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.
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.
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.