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'Sophie's Choice' Author William Styron


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'Sophie's Choice' Author William Styron

by Martin Miller

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William Styron

NEW YORK CITY, New York -- William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose skillful explorations of evil, domination and redemption made him one of the finest writers of his generation, died on Wednesday, November 1 of pneumonia at Martha's Vineyard Hospital. He was 81.

Styron, the author of "The Confessions of Nat Turner," "Sophie's Choice" and "Lie Down in Darkness," died Wednesday afternoon, according to his daughter Alexandra Styron. He had been in generally failing health over the last several years, she added, with a variety of ailments.

In addition to his literary skills, Styron became well known because of his public battle with severe depression. His open, searching, personal accounts did much to heighten awareness of the often misunderstood condition.

Styron's novels were imbued with a tragic sense of history and were usually set in his native South or at least featured a central Southern character. A painstakingly methodical writer who wrote at most a page-and-a-half a day on yellow legal pads, Styron produced fewer than a dozen novels, far fewer than his postwar contemporaries.

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William Styron

His modest output, however, won him the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award and the Howells Medal and thrust him to the forefront of modern American literature. "He was very much in the Faulkner tradition," novelist Tom Wolfe said in an interview.

"He very much had Faulkner's ability to create a mood," Wolfe continued. "You could read 10 pages of Styron and find yourself, without even knowing it, in very deep water. Even his short things were awfully good in that way."

Shortly after he graduated from Duke University, Styron's literary career took off with the 1951 publication of "Lie Down in Darkness." The book borrowed heavily from his experiences of growing up in the South. It followed Peyton Loftis, a young woman who commits suicide after being overcome by the pressures of a middle-class Virginia family.

Critics embraced the work and its author, comparing him favorably to other Southern writers, particularly William Faulkner. Styron also enjoyed critical success with his next two novels, 1957's "The Long March" and 1960's "Set This House on Fire."

A Force Established

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William Styron

But it was "The Confessions of Nat Turner" that established him as a force in American literature. His fourth novel garnered the Pulitzer and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the 1967 novel, Styron boldly wrote in the first person as Nat Turner, the leader of the most memorable slave revolt in U.S. history.

Styron, who grew up near the rebellion's flash point, built the work upon a Turner transcript made shortly before he was hanged in 1831. Amid the turbulent late 1960s, the book found a large audience and was widely praised. One critic wrote: "This narrative is something more than a novelistic counterpart of scholarly studies of slavery in America."

In the New York Review of Books, the critic continued, "It incarnates its theme, bringing home to us the monstrous reality of slavery in a psychodynamic manner that at the same time does not in the least neglect social or economic aspects."

According to Wolfe, Styron "was one of the few white writers to write from inside the mind of a powerful black figure or a black figure at all. There are so few novelists today who will even do that." Wolfe added, "It was unusual and difficult, and he seemed to have pulled it off pretty well." But the book drew intense criticism, especially from the African American community.

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William Styron

The African American community deeply resented a white Southerner adopting the voice of a black man. Critics argued that blacks should be exclusively creating their own sense of identity. In an essay called "The Confessions of Willie Styron," critic John Oliver Killens blasted Styron's version of Turner.

Killens, whose essay appeared in a 1968 book titled "William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond," wrote: "Americans [love] this fake illusion of reality because it [legitimizes] all of their myths and prejudices about the American black man, and further, because it cut yet another great American black man down to the size of a boy."

Bitter over the criticism, Styron defended his right, and that of other artists, to take the voice of any character. In accepting the Howells, he pointedly answered his critics: "By recognizing Nat Turner, this award really honors all of those of my contemporaries who have steadfastly refused to write propaganda."

In his acceptance speech, Styron continued, "The award also refuses to acknowledge those who would indulge in myth-making but have been impelled to search instead for those insights which, however raggedly and imperfectly, attempt to demonstrate the variety, the quirkiness, the fragility, the courage, the good humor, desperation, corruption and mortality of all men."

Wrenching Tale

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William Styron's 'Sophie's Choice' starred (L-R) Peter MacNicol as

Stingo, Meryl Streep as Sophie and Kevin Kline as Nathan

It took Styron a dozen years to produce his fifth novel, "Sophie's Choice," a wrenching tale of a Polish woman who survives the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Regarded by many critics as his most accomplished fictional work, the novel, which won the American Book Award. The novel also spawned a 1982 movie starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, is a sweeping story of human loss and suffering.

The main character is based on a woman Styron met when

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