Study Guide

William Styron

William Styron Essay - Styron, William

Styron, William

Introduction

Styron, William 1925-

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and playwright.

Styron is a highly accomplished storyteller whose fiction is remarkable for its power of characterization, the polish of its rhetorical style, and the complexity of its moral vision. Styron's fiction has been well received both in the United States and in Europe. In his stories, as in his novels, one finds Styron's preoccupation with the struggle of the individual against the corruption of societal and institutional conventions. His protagonists, through their rebellion against these strictures, confront the limitations of their own natures and ultimately achieve a redemptive self-awareness.

Biographical Information

Styron was born in Newport News, Virginia, the only child of William C. Styron and Pauline Abraham. During World War II, Styron trained as a candidate for officer in the Marine Corps while attending Duke University in North Carolina. At Duke, he became interested in literature and was encouraged to become a writer by Professor William Blackburn. Upon graduating in 1947, he worked briefly and unhappily as an associate editor for McGraw-Hill publishers in New York City. Enrolling in Hiram Haydn's creative writing course at the New School for Social Research, Styron began his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, for which he received the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1952. Styron settled in Greenwich Village to write full time, but was forced to put his literary ambitions aside temporarily when, in 1950, the Marine Corps recalled him to serve in the Korean War. This experience inspired his drama of rebellion against military authority, The Long March, published in 1953. When released from active duty, Styron returned briefly to New York City and founded the Paris Review. After winning the Prix de Rome, he went to Europe for two years. Styron returned to the United States in 1954 and settled in Roxbury, Connecticut.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In his novella, The Long March, Styron skillfully uses poetic description to create a nightmarish world in which the horrors and absurdities of military life are laid bare. Scholars have noted that the novella demonstrates the development of Styron's moral vision, for the story illustrates clearly the themes of mortality and rebellion which underlie all of Styron's fiction. Styron depicts the protagonist, Mannix, as a rebel against the dehumanizing abstractions of modern life. The Long March, as critics have observed, also demonstrates the evolution of Styron's artistry in his deft handling of flashbacks and dream sequences, which allow him to compress radically the time of the story's action. In the collection of stories, A Tidewater Morning, reviewers point out that the theme of mortality is most evident and acts as a linking device for the three short stories that comprise the collection. Originally published separately in Esquire magazine, the stories are united through their protagonist, Paul Whitehurst, who recounts three painful incidents from his youth. These stories examine the power of memory and the unshakable hold of the past on the present. In these coming-of-age stories, the narrator confronts and reflects on the experiences of guilt, sorrow, rebellion, and death. What the narrator gains from his harsh experiences is self-knowledge and the forbearance to face the unknown trials of the future.

Critical Reception

Early in his career, Styron met with astonishing critical acclaim and popular success. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, garnered international accolades, and literary critics hailed him as a successor to William Faulkner. In interviews, however, Styron observed that despite his debts to Faulkner and other southern writers, he did not consider himself as belonging to any Southern literary tradition or school. Later scholars have generally agreed that although aspects of the Southern literary tradition do inform his writing, Styron is a national writer with a widerranging perspective. They note, for example, that Styron's use of a southern setting in The Long March is relatively unimportant in the novella's exploration of rebellion against authority. Critics have repeatedly returned to this early work, hailed as a minor masterpiece at the time of its publication, for what it reveals of the writer's artistic growth. Styron's aesthetics of style, imagery, and character development can be traced from this early work through The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie's Choice and in his collection of short stories, A Tidewater Morning. The cautious optimism that ends The Long March becomes in A Tidewater Morning the hopeful endurance that characterizes the viewpoint of Styron's protagonist. Reviewers of A Tidewater Morning have widely praised this collection for its heartbreaking examination of the individual's struggle and his ultimate discovery of meaning and affirmation in the bitterness of life.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

The Long March (novella) 1953

A Tidewater Morning (short stories) 1993

Other Major Works

Lie Down in Darkness (novel) 1951

Set This House on Fire (novel) 1960

The Confessions of Nat Turner (novel) 1967

In the Clap Shack (play) 1972

Sophi's Choice (novel) 1979

This Quiet Dust and Other Writings (criticism) 1982

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (nonfiction) 1990

Criticism

Eugene McNamara (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "William Styron's Long March: Absurdity and Authority," in The Western Humanities Review, Vol. XV, 1961, pp. 267-72.

[In the following excerpt, McNamara finds that the plot, structure, and metaphors of Styron's novella demonstrate the author's point that both acceptance of and obedience to authority are necessary and that protest is hopeless.]

All works of art reflect and echo the tenor of their time. This is inescapable. There is a certain patterning, a certain cadence of words, a tonal quality which makes a work uniquely itself, and strangely of its time.

Such a work is William Styron's novella, The Long March, called "one of the two or three distinguished novellettes of the last thirty years" by John Aldridge, but otherwise curiously ignored by the critics. I say "curiously" because the pattern of the work so closely reflects the tenor of our own time. This may not be evident after a cursory glance. But if we contrast the central character, Lieutenant Culver, with the central figure in a novel of some ten years ago, Private Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, then the pattern becomes increasingly clearer.

If Prewitt is the archetype of the Individual (even if he is the terminus in a long line of fictional rebels from Natty Bumppo on down), then Culver is the corresponding antithetical myth-figure; the archetype of conformity, of acceptance.

To demonstrate the intentional substructure in the work, I intend to look first of all at the plot movement, then the narrational structure, and finally at the pattern of metaphor.

On the surface, the story is about a forced march in a Marine camp in the Carolinas during the early 1950s. And it is about some of the men—retreads from World War Two who had been yanked back into a war which was not a war, from a peace which was not really a peace. The Cold War, then, with its brooding atmosphere of unease and displacement, sets the tone of the work.

The Colonel, "Rocky" Templeton, feeling that his men need some sort of manœuvre to strengthen them in esprit (Marine Corps jargon for a sort of super-patriotism. Gungho is a more derisive synonym), plans a thirty mile forced march at the end of a field problem. Before the march is over, tension between Templeton and Mannix, the violently vocal individualist, erupts and Mannix faces a court-martial, and by the time the march is over, Culver has come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that he must choose between the two men. As much as he loves Mannix, he must choose the Colonel. He must.

So much for the plot movement. But there is a careful style here, almost a mannered style, jewelled, Fauknerian. It seems to slow the reading, make it more close. It seems to say, Wait, there is more to all this. And so there seems to be.

Within the narrative structure, there is first of all the accidental death of eight young men in a training accident. This sets the tone of the novella—a sense of acute frustration, of questioning, of anguished waste. Culver is plunged into retrospection, and contrasts his six years of peace with his present life. The six year interlude between the end of World War Two and his being called back for the police action seems now to be a dream. He usually remembers it as winter, and sees one particular scene again and again. He and his wife are pushing the baby carriage through the park. It is cold and silent, and has "an Old World calm" and for Culver a nostalgic quality as of a world which never did exist, save in a dream. And to Culver the quality of this memory is inextricably tied up with a passage from Haydn.

It was one happy and ascending bar that he remembered, a dozen bright notes through which he passed in memory to an earlier, untroubled day at the end of childhood. There, like tumbling flowers against the sunny grass, their motions as nimble as the music itself, two lovely little girls played tennis, called to him voicelessly, as in a dream, and waved their arms.

This vision returns three times in the novella. Each time it contrasts violently with the anguish of the present; the Marine Corps, the Cold War, the Carolina swamp, the raging tropic summer, the long march—and more particularly, the eight dead boys:

One boy's eyes lay gently closed, and his long dark lashes were washed in tears, as though he had cried himself to sleep. As they bent over him they saw that he was very young, and a breeze came up from the edges of the swamp, bearing with it a scorched odour of smoke and powder, and touched the edges of his hair. A lock fell across his brow with a sort of gawky, tousled grace as if preserving even in that blank and mindless repose some gesture proper to his years, a callow charm.

At this sight, Mannix sobs helplessly, murmuring; "Won't they ever let us alone, the sons of bitches. Won't they ever let us alone?"

This then, is the present world that Culver is plunged back into; the dead innocents in the tropic rage of the Carolina swamps. Both Mannix and Templeton take a definite attitude in regard to the death of the young men. Mannix mourns the waste of life and smoulders in rage against the system, with its senseless juggernaut movement, its impersonality, its ritual which he finds puerile and meaningless. Templeton remains impervious, almost casual in a studied way, as if to betray human emotions or to grieve openly would not only be a sign of weakness, but would be in itself a sign that the system was wrong. So the accident to Templeton must remain a problem of logistics, an error to be justified with the others. Something else to be purged by the ritual...

(The entire section is 2397 words.)

Sidney Finkelstein (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "Cold War, Religious Revival and Family Alienation: William Styron, J. D. Salinger and Edward Albee," in Existentialism and Alienation in American Literature, International Publishers Co., 1965, pp. 211-42.

[In this excerpt, Finkelstein discusses Styron's novella in the context of the Cold War period, and he notes what he considers Styron's accurate portrayal of the military's complete disregard for the value of human life.]

Styron's short novel, The Long March, has the distinction of being one of the few novels registering the actual impact on the American mind of the Korean war. In the course of this war a hysteria was whipped up such as had not been...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Charles Child Walcutt (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Idea Men," in Man's Changing Mask: Modes and Methods of Characterization in Fiction, University of Minnesota Press, 1966, pp. 251-57.

[In the following assessment of The Long March, Walcutt argues that the author had to sacrifice characterization and credibility to get his point across.]

In his novelette The Long March . . . William Styron has gathered all his forces to dramatize an idea about Jewish character. It is as unsympathetic as it is suggestive. It generates a great deal of imaginative power; and it seems to be going deep into the roots of character until its symbolic purpose takes open charge and reduces the action to an expository...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)

Welles T. Brandriff (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Role of Order and Disorder in The Long March," in English Journal, January, 1967, pp. 54-9.

[In this excerpt, Brandriff describes The Long March as the story of one man's tortured discovery of the disorder and chaos that underlie the surface of civilization.]

There is a natural tendency to dwell upon the one-sided antagonism which springs up between Mannix and Templeton in The Long March, a short novel by William Styron. The conflict between the scarred man of history, and the marine colonel who deifies a system which produced many of these scars, is developed into a major theme in the book. But to contend that this is the most...

(The entire section is 3298 words.)

August Nigro (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Long March: The Expansive Hero in a Closed World," in Critique, Vol. IX, No. 3, Winter, 1967, pp. 103-12.

[Below, Nigro argues that The Long March is about the degeneration of a classical hero type into an "anti-hero" due to the corruption of the military. The critic also suggests that the military is symbolic of American society where, he argues, there is no place for the heroic personality. ]

A close examination of [The Long March] reveals that Styron has written a fable in which a few concrete images and symbols tell at least three related tales: the story of a forced march in a Marine camp, which demonstrates Styron's belief "that...

(The entire section is 3603 words.)

Peter L. Hays (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Limited Man," in The Limping Hero: Grotesques in Literature, New York University Press, 1971, pp. 166-71.

[In this excerpt, Hays demonstrates how Styron's language and symbolism make Mannix a mythic figure comparable to Prometheus and Christ. ]

William Styron's The Long March presents us with three views of rebellion: as seen by the authoritarian establishment, by the passionate rebel, and by the involved but relatively objective observer caught between the two. The novella is about life in a Marine training camp during the Korean War, especially as experienced by Lieutenant Culver and Captain Al Mannix, two World War II veterans who have been recalled...

(The entire section is 1411 words.)

Marc L. Ratner (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "The Rebel Purged: The Long March," in William Styron, Twayne Publishers, 1972, pp. 57-69.

[Below, Ratner provides an overview of the techniques and symbolism that Styron uses in The Long March "enlarging the narrative into his general theme of rebellion." ]

Styron's novella, . . . has been singularly neglected by most critics in its significance to Styron's development and in its thematic parallels to his other works. Generally regarded as a competent literary exercise, it has been damned with the faint praise to which Styron has been occasionally subjected; but, most often, it has been treated as a single piece.

The novella...

(The entire section is 4413 words.)

Irving Malin (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The Symbolic March," in The Achievement of William Styron, University of Georgia Press, 1975, pp. 122-33.

[In the excerpt below, Malin discusses symbolism, characterization, and Styron's use of body imagery and contrast. ]

The opening paragraph of The Long March tells us much about the symbols, themes, and characters of the entire novelette. Styron begins with "noon," the hottest part of the day; the heat is as intense and extreme as the events—and the reactions to these events—he will eventually describe. (Even noon is intensified by the word blaze.) Then Styron introduces the human element: "eight dead boys are thrown apart among the...

(The entire section is 4527 words.)

William Styron with Michael West (interview date 1977)

SOURCE: An interview with Michael West, in Conversations with William Styron, University Press of Mississippi, 1985, pp. 217-33.

[In this excerpt from an interview that was originally published in 1977, Styron speaks of how his resentment of authority figures has been a significant feature of his writing.]

[West]: The themes that have captured your imagination have driven you to complete four novels, if we consider The Long March to be a short novel, and I wonder if there are some themes that recur though the stories differ greatly. I am thinking of themes like the struggle of a man or a woman against authority or an authoritarian system, a system of values...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Judith Ruderman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Styron's Farewell to Arms: Writing on the Military," in William Styron, Ungar, 1987, pp. 71-89.

[Here, Ruderman observes that Mannix, by virtue of his suffering and indomitable will against the impersonality of the military, achieves a heroic triumph.]

Three of Styron's major works of fiction are focused centrally on the military: The Long March, In the Clap Shack, and The Way of the Warrior (in progress). In the first two of these, published twenty years apart, war is emblematic of human existence: its bureaucracy and impersonality represent all institutions; the isolation and fear of its combatants are the primary conditions of modern...

(The entire section is 2224 words.)

Samuel Coale (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Long March: A Failed Rebellion," in William Styron Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 50-8.

[In this excerpt, Coale examines Styron's polarized vision of rebellion and authority, particularly what he sees as Styron's confusion over whether to portray the rebellious individual as heroic or as existentially absurd.]

The Long March . . . stands as the prototype for several of Styron's later longer novels. Besides the thrust and crisis of rebellion on which the book is based, we also find the bifurcated hero, the observant witness, and the participant rebel, what David L. Minter has described in American literature as the distinction between...

(The entire section is 3416 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 1993)

SOURCE: "Styron's Time Past Shows Its Hold on the Present," in The New York Times, September 10, 1993, p. C-27.

[In this review of A Tidewater Morning, Kakutani notes Styron's skillful handling of the themes of mortality and evil, but observes that the collection is largely interesting as an index to his earlier works.]

A key to what made William Styron a writer can be found in a passage from the title story in A Tidewater Morning. All three stories in the book, Mr. Styron says in an author's note, represent "an imaginative reshaping of real events" in his own life, and in this particular tale, his alter ego, a 13-year-old boy named Paul, tries to cope...

(The entire section is 847 words.)

Richard Bausch (review date 1993)

SOURCE: "'So Much Like a Lost Boy,'" in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, p. 15.

[In the following evaluation of A Tidewater Morning, Bausch praises the way in which the three stories compliment each other and together "make one ineffable glow, like facets of the same dark jewel. "]

The three long stories that are collected in A Tidewater Morning appeared in Esquire magazine over the course of roughly a decade, beginning in 1978. In the order in which they now appear, as William Styron tells us in an introductory note, they "reflect the experiences of the author at the ages of 20, 10 and 13." This, would seem an odd juxtaposition,...

(The entire section is 1037 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 1993)

SOURCE: "A Virginia Boyhood," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, pp. 3, 12.

[In this excerpt, Eder extols Styron's deft interweaving of historical occurrences, Southern legend, and his own autobiographical experiences in A Tidewater Morning.]

Styron has not published much since Sophie's Choice 14 years ago. There was a collection of essays, and a brief, lucid account of an episode of clinical depression. To revive three old short stories might be taken as a minor tidying on behalf of a remarkable but never prolific writer. In fact, read together, the "Tidewater" stories stand as one of Styron's finest works.

Two tell of...

(The entire section is 1272 words.)

Zachary Leader (review date 1993)

SOURCE: "Among the Whippoorwills," in Times Literary Supplement, December 10, 1993, p. 4732.

[Below, Leader concludes that, in writing the stories contained within A Tidewater Morning, Styron sought to achieve personal integrity.]

The pivotal moment in each of the three linked stories in William Styron's new book involves a memory of dissolution or release, one accompanied by a sudden rush of strong feeling. These are moments of breakthrough as well as breakdown, though unlike comparable fictional epiphanies (those in John Cheever's stories, for instance) the insights they offer are mostly psychological or social rather than visionary.

The...

(The entire section is 855 words.)

William Styron (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Looking Back: The Long March," in This Quiet Dust and Other Writings, Vintage International, 1993, pp. 333-35.

[In this essay, which first appeared as the introduction to the Norwegian edition of The Long March in 1975, Styron discusses the autobiographical experiences that inform his work and recounts his own artistic process of shaping these experiences into the novella.]

Although not nearly so long nor so ambitious as my other works, The Long March achieved within its own scope, I think, a unity and a sense of artistic inevitability which still, ten years after the writing, I rather wistfully admire. Lest I appear immodest, I would...

(The entire section is 954 words.)

James L. W. West III (review date 1994)

SOURCE: "Tidewater Tales," in Sewanee Review, Spring, 1994, pp. xlix-li.

[In this excerpt, West discusses the effect of Styron's revisions of these earlier published stories and notes that Styron's message is that art can redeem an otherwise intolerable existence.]

It is good to see these stories made available between hard covers, but one would be mistaken to regard this small collection as a simple recycling of already-published work. The stories need to be read together, in the achronological sequence in which Styron has arranged them, if one is to experience their collective force. A Tidewater Morning is a small, carefully crafted volume of fiction that most...

(The entire section is 818 words.)

Ronald Curran (review date 1994)

SOURCE: A review of A Tidewater Morning, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, Summer, 1994, pp. 571-72.

[Here, Curran finds in Styron's latest collection an essential optimism that underlies the dark and painful fictionalized memories of the author's boyhood.]

"We each devise our means of escape from the intolerable." So begins the closing paragraph in the title story of William Styron's collection Tidewater Morning. Each of these three tales from youth holds in its own fashion to the truth in Styron's closing observation. They evoke Styron's experience of the 1930s at ages ten, thirteen, and twenty (even though "Love Day" carries us up to 1945 and...

(The entire section is 822 words.)

Gavin Cologne-Brookes (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Signs of a Shift: The Long March," in The Novels of William Styron: From Harmony to History, Louisiana State University Press, 1995, pp. 45-67.

[In this excerpt, Cologne-Brookes sees in The Long March signs of a change in Styron's emphases, from his earlier view that literature is a way to achieve harmony in a chaotic world to his later conviction that art is necessarily part of a dialogue with sociohistorical matters.]

As Styron's career progressed, the discourse toward harmony was dislodged from setting the underlying direction of his fiction to being one part of a more complex dialogue. The Long March shows signs of this shift, since a...

(The entire section is 6534 words.)