Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
How does William Styron use the theme of racism in his novels?
Styron is considered a southern author. What are some characteristics he shares with other southern writers?
How does Styron use historic events in his fiction?
In The Confessions of Nat Turner, how does Styron arouse sympathy for his main character?
In what ways do Styron’s fictional characters reflect his own life?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Until 1990, William Styron (STI-ruhn) was among the few major modern literary figures who bear discussion in only a single genre—in his case, the novel. Except for a slight and rather odd play, In the Clap Shack (pr. 1972), and a collection of essays, This Quiet Dust, and Other Writings (1982), Styron mainly concentrated on novels. In 1990, however, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness was widely hailed. A candid and insightful recounting of Styron’s personal battle with severe clinical depression, Darkness Visible was an immediate popular success. A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth is a collection of short stories published in 1993.
Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Until the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967, William Styron was well known in literary circles as a young novelist of great talent but largely unrealized potential. The Confessions of Nat Turner, riding the crest of a wave of social activism in the late 1960’s and capitalizing on a national interest in black literature and history, gave Styron a major popular reputation as well as making him the center of a vitriolic controversy between academic and literary critics on one side, who tended to see the novel as an honest attempt to come to terms with history, and a small group of black critics on the other hand, who questioned, often abusively, the ability of any white writer to deal with the black experience and who called Styron’s portrait of Nat Turner unflattering and inaccurate. The book and the debate it engendered made Styron a major voice in twentieth century fiction, and it made him rich.
Despite the twelve-year hiatus between the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner and that of Sophie’s Choice, Styron’s reputation grew, particularly in terms of his role as an interpreter of the South. Lie Down in Darkness was recognized as one of the finest presentations in fiction of the modern southern family, haunted by memory, guilt, and time, and The Confessions of Nat Turner came to be seen as representative of the concern of southern writers with the burden of history. The Confessions of Nat Turner was accepted as a rhetorically beautiful evocation of the past, whatever its historical inaccuracies.
The publication of Sophie’s Choice in 1979 cemented Styron’s position as one of the major figures of contemporary literature. Although several major critics had reservations about the novel, its ambitious confrontation of a moral theme of enormous implication—the Holocaust—and Styron’s compelling, lyrical prose made the novel the literary event of the year. With Sophie’s Choice, some of Styron’s lifelong concerns as a novelist become clearer: the unanswerable problem of pain and suffering, the elusive nature of memory, and the ambiguous legacy of history.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Casciato, Arthur D., and James L. W. West III, eds. Critical Essays on William Styron. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Collection of critical essays that cover all of Styron’s major novels and include bibliographical references.
Coale, Samuel. William Styron Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A brief biography and an analysis of Styron’s novels. Coale devotes a chapter to each major work, including a selected bibliography.
Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. The Novels of William Styron: From Harmony to History. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995. Study of the influence of the modernist movement on Styron, explores Styron’s psychological themes, and analyzes his shifting patterns of discourse. Includes analysis of Styron’s later work.
Hadaller, David. Gynicide: Women in the Novels of William Styron. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. Explores women in Styron’s fiction, particularly the deaths of women and the meaning of these deaths. Hadaller argues that Styron’s depictions force readers to question a society that victimizes women.
Morris, Robert K., and Irving Malin, eds. The Achievement of William Styron. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1975. Provides essays by various critics on Styron’s fiction up to Sophie’s Choice. The essay by Morris and Malin on Styron’s career as a visionary novelist is a good introduction to his work.
West, James L. W., III, ed. Conversations with William Styron. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985. Collected interviews with William Styron in which Styron attempts to “restore a little balance,” giving his side to the many controversies that his books have caused.
West, James L. W., III, ed. William Styron: A Life. New York: Random House, 1998. The first comprehensive biography of Styron, West’s extraordinary work lucidly and cogently connects events in Styron’s life to his fiction. This is an essential work for anyone who wishes to understand Styron and his writing.