The primary source for this timeline is James L. W. West III, William Styron: A Life, published by Random House in 1998. Readers in search of additional detail should consult that biography. Thanks to Gregg Baptista for drafting the initial version of this timeline.
BIRTH AND PARENTS
1925—Born William Clark Styron, Jr., June 11, in Newport News, in the Tidewater region of Virginia, the only child of Pauline Margaret Abraham (b. 1887) and William Clark Styron (b. 1889). Father, W.C. Styron, is the son of Alpheus Whitehurst Styron, an energetic and well-liked but largely unsuccessful small businessman in Washington, North Carolina, and Marianna Clark, a daughter of a prominent North Carolina family. Mother, Pauline Abraham, is one of four children of Enoch Abraham of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, who began as an administrator for Henry Clay Frick and eventually became wealthy from operating his own coke plant. Father works at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, where he had taken a job as a mechanical draftsman in 1911; he will hold various positions at the shipyard during his career. As a young man, he had been interested in the liberal arts, but was forced by finances to attend the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (today N. C. State University). Though a good worker, he feels miscast in life. Styron’s mother traveled extensively in Europe in her youth and was trained in voice and piano. She attended a two-year music education program at the University of Pittsburgh and taught public-school music in Pittsburgh and Pueblo, Colorado. In 1918 she took a job with the YWCA in Newport News to contribute to the war effort. Father and mother met in 1918, shortly after she broke off her engagement to an army lieutenant; they became engaged that year and married in 1921.
1927—Pauline discovers she has breast cancer, beginning a long period of illness. She has a double mastectomy, but the cancer eventually returns and spreads throughout her body. The severity of her condition will be kept from her son until he is ten or eleven years old.
1930-31—Shows unusual verbal ability by age five and is taught to read by Sally Cox Hayes, a neighbor and former grade-school teacher. Often shows off his reading skills to visitors and neighbors. Enters first grade in 1931. Enjoys reading and quickly advances beyond the reading level for his grade. Becomes bored with schoolwork.
1932-37—The Styrons move to Hilton Village, a small community just outside Newport News, in 1932. Billy (as he is known) begins to camp and hunt with friends in the woods near his home. Enters second grade at Hilton Village Elementary School in fall 1932. The school, run by Miss Alice M. Menin, provides an environment filled with art, music, and theatrical performance. Billy excels in reading, writing, and history; he takes part in school plays and pageants. Eventually skips a grade (probably the third). Assumes various household duties to help as mother’s illness worsens. The Styrons occasionally attend local performances of notable singers and orchestras; some of these are given for mixed-race audiences at the nearby black college, Hampton Institute, affording Styron close contact with the black people who are ever-present in Newport News, but are segregated from whites and are mysterious to him.
1938—Sent to stay with Sally Cox Hayes and her family (they now live nearby in Hilton Village) to limit exposure to his mother’s now-advanced and painful illness. Begins freshman year at Morrison High School in the fall. Has difficulty adjusting because he is a year younger than most classmates and is small in stature; develops a sharp wit as a defense. Academic performance is generally mediocre, except in history, which he enjoys. Writes a Joseph Conrad-inspired short story called “Typhoon and the Tor Bay” for the high-school newspaper, The Sponge. (No copy is known to survive.) Becomes interested in stamp collecting at the encouragement of Mrs. Lynwood R. (Elmer) Holmes, a friend of his mother with whom he corresponds. Travels alone for the first time, to visit Mrs. Holmes, whom he’ll eventually call Auntie Elmer, in Philadelphia.
1939—Stays for three weeks with his cousin Frances Welch and family in Ahoskie, North Carolina, following the end of school in the spring. Father becomes friendly with Elizabeth Buxton, a nurse and daughter of a prominent Newport News physician, during Pauline’s final illness. Pauline dies, July 20, after weeks of intense pain. Billy expresses little outward reaction and buries feelings of confusion, sorrow, and guilt. Begins sophomore year at Morrison in the fall. Elected class president and “Wittiest” by fellow students. Sees a historical sign marking the site of Nat Turner’s slave insurrection along a Southside Virginia road during a football team trip in October; the sign piques his curiosity about the rebellion and its leader.
1940—Father hospitalized, February 21, for three weeks to recover from the strain of his wife’s illness and death. Father travels to San Juan, Puerto Rico, March 13, for three more weeks of rest with Pauline’s brother. Billy takes a paper route during his father’s absence to earn money to purchase a sailboat but quits after a few weeks. Worries that his father and Elizabeth Buxton might marry; grows to dislike Elizabeth, whom he sees as stern and humorless. First cousin Hugh Styron comes to live with the Styrons in the spring. Styron finds Hugh brash and overbearing, but Hugh helps Styron repair the old sailboat his father has acquired for him. Visits the 1939 World’s Fair, still open in New York City, with two friends in August. Starts his first year at Christchurch, a small Episcopal boys’ prep school near West Point, Virginia, in September. Likes the school’s picturesque location and relaxed atmosphere.
1941—Participates in sports and activities at Christchurch: sailing, basketball, rifle team, chess club, the choir, and dramatic productions. Elected president of the Literary Society. Contributes to and co-edits the school newspaper, the Stingaree, which prints gossip and humor. Generally happy at Christchurch, but tends to be sarcastic with peers and becomes frustrated with the school’s strict headmaster, William Smith. Father and Elizabeth Buxton marry, October 18. Father and Elizabeth move to a large house overlooking Hampton Roads; Bill (as he is now known) finds it increasingly difficult to get along with his new stepmother during visits home. Writes a short story for English class called “A Chance in a Million;” it features skillful work with dialogue and characterization.
1942—Decides to attend Davidson College, a Presbyterian school in North Carolina. Wanted to attend Washington and Lee, but his father had objected to its reputation as a drinking school. Graduates from Christchurch in June and arrives at Davidson for summer courses a week later.
1942—Performs respectably in summer courses. Rebels against the freshman hazing system during the fall semester, incurring various penalties from upperclassmen, but adjusts after the orientation period ends. Pledges with Phi Delta Theta fraternity. Loses virginity in a mildly comic experience with a prostitute in Charlotte in December. Begins writing prose and poetry for the school newspaper and the campus humor magazine, Scripts ’n Pranks. Generally unhappy at Davidson owing to the school’s religious atmosphere and academic rigor; earns mostly C’s.
1943—Enlists in the Marine Corps in February; knowing military service is inevitable, he calculates that the Marine Corps will offer greater chances for an officer’s commission than the army. Barely passes physical exam by memorizing the eye chart, concealing the poor vision in his right eye (caused by a congenital cataract). Completes the year at Davidson. Is transferred to Duke University, North Carolina, late June, to join the Marines’ V-12 program, which sends recruits to college classes in preparation for officer training.
1943—Styron takes a creative writing course during the fall semester with Professor William Blackburn, who will become an important mentor. Responds well to the challenge of Blackburn’s course, eventually earning his praise. Blackburn’s encouragement crystallizes Styron’s desire to make writing his career. Performs poorly in classes other than English and history; fails physics (a required course). Meets Barbara (Bobbie) Taeusch, the daughter of a Harvard professor, in Blackburn’s class; they begin an emotionally close romance.
1944—Contributes a poem and several short stories to the Duke literary magazine, The Archive. The stories, one of which had impressed Blackburn the previous fall, show promise despite some stylistic immaturity. Continues taking courses with Blackburn, largely neglecting other courses. Barely passes physics (probably out of the instructor’s kindness) after failing the course three times.
1944—Styron is ordered to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, in late October. Barely passes marksmanship requirements by teaching himself to fire the M1 rifle left-handed, to compensate for his impaired right eye. Sent to the base VD ward (the “Clap Shack”) mid-November with an apparent case of syphilis, a disease which is heavily stigmatized and still life-threatening in 1944. Receives a cold and judgmental letter from stepmother, which furthers his dislike of her. Released when doctors realize Styron in fact has trench mouth, which sometimes produces a false positive test for syphilis. This humiliating experience solidifies Styron’s dislike of the dehumanization common within the military.
1945—Transferred to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, in February for officer training. Sent to Platoon Commander School at Quantico, Virginia, in May. Bobbie Taeusch, now living in New York City, visits occasionally; their relationship remains unresolved. Completes officer training; commissioned second lieutenant in July. War ends in August. Reassigned in October to the Naval Disciplinary Barracks on Harts Island in Long Island Sound to await demobilization; chooses the prison over more exotic posts to be close to Bobbie Taeusch and New York. Stint at Harts Island gives Styron experience with the psychology and consequences of imprisonment. Sent to Portsmouth, Virginia, in November for discharge procedures, which are completed in December. Stays with father and stepmother until the spring term begins at Duke; relationship with stepmother becomes increasingly hostile. Story “The Long, Dark Road” included in One and Twenty,a clothbound collection of Duke student writing published by Duke University Press in November.
1946—Returns to Duke University for spring term. Feels out of place; takes mostly literature and history courses and generally does well, almost making the dean’s list. Relationship with Bobbie Taeusch remains as before (it will eventually end when both realize they are not meant to marry). Maintains a strong desire to make writing his career. Applies and is accepted to the Bread Loaf writers’ conference at Middlebury College in Vermont for two weeks in August. To avoid spending the intervening summer weeks at home with his stepmother, Styron signs up in June as a deckhand on the Cedar Rapids Victory, a merchant cattle ship bound for Trieste, and serves as a veterinary assistant for the voyage. Stays in Trieste longer than expected because of a dockhands’ strike, which leaves the ship’s crew with nothing to do; tours the city in the company of the ship’s veterinarian and two European women. Returns to the U.S. and heads to Vermont for the Bread Loaf conference in August. Conference staff includes William Sloane, Louis Untermeyer, Graeme Lorimer, Wallace Stegner, and Robert Frost. Reads and works on some short-fiction manuscripts, but does relatively little at the conference; absorbs the atmosphere and observes the appearance and behavior of published writers.
1946—To Duke for fall term. Visits Blackburn frequently. Forms opinions of academia, mostly negative, including a dislike and distrust of published academic criticism. Becomes acquainted with future writers Mac Hyman, Peter Maas, Guy Davenport, all of whom are students at Duke. Friendly with Ashbel Brice (who will later become director of Duke University Press) and with future Esquire editor Clay Felker. Meets Bob Loomis, who will later become his editor at Random House. Contributes several items to The Archive, including two stories, “The Ducks” and “This is My Daughter,” both of which show improvement over previous work in structure, psychological complexity, and narrative voice. Submits work to the Virginia Quarterly Review, but it is rejected. Blackburn tries to help Styron make contacts in the publishing industry. Receives letters from two trade editors who will be influential in early career: John Selby, a book editor at Rinehart, who praises “The Long, Dark Road” and offers to look at a book manuscript when available; and Hiram Haydn, editor of The American Scholar and an editor at Crown. Applies, on Blackburn’s encouragement, to be a Rhodes Scholar, and is selected as a finalist. Travels to Atlanta for the regional competition in December. Loses competition, but receives encouragement from Harvie Branscomb, chancellor of Vanderbilt University. Leaves the competition feeling that he has narrowly escaped a life in academia.
GRADUATION AND McGRAW-HILL
1947—Completes coursework at Duke, earning respectable grades, and graduates in the spring. Reenlists in the Marine Corps Reserves in April to maintain his officer rank in the event of a recall. Moves to New York City in the spring to pursue his writing career. Rents a tiny cell in a dingy rooming house near Washington Square. With the help of John Selby at Rinehart, secures an assistant editor position for Whittlesey House, the trade-book division of McGraw-Hill. Dislikes his job, which consists mostly of reading unsolicited manuscripts (the “slush pile”). Reads much at night, especially the works of William Faulkner. Contracts hepatitis, which leads to a two-week hospital stay, followed by a period of convalescence in Bobbie Taeusch’s apartment. Once-prominent editor Edward C. Aswell becomes editor-in-chief at Whittlesey House in September; Aswell dislikes Styron and soon fires him. Styron is happy to be free of the politics and drudgery of the publishing business, which he feared would make him cynical about writing. Takes a more livable apartment, on Lexington Avenue near 94th Street, with a friend from Duke. Acquires a dog named Mr. Chips; he dotes on the dog and takes the animal bar-hopping. Inherits one thousand dollars from his maternal grandmother’s estate, which, combined with his GI benefits, allows him to survive without taking another job.
1947—Enrolls in a fiction-writing seminar at the New School for Social Research at the invitation of its instructor, Hiram Haydn. Haydn arranges a $250 advance from Crown for Styron’s first novel. Styron begins writing novel in the fall under the working title “Inheritance of Night.” Plans an approach heavily influenced by Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, including a retarded character (Maudie Loftis, who is less severely retarded than in the published version of Lie Down in Darkness) and interior monologue sections from different characters designed to illuminate the central character, Peyton Loftis. Shows Maudie’s interior monologue to Haydn just before Christmas; Haydn approves. Becomes friendly with writer Mac Hyman, who will later publish the successful comic novel No Time for Sergeants. Reads Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men just after Christmas. Writes a three-page descriptive passage modeled on the opening to Warren’s novel; is pleased with the quality of this writing.
DURHAM AND “INHERITANCE OF NIGHT”
1948—Continues work on “Inheritance of Night” through winter and early spring. Produces a five-page synopsis of the unwritten portions for Crown executives; the synopsis closely resembles Faulkner’s “Compson Appendix” to The Sound and the Fury. Has produced about fifty pages by June, but begins to doubt the direction of the novel and to worry about its similarities to Faulkner’s work. Stops working on the novel. Returns to Durham in July for a change of environment. Stays briefly with Ashbel Brice before taking an apartment close to the East Campus of Duke. Socializes with Brice’s crowd of academics. Resumes work on novel. Discards the Maudie Loftis monologue and places the three-page descriptive passage at the beginning; works to reduce influences of Faulkner’s style. Contacts a New York literary agent, Elizabeth McKee, in September; McKee agrees to market his writing to magazines. Stalls on the novel and avoids it for several months. Works on short stories instead, but with little success. Travels to New York City just after Christmas to meet with Haydn and McKee. Haydn offers encouraging remarks about the “Inheritance of Night” material and tells Styron to push through on the novel, setting March 1, 1949, as a deadline for substantial progress.
FLATBUSH AND VALLEY COTTAGE
1949—Continues work on novel and produces twenty pages of new material for Haydn’s March 1 deadline, but feels discouraged over slow progress. Decides to return to New York City: living in Durham has proved unproductive. Arranges to share an apartment with Bob Loomis, but finds the apartment rented when he arrives in May. Stays briefly with Sigrid de Lima, a friend from the New School, and her mother Agnes (Aggie) de Lima before finding a room in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Likes the environment of his neighborhood and enjoys observing his Jewish neighbors. Meets and has conversations with an Auschwitz survivor, a fellow roomer in the house named Sophie, who will become the principal model for the title character in Sophie’s Choice. Faces money problems as GI benefits run out, and accepts an offer to live rent-free with Aggie and Sigrid de Lima in their country residence in Valley Cottage, a village near Nyack, New York, north of the city. Father urges Styron to continue working on the novel and pledges to send one hundred dollars a month (then a considerable sum) until its completion. Moves to Valley Cottage in June; enjoys living with the de Limas. Decides to rethink the overall narrative method of his novel. Develops a transparently omniscient authorial voice which presents the perspectives of multiple characters. Writing proceeds more smoothly after this decision; has completed one-half of the novel by December.
WEST 88th STREET
1950—Continues work on novel through winter and spring; the end is distantly in sight by May. Feels he has benefited long enough from the generosity of the de Limas. Returns to New York in June, to share an apartment on West 88th Street with a painter and sculptor named Howard Hoffman. In July, Hiram Haydn leaves Crown for Bobbs-Merrill in Indianapolis. Styron negotiates a release from his contract with Crown and follows Haydn. Signs with Bobbs-Merrill, which pays back the $250 advance from Crown, provides an additional $250, and pledges $500 on delivery of the manuscript. Begins a romantic relationship with divorced former fashion model Wanda Malinowska Montemora, who will become one of the models for Sophie in Sophie’s Choice. Works steadily on the novel every day, urged on by fear of a recall to the Marine Corps for service in the Korean War.
1951—Nears completion of novel manuscript at start of year. Recalled by the Marine Corps in January; ordered to report to Camp Lejeune by March 3, but secures a deferment until May through intervention by Hiram Haydn. Pushes himself physically and emotionally to write the final one hundred pages of the manuscript before returning to service. Delivers the last pages to Haydn at his house in Westport, Connecticut, and discusses minor stylistic revisions. Settles on the title “Lie Down in Darkness,” taken from Sir Thomas Browne’s “Urn Burial,” and dedicates the novel to Sigrid de Lima. Upon returning to the city, Styron has a brief emotional breakdown brought on by exhaustion from finishing the novel and anxiety over his return to the Marine Corps and possible combat duty. Reports to Camp Lejeune in May, bitter about the recall. Receives galley proofs of Lie Down in Darkness at Lejeune; reads them with excitement and pleasure. Two readers at Bobbs-Merrill object to sexually explicit language, particularly in Peyton Loftis’s final monologue; Styron reluctantly agrees to changes. Another set of objections follows from other readers at Bobbs-Merrill; irritated and resistant, Styron ultimately agrees to these at Haydn’s urging. Bobbs-Merrill promotes Lie Down in Darkness strongly, and the novel receives favorable pre-publication reactions.
1951—During field exercises on June 20, nine marines from a regiment adjacent to Styron’s are killed by short mortar rounds. Styron observes some of the resultant carnage. A few hours later, the commanding officer of Styron’s regiment, Colonel James M. Masters, orders the men to undertake an all-night, thirty-three-mile march, to harden the out-of-shape reservists. Though Styron completes the march, the exercise results in over one third of the regiment collapsing in exhaustion. The march and the mortar accident, both of which will be fictionalized in The Long March, crystallize a sense of the danger and absurdity inherent in the military establishment. Sent for an eye exam after poor marksmanship performance. The examining physician, himself bitter about being recalled to duty, recommends that Styron be discharged owing to the cataract in his right eye, which cannot be corrected by surgery or eyeglasses. Discharged permanently in August; relieved to have avoided more time in the military. Learns of the suicide, by drowning, of a young woman from Newport News who had been one of the models for Peyton Loftis in Lie Down in Darkness. Styron had had a crush on her as a teenager and had followed stories of her family and emotional problems; he is deeply troubled by her death and its eerie resonances with the fate of her fictional counterpart. Stays briefly at father’s home in Newport News after discharge.
1951—Returns to New York City in late August. Lives for a few weeks with John Maloney, a talented but erratic would-be novelist, and his wife. Moves to a one-bedroom sublet on Greenwich Avenue. Has an affair with a young married woman who already has a child; the possibility of her divorce and remarriage to Styron is discussed but not pursued. Lie Down in Darkness published September 10. Most major reviews are laudatory, some are raves. The novel receives heavy publicity, including over a hundred reviews in local newspapers across the country; this publicity establishes Styron’s place as an important new novelist and thrusts him into the literary spotlight. He attends cocktail parties and events where he meets prominent writers, including John Hersey, Norman Mailer, E. E. Cummings, Herman Wouk, Gore Vidal, and John P. Marquand, Jr. (son of the novelist). Appears at a Columbia University forum with Vidal, Malcolm Cowley, and John W. Aldridge, where he also meets actor Montgomery Clift and novelist James Jones; Styron and Jones begin a lifelong friendship. Meets prominent theatre people, including Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Tennessee Williams, and Marlene Dietrich, at a party hosted by Leo Lerman. Invited by academic Louis D. Rubin, Jr., to meet with graduate students at Johns Hopkins that spring; meets Rose Burgunder, his future wife, in the seminar. Lie Down in Darkness is commercially successful for Bobbs-Merrill, nearing thirty thousand in sales and hovering at the middle of the best-seller lists. Other prominent books on the list are From Here to Eternity and The Catcher in the Rye. Lie Down in Darkness ties for second place with Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun in a Saturday Review poll of Current Books Worth Reading. Signet purchases paperback rights for $15,000, half of which will go to Styron. Signet plans an edition of two hundred thousand copies. The London publisher Hamish Hamilton acquires British rights; translations into six European languages are arranged.
PRIX DE ROME
1952—Omnibook Best-Seller Magazine publishes an abridgement of Lie Down in Darkness in its January issue. In February the novelwins the Prix de Rome of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a prize which provides for a year in Rome (starting in October) spent at the American Academy there, as well as a stipend of $1,250 and books, transportation, and travel allowances. Styron is excited and plans to tour Europe prior to the move to Rome.
1952—Travels to England on the Île de France in March; is friendly with screenwriter Arthur Laurents and singer Lena Horne on the voyage. Introduced to London literary circles by Roger Machell, his editor at Hamish Hamilton. Meets George Plimpton at a London party. Lie Down in Darkness published in London on March 21 to mostly mixed or negative reviews; the cool British response irritates Styron. Tours parts of England with actor, screenwriter, and future director Bryan Forbes and his wife, Irish actress Constance Smith. Travels to Denmark for two weeks with American writer Calder Willingham.
1952—Arrives in Paris in April. Becomes friendly with American writer Peter Matthiessen, who introduces Styron to his circle of literary expatriates, including Thomas Guinzburg, William Pène du Bois and his wife Jane du Bois, Terry Southern, future film director Aram (Al) Avakian, and Harold L. (Doc) Humes. The group discusses founding a literary quarterly, with a focus on creative work over criticism. The quarterly will be called The Paris Review, to be edited by George Plimpton with the other group members serving in various roles. Though not a central member of the circle, Styron contributes to the founding discussions; he is given some authority by his position as a successful novelist and receives billing as an advisory editor. Becomes friendly with American writer Irwin Shaw, who introduces him to a different expatriate crowd, including Sam Goldwyn, Jr., John Huston, Gene Kelly, Harry Kurnitz, and Darryl Zanuck. Enjoys his time in Paris, despite some loneliness.
NAT TURNER AND “LIKE PRISONERS, WAKING”
1952—Considers writing about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion for his next project, and sends a letter home to father on May 1st for help with initial research. Shelves the project owing to lack of historical background, absence of accessible research materials, and lukewarm encouragement from Hiram Haydn. Begins, in June, a short story based on the mortar accident and forced march at Camp Lejeune. Plans to publish the story in a new literary journal called discovery, co-edited by writer Vance Bourjaily and critic John W. Aldridge and aimed at a nonacademic audience. Work on the story, initially entitled “Like Prisoners, Walking,” proceeds through June and into July, and the manuscript soon surpasses short-story length. Tells Bourjaily he is pleased with the narrative as it nears completion mid-July, but worries privately about its merit. Arranges a reading before the Paris Review crowd, and is reassured by their exuberant, slightly envious reaction. Takes a tour of the south of France in August with Doc Humes and his girlfriend, a tense trip relieved by a relaxing stay in Saint-Tropez. Has manuscript of “Like Prisoners, Walking” typed and submitted to discovery while in Saint-Tropez. Meets the humorist Art Buchwald and the writer and literary agent Ann McGarry (the two soon to be married) in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Back in Paris, Styron’s leg is injured when Peter Matthiessen backs his car into him. Styron limpsduring the rest of his time in the city. Writes, at the request of George Plimpton, a manifesto for the first issue of The Paris Review; Styron is uncomfortable with his approach to the piece but submits it to the editors. Revises the ending to “Like Prisoners, Walking” on the suggestion of Hiram Haydn. In September Matthiessen reads “Like Prisoners, Walking” and suggests “The Long March” as a new title; Styron eventually settles on “Long March” for the discovery publication.
ROME, THE ACADEMY, AND ROSE
1952—Arrives at the American Academy in Rome in the early fall. Meets and begins a friendship with painter and sculptor Robert (Bobby) White, who has also won an Academy fellowship. Receives a note in October from Rose Burgunder, who has finished her M.A. from Johns Hopkins and is living in Rome. Rose, a poet, is uncertain about whether to pursue a Ph.D. (She is the daughter of B. B. Burgunder, a successful Baltimore stock broker, and Selma Kann, whose family owns a prominent department store in Washington, D.C.) Both parents have been active in progressive causes. They have provided her with a solid education and a trust fund that leaves her free from financial worries.) Meets Rose for a date at the Hotel Excelsior bar; Truman Capote is also there. Styron and Rose are strongly attracted to each other and begin a courtship, often in the company of Bobby White and his wife Claire. Styron begins to fall in love with Rose.
“LETTER TO AN EDITOR”
1952—Receives a letter in October from John Train, the nonfiction editor of The Paris Review, asking him to rewrite the manifesto for the first issue. Styron takes Train’s suggestion and produces a more relaxed statement of purpose, in the form of a letter to the editor, that avoids the quarrelsome tone aimed at critics. Meets Rose’s mother, Selma Burgunder, for the first time; the meeting goes poorly, and Selma is uncertain about Styron. He and Rose spend a weekend in Ravello, on the Gulf of Salerno, with Selma, who escorts her daughter for the sake of propriety. By November, Styron and Rose are spending almost all of their time together. Proposes marriage to Rose in the bar of the Hotel Flora, early December. Some friends and family on both sides, including Selma Burgunder, express misgivings about the engagement. Styron and Rose spend Christmas in Paris followed by three days in London, along with composer Frank Wigglesworth and his wife and members of the Paris Review crowd.
CRISIS AND RECONCILIATION
1953—Styron receives news in London from his father that a detective has been investigating him in Newport News. He and Rose return to Rome in January. Elizabeth Buxton Styron writes to Rose urging her, for her own good, not to marry Styron. Rose learns that the detective was hired by her own mother. Affected by the various objections, Styron and Rose break off their engagement in January. Rose moves to Florence. Styron becomes depressed over the break-up and his lack of productivity during the preceding year. French translation of Lie Down in Darkness published in February as Un lit de ténèbres (“A Bed of Shadows”); Peyton’s name is changed throughout to Marjorie because “Peyton” translates roughly into the phrase “small fart.” Visits Bobby and Claire White regularly; Claire contacts Rose in early March and urges her to return to Rome to be with Styron. Rose does so, and by mid-March she and Styron are engaged again. The couple move into a basement apartment together. Styron and Rose travel again to Ravello in late March, where they see a Hollywood crew working on John Huston’s film Beat the Devil; Styron will draw from these observations for his second novel, Set This House on Fire.
MARRIAGE AND RAVELLO
1953—William Styron marries Rose Burgunder, May 4, at the Campidoglio in Rome. They meet Lillian Hellman at a reception organized by Irwin Shaw following the wedding. Selma Burgunder accepts news of the wedding and tells Styron to select a gift of his choice. Styron hits and injures a motorcyclist while driving back to Rome from a trip to Anzio with Irwin Shaw and others. Though not really at fault, Styron is shaken by the accident and refuses to drive for several weeks; he will fictionalize the incident in Set This House on Fire. The Styrons rent an apartment in Ravello for the summer; Bobby and Claire White rent a nearby house. Enjoys the quiet life in Ravello and entertains various friends, including the Haydns, William Blackburn, Elizabeth McKee, and Peter Matthiessen and his wife and baby. Begins, in August, a novella titled “Blankenship,” based on his experiences at the prison on Harts Island. Works steadily on the piece into September but ultimately abandons it, possibly because of similarities to “Long March.” The Styrons remain in Ravello through the fall but decide to return to the U.S., partly because Styron feels that life in Europe is too easy and distracting for a writer. The Styrons sail for the U.S. on the liner Independence, December 13, and arrive in New York on December 22. They spend Christmas with Rose’s family in Baltimore, during which time Selma Burgunder and Styron warm to each other. Eventually he and she will form a close friendship.
1954—The Styrons move into a one-bedroom apartment on East 76th Street in January. Styron spends ten days in bed with heart palpitations. Told by doctor that he’s suffering from reverse culture shock; recovers by February. Begins new novel manuscript by mid-March; an early version of Set This House on Fire, it is to be set in Ravello and Rome and to focus on American expatriates. Styron works through March and April and produces about twenty-five hundred words. He decides in May to discard this material and start over, partly because he is dissatisfied with the characterization of the protagonist, Peter Leverett, and partly because he is unable to work over the all-day din of a demolition and construction project across the street. The Styrons often visit friends outside the city to escape the noise and heat. Rose tells Styron she’s pregnant a few weeks after a visit to the Matthiessens on Long Island.
1954—The Styrons visit Elizabeth McKee and her husband in Roxbury, Connecticut, in early October. They love the quiet, rustic town and quickly locate and purchase a large, two-story nineteenth-century frame house on a fourteen-acre plot of land. They are settled in the guest house on the property by the end of October, awaiting renovations of the main house. Styron develops a loose regimen for writing and living that allows him to sleep late and relax often, but also to work productively for four to five hours a day. Rose’s income frees them from financial worries for the time being. Styron starts again on the novel once settled into the guest house. Chooses title Set This House on Fire, from an epistle by John Donne, and decides on a workable approach to Peter Leverett’s character. Writes steadily on the novel through the end of the year.
SET THIS HOUSE ON FIRE
1955—Hiram Haydn moves to Random House in January. Styron extricates himself from his contract with Bobbs-Merrill and signs a two-book contract with Random House that includes a $15,000 advance on the new novel. Meets William Faulkner at a lunch meeting; Faulkner is reserved, but the meeting is pleasant and relaxed. Random House arranges to publish “Long March,” re-titled The Long March, as a separate edition in the Modern Library paperback series. Styron begins helping his father financially as his own income from literary endeavors becomes more secure. Daughter Susanna Margaret born February 25 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Styron continues work on Set This House on Fire.
1956-58—Norman Mailer and his wife move to nearby Bridgewater, Connecticut, in the fall of 1956. The Styrons begin to socialize with the Mailers and literary critic John W. Aldridge, Jr., and his wife. These occasions, sometimes made tense by the authors’ differences in temperament, are stimulating for Styron but not entirely comfortable. Rose becomes pregnant in summer 1957. Friendship with James Jones grows and has become a strong, close bond by late 1957. Styron continues work on Set This House on Fire and is about halfway finished by mid-1957. Wanting the new novel to be daringin technique as well as theme, he decides to merge first- and third-person narration in Part II of the book. He has enormous difficulty with this section, reworking and discarding much material, but pushes forward. Takes amphetamines to break through writer’s block; likes the “buzz” but develops insomnia and stops after two weeks. Develops intestinal pain in February 1958 under strain of writing and believes it to be a serious condition; these fears prove unfounded. Daughter Paola (Polly) Clark born March 13, 1958, at Mount Sinai Hospital. Receives an angry letter in March from Mailer, accusing Styron of spreading slander about Mailer’s wife Adele. Styron annotates the letter with point-by-point refutations of the charges, but decides instead to send a terse written paragraph in response. Mailer’s belligerent reply marks the end of private communication between him and Styron for twenty-five years. Mailer leaves Connecticut to return to New York in fall 1958. CBS purchases television rights in fall 1958 for The Long March, which willbe produced on the drama series Playhouse 90. Rose becomes pregnant again in winter 1958.
1959—The Long March television adaptation airs in March; Styron is disappointed with the dialogue and direction, and with a rewritten ending that undermines his critique of the military. Publishes a letter of protest over the production in The New Republic, April 6. Becomes increasingly dissatisfied with Hiram Haydn as editor, feeling that Haydn is inattentive. Haydn resigns from Random House, March 15, to start a new firm (Atheneum) with Pat Knopf and Simon Michael Bessie, apparently expecting Styron to follow him once Set This House on Fire is published. Styron deliberates for months and decides in the fall to remain with Random House.
1959—Loomis becomes his new editor; they develop a comfortable, productive relationship. Norman Mailer publishes strong criticism of Styron (and of many other contemporary authors) in a miscellany called Advertisements for Myself in the fall, beginning his feud with Styron. Styron chooses not to respond publicly. Instead, he writes aspects of Mailer into the character of Mason Flagg, the posturing villain of Set This House on Fire, and gives Flagg a direct quotation from Mailer’s first belligerent letter. Son Thomas Haydn Styron born August 4, while the Styrons vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Styron completes novel manuscript near the end of the year. Loomis and Peter Matthiessen both praise the novel but caution Styron against a tendency to over-explain. Styron makes cuts and revisions in both typescript and galley proofs in response to these criticisms.
PUBLICATION OF SET THIS HOUSE ON FIRE
1960—Random House conducts $12,000 promotional campaign for Set This House on Fire and begins to arrange subsidiary rights before initial publication. Sections of the novel appear in The Paris Review and Esquire. Book-club rights are purchased by the highbrow Book Find Club. The Styrons sail for Europe in mid-February, planning extended visits to Paris and Rome. They spend much time during February and March with James and Gloria Jones in Paris. Styron meets Beat author William Burroughs at a jazz-poetry session. The Styrons leave Paris in late March to travel through Geneva, Milan, and Florence. Styron receives advance copies of Set This House on Fire in early April. Becomes depressed over the 507-page length, concerned that the book will go largely unread by a public accustomed to lighter entertainments. The Styrons arrive in Rome in early May and take an apartment on the Via San Teodoro. British publisher Jamie Hamilton requests changes to Set This House on Fire mid-May, anticipating that British printers will refuse to typeset the novel if certain passages are not sanitized. Styron reluctantly consents. Hamilton is still unable to get a British publisher to compose the type; the novel is therefore printed in the Netherlands for publication in England.
1960–Set This House on Fire receives numeroushigh-profile American reviews beginning in June, most of which are strikingly negative. Styron is unprepared for the intensity of these reviews and is deeply affected by them, seriously questioning his merits as a writer. Descends into a post-novel slump marked by drinking, idleness, and depression. Despite poor reception, Set This House on Fire is commercially successful for both Random House and Styron by the end of the year: it reaches eighth place on the best-seller lists, sells over 21,000 copies in hardcover, secures $35,000 in paperback rights, and earns Styron $20,000 beyond the initial $15,000 advance.
1960—Styron is approached in late May by Michel Mohrt of the Paris publishing firm Gallimard, requesting permission to publish a French version of Set This House on Fire. Mohrt brings letters of praise from Gaston Gallimard, patriarch of the firm, and Maurice-Edgar Coindreau, a Princeton professor whose masterful translations of Faulkner’s novels into French have stimulated recognition of Faulkner in Europe. Styron’s sprits are buoyed by the offer and he accepts; the arrangement with Gallimard paves the way for Styron’s work to be embraced warmly by French readers and is an important turning point in the way Styron views his own writing.
ROXBURY AND JAMES BALDWIN
1960—The Styrons return to Roxbury in the fall. Styron begins reading and preparing to write a novel about the Nat Turner rebellion; he will read widely about the rebellion and American slavery over the next two years. Late in the fall James Baldwin, low on money and anxious to escape New York City, moves into the guest house on the Styrons’ property to live and work on a novel manuscript. Styron and Baldwin had been acquaintances, but they become close friends over the six months of Baldwin’s stay. Regular evening talks with Baldwin contribute much to Styron’s understanding of race issues in America. He decides, at Baldwin’s encouragement, to write Nat Turner’s story in the first person.
1961—British edition of Set This House on Fire (expurgated) published in February. Styron considers writing the Nat Turner story as a screenplay rather than a novel, thinking that the more popular medium of film might allow his vision of the rebellion to reach a larger portion of the public. Discards the idea quickly, before producing any written screenplay material. Invited to become a regular contributor to Esquire in the spring. Visits father and stepmother, with whom relations have somewhat improved, at Newport News in the spring. Travels in May to Southampton County with Rose, father, and a local relative as guide in an attempt to trace the path of Turner’s rebellion. Much of the trip is disappointing, as few traces or local memories survive of the rebellion, but he finds an abandoned house which he incorrectly identifies as that of Margaret Whitehead, the only person Nat Turner himself murdered. Regardless of the error in location, Styron’s visit to the house sparks his interest in questions regarding Margaret’s murder and its significance to Turner and the eventual dissolution of the rebellion. These questions will become central issues in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Baldwin leaves the Styrons’ guest house in June. “Mrs. Aadland’s Little Girl, Beverly,” a spoof review of the tawdry Hollywood tell-all book The Big Love, appears in the November Esquire. Decides to follow the case of Benjamin Reid, a black man awaiting execution in a Connecticut penitentiary, as a test case for his opposition to the death penalty. Travels to Hartford to investigate Reid’s story and begins writing a position piece about capital punishment.
1962—“The Death-in-Life of Benjamin Reid,” which uses the Reid case to argue against capital punishment, appears in Esquire in February; it is Styron’s first extended piece of writing on a social issue. The article helps to rally advocates for Reid’s case. Styron travels to Paris in February for the publication of Coindreau’s translation of Set This House on Fire, entitled La proie des flammes (“The Prey of Flames”). Gallimard publicizes the novel heavily, and it is a great success among French readers, with sales quickly surpassing 60,000. Styron is surprised to receive so much attention and praise from readers and reviewers. Styron and Rose attend a dinner at the White House, April 29, for Nobel laureates and Americans prominent in the arts. They are invited to a private reception following the dinner, along with Diana and Lionel Trilling, Robert Frost, and Frederic March. They meet the Kennedys, and Styron spends most of an hour talking with Jackie Kennedy about mutual friends and about Martha’s Vineyard. Transfers the handling of foreign publishing rights, in May, to the London-based Hope Leresche and Steele agency in order to work with Hope Leresche, the firm’s energetic head. Leresche arranges for translations of Styron’s work to be published in Mexico, Japan, and twelve European countries. Styron appears at a hearing of the Connecticut Board of Pardons, on June 25, to advocate mercy for Benjamin Reid; the board commutes Reid’s sentence to life imprisonment with the possibility of parole.
FAULKNER AND JFK
1962—Styron attends William Faulkner’s funeral service in Oxford, Mississippi, July 7, with a commission from Lifemagazine to write a valedictory piece. Talks at length with novelist Shelby Foote prior to the ceremony. On July 15 Styron and Rose go sailing from Martha’s Vineyard with the Kennedys on their yacht, Patrick J; JackMarquand and his wife are also present. Styron talks at length with the President about Nat Turner and the novel in progress, and is impressed by Kennedy’s interest in his work. The tribute to Faulkner, “As He Lay Dead, A Bitter Grief,” appears in Life, July 20. Begins writing the Nat Turner novel in the summer. Decides on the title The Confessions of Nat Turner, the same title as Thomas Gray’s 1831 pamphlet based on jail-cell interviews with Turner. Decides also to blend his own voice with Nat Turner’s, giving the character a realistic dialect for dialogue but a twentieth-century language and style—essentially Styron’s own voice—for interior thoughts. Draws from a dream that four-year-old daughter Polly has for Nat Turner’s opening dream sequence. Progresses steadily on the novel through the fall and winter.
1963—Completes Book I of The Confessions of Nat Turner by early summer but is uncertain how to proceed next. Stops smoking cigarettes in the summer, largely in response to the groundbreaking Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest, which he will review in the New York Review of Books, December 26. Begins smoking cigars instead and becomes a cigar enthusiast. Esquire publishes, in its July issue, an edited transcript of a tape-recorded conversation between Styron and James Jones in which they discuss writing and related topics. The same issue includes a long piece by Norman Mailer with more attacks on Styron, Jones, and other writers; in one section Mailer recalls Styron making fun of Jones’ writing. Styron writes Jones to stave off hurt feelings; Jones dismisses Mailer outright. Withdrawal from cigarettes and the problems with Mailer undermine progress on Nat Turner during the summer, and by the fall Styron has stopped writing altogether. Realizes that he needs imaginatively to re-create Nat Turner’s childhood in order to understand his character.
JOHN HARTWELL COCKE
1963—Meets Magda Moyano during a trip to Mexico for the Inter-American Foundation. Moyano, a cultural aide and translator, tells Styron some of the history of her ancestor John Hartwell Cocke, a liberal-minded Virginia plantation owner. Moyano points Styron to a recent dissertation on Cocke by a young scholar named M. Boyd Coyner. The dissertation is filled with information on antebellum plantation life and on Cocke himself; Styron draws heavily on this material for his depiction of Samuel Turner’s Southampton County plantation, and bases the character of Turner loosely on Cocke. Re-energized by his decisions about Nat Turner’s character and the Coyner dissertation, Styron resumes work on the novel. Sees Kennedy again at a black-tie affair in New York City in November. Kennedy inquires about Styron’s novel, and Styron is pleased that Kennedy remembers the details of their conversation from a year and a half earlier. They talk for a time about slavery and contemporary race relations. Styron is deeply saddened by Kennedy’s assassination two weeks later, November 22. Receives a letter in November from Willie Morris, an editor at Harper’s Magazine, asking him to contribute to a forthcoming special issue on the contemporary American South; Styron and Morris meet soon thereafter, and the Styrons and Morrises become friendly.
1964—The Styrons decide, on impulse, to purchase a harbor-front house on Martha’s Vineyard, where they have been spending their summers. Because of a misstep by the realtor, another potential buyer is offered the house simultaneously, and the purchase will be held up in court for two years. The Styrons rent the house for the two intervening summers, but they are unable to renovate and feel unsettled. Eventually Martha’s Vineyard will become their second home, and Styron will remain on the island in the fall, after most of the tourists have left, when the quiet is most conducive to writing. Styron breaks from Hamish Hamilton in October owing to low British sales. Is sent by Hope Leresche to the publishing house of Jonathan Cape to work with the editor Tom Maschler, who had previously met with Styron on Martha’s Vineyard and praised his work.
1965—Feels confident at the start of the year that he will complete The Confessions of Nat Turner. Random House consequently sets in motion a carefully orchestrated publication process, a full two years before the novel will appear. Paperback rights go to New American Library through auction, in January, for $100,000. Rose publishes her first collection of poetry with Viking Press, entitled From Summer to Summer. Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape receives the first two hundred pages of typescript of The Confessions of Nat Turner in February. On the strength of this material, Cape contracts in March for British publication, offering an advance of £2,500 and escalating royalties. Willie Morris’ special issue of Harper’s appears in April; Styron’s contribution is an essay entitled “This Quiet Dust” in which he writes about the scene of the forthcoming Nat Turner novel and on contemporary Southern black-white relations. The article raises questions about the significance Turner’s murder of Margaret Whitehead. Styron continues work steadily throughout the year on The Confessions of Nat Turner.
1966—Rose becomes pregnant in January. Daughter Claire Alexandra (Al) born October 28. The pace of Styron’s writing on The Confessions of Nat Turner, steady through most of the year, quickens in the fall as he composes the intensely violent description of the rebellion itself.
1967—Finishes the manuscript of Nat Turner on the afternoon of January 22. Styron is pleased with his work and relieved to be finished. Decides to add an author’s note explaining his intentions regarding the blending of history and imagination. Considers writing a detailed explanation of his use of sources, in the manner of a similar work called Memoirs of Hadrian by French author Marguerite Yourcenar. To avoid a misleading impression of scholarly intent, Styron instead writes a single paragraph (with which he struggles) pointing only to Gray’s “Confessions” as a source and discussing the imaginative liberties he has taken. Sends the complete manuscript to Random House in late January. In April Harper’s Magazine purchases, for $7,500, North American first serial rights for Part II of The Confessions of Nat Turner, to appear in the September issue under the title “Old Times Past.” Life pays $5,000 to publish other excerpts from the novel in its October 13 issue. Book-of-the-Month Club secures book-club rights for $150,000; BOMC’s chief competitor, Literary Guild, pays $12,500 for follow-up book-club rights. Film producer David Wolper purchases movie rights for $800,000, sending pre-publication guarantees for the novel over the one-million-dollar mark and providing a previously unanticipated level of financial security for the Styrons. Prior to publication in October, bound galleys of the novel go out to major periodicals and newspapers and to prominent contemporary authors. A limited signed, specially-bound edition of 500 copies is issued for friends and collectors.
1967—The Confessions of Nat Turner is officially published on October 9. Pre-publication orders are so numerous that 125,000 copies have been produced by publication day, with another printing ordered two weeks later. Initial reviews are mostly positive, including praise from Alfred Kazin in Book World and from Philip Rahv in The New York Review of Books. Some negative reviews appear, including a front-page piece by Wilfrid Sheed in the New York Times Book Review. Styron is irritated by the criticisms but not surprised; he is pleased on the whole with the initial reception. Awarded an honorary degree from Wilberforce University, an all-black institution in Ohio, on November 21; delivers a speech at the convocation ceremony and receives a warm reception from the audience.
1968—The Confessions of Nat Turner continues to sell well: clothbound sales approach 150,000, and foreign translation rights are sold. Panther Books secures British paperback rights for £14,000 in the spring. Styron appears on college campuses occasionally to read from The Confessions of Nat Turner and answer questions; for the first few months of the year, these appearances are lively but cordial. The novel begins to generate controversy later in the year; articles attacking and defending it appear in high-profile journals and periodicals. Styron responds through interviews in similar outlets, and in April engages in a printed debate with Marxist/Communist historian Herbert Aptheker in The Nation. The movie version of the book, under development in Hollywood, comes under fire from a group called the Black Anti-Defamation Association; headed by actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the group demands that black actors and screenwriters have some control over the casting and script.
1968—Styron considers several ideas for his next novel but does not settle on a project; he is distracted by the growing backlash against The Confessions of Nat Turner. Begins to receive strange mail, including some hate letters and threats. These are unsettling: a miscommunication with Rose on one occasion leads Styron to fear (incorrectly) that she has been abducted. He works for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in various capacities, including fund-raising and telephone support, during the first half of the year. Selected in May as one of four delegate challengers who will appeal to the Credentials Committee at the Democratic National Convention for McCarthy to receive additional delegates. The British edition of The Confessions of Nat Turner is published in May; reviews are largely negative, including stinging assessments in the daily Times and the Times Literary Supplement. Styron is angered by the continued hostility to his work in Britain. The Confessions of Nat Turner wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in May, a welcome validation of Styron’s efforts. He flies to Seattle in May with Arthur Miller and Jules Feiffer to campaign for McCarthy in the Washington and Oregon primaries. Participates in a debate in May with Ossie Davis, moderated by James Baldwin, at a Los Angeles nightclub called Eugene West. Serves as an honorary pallbearer at the funeral of Robert Kennedy in June. By the summer, Styron’s appearances on college campuses are becoming increasingly confrontational; a lecture in Emerson Hall at Harvard in late July ends with Styron being heckled and taunted by some black audience members.
TEN BLACK WRITERS
1968—In early August, Beacon Press in Boston issues William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, a collection of short, angry essays attacking the novel. The collection draws considerable public attention: several critics reverse their initial praise of the book, while others come to its defense. Styron is angered by Ten Black Writers but chooses not to respond in print. Attends Democratic convention in Chicago in August. He is disappointed by the dismissive response of the Credentials Committee to his appeal on McCarthy’s behalf, and is disgusted by the workings of the convention as a whole. Avoids much of the convention by exploring the streets of the city, where he witnesses several clashes between demonstrators and police. Styron, along with Studs Terkel, observes a particularly violent confrontation from inside a Haymarket bar; the two are forced to escape through a back door when the violence spills over into the bar. Styron’s report on the situation in Chicago, entitled “In the Jungle,” is published in the New York Review of Books, September 26. Styron and Rose travel to the Soviet Union in September and October to attend an Afro-Asian authors’ conference. Styron persuades the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to protest the recent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; he himself speaks out about government mistreatment of dissident writers. As a result, publication of a Russian translation of The Confessions of Nat Turneris canceled, and the Styrons have some difficulty leaving the country. They visit James and Gloria Jones in Paris on the way back to the U.S. Styron appears along with Robert Penn Warren and Ralph Ellison on a panel at a Southern Historical Association meeting in New Orleans, November 6; Styron endures an ugly confrontation with a belligerent audience member and decides to avoid public appearances for a time.
NAT TURNER IN FRANCE
1969—Excerpts from Les Confessions de Nat Turner, translated by Coindreau, are serialized in L’Express in January. Les Confessions de Nat Turner published by Gallimard mid-February; the book receives respectful reviews but sales are disappointing. Controversy over the novel in the U.S. continues throughout the year but is eventually limited to academic forums. Styron’s stepmother enters the last stages of terminal cancer in the winter and spring; Styron worries about how his father will get along when he is alone. Stepmother dies in late August. Styron serves as a witness for Abbie Hoffman in the trial of the Chicago 7.
1970—Styron makes plans for Benjamin Reid to live at his house in Roxbury while reacclimating to society after his impending parole. Reid, however, escapes from prison early , kidnaps a woman and her child, and rapes the woman before being recaptured. Styron feels much guilt over his role in Reid’s release, but despite his misgivings he will eventually reestablish and maintain contact with Reid during his new prison term. Awarded the Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for The Confessions of Nat Turner, May 26; the medal recognizes the best American work of fiction published in the preceding five years. Twentieth-Century-Fox scraps the film version of Nat Turner, citing financial considerations; Styron had begun as an advisor on the film but had withdrawn when producer David Wolper had yielded to pressure to use sources other than Styron’s novel. Learns from Hope Leresche that translations of Nat Turner in a dozen European countries and Japan are selling well. Begins a new novel with the working title “The Way of the Warrior,” to draw from his experiences at Camp Lejeune during the Korean War. Works on the novel intermittently for the rest of the year but is unable to map out the story and its themes.
“THE WAY OF THE WARRIOR”
1971—Father, aged 81, marries Eunice Edmundson, aged 76, in January. Father and Eunice had been in love when young, but she had chosen in 1914 to marry a man with better prospects; the marriage alleviates Styron’s concern for his father. Styron continues work on “The Way of the Warrior”for most of the year. “Marriott the Marine,” an excerpt from the manuscript, published in the September Esquire; plans to publish a second excerpt but eventually realizes he has lost direction with the novel and stops working on it.
IN THE CLAP SHACK
1972—Attempts a drama script in the summer at the urging of Robert Brustein, then dean of the Yale Drama School, and Roxbury neighbor Arthur Miller. Completes In the Clap Shack, based on his 1945 syphilis scare. The playis staged by the Yale Repertory Theatre on December 15; the production is reviewed unfavorably in the New York Times. Styron hopes to see the play produced Off-Broadway, but no one expresses interest in doing so. Continues intermittently with “The Way of the Warrior.”
1973—Random House publishes In the Clap Shack in book form in June. Styron collaborates with John Marquand on a screenplay called “Dead!” in the summer. This black comedy is based on the famous 1927 murder case involving Ruth Snyder and her lover Judd Gray; Styron and Marquand are unaware that the same case was the source for James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the 1946 film of the same name. Despite some film and television studio options over the next few years, “Dead!” is never produced. Styron has a vivid dream vision in the summer involving Sophie, the Polish Catholic survivor of Auschwitz he had known briefly in Brooklyn in 1949. Energized by this dream, Styron develops a central situation for a new novel in which a woman arriving at Auschwitz is forced to choose which of her two children will live and which will die. The situation, which Styron views as a metaphor for the extremity of Nazi evil, is drawn from two sources: Five Chimneys, a memoir by Auschwitz survivor Olga Lengyel, who unwittingly caused her children to be sent to the gas chamber; and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which includes a story of a Gypsy woman who was forced to choose between her two children.
1973—Decides to stop work on “The Way of the Warrior,” which he had already all but abandoned, in favor of the new novel, initially titled “Sophie’s Choice, A Memory.” Develops a quasi-autobiographical character for the central narrator; chooses the name Stingo (from Styron’s own Davidson College nickname “Stinky”) for this alter-ego at daughter Polly’s suggestion. Esquire publishes the screenplay of “Dead!” in December; this publication brings Styron a fan letter from Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Elected to an alumnus membership in the Duke chapter of Phi Beta Kappa; though amused because his classroom performance at Duke had been mediocre, Styron appreciates the honor. He has begun to develop a good relationship with Duke, sending his papers to the library and occasionally giving speeches at the university. Viking Press publishes Thieves’ Afternoon, a collection of Rose’s poetry.
1974—Rose Styron, who has been working for Amnesty International, travels with daughter Susanna to Santiago, Chile, in January and February to investigate human rights abuses. They have a close call with agents of the dictator Augusto Pinochet; they narrowly make it out of the country with documents for Amnesty sewn into their undergarments. Styron learns in the spring that Lie Down in Darkness has been selected for the English-language reading list for the prestigious Agrégation in France, a comprehensive examination taken by all candidates for teaching positions in French universities. Styron is invited to tour several French universities in April. Travels to Europe early, in March, to visit the death camp at Auschwitz as preparation for writing Sophie’s Choice. After returning to Roxbury, Styron writes a short essay about the Auschwitz visit, published as “Auschwitz’s Message” in the New York Times, June 25. Continues work on Sophie’s Choice. Develops Sophie’s character based on several women he has known; these include the real-life Sophie, Wanda Malinowska, and Bobbie Taeusch.
DEATH OF JAMES JONES
1975-77—Continues work on Sophie’s Choice at a steady pace through these years, satisfied and stimulated by his progress. Breaks from the novel briefly to write a short story entitled “Shadrach,” about an aged former slave who travels from Alabama back to the Virginia farm on which he was born; the piece is based on a true story Styron has been told by a boyhood friend in Newport News. The Styrons spend summers on Martha’s Vineyard socializing with a set of friends that includes Art Buchwald; Lillian Hellman; historian Sheldon Hackney and his wife Lucy, a lawyer and activist who becomes a close friend of Rose’s; and television journalist Mike Wallace. Duke Library curators John Sharpe and Mattie Russell mount an extensive exhibition of Styron’s papers in April 1976. “The Seduction of Leslie,” an excerpt from Sophie’s Choice, is published in Esquire, September 1976. James Jones dies of congestive heart failure on May 8, 1977, at age fifty-five. Styron is profoundly saddened by Jones’ death. Styron and Willie Morris were asked by Jones before his death to complete his nearly finished novel Whistle, but find it impossible to do so adequately. The book will be published in unfinished form in 1978. Stepmother Eunice, whose health had begun to fail in 1975 after three happy years of marriage, dies in 1977. Styron moves his father, now unable to care for himself, to a nursing home near Roxbury.
1978—Styron moves steadily toward completion of Sophie’s Choice over the course of the year. “My Life as a Publisher,” an excerpt from the novel, published in the March Esquire. Styron tells his father, during a visit in August, that the book will be dedicated to him; father appears to understand despite his poor mental condition. Father dies August 10; Styron grieves deeply. “Shadrach” published in the November Esquire. Completes the manuscript of Sophie’s Choice on December 17. Book-of-the-Month-Club secures book-club rights for Sophie’s Choice for $305,000. Bantam wins paperback rights for $1.575 million. Director Alan J. Pakula acquires movie rights for $650,000.
1979—Sophie’s Choice is published on June 11, Styron’s fifty-fourth birthday. Initial reviews are mixed, though none is extremely negative, and some are genuinely laudatory. The novel is a popular and commercial success, reaching the number-one spot on the New York Times best-seller list and remaining there for several weeks; it will eventually sell over three million copies. Despite the satisfaction he feels during this period, Styron’s outlook is tainted by worries about how to handle fame and what to write next.
1980-84—Sophie’s Choice wins the first American Book Award in February 1980. Styron, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth initially refuse to participate in the proceedings because they disapprove of the nominating process and the showier aspects of the ceremony. Styron allows Sophie’s Choice to receive the award after changes are made in the awards process. Sophie’s Choice is published in France as Le Choix de Sophie, translated by Maurice Rambaud, in 1981. The translation is received enthusiastically. Styron attends presidential inauguration ceremonies for François Mitterrand in Paris; Styron and Mitterrand become friendly in following years. Begins work in 1981 on a new version of “The Way of the Warrior,” which incorporates the character of Stingo from Sophie’s Choice as central narrator. Works on the novel intermittently over the next three years. Publishes a collection of nonfiction prose entitled This Quiet Dust and Other Writings in 1982. Norman Mailer, who has recently helped a convict named Jack Abbott win parole, receives much negative press when Abbott murders a man after an argument in a restaurant. Styron’s public expression of sympathy for Mailer helps to heal the rift between them. The film version of Sophie’s Choice, directed by Alan Pakula,is released in December 1982 to great acclaim. Styron is pleased with the film, especially with Meryl Streep’s Academy-Award-winning performance of the title role.
1985—Styron abandons work on “The Way of the Warrior” in the summer, owing largely to his inability to maintain focus on the central story. This problem is one of many physical and emotional symptoms of depression Styron has begun to experience; these include a physical intolerance for alcohol, insomnia, jumbled memory, hypochondria, weight loss, pessimism, and self-loathing. Prescribed first Ativan and then Halcion for insomnia by a physician on Martha’s Vineyard. “Love Day,” the opening sequence of the unfinished novelmanuscript, published in the August Esquire. Becomes ill in September at a dinner party in New York in honor of Gabriel Garcia Márquez; gives an embarrassingly muddled speech a week later during an appearance at Connecticut College. Undergoes a battery of medical tests on Martha’s Vineyard in hopes that his symptoms might be purely physical in nature. Begins to experience bouts of extreme unease, loneliness, and terror within his Roxbury home in October; he also begins to have hallucinations of a doppelgänger sitting on his shoulder. Suspects clinical depression. Travels to Paris in October to receive the prestigious Prix Mondial Cino del Duca; spends most of the trip in a muddled, broken-down state and embarrasses himself to his hosts at the awards ceremony. Visits a New York psychiatrist suggested by Mike Wallace upon return to the U.S.; the doctor prescribes an antidepressant called Ludiomil. Results of the medical workup show no physical cause for the symptoms. By November the Ludomil has begun to produce serious side effects. Now seeing a psychiatrist in New Haven, Styron is switched to Nardil for depression and Xanax for anxiety. Styron has begun to think seriously of suicide; as a precaution, Rose throws away the only firearm in their house, a pistol that had belonged to James Jones. The New Haven psychiatrist advises against hospitalization because of the social stigma.
1985—Styron decides on the night of December 11 to take his own life and begins to consider plans for suicide. Visits the family lawyer on December 12 with revisions to his will; the lawyer, concerned over Styron’s appearance, stalls him and notifies Rose, who consequently begins a suicide watch. Later that night, Styron watches the film The Bostonians on videotape. The Brahms “Alto Rhapsody” on the soundtrack sparks a memory for Styron: the piece had been his mother’s favorite musical work, and he remembers her singing it often around the house. Styron decides after hearing the piece not to commit suicide and pleads to Rose for help. He is admitted to the unit for affective illness at Yale-New Haven Hospital on December 14. Undergoes a panic attack during his first day; believing he is dying, he writes and posts a final letter to the family lawyer and a farewell letter to Peter Matthiessen. Undergoes various treatments during the following two months and makes steady improvement. During this time Styron realizes for the first time that his mother’s death, while not the sole cause of his depression, must have affected him more deeply than he had realized.
1986-90—Receives many visitors at the hospital in January 1986. Returns home on February 8, 1986. Begins working on a long story entitled “A Tidewater Morning” in late summer 1986. The story fictionalizes the death of Styron’s mother: it connects that event to other boyhood experiences and to the larger political situation on the eve of World War II. “A Tidewater Morning” is published in Esquire, August 1987. Considers extending the nearly novella-length story into a novel by incorporating some of his father’s experiences as a youth and an old man; decides against doing so to avoid damaging the integrity of the existing story. Works steadily for three months on an untitled novel manuscript fictionalizing his experiences with depression. Abandons this effort also, perhaps owing to discomfort over trying to handle intensely personal material. Has a resurgence of depression, including renewed thoughts of suicide, in spring 1988, brought on by his use of Halcion to combat insomnia. The depression subsides when Styron’s physician switches him to a different sleep aid.
1988—New York University holds a conference in November 1988 on the life and work of Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor who had written eloquently of his experiences, and who had killed himself on April 11, 1987. Reading about the event in the New York Times, Styron is irritated by the way many conference participants respond with bafflement to Levi’s suicide and unwittingly perpetuate a negative stigma surrounding depression. Writes in response “Why Primo Need Not Have Died,” a short essay that argues against stigmatizing clinical depression. Styron urges medical treatment and hospitalization for depression sufferers. The piece is published in the op-ed section of the New York Times, December 19, 1988.
1989—The essay attracts numerous letters to the Times and brings Styron an invitation to speak about depression at two events in 1989: a Johns Hopkins symposium on affective disorders and the first meeting of the American Suicide Foundation in New York. Meets Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown at the latter event; she invites Styron to write a longer account of his experiences for the magazine. Begins writing “Darkness Visible,” a long autobiographical essay exploring the experience of depression and the inadequacy of the word “depression” to label that experience, in summer 1989. “Darkness Visible” is published in Vanity Fair, December 1989, and produces a flow of mail in response, with many people writing to thank Styron for putting into words what they had experienced. Styron adds material, including an indictment of Halcion, to expand “Darkness Visible” to book length.
1990-2000—Random House publishes Darkness Visible in 1990. The book receives positive reviews, reaches the top of the New York Times best-seller list, and generates much media attention for Styron. He publishes “Prozac Days, Halcion Nights” in the Nation, January 1993; the essay describes his experiences with Halcion and criticizes the Upjohn pharmaceutical company for resisting a ban on the drug. Publishes A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales from Youth, a volume of short fiction which brings together “Love Day,” “Shadrach,” and “A Tidewater Morning,” in 1993. Styron is in demand for readings and speaking engagements through most of the 1990s; he speaks frequently on depression to groups of physicians and therapists. Attempts to work on a new version of “The Way of the Warrior” and on a narrative based on his trip to Trieste in the summer of 1946, but is hindered by recurrent periods of depression and by physical ailments. Publishes several personal essays and memoirs, including “A Case of the Great Pox” in the New Yorker (September 18, 1995) and “Havanas in Camelot” in Vanity Fair (July 1996).
2000-2005—Styron’s final years are difficult for him. He has ceased to write and continues to suffer from depression but sometimes is able to travel and to make public appearances. Until the last two years of his life he takes his walks regularly. He arranges for the conveyance of his remaining manuscripts to Duke. His children and grandchildren visit frequently and bring pleasure and diversion. Styron is most comfortable at the Vineyard Haven house and arranges to stay there as many months of the year as possible. A series of strokes affects his mental functioning: “I feel like my brain’s been hijacked,” he says.
2006-07—Styron is hospitalized for much of the last year and a half of his life, mostly on Martha’s Vineyard. He dies in Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on November 1, 2006, of pneumonia and other complications. He is eighty-one. Rose and his children are with him at the end. His ashes are interred with military honors in the Holmes Hole Cemetery, West Chop. A memorial service in his honor is held on February 2, 2007, in St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City. The service is open to the public; the church, which seats 1,250 people, is filled to its capacity. Eulogists include Peter Matthiessen, Bill Clinton, Meryl Streep, Bob Loomis, Mia Farrow, Mike Nichols, and Styron’s children and grandchildren.