A novelist who delved into loss, suffering

William Styron 1925-2006

November 02, 2006|By Martin Miller | Martin Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose skillful explorations of the themes of evil, domination and redemption made him one of the finest writers of his generation, died yesterday afternoon. He was 81.

Mr. Styron, the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice and Lie Down in Darkness, died of pneumonia at Martha's Vineyard Hospital in Massachusetts, according to a daughter, Alexandra Styron.

In addition to his literary skills, Mr. Styron also became well-known because of his public battle with severe depression. His open and searching accounts did much to heighten awareness of the condition.

Mr. Styron's novels were imbued with a tragic sense of history and usually were set in his native South or featured a central Southern character.

A painstakingly methodical writer who wrote at most a page and a half a day on yellow legal pads, Mr. Styron produced fewer than a dozen novels, far less than his postwar contemporaries. His modest output, however, won him the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award and the Howells Medal, and thrust him to the forefront of modern American literature.

"He was very much in the Faulkner tradition," novelist Tom Wolfe said last night. "He very much had Faulkner's ability to create a mood. You could read 10 pages of Styron and find yourself, without even knowing it, in very deep water."

Mr. Styron's literary career took off shortly after he graduated from Duke University, with the 1951 publication of Lie Down in Darkness. The book borrowed heavily from his experiences of growing up in the South. It followed Peyton Loftis, a young woman who commits suicide after being overcome by the pressures of a middle-class Virginia family.

Critics embraced the work and its author, comparing him favorably to other Southern writers, particularly Faulkner. Mr. Styron also enjoyed critical success with his next two novels, The Long March (1957) and Set This House on Fire (1960).

But it was The Confessions of Nat Turner that established Mr. Styron as a force in American literature. The novel garnered the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

In the 1967 novel, Mr. Styron boldly wrote in the first person for Nat Turner, the leader of the most memorable slave revolt in U.S. history.

Amid the turbulent late 1960s, the book found a large audience and was widely praised.

According to Mr. Wolfe, Mr. Styron "was one of the few white writers to write from inside the mind of a powerful black figure or a black figure at all."

But the book drew intense criticism, especially from the black community, which deeply resented a white Southerner adopting the voice of a black man. Critics argued that blacks should be exclusively creating their own sense of identity.

Bitter and angry over the criticism, Mr. Styron defended his right, and the right of other artists, to take on the voice of any character. In accepting the Howells Medal, Mr. Styron pointedly answered his critics, saying: "By recognizing Nat Turner, this award really honors all of those of my contemporaries who have steadfastly refused to write propaganda or indulge in myth-making but have been impelled to search instead for those insights which, however raggedly and imperfectly, attempt to demonstrate the variety, the quirkiness, the fragility, the courage, the good humor, desperation, corruption and mortality of all men."

It took Mr. Styron a dozen years to put out his fifth novel, Sophie's Choice, a wrenching tale of a Polish woman who survives the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. Regarded by many critics as his most accomplished fictional work, the novel, which won the American Book Award, is a sweeping story of human loss and suffering.

Once again, Mr. Styron was criticized for his literary choices. Although not as vociferous as the attacks sparked by Nat Turner, some Jewish critics took issue with centering a Holocaust novel around a Catholic, rather than a Jew.

From his earliest writings, Mr. Styron's method appears to have always been the same - a slow and wrenching pursuit for literary perfection. Mr. Styron refused to move on until the previous sentence or paragraph were as close to perfect as possible.

Mr. Styron also made a mark in the world of nonfiction, beginning with the publication of 1990's Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. In the 84-page book, he gave a vivid personal account of his life-or-death struggle with mental illness.

"To most of those who have experienced it," wrote Mr. Styron, "the horror of depression is so overwhelming as to be quite beyond expression."

A year before the memoir's publication, he spoke to the Depression and Related Affective Disorders Association, an independent entity affiliated with the department of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, about his battle with the disease. He returned to Baltimore in 2002 as the featured speaker for a DRADA symposium.

Mr. Styron's descent into depression began suddenly at age 60. After a lifetime of using alcohol "abundantly, almost mercilessly," Mr. Styron one day discovered he could no longer stand even the slightest amount. He began taking powerful prescription medicines, which he later blamed for accelerating his downward slide.

Finally, he checked into the psychiatric unit of Yale-New Haven Hospital - a move he believed saved his life.

Martin Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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