After his 1947 graduation, Styron took an editing position with McGraw-Hill in New York City. Styron later recalled the misery of this work in an autobiographical passage of Sophie's Choice, and after provoking his employers into firing him, he set about his first novel in earnest. Three years later, he published the novel, the story of a dysfunctional Virginia family culminating in a young woman's suicide, as Lie Down in Darkness (1951). The novel received overwhelming critical acclaim, including the prestigious Rome Prize, awarded by the American Academy in Rome and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but Styron's recall into the military owing to the Korean War prevented him from immediately accepting this award. After his 1952 discharge for eye problems, Styron transformed his experience at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina into his short novel, The Long March, published serially the following year.
Styron then spent an extended period in Europe. In Paris, he became friends with Romain Gary, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, James Baldwin, James Jones and Irwin Shaw, among others. The group founded the celebrated Paris Review in 1953.
The year 1953 was eventful for Styron in another way. Finally able to take advantage of his Rome Prize, he traveled to Italy. At the American Academy, he renewed an acquaintance with a young Baltimore poet, Rose Burgunder, to whom he had been introduced the previous fall at Johns Hopkins University. They were married in Rome in the spring of 1953. The Playhouse 90 episode The Long March (1958) was based on his aforementioned novelet (1953).
Styron's experiences during this period would later be recalled in Set This House on Fire (1960), a novel about intellectual American expatriates on the Riviera. The novel received, at best, mixed reviews, with several critics savaging it for what they described as its melodrama and undisciplined structure. The novel received a far different reception in Europe, however, where its translation achieved best-seller status, far outselling the American edition, which was itself considered a success by its publisher.
Above the door to his studio, Styron posted a quotation from Gustave Flaubert:
A dictum of sorts, Flaubert's words would prove prophetic over the intervening years. The response by others to Styron's next two published novels, published between 1967 and 1979, would indeed be violent. Wounded by his first truly harsh reviews for Set This House On Fire, Styron spent years researching and composing his next novel, the fictitious memoirs of the historical Nat Turner. During this period, James Baldwin was his guest for several months, composing his novel Another Country.
Ironically, Another Country would be criticized by some African-American groups for black author Baldwin's choice of a white protagonist, leading Baldwin to foresee even greater problems ahead for Styron; "Bill's going to catch it from both sides" he told an interviewer immediately following the novel's 1967 publication. Baldwin's words also proved prophetic. Despite public defenses of Styron by both Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, a large group of African-American critics reviled Styron's portrayal of Turner as racist stereotyping.
Particularly controversial was a passage in which Turner fantasizes about raping a white woman, which several critics pointed to as a dangerous perpetuation of a traditional Southern justification for lynching. On the other hand, many critics have argued that despite his flaws, Turner remains a strong, sympathetic, and heroic figure throughout Styron's novel. Despite the controversy, the novel became a runaway critical and financial success, eventually winning the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Nat Turner controversy
Though Styron's next novel, Sophie's Choice (1979), could hardly match the fervor that followed Confessions of Nat Turner, his decision to portray a non-Jewish victim of the Holocaust sparked a minor debate of its own. The novel, which tells the story of the Polish-Catholic Auschwitz survivor Sophie, her brilliant but menacing Jewish lover Nathan, and her young admirer Stingo, won the 1980 National Book Award and was a nationwide bestseller. A 1982 film version was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Meryl Streep winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sophie.
William Styron was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca in 1985. That year, he suffered from a serious depression which he would later recall in his popular memoir Darkness Visible (1990), in which (in the experience for many readers) he was (arguably) able to describe his descent into madness from the inside. His novel Shadrach was filmed, under the same title, in 1998, co-directed by his daughter Susanna Styron. His other two daughters are also artists - Paola, an internationally acclaimed modern dancer, and Alexandra, a novelist ["All The Finest Girls" (2001)]. Styron's son, Thomas, is a professor of clinical psychology at Yale University.
Styron's other works include the play In the Clap Shack (1973) and a collection of his nonfiction pieces, This Quiet Dust (1982).
Styron died from pneumonia on November 1, 2006, at the age of 81 in Martha's Vineyard.
Lie Down in Darkness, 1951
The Long March, 1952 (serial), 1956 (book)
Set This House on Fire, 1960
The Confessions of Nat Turner, 1967
Sophie's Choice, 1979
This Quiet Dust, and Other Writings, 1982, expanded 1993
Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, 1990
A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth, 1993