William Styron

William Styron Biography

Author (1925–2006)
Novelist William Styron won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner and wrote Sophie’s Choice, the basis of an Academy Award-winning film.


William Styron was born on June 11, 1925, in Newport News, Virginia. He published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, in 1952. In 1968 he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner. In 1979 he published Sophie’s Choice, which was made into a film in 1982 and an opera in 2002. Styron continued to write throughout the 1990s. He died November 1, 2006 on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Early Life

William Clark Styron Jr. was born in Newport News, Virginia, on June 11, 1925. While William Jr. was growing up, his father, William Styron Sr., whose ancestors had been living in the South since the 1600s, worked as a shipyard clerk. William's mother, Pauline Margaret Abraham Styron, was born into a long line of Pennsylvanians, and died when William Jr. was just 13.

After his mother's death, William Jr. started rebelling. In order to discipline the unruly teen, his father sent him to Christchurch School, a small Episcopal boys' preparatory school in Middlesex County, Virginia.

After graduating from Christchurch in 1942, Styron began training as a Marines reserve officer and attending Davidson College. The Marines transferred him to Duke University the following year.

In 1944, Styron left Duke to assume active duty, and after training for a year, was sent to help invade Japan as a second lieutenant. Styron was discharged just a month after arriving, when Japan surrendered in the wake of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Early Writing

Back in the United States, William Styron resumed his education at Duke University. During this time, he became reacquainted with his former professor, William Blackburn. Blackburn took Styron under his wing, encouraging Styron's interest in literature and coaching him in his writing. With Blackburn's support and guidance, Styron began writing his first short stories. Styron at last completed his Bachelor of the Arts degree at Duke in 1947. After graduation, he moved to New York, following Blackburn's suggestion that he take Hira Haydn's creative writing class at the New School for Social Research.

In New York, Styron also took a copy writing job with the McGraw-Hill publishing company, but he soon felt that the job drained him of creative inspiration. To his relief, he was fired within six months for his sloppy appearance and for slacking off on the job.

Since his father was providing him financial support, Styron decided to stop working and focus entirely on his writing. The decision yielded successful results; after a summer redeployed, in 1952, Styron published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, about the collapse of a Southern family. The book earned Styron the Prix de Rome of the Academy of Arts and Letters, as well as a free year at the American Academy in Rome. The summer before his year in Rome, Styron stayed in Paris, where he helped found The Paris Review.

Personal Life

Once in Rome, Styron fell in love with Rose Burgunder, a poet and classmate at the American Academy. In the late spring of 1953, the couple wed in Rome. William and Rose would go on to have a son and three daughters, among them Alexandra Styron, who would grow up to become a writer like her father, and one day pen the memoir Reading My Father in his honor.

Major Works

In 1956, Styron published a novella called The Long March, inspired by his second Marine tour. He produced his next novel, Set This House on Fire, in 1960, which many readers found disappointing. In 1967, Styron faced controversy when he published The Confessions of Nat Turner, based on the real-life experiences of a slave who rebelled. Despite this upset, the book won a Pulitzer Prize the following year.

Styron encountered similar mixed responses from his readers when he published a book about a Holocaust survivor in 1979, Sophie's Choice. The book was made into an Academy Award-winning film starring Meryl Streep in 1982. The same year that the film was released, Styron published This Quiet Dust and Other Writings, a collection of his best non-fiction works. He also began a novel called The Way of the Warrior during the 1980s, but struggled to complete it.

Later Work and Death

Styron continued to write throughout the 1990s. His work during that decade included Darkness Visible: a Memoir of Madness and the short-story trilogy A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth.

In 2002, Styron approved Nicholas Maw's operatic version of his novel Sophie's Choice. Maw invited Styron to write the opera's libretto, but Styron declined.

William Styron died of pneumonia on November 1, 2006, on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

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