Once upon a time in New York, a girl and her friends were away from boarding school for the weekend. The talented, youngest child of a famous American novelist, the girl decided that they should all go to see the movie Sophie’s Choice. This wasn’t the first time she had seen the movie: in fact, she had been at the premiere with her parents some months before, and had loved the whole evening, feeling dazzled to find herself so deeply planted in a world of adult accomplishment.
Like many children of the famous, however, our heroine became aware that night of there being a great deal to live up to; as the cameras flashed and the microphones were extended, she rightly recognized her overwhelming need to go from being the offspring of “someone” to being “someone” in her own right. Yet the later screening with her friends allowed Alexandra Styron to feel something simpler—something fleeced of doubt. Here is how she talks about it in her stirring memoir:
In front of us a woman sat alone, weeping quietly during the film’s most wrenching scene and then openly sobbing as the show ended and the credits rolled. When the houselights came up, one of my schoolmates reached over, tapped the woman on the shoulder, and pointed at me. “Her father wrote that,” he said. “He wrote the book.” I blushed madly as the woman wiped her eyes and looked at me with astonishment. But the truth was I couldn’t have been more proud if I’d written the book myself.
Though she doesn’t refer to them, there are a number of psychologically taxing implications in that “wrenching scene.” It might be the most famous scene in literature where a daughter is given away by a parent, unless we conclude that King Lear gives Cordelia away. Sophie’s choice is to hand over her son to certain death in a Nazi camp or to give away her daughter, and it is the little girl, Eva Maria Zawistowska, who is delivered into the hands of a crazed commandant and seen to disappear into the distance holding her teddy bear and her flute. Alexandra remembered a question her father had asked her while driving her home from school one day. It resonates in the mind. She must have been about ten at the time.
“What kind of instrument would a little girl your age play?” he asked.
“Umm…a piano?” I answered, my hand out the window, tracing the arc of the power lines.
“No, too big. How about a flute?”
I figured he was asking for his work. I wanted to be a help. My friend Lili had a flute.
“Maybe,” I replied, leaping a tree with my fingers.
There is a sense in which William Styron struggled to hold onto his children just as he struggled to hold on to his mind. The two things cannot be disconnected, and the best of his writing choreographs the movement of inner turmoil and outward action—a thinking person’s relation to history, or the play of the mind in the workings of families and nations—in ways that we might find to be convincing and beautiful. For my money, Styron was the purest stylist among the male writers who emerged, ruby-cheeked and ready to go, from World War II, a generation that would include Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and James Jones, Jack Kerouac and J.D. Salinger. Like many of them, Styron was born, in a literary sense, into the age of annihilation, and his prose sets a certain store by violence and lyricism, while maintaining dialogue with the three great American literary heroes of the previous generation, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway.
Questions of power and bravery, of faith and refusal, would rise and fall graciously, momentously, in Styron’s best work, making him an American existentialist with a new song to sing in those first years after the war. All his life, even long before his mental breakdown at the age of sixty, Styron struggled to find a fluency or a confidence to match his gifts. It was no easy journey, but it left us with a few masterpieces, and it must be time, long since time, to celebrate the story of his talent without succumbing to regrets over what else he might have done.
Styron was one of those novelists whose talent brought with it a knowledge of death. From the beginning, he gave his characters over to death, and sometimes to self-slaughter, long before he admitted to having any such thoughts about himself. The fate of daughters in his work should be borne in mind, too: even the most even-handed procreator has to think twice about letting the young die on the page, but Styron never hesitated. Lie Down in Darkness, his first novel, opens with Milton Loftis waiting on the train that carries his daughter’s coffin into town. There is a sense of personal breakdown everywhere in the book, and a fine, perfectly modulated account of parental ennui. A decade and a half before we had Sylvia Plath evoking her black-hearted daddy with the “Mein Kampf look” we have the daughter, Peyton Loftis, who grows up in a perfumed savannah of gothic rituals, a place where no person is simply one person, and where images of the good daddy give way to the feverish iconoclasm of “Daddy Faith,” a local religious leader. “Oh, daddy, I don’t know what’s wrong,” writes Peyton in a letter to “Bunny,” her father, “I’ve tried to grow up—to be a good little girl, as you would say, but everywhere I turn I seem to walk deeper and deeper into some terrible despair. What’s wrong, Daddy? What’s wrong?”
That debut novel is like nothing else, with characters suspended in a kind of liquid darkness. Camus loved it, as everyone else more or less did, because it took a classic, wan, Faulknerian mise-en-scène and transformed it into a universal outburst about the postwar family breakdown. Styron’s love of battle was not yet a battle chiefly with himself, but one suspects the rudiments of that track were always in place. “Why is happiness such a precious thing?” asks Peyton, and, indeed, she would find, as the author would in time, that happiness is a virtue best understood in the manner of its absence. From the start, in Styron, parents were giving away their children, societies were giving away their civilized values, history was giving up its certainties, and war was giving up its dead, while the writer could only attempt to capture this with honesty while he or she still had the strength. A sense of spiritual breakdown, however, lies not at the end of Styron’s journey but at the beginning, when sleep and optimism were still possible and literary success came as proof that America was able to ask big questions of itself.
The fall from heroism is a story known not only to fathers but also to old soldiers, and Styron was both. In The Long March, a second, short novel, he wrote a pitch-perfect account of a generation that was no longer fit for heroism; a generation, Styron’s own, that had shown its character in World War II but was sick of itself by the time of Korea, when many were called back to uniform. Domestic life and a new refrigerator had held out a promise to these men: they would never see such mire again, or so they thought, and their spirit would be tested by making their living, surviving the sex wars, and excelling at the swimming hole. He writes of the leading character:
It was simply that after six years of an ordered and sympathetic life—made the more placid by the fact that he had assumed he had put the war behind him—it was a fact almost mystically horrifying, in its unreality, to find himself in this new world of frigid nights and blazing noons, of disorder and movement and fanciful pursuit.
If Hemingway’s soldiers and hunters are always on the front foot, taking their lacerations for granted, Styron wrote of men who lived perpetually on their heels, teetering on the brink of collapse and spiritual dissolution. Captain Mannix, the diehard marine in The Long March, walks ten miles straight with a nail sticking up on the inside of his boot. The Suicide Run, a posthumously published collection of fiction pieces from Styron’s war, contributes something to our understanding of the fear of annihilation that ripped through his generation. Not just the fear, but the seeming inevitability that comes with mutually assured destruction. These are not men, as it happens, who really believe they can fight their way out of trouble. They are not supermen, but civilians stranded in uniform, arguing with their own nature, strung out in a no-man’s-land, waiting for Godot or the Bomb to drop.
And yet the tone is not mere hopelessness, but something more interesting: Styron shows us a generation, his own postwar crowd, whose disappointment turned harsh, building a cold war aggressiveness in the American story, instituting an element of corrupt policing in what would soon be called the military-industrial complex. One of the stories in The Suicide Run is called “Marriott, the Marine,” and it captures all of this and something else: the growth of a depressive tendency in the life of its Styron-like narrator. “But whatever our situation,” he writes, speaking for himself and his fellow Marines,
we were all bound to each other by a single shocked awareness, and this was that for the second time in less than a decade we were faced with the prospect of an ugly death. In an abstract way it was possible to say that it was our own fault we were here. Yet suddenly, as my gaze wandered from face to face among this sullen, murmurous assembly of misplaced civilians—these store owners and office managers and personnel directors and salesmen—I was gripped by a foreboding about our presence in this swampy wilderness that at once transcended and made absurd each of our individual destinies, and even our collective fate. For it seemed to me that all of us were both exemplars and victims of some uncontrollable aggression, a hungry will for bloodshed creeping not only throughout America but the world, and I could not help but abruptly shiver in that knowledge.
Man’s fate, we see from Styron, is no longer dependent on his personal morality, his judgment, or his courage: in the end, it will unfold as part of a mechanical joke, a scientific event consequent of a moment’s panic or a domino theory, and future man, we can begin to assume, will be married to extermination as much as he is committed to life.
This was the legacy of World War II—a legacy Styron would return to—but at this point in his career his take on the soldier’s lot seemed to be not only a moral warning but a description of his own state of mind. Even at the height of his first success, he was embattled, making ready, one assumes from his writing, for new kinds of warfare on new fronts. No wonder the French loved Styron so much: they saw in his delicacy the vulnerability of the period, and they heard an existential lullaby beside the rocking cradle of cold war strife. By the time he published his third novel, Set This House on Fire, the author had traveled into some of the central questions of his time. He asked just what depths of evil there might be in being a man.
You can argue with Styron’s prose style—too frowsy for some, too sonorous, too full of statement—but at his best he could start the kind of fire in a reader’s mind that never goes out. The mind of the slave rebel Nat Turner was brought to life and given moral lineaments in 1967 in The Confessions of Nat Turner. What caverns of the national psyche did Styron explore when writing that book, only to find himself, on publication day, beloved and derided in equal measure? He wrote like someone for whom style is not merely a question of this word or that word, this tone or that one, pitched just so to please the ear; Styron’s style was a matter of moral compunction and creative tact, the manifestation of one man’s struggle with the questions of how to live and what to do.
Which excellent American writer, in the secrecy of his own art, has not been trying to improve on the Constitution all along? And so many of them, among the best, have reached for the bottle, cracked up at four in the morning, or lifted a gun. William Styron knew the stakes were high in his kind of truth-telling, and, though not all his novels are great, they are all great attempts, serious adornments bodying forth from a troubled soul, the kind of writing that enriches the culture at the points where the culture least knows itself.
In Styron, we find a novelist scorched by his nonsentimental journey, but few are able, as he was, to revivify the form by putting not only himself into his books, but the reverse of himself, the things he could never have been. Junior novelists take note: Styron had the kind of style that puts its essence to the test, asking fresh things of his inventive power. For a white Southern gentleman to impersonate a black revolutionary leader and improve our understanding of both parties, and many parties in between, is an imaginative service not to be undervalued, not in his time, nor in ours either.
The Confessions of Nat Turner rang true as the shots rang out, which might be as much as can be said of a novel that wishes to enter its times. Styron looked at Nat Turner and asked a simple but profound question: What price blood? And the day has yet to come when that question could seem merely historical. But writer’s lives are not theoretical: it hurt Styron to be accused of being a white Southern racist, and the book’s best-sellerdom and its winning of the Pulitzer Prize did not ease his sense of ill-omen. The Confessions of Nat Turner, though, is a very handy book in the age of Obama. The real drama of its argument is ongoing.1
It took Styron a long time to follow that book up. Only in 1979 was he finally ready to publish Sophie’s Choice, and again he leapt headlong into unknowable troubles, artistic and political. It was a period when the Holocaust, as a subject, was surrounded by murmured exhortations about the maintenance of a dignity-conferring silence—as if any amount of silence could make those horrors quiescent—and a period when some held to the view that poetry after Auschwitz was a mockery of the suffering and a reminder of literature’s numbest limits. In this atmosphere, Styron produced a book about the camps that runs to over six hundred pages. And he made the main protagonist a Catholic.2 But I will leave it to others to see spiritual defamation in the paragraph quoted below. I see only a kind of psychological beauty, the kind that few writers could raise from this well of sorrow. It is the work of a man who wished to taste the worst his century had to offer, and yet to show compassion in the telling. The eponymous Sophie opens this passage by telling Stingo, the book’s narrator, about a recurring dream:
“The one I’ve had all my life is about my father.”
“It’s strange,” I said. “Maybe. I don’t know. Mothers and fathers—they’re at the core of one’s own life somehow. Or they can be.”
“When I was asleep a while ago I had this dream about my father that I’ve had many times.”
Sophie then goes on to tell Stingo the background to the dream. It involves an eighty-year-old friend of her father’s, Princess Czartoryska, a rich Polish woman he met in the village of Oberbozen, where they used to spend the summer. The princess and her father used to have conversations in German about how to get rid of the Jews. The anti-Semitic princess had a phonograph and she loved music. Here’s Sophie again:
“So in the dream that has returned to me over and over I see Princess Czartoryska in her handsome gown go to the phonograph and she turns and always says, as if she were talking to me, ‘Would you like to hear the Brahms Lieder?’ And I always try to say yes. But just before I can say anything my father interrupts. He is standing next to the Princess and he is looking directly at me, and he says, ‘Please don’t play that music for the child. She is much too stupid to understand.’ And then I wake up with this pain… Only this time it was even worse, Stingo. Because in the dream I had just now he seemed to be talking to the Princess not about the music but about…” Sophie hesitated, then murmured, “About my death. He wanted me to die, I think.”
You will recall that the daughter given away by Sophie in the novel’s most wrenching scene is a little musician: she goes off to the extermination camp holding her flute. And the man who wrote these characters and scenes—who wrote the line about parents somehow being at the core of one’s life—was also the same man whose difficulty and remoteness as a father is captured so vividly by his daughter Alexandra in her book. The key, I would suggest, to these correspondences, and to much inertia, disorder, and bad feeling both experienced and caused by William Styron, was the mental illness that later took over his life. We see its shadows in his work from the beginning, and it might be fair to suggest that people often missed these portents in their understandable urge to find a stable person to glorify or blame.
Darkness Visible is the long, beautiful essay Styron crafted from his terrible depression, a miasma of bottomless despair, that overcame him in 1985 after he gave up drinking. It never really lifted. Even by the standards of suicidal unipolar disorder, Styron’s illness reduced him to a near-catatonic state, not merely brushed by Baudelaire’s wings of madness but felled by them. He had, like some Miltonic precursor, been looking through the dark for so long that when it became visible it nearly blinded him.
The book has become famous for its description of a condition many people endure but from which few recover, and it turned out to be the miraculous account from the trenches that Styron had waited all his life to write. The book is dedicated to Rose, Styron’s wife, whom he acknowledged as having been the person who saved his life, the woman who endured most and stood by him. Many writers enter, at a young age, a forest of dark enchantments, a place that has no exit and suffers no companionship. But Styron was lucky in his family. He always knew that death and nightmares lurked at the beautiful ends of the imagination, but he went on and he produced books that speak to elements of human experience made new by his talent. Styron could ascend from these dark woods like a poet, and shine a light into his century. His work stands for the contentious passions of life, and that means love as well as war.
The historian Eugene D. Genovese captured the point well at the time in “The Nat Turner Case,” The New York Review, September 12, 1968:
William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond shows the extent to which the American intelligentsia is splitting along racial, rather than ideological, lines. As such, the book needs to be taken with alarmed seriousness, no matter how absurd most of the contributions are…. Certainly, we need not probe the motives of these ten writers as they try to probe Styron’s. But it is clear that the black intelligentsia faces a serious crisis. Its political affinities lie with the black-power movement, which increasingly demands conformity, myth-making, and historical fabrication.
No one need believe that any of these writers would resort to deliberate falsification—which they so readily accuse Styron of—but the intellectual history of popular and revolutionary movements has overflowed with just such crises, in which dedicated, politically committed intellectuals have talked themselves into believing many things they later have had to gag on. The black intellectuals seem to be going through what Marxist intellectuals went through in the 1930s and 1940s. Let us hope that they come out a good deal better.↩
The writer Evan Hughes has produced a spirited account of Brooklyn writers that makes sense of Styron’s brave ambitions, Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life (Holt, 2011):
The real Sophie upstairs on Caton Avenue had in fact been Catholic, but Styron’s reasons for making the character Catholic were also aesthetic. Very few works of art had addressed the non-Jewish victims of Nazism. There were millions of them, and in Styron’s view this unjustly was “not in the public mind.”↩