William Styron was born in Newport News, Virginia, on June 11, 1925, the son of William Clark and Pauline Styron. Styron’s roots in the South are deep and can be traced back to the seventeenth century. He grew up steeped in stories of the Civil War and of its battlefields. Raised in Hilton Village, a semirural community several miles from Newport News, he went to segregated schools and lived in a family with black servants. His father worked in shipbuilding in Newport News. His mother, who developed cancer soon after his birth, remained an invalid for eleven years, dying in 1939, after Styron’s sophomore year at Morrison High School. Around that time, he published his first story (now lost) in the school newspaper.
Styron was an active student—he was president of his sophomore class and manager of the football team—but his teachers thought he lacked discipline, and he was sent to the Christchurch School, an Episcopal preparatory school near Urbana, Virginia. In this small school of fifty students, he enjoyed the atmosphere of an encouraging extended family. He wrote for the school newspaper and yearbook, sailed, and played basketball. Although he attended chapel every day and church on Sunday, he also took up drinking, one of the traditional activities of a Virginia gentleman.
In 1942, Styron entered Davidson College, a Presbyterian institution near Charlotte, North Carolina. His father thought that the University of Virginia, known for its rowdy drinking parties, would be inappropriate for his son, an indifferent student. Styron joined the college newspaper and literary magazine, and he rid himself of his Tidewater accent after fellow students made fun of it.
At eighteen, Styron joined the Navy, expecting to train as an officer, but he was transferred to Duke University. There, he attended classes but was still under military discipline. Duke was a traditional campus, strict about matters of dress, with coeds wearing white gloves on off-campus dates. Again Styron proved a mediocre student, and he was put on active duty by the end of 1944.
After boot camp, Styron performed various duties and spent a few months guarding a prison camp. The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan spared him the experience of World War II combat, and he returned to the postwar liberated atmosphere of the Duke campus in 1946. In this invigorating environment, he began to develop as a writer of fiction, winning praise from teachers and publishing several stories in the college magazine while also attending writers’ conferences.
In 1947, Styron moved to New York, securing a job as an editor at McGraw-Hill, where he read reams of unsolicited manuscripts. As lax an employee as he had been a student, Styron was fired after six months. He provides a vivid portrait of himself as an aspiring writer in the character of Stingo in his novel Sophie’s Choice (1979). Having taken a writing class at the New School for Social Research taught by Hiram Haydn, a book editor in New York, Styron began to conceive his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951). Almost always a slow writer subject to writer’s block, Styron moved back to Durham for a brief period before finishing the novel in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn and in Valley Cottage, near Nyack, New York.
In 1951, Styron was recalled to active duty in the Marines during the Korean War, and the episode became the basis of his fine novella The Long March (1956). His first novel had been hailed by critics, who saw him as the successor to the great southern novelist William Faulkner. About this time, he also met his future wife, Rose Burgender, and traveled in Europe. He worked on a novella he never completed (about his experiences as a prison guard) and on a novel set in Europe that was eventually published as Set This House on Fire (1960).
In 1953, Styron moved to Roxbury, Connecticut. He married Rose Burgender, with whom...
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