Study Guide

William Styron

William Styron Essay - Styron, William (Vol. 1)

Styron, William (Vol. 1)

Styron, William 1925–

An American novelist, Styron won the Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner. He has also written Lie Down in Darkness, and Set This House on Fire. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

In Styron's first novel [Lie Down in Darkness] … there is evidence of so much life having been poured into the narrative, that we might have a legitimate apprehension after it, not as to the writer's talent, but as to his resilience and reserves. There has been, in fact, a long silence between novels from Styron's pen, during which The Long March, in 1952, was a partially reassuring sign….

The Long March is …, to be sure, a little thematic and abstract. It is even something of a propaganda tale, embodying that "individual" protest which William Styron believes to be so hopeless today…. The central action is somewhat narrow, the cast of characters limited, and the author's explicit "view of life" is used to replace the solid, rich, intense sense of life which comes to us so directly from the pages of Lie Down in Darkness.

Maxwell Geismar, "William Styron: The End of Innocence" (reprinted by permission of Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1958 by Maxwell Geismar), in his American Moderns: From Rebellion to Conformity, Hill & Wang, 1958, pp. 239-50.

[In Lie Down in Darkness and Set This House on Fire, Styron] has pushed his explorations of the nature and meaning of human value, in an existential world, to the point where the essential act of staying alive is itself at stake, is the central question of his novels. His created characters—Peyton Loftis in Lie Down in Darkness and Cass Kinsolving in Set This House on Fire—do not isolate themselves by private and catastrophic actions, after the fashion of an Othello, from a world which, otherwise, would have made existence possible and enjoyable for them. It is rather, for Styron's characters, that being as opposed to non-being is resolved out of the times and events of their lives by a contest between a moribund moral imagination and a sheer animal instinct for survival….

Lie Down in Darkness was the first important postwar novel to demonstrate, both by its rather loose, episodic, unsynthesized structure, and by its assumptions concerning the nature of human reality and human value, that the novel, as novel, had undergone an actual and a verifiable metamorphosis, that if it were to be taken seriously, it had to be viewed as having outgrown its old form and content as they had been set by the giants of the twenties and the thirties….

Styron's second major work of fiction,… Set This House on Fire, is more explicitly and didactically contrived as an existential novel than was Lie Down in Darkness. It is written with a highly sensitive, clear control of language, but it remains somehow static, and oddly ineffective by comparison…. [For] all the page-by-page brilliantly sketched detail of the book, and for all one's wishing that it might have been Styron's Crime and Punishment, his Set This House on Fire is truly and surprisingly a novel manqué. And its defect is not in the formal structure of the narrative, I think, nor in its insistently philosophical presentation of its subject matter. The book is, to be sure, curiously organized as a series of teasing and tentative minor revelations, a series of slow steps around, rather than toward, the central revelation of the action: Flagg's rape of a young Italian girl and Kinsolving's killing him, in retaliation…. As I see it,… the basic defect of the novel, and a defect which keeps the whole of Set This House on Fire from achieving the stature one could wish for it, is that its materials are everywhere "un-novelized." The special distinction of fiction, its essential difference from other kinds of writing, is that it cuts itself off from the actual reality it is imitating, and exists separately, as a self-contained microcosm. At its highest moments, indeed, it can seem even more real than actual fact. The odd difficulty in Set This House on Fire is that the individual scenes, the individual characterizations, accumulate, but they remain inert, they do not achieve their potential content. It is as if the imaginative materials of the book had been held too long or too lovingly in the mind of the writer, and had taken on a significance for him that he takes for granted and fails to project in his writing. They do not cross over into the house of fiction….

Styron's kind of novel … has been preoccupied with the emotionally marginal lives of men and women clinging to existence, or letting go of it, outside the warm, platitudinous American world of the advertised dream. It has concerned itself with the deepest private strivings, the deepest private agonies, of men and women … living by a raw, naked sensibility, unsupported either by a definable personal philosophy or by the codes and admonitions of institutionalized culture or religion. And the mortal despair which floats just below the surface of the major fiction of the past decade, of which Styron's work is a significant part, has been its richest communication.

David L. Stevenson, "William Styron and the Fiction of the Fifties," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 4, Summer, 1960, pp. 47-58.

William Styron's first novel, Lie Down in Darkness,… remains one of the outstanding works of postwar fiction. This is not sly praise. The Long March … and Set This House on Fire … are in no way shoddy, and indeed the latest of Styron's novels is an exceptional work, as ambitious in meaning as his first may be deft in execution. The three books project very different types of heroes though each is preeminently a hero of our time…. In all three novels, Styron reveals a brooding imagination, sometimes obsessive, and a dark gift of poetry.

Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (© 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 124-26.

One of the major novels of the decade, [Lie Down in Darkness] is saturated in the sense of actuality; witness the scenes at the university football game and in the fraternity house before it and the account of Peyton's wedding. But, beyond this, it is an attempt at what might be called Freudian tragedy made very nearly successful by the power of the poetry—descriptive, lyrical, elegiac—that clothes it; and it is also a formal achievement on a high plane of intention.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, p. 305.

The style of Lie Down in Darkness, studded with jewels of rhetoric, indicates Styron's acquaintance with the writing of at least Faulkner, Warren, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, and Joyce. However, given its weaknesses, its often unassimilated indebtedness, its self insistent verbal virtuosity, its final failure to achieve focus, Lie Down in Darkness remains the most ostentatiously talented first novel of the period. The prodigious brilliance of its performance resides in the richness and grace of the language and the intricate, almost impossible complexity of the structure….

Set This House on Fire attempts the improbable: the alchemical transformation of impotent rage into tragic experience. Styron's rage is the hell-fire heat of the idealist faced by an unredeemably corrupt world, for which he as fallen man feels obsessively and hopelessly guilty. To understand the quality of Styron's anger, one has only to set his protest along side that of the so-called angry young men (Messrs, Braine, Wain, Amis, and Osborne), who seem in comparison nothing so much as choir boys wearing tight shoes. Contemporary man for Styron is an infinitely corruptible Adam, repeatedly violating the terms of his existence, falling farther and farther out of Paradise….

Like Lie Down in Darkness, Set This House on Fire, in its romantic search for truth, a search that in its final implications is perhaps fruitless, in the almost Biblical chronicling of the Fall and Redemption of man, stands without need for apology in the great tradition of the American novel.

Jonathan Baumbach, "Paradise Lost: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron," in his The Landscape in Nightmare: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, New York University Press, 1965, pp. 123-37.

William Styron has undertaken to reconstruct Nat Turner, using the public record as skeleton and fleshing him out with motives and whatnot. The result, in view of current events, can hardly be read as an exercise in pure aesthetics. The author mumbles something in his introduction about "perhaps the reader will wish to draw a moral … but," etc., thus saving his book for art, but there is no "perhaps … but" about it. A novel on this subject has to be part politics, ours and his, at the moment….

Styron has done as well as he could with [the diction] part of his problem. Nat's dialogue is not just a pedantic reconstruction but a plausible, timeless blend of Southern-biblical: a little stiff, but not by nineteenth-century standards (anything looser would rouse suspicions of another sort), and generally serviceable. One grows frustrated at times watching the author squeeze his own excellent prose into this whalebone of rhetoric: but he gets off some fine phrases, and the writing in fact carries one over a good deal of wasteland.

The diction problem turns up in a more acute form when it comes to Turner's own consciousness. We are in effect being asked to spend a short lifetime in the head of one skillfully animated museum piece. What does Turner think about all this time? Not the things we would think about, of course: the author has been careful to expunge the twentieth century. But equipping his hero with a complete 1831 sensibility is something else. Styron is on safe ground while he is sticking to a certain type of thought—just as a mimicker of movie stars is safe if he sticks to certain key phrases—but the result of this can only be monotony beyond the call of monomania. A long book told from one point of view is always a risk: here the risk is prohibitive….

But if the book fails by default, as a novel, it does succeed in many places as a kind of historical tone poem.

Wilfrid Sheed, "William Styron: The Confessions of Nat Turner" (1967), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 83-9.

William Styron has written [in The Confessions of Nat Turner] words that will push hard at thousands and thousands of minds. He has awakened us, made us feel more and in that way given us a rather special glimmer of that elusive thing called "history" and that terribly concrete thing called "race." Following the tradition of writers like Faulkner and Tolstoy, he has made a bold and successful attempt to follow them quite directly—not by writing "responsibly" about a social issue, or writing"profoundly" about a psychological one, but by writing a haunting and luminous novel that incidentally breathes history and psychology and whatever on every page.

Robert Coles, "Blacklash," in Partisan Review, Winter, 1968, pp. 128-33.

William Styron, in The Confessions of Nat Turner, rivals [Ralph] Ellison in imaginative candor, in the independence of mind and of temper that suggests original views….

[The] novel defines itself … as the evocation of an individual pattern of human consciousness when the human in question is intense, sensitive, proud, intelligent, reflective, idealistic, inventive, romantically religious, and a Negro, in the South, in the early nineteenth century….

The Confessions of Nat Turner may be read as an expatiation on history, from within, as the study of a religious temperament in extreme and inflexible worldly circumstances, as a portrait of the grinding inertia of social institutions which both stimulate and negate individual resistance…. Perhaps it could be read as a long and intricate parable for our time (but mercy on the exegete). It has the kind of range and accuracy that will almost surely have the descendants of slave and owner alike protesting that they have been too intimately hit or, more deviously, not hit at all. It is a noteworthy novel in itself, and in the climate of modern fiction-writing, it amounts to a revelation.

Michael Cooke, "Nat Turner's Revolt" (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Yale Review, Winter, 1968, pp. 273-78.

In The Confessions of Nat Turner William Styron, for the first time, has faced up to what Katherine Anne Porter has called the "final reckoning of things." She said truly some years ago that Styron had not come to terms with "his own end meanings" because he had not brought them to the order of true art. In The Confessions of Nat Turner, however, Styron has done precisely that, for this novel is saturated with the feeling of actuality: in it the author has a sure grasp of the concrete and the imagined whole: this involves a sense of locality, of particular place, as a dramatic dimension of the action; a sense of the interplay of past and present, and the way a dramatic moment can bind them together; and, finally, a tragic sense of life with its inescapable waste, violence, corruption, and evil. In this important book these things all come into play in a palpable and real way, and the novel is accordingly invested with movement, life, and inevitability. And for these reasons The Confessions of Nat Turner is a powerfully dramatic and an utterly convincing novel.

George Core, "Nat Turner and the Final Reckoning of Things," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, pp. 745-52.