Darkness was no stranger to William Styron. It was a word he felt compelled to include in two of his book titles and a concept that permeated his life. Whether writing about a bloody slave rebellion, a Holocaust survivor forced to make a shattering decision, or his own nearly deadly depression, Styron explored the possibility of both evil and redemption in human existence. He passed away Nov. 1 in Martha’s Vineyard of pneumonia at the age of 81.
”Many writers are fine novelists or storytellers, but when it comes to wanting to read a sentence twice because it’s so beautiful, there are very few who write that well,” says Gay Talese, who lived with Styron for two years in the ’60s. ”Styron was one of those writers.”
Born June 11, 1925, in Newport News, Va., Styron published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, in 1951. A Faulkneresque look at a young girl’s suicide (and a story that’s eerily prescient of his later troubles), it established him as a young Southern writer of note — a label he would vigorously reject. Nine years later, he began The Confessions of Nat Turner, an imagined look at the life of the only American slave to lead a successful uprising. Though the critically acclaimed book won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize, it drew outrage from black writers and activists who felt that a Southern white man could never truly understand the experiences of a slave. His next work, 1979’s Sophie’s Choice, also drew fire for examining the Holocaust from the point of view of a Polish Catholic. The criticism stung. ”He was very upset, and justly angry, because as writers we are entitled to pretend to be somebody else to tell a story,” says longtime friend Kurt Vonnegut, who traveled with Styron and Styron’s wife, Rose, to Polish death camps.
Nowhere near as prolific as his peers, Styron never wrote a full work of fiction after Sophie’s Choice. In 1990, he released Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, a short, candid, and affecting work, which detailed his battle with suicide and depression after he gave up alcohol in 1985. It was the last great statement from a man who spent his life wrestling his demons and turning that bitter personal struggle into glorious, even transcendent, art.