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation and put it into the soul and heart of a black man."

More literary accolades were heaped on Styron with the 1979 publication of "Sophie's Choice," a novel about a suicidal Polish Holocaust survivor and her menage a trois in New York with two men, one Southern and one Jewish. Again Styron faced social critics who accused him of exploiting the tragedy of another ethnic group. Styron defended the novel on artistic grounds, however, and it was turned into a very successful film, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

Through the years, Styron has become friends with many of literature's shining stars, including Philip Roth, Art Buchwald, Fred Exley, Peter Matthieson, and Willie Morrison. James Baldwin, the African-American novelist, lived in the Styron's guesthouse for a while, and defended Styron against charges of racism. Styron also had his enemies, however: he feuded with author Norman Mailer for nearly thiry years. Both Styron and his wife have been politically active: they attended the 1968 Democratic Convention, and have long been foes of the death penalty. Rose Styron has been very active in the group Amnesty International, which attempts to end human rights violations around the globe.

While in Paris to accept a literary award in 1985, Styron realized that he had a serious problem with depression. With the help of antidepressant drugs and therapy, he eventually regained his sanity and describes his struggle in a short book, "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness," published in 1998. He and Rose are still married, and recently their daughter, Susanna, made a feature-length film of her father's short story, "Shadrach."

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