Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

by William Styron

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273

Styron penned Darkness Visible when he was sixtyfour years old, after a successful career in which he had gained a reputation as a prose stylist who wrote engaging stories that emphasized enduring human themes. Its critical reception is to a large degree based on Styron’s established reputation and the respect it affords him. With few exceptions the book was praised for its insight and candor. Reviewing the book for Newsweek, Peter Prescott wrote that ‘‘Darkness Visible . . . is an essay of great gravity and resonance. Never has Styron used so few words so effectively.’’ Jon Saari of Antioch Review agreed, writing: ‘‘[Styron’s] memoir should become a valuable addition to the understanding of depression, confirming again the role the literary artist plays in bringing light to the darkest secrets of the human psyche.’’ Writing for Magill Reviews, R. Baird Shuman concurs: ‘‘His account of this struggle is candid and balanced. As an anatomy of the kind of severe depression that often culminates in suicide, Darkness Visible is a deeply personal statement.’’

Not all critics praised the book, however. R. Z. Sheppard writes in Time magazine that ‘‘by Styronian standards, [Darkness Visible] is a mote of a book. It began as a speech at Johns Hopkins University and was expanded to an article. . . . Adding 5,000 words to the magazine piece, the author manages to fill eighty-four pages of generously spaced type.’’ Although Sheppard thinks the provocative content of the book makes it worth its price, he says, ‘‘There is little literary justification for . . . [making the article into a book]. The loose narrative suggests the dangers of stretching one form to do the work of another.’’

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Essays and Criticism