I felt myself no longer a husk but a body with some of the body’s sweet juices stirring again. I had my first dream in many months, confused but to this day imperishable, with a flute in it somewhere, and a wild goose, and a dancing girl.—William Styron, Darkness Visible (1990)
After the staggering success of 1979’s “Sophie’s Choice,” William Styron (1925-2006) never completed another novel. It wasn’t for want of trying, his youngest daughter, Alexandra Styron, tells us in Reading My Father, her memoir about growing up with the brilliant, temperamental, and often deeply depressed writer.
A year or so after his death, Alexandra visited Styron’s alma mater, Duke University, which houses the William Styron Papers—”22,500 items pertaining to his life and work”—and found a box marked “WS17: Unfinished Work Subseries, 1970-1990s and undated.” It contained “several fat folders” of unpublished fiction, none of it in any recognizable order.
…the first page was page 5 and began in the middle of a sentence. The second page was page 11, after which the manuscript moved on sequentially til page 33. The page after that was 39, and then the numbers began to run backward, then forward again. 22,199, 68 twice … on and on it went like this. Hundreds of pages jumbled, other omitted entirely.
The second folder, she saw, was the same. At least 100,000 words of prose, “if possible, even more disorganized.” This one was dated, by her father, February 2, 1985. The disorder wasn’t just a matter, she noticed, of reorganizing the pages.
… the sentence fragments didn’t flow. It was like someone had taken a cabinet full of puzzles, tossed a bunch of pieces into two boxes, and thrown the rest out. Nothing fit. More unnerving still was the sheer volume.
This World War II story, whatever it was, he ran at it again and again. Two hundred fifty thousand, maybe 300,000 words. Crafted sentences, polished, honed. Avenues of thought, narrative built on mountains of research. Great, long loops of memory and emotion.
And that wasn’t all. Alexandra found four more manuscripts in the same condition.
From the very beginning, Styron had been hailed as one of the brightest stars of his generation of writers. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, drew instant comparisons to Faulkner and won the Prix de Rome; he was 26. 1967’s The Confessions of Nat Turner garnered rave reviews and won the Pulitzer Prize. Sophie’s Choice, won the 1980 National Book Award and was made into an Academy-award winning movie.
But the costs of this kind of success were high—and it wasn’t because Styron was a fame junky. “You could say my father’s whole life was one long preamble to personal armageddon,” his daughter writes.
Hypersensitive, aloof, unexamined, not to mention hypochondriacal, agnostic, and alcoholic. Intellectual, passionate, and infantile. It would probably have required some religious regeneration, or a close encounter of the third kind, to break his inevitable date with madness.
Writing had never been easy for him. Lie Down in Darkness, Alexandra explains, “was a three-and-a-half year gamble, fraught with all the setbacks, occlusions, and long,dark nights of the soul that make up any great unmapped venture.”
Set This House on Fire was another complicated undertaking that led Styron “into a narrative corner that no muse, and certainly no liquor, could ease him out of. Briefly, he tried speed. But it gave him insomnia, so he went back to drinking.”
The critics hated it.
Furthermore, Styron’s books took risks and often met with controversy; “a firestorm of controversy” erupted around The Confessions of Nat Turner: “scathing attacks” appeared in the literary magazines of the day, while personal friend James Baldwin, then finishing Another Country, was “alone among prominent black writers” who came to Styron’s defense.
Styron’s next project was to be a book about World War II, tentatively called The Way of the Warrior. Esquire ran a story from it, “Marriott, the Marine” in 1971 (later collected in 2009’s posthumous The Suicide Run). Instead, in 1973 he had a strange dream one night about “a woman, a Holocaust survivor he’d encountered while living in Brooklyn as a young man.” Six years later, Sophie’s Choice came out.
At the top of his game in 1985, Styron had everything: “Loving family, towering talent, money, friends.” Alexandra describes his literary circle (it’s impossible not to name drop; the Styrons knew the Kennedys, the Millers, the Mailers, the Bernsteins, the Cerfs, Frank Sinatra, Peter Matthiessen) and the way her parents entertained: “Their dinners were magical, the candlelit table groaning with food, great, running rivers of alcohol, and guest lists that were rarely anything less than Olympian.”
A year later Styron had his first bout of depression. His ground-breaking, 15,000-word essay about it, “Darkness Visible,” ran in Vanity Fair and would become the basis for one of his best-selling books.
Alexandra offers several explanations for her father’s crashes, one of them the early and lingering death of his mother to breast cancer when he was only 14. An only child born to older parents, Styron already endured crushing loneliness, but when a cold stepmother stepped in less than a year later, and packed Styron off to boarding school, he lost the comfort of his father, and also, Alexandra says, any chance to resolve his grief. His feelings went the only place they could: “where they didn’t belong: underground.”
But repressed emotions, she makes clear, can be as tricky as the term “writer’s block.” Her father readily expressed his sexuality off the page and on (his daughter writes of reading, at age 12, parts of Sophie’s Choice that left her trying “not to throw up on my Bass Weejuns” one day at school). Nor could he be accused of holding back his temper.
“His anger erupted without warning, the irrationality of it as frightening as the actions that accompanied it. A toy left in his path, a pencil with no point …” Anything could set him off. Though never physically violent with his children, the man his daughter still affectionately calls “Daddy” so often in the book, delivered brutal tirades that would put Alec Baldwin to shame. He once told the horse-loving Alexandra, eight years old, that the new governor had banned horses and they would have to sell hers to “the glue factory.”
Did not being able to write drive him mad, or did his depression stifle all attempts to write? Alexandra comes down on the side of a simple inability to pull off another novel to his satisfaction. “At the time of his death,” she says, “it had been 27 years since his last completed novel. Twenty-seven years since he’d felt good about himself.”
This was back in the Stone Age of clinical depression. The mid-80s was not only a pre-Prozac world but one without any of the edifying voices that would cry out from the wilderness in the years ahead. There was no Kay Jamison, no Andrew Solomon, and of course, no Bill Styron—no one yet back from the fresh hell of depression with any cogent field notes. So like everybody else around my father, our family was mystified by his sudden spiral.
But if his family never understood Styron’s crackups, they soon got used to them: For the remainder of his life, Styron would suffer such devastating attacks of madness that he even overcame his biggest fear, of electroshock treatments he believed would ruin his ability to write, during his second bout in 2000.
Writer’s block isn’t always what it sounds like: a failure to write. That would be oversimplifying, as well as underestimating, its insidious power. Styron continued to produce “a fair amount,” including nonfiction (This Quiet Dust, Darkness Visible) and a short-story collection (A Tidewater Morning), book reviews, speeches, tributes, op-eds, essays and magazine articles, and introductions to other people’s books. “But the Novel owned his heart and was the one thing about which he really gave a damn.”
Reading My Father is a gallant and unflinchingly honest portrait of the man the author at first feared she wouldn’t be able to write about. As she says of her father’s life, it was his untold “war story,” and she was there in the trenches to see much of it and finally, help finish it for him.
For readers interested in a more comprehensive biography, James West’s William Styron: A Life (1998), is the accepted canon, and Darkness Visible, Styron’s own account of his “self-inflicted savagery” tells the rest. You can find or order these at your local independent bookstore.