William Styron: A Case of Clinical Depression

William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose explorations of the darkest corners of the mind were charged by personal demons that nearly drove him to suicide, died in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., on Nov. 1. He was 81. Styron was reportedly working on a military novel, yet published no full-length work of fiction after “Sophie’s Choice,” which came out in 1979. His other works include “Lie Down In Darkness” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which won the Pulitzer prize.

Born on June 11, 1925 in Newport News, Virginia, William Styron was the only child of William Clark Styron, a marine engineer, and Pauline Margaret Abraham. Descending from “Stiorings” that came to Virginia as early as 1650, Styron’s ancestry includes Scott-Irish, Welsh, Swiss, and English forebears. With predisposition for literature (Styron learned to read well before he entered the first grade) and a grandfather who “possessed much native writing ability,” Styron started writing short stories at the age of thirteen and publishing them in the high school newspaper. “Typhoon and the Tor Bay,” one of his earliest pieces, was an admittedly unabashed imitation of Joseph Conrad.

Styron began writing seriously in 1942 when he attended Davidson College, contributing frequently to the school newspaper and composing poems for the literary magazine. He left Davidson to enlist in the Marine Corps shortly before his eighteenth birthday. As an officer candidate in the Marine’s World War II V-12 program, he transferred to Duke University in the summer of 1943, and inspired by Professor William Blackburn, he became passionately interested in writing. Styron published a number of short stories in The Archive, Duke’s literary magazine, and for the first time he considered writing professionally as a possible career.

From 1944-1945, Styron served as a lieutenant in the Marines, reaching Okinawa just as the war was coming to a close. Once discharged, he completed his B.A. at Duke, and in 1947 headed for New York to work as an associated editor for Whittlesey House, then the trade division of McGraw-Hill. Having been recommended by Blackburn to Hirm Hayden of the New School for Social Research, Styron enrolled in the New School’s writing course, where Styron benefitted greatly from Hayden’s criticism and professional encouragement.

Styron began to work on his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, in 1947 after McGraw-Hill fired him for tossing balloons out an office window. In a letter to his father after having lost his job, Styron wrote: “Writing for me is the hardest thing in the world, but also a thing which, once completed, is the most satisfying…I am not a prodigy but, fate willing, I can produce art.”

It took Styron two and a half years of “extremely painful” composition to reach the memorable soliloquy which is the climax of his first novel. Lie Down in Darkness demonstrated none of the immature apprentice work often associated with new novelists, and Styron’s reputation as one of the leading authors of his generation was firmly established (Long-lost drafts of the earliest versions of this novel are available in Styron’s Inheritance of Night: Early Drafts of Lie Down in Darkness [March 1993/Duke University Press])

Living in Paris in the early fifties, Styron continued writing and helped George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen get The Paris Review off the ground. A novella entitled “The Long March” appeared in the February 1953 issue of Discovery, was published by Modern Library in 1956, and was included in Charles Fenton’s important “The Best Short Stories of World War II.” Styron’s second large-scale novel, Set This House on Fire, a long, complex though carefully structured and articulated work, was published by Random House in 1960.

Seven years later, the highly controversial and commercially successful The Confessions of NaTurner, a novel that entered the mind of the mysterious black man who had led the only significant rebellion in the history of black slavery, was published to both rave reviews and controversy. A white southern man had attempted to understand the workings of the mind of a black slave; and nonetheless, the exemplary quality of Styron’s third novel was obvious. The Confessions of Nat Turner was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and Styron received the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1970.

In 1979, Styron published his fourth novel, Sophie’s Choice, a poignant and dramatic account of the Holocaust conveyed through the story of a Polish Catholic woman who lost her children in Auschwitz. Ever concerned with man’s capacity if both evil and self-redemption, Styron depicted the ecumenical character of the Nazi’s crimes against humanity. Powerful and gripping, Sophie’s Choicegarnered the 1980 American Book Award.

The Quiet Dust and Other Writing, a select collection of essays, was published by Random House in 1982. The loyalty of Styron’s audience, composed of both critics and laymen, is unswerving. In an interview with Phillip Caputo in May of 1985, Styron remarked: “I am solaced by the belief that if my work has any quality at all, it has this quality because of its long germination time. Had I written with a composition to get books out, they would not be very good.”

Styron’s greatest artistic concern has always been substantive. Eschewing the post-, modernists’ obsession with technique, Styron hold that “Language, character, and narrative are interconnected in an almost an inseparable way. The three are a trinity.” In the tradition of writers like Gustave Flaubert and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Styron has consistently attempted to create “characters whom people do not want to consign to oblivion.” Thus, his haunting portraits of Peyton Loftis, Nat Turner and Sophie Zawistowska. Describing the conception that helped shape his narratives, Styron observed: “A great book should leave you…slightly exhausted at the end.”

In the summer of 1985, Styron was struck by an illness once called melancholia, but today referred to as clinical depression. Having trudged “upward out of hell’s black depths,” Styron has been able to record his devastating descent into depression into paper. According to Edmund Moris, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness is an example of “art refined in the fire of experience: the writing is so pure on is hardly aware of the ink on the page.”

Written with clarity and power, Darkness Visible allows the reader to observe the mental anguish and unimaginable depression that strips a person of every vestige of self-esteem. Remarkably, Darkness Visible is far from depressing; it is a salutary work that uplifts with its sense of catharsis, offering a probing look at an illness that affects millions but is still widely misunderstood. Published by Random House in September 1990, Darkness Visible first appeared in a shorter version in Vanity Fair in 1989 to enormous acclaimed won a National Magazine Award.

A Tidewater Morning, three tales from youth told in the voice of a young boy who grew up in a tidewater town in Virginia, was published by Random House in 1993.

William Styron married Rose Styron in 1953. They had four children, three daughters and a son, and lived in the same house in Roxbury, Connecticut, for twenty-nine years. He was the recipient of the commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and the Commandeur Legion d’Honneur. He was awarded Duke University’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1984, the Prix Mondial del Duca in 1985, and appointed fellow of Silliman College of Yale University in 1964. Mr. Styron was also a recipient of the 1993 National Medal of Arts, awarded to him by President Clinton. He was a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Academy of Arts and Letters, and was is an honorary consultant for the Library of Congress.

A conversation with William Styron

An argument could be made that the literature of the 20th century was shaped by just a handful of writers. These are men and women who brought original voices, narrative techniques, emotional truth and, perhaps most notably, a power of language to the page. One of those writers is William Styron.

To get some perspective on Styron’s career, consider that he published his first novel at 26. What’s more, that novel was “Lie Down in Darkness.” The year was 1951, and Styron was fresh out of the U.S. Marine Corps. Styron then moved to Paris in the early ’50s, and with friends Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton created “The Paris Review,” a literary magazine that has continued to publish fine writing for half a century.

“The Long March” was Styron’s next achievement, a novella written out of his experiences in the Marine Corps. He went on to publish “Set This House on Fire” in 1960. “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize. Then, in 1979, Styron published “Sophie’s Choice,” which won the American Book Award for fiction in 1980.

In the mid-80s, Styron suffered a major case of depression that nearly cost him his life. Remarkably, he recovered and went on to write an account of his sickness titled “Darkness Visible,” a piece that has entered into the medical literature on depression.

Styron published “A Tidewater Morning: Three tales from Youth” in 1993.

For many years, Styron and his family have split their time between homes in Roxbury, N.Y., and Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. Styron and his wife Rose will travel to Sun Valley next week to participate in the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference, held Monday through Thursday.

Last weekend I spoke with Styron about a range of subjects.

IME: I’m curious about the process of choosing a subject for a novel. There are so many things that might interest a writer, how do you know a given subject will carry a novel?

Styron: As a writer you have certain preoccupation and ideas that seize your imagination. They more or less choose you rather than the other way around. Certainly, I’ve had blind alleys—not in any of my major works. But I don’t think any writer has not had ideas evaporate.

IME: When you start a novel, do you envision it whole and the writing becomes a matter of extracting it, line by line? Or are you starting from a single image and spiraling out from there?

Styron: You have a general idea of where you are going. You have to trust your subconscious and imagination to fill in the blanks.

IME: What do you feel is the most important part of a novel to get right?

Styron: One of the more important aspects of writing is to establish characters that are real. If you can do that—that’s more than half the battle.

IME: When “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was published (1967) there was some controversy over it. (Some called his novel immoral and racist. Others considered Styron an enemy of African Americans). Were you intimidated by the attacks?

Styron: It was, I have to admit, disconcerting. It was not pleasant to be attacked when one felt he had done a service to the intellectual community by writing honestly about a thing like slavery. To have it damned and vilified was not a pleasant experience, but I never allowed it to deflect me. I knew I had done nothing to warrant that kind of criticism. So on one level, I felt really quite stable … because it was terribly unfair and politically inspired. So it didn’t alter my general view of being a writer, or anything like that

IME: Do you feel—I presume you don’t—that there are limits to imaginative leaps writers may make?

Styron: No, in fact, I think often it is a testimony to writers’ risk taking abilities to essentially make a leap. It seems to me a challenging aspect of a writer’s life is to jump into a work where he is finding himself in alien territory. Indeed, I think it is the testimony to the high ability of literature to accept any challenge. Not to sound too grandiose about it, but think of an artist like Shakespeare. Think of the leaps he took. He went anywhere and everywhere … That kind of risk taking, any writer would want to emulate.

IME: Writers, in general, seem to be riddled with self-doubt. Is that something writers grow out of, or is it is a healthy quality, or part of the territory?

Styron: It depends entirely on the writer. Some writers seem to have boundless self confidence. Others, myself included, are plagued by self doubt, and it never quite ends. But it is part of the territory that you surmount, otherwise you end up not being a writer at all. Certainly, it seems a natural part of being a writer.

IME: In “Darkness Visible” you pointed that so many writers and creative people have suffered through depression. I’m not sure if you stated it explicitly or not but I’m wondering if you believe there is a direct connection between the creative process and depression?

Styron: I think, on the one hand, depression is universal … Yet, I think it could be argued that creative people are more vulnerable to depression, by far. Now whether it is creative function that creates depression or vice versa, I don’t know.

IME: Was it difficult to go from the somewhat veiled world of fiction writing to “Darkness Visible,” a nonfiction work in which you were so open and honest about your personal life?

Styron: No, in fact, I wrote it with a totally open mind. I really wrote it as an exercise in self-expression about my own experience with depression … without any pre-conceived idea that it would be much more than a magazine article.

IME: Was it therapeutic to write it?

Styron: It was in a way cathartic—a sort of freeing of demons by describing what had happened.

IME: Has your perception of what “being a writer” is changed over the course of your career?

Styron: You do change over time, still it has always been a kind of calling … a profession that I had to be involved with … otherwise life wouldn’t be worth living.