James L. W. West III, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, brings twenty-five years of acquaintance and conversation with the author, complete access to his papers, manuscripts, and letters, extensive access to many of his friends and family, and the broad perspective gained from three previous books on Styron to the task of writing this first biography of one of contemporary American literature’s most controversial and prominent figures. The result is a solid beginning upon which every subsequent biographer will inevitably build.
To many, writing the biography of a living contemporary author is a dubious enterprise at best. Not only is it difficult to gain critical and historical perspective, but the temptation to gloss over unpleasant facts out of consideration for the author and his loved ones or gratitude for the cooperation he has provided is also often both overwhelming and debilitating. Meeting these challenges requires judgment and tact, a sense of balance and proportion as well as knowledge and mastery of the facts. Like all biographers, the biographer of a contemporary must also avoid the poles of pathography and hagiography—of reducing his subject to nothing but flaws or becoming so blinded by familiarity that he sees no flaws at all. Ideally, the literary biographer will also remember that his subject is of interest to readers because of the work that his life has produced and recognize that the first purpose of recounting any author’s life is to provide a fuller understanding of that work. West meets most of these challenges admirably.
He also understands that the primary justification for a contemporary biography is the biographer’s ability to speak directly to the subject and those who have known him, and that its most important service is to use those conversations to lay out the basic facts that others will someday elaborate or place in larger contexts.
West writes appreciatively and perceptively about William Styron’s experiments with narrative voice in his novels—experiments in which Styron artfully blends the perspectives of his narrators with those of other central characters. William Styron: A Life is marked by a similar technique: the life story that West tells often seems not merely about but by William Styron. Large sections of the book read like a form of third-person autobiography, as memories, analyses, interpretations and views that are obviously Styron’s—of his feelings and thoughts about his childhood and early career, his goals and struggles as a writer, his sense of his family life, his relations with other writers—are recounted as facts in West’s voice.
The story begins in Newport News and the Tidewater region of Virginia and follows Styron from college (Davidson and Duke) and Marine training in the Carolinas, through the composition of his first novel in Manhattan and the Hudson Valley of New York, to a year in Europe that included his helping to found the Paris Review and his marriage to Rose Burgunder in Rome in 1953, to their returning to establish the homes in Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard where he has lived and worked ever since.
West captures the character and spirit of each of these places and marshals the facts of William Styron’s life with thoroughness and care. He describes Styron’s ancestors, speculates about the impact of the loss of his mother when he was fourteen years old, reports his uninspired academic record at preparatory school and college, acknowledges the importance of his father’s support and encouragement to his early career, summarizes his two stints in the Marines during World War II and the Korean War, describes his writing routine and family life, traces the composition, publication, and reception of each of his books through Darkness Visible (1990), and suggests the range of his literary friendships and political engagements.
In the process, he seems to have kept in mind Styron’s observation in a review of Andrew Turnbull’s biography of one of his first literary heroes, Thomas Wolfe. “Too many biographies—especially of literary figures—tend to be overly fleshed out and are cursed with logorrhea,” Styron wrote, “so that the illustrious subject himself becomes obliterated behind a shower of menus, train tickets, opera programs, intineraries and dull mash notes from lovelorn girls.” William Styron: A Life is both well-written and well-focused. West does not tell his readers more than they want or need to know about such details. Instead, he keeps his focus on what is important to begin to understand the man, the writer, and the work.
With the publication of his highly praised first novel Lie down in Darkness (1951), William Styron’s life as a writer began. Ever since, he has been mentioned in any discussion of...
(The entire section is 1988 words.)