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William Styron: A Life Hardcover – March 10, 1998

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"If one wishes to know William Styron, one must walk with him," this biography teasingly begins. Great expectation! Will readers come to know Styron through conversations, reminiscences, and literary gossip as we "walk" with West and Styron? All we'll come to know, through the daily walks, are the "facts" of Styron's two retrievers (a matronly golden and a rambunctious young Labrador) and their geography. From October to June, they walk in Roxbury, Connecticut; from June to September, on Martha's Vineyard. "If one has taken these walks over many years and has listened to these talks ... one knows that Styron will have revealed very little about himself in what he has said," West seems to say with a sigh at the end of his preamble.

It is in the work, alleges West, that Styron the man is most revealed. And in the exegesis of Styron's novels lies the strength of this biography. West's gifts come to light when he assumes the role of literary detective. His reconstruction of the gestation and birth pains of Styron's great novels shows an interest sparked by the questions of literary form and content. With these discussions the biography crisply snaps together.

Meanwhile, the chronology remains the armature. West marches Styron's ancestors steadily toward the moment of Styron's birth in Newport News, Virginia, picking dutifully through the detritus. Reader interest is piqued when Styron's parents are summoned from the wings--particularly with the entrance of Pauline Abraham, Styron's talented mother (a musician who studied in Vienna and would prove herself to be a fiercely adventurous young woman in pre-World War I America). A minutely detailed history of Newport News, Virginia, where Styron was born and raised in the years following World War I, reveals his recurring thematic interests--racial segregation and the "unknowable" culture of black Americans.

It is Styron's New York City years that makes for compelling reading. While enrolled in the New School for Social Research, for example, and mentored by Hiram Haydn, Styron teetered, at 22, on the brink of his literary career. The angst of the young author struggling through issues of writer's block, financial stress, and the problems peculiar to the work that would become Lie Down in Darkness will amaze, perhaps reassure, aspiring writers. Such would not be forgiven today, for Styron's career flourished in that completely unprecedented era where the publishing world existed to serve and nourish new talent, free of today's marketplace concerns with bestsellers, blockbusters, and the bottom line. Read, and bid a grave farewell to our gone and golden literary era.

West has little new to add about the recent years (Styron was 72 with the publication of this biography). Styron's later life has been made so public with the hugely successful Darkness Visible (1990), which did much to validate the experiences of those who suffer from depression. West's treatment of Styron's notorious depression is candid, but in the end, lacks depth. The reiteration of a near fatal depression triggered by a carelessly prescribed series of sedatives is instructive, but West passes up an opportunity to discuss the role Styron's alcohol dependency played.

We might have been spared the obligatory nod to Styron's ancestry; the comments on little Billy's boyhood (so he had pretty brown eyes, so he had chicken pox and verbal precocity), those tiresome details that strain for significance. We don't need to know about Styron's first grade experiences in order to appreciate the mind behind Sophie's Choice. A rather flat coda disappointingly concludes this 450 page account of the rich--in work and love--and complicated life of an American master. --Hollis Giammetteo

From Publishers Weekly

Often thwarted by writer's block despite his literary successes, Styron had his most fortunate failure, West notes, when, late in 1985, the novelist, in deep depression worsened by dependency on the tranquilizer Halcion, tried to compose a suicide note. "He wanted to write a document of eloquence and dignity, but... [i]n extremis, words had failed him." Although West's biography (his first) begins so worshipfully as to be off-putting and continues with a largely irrelevant genealogy going back to the Viking warrior Styr the Strong in A.D. 700, the workmanlike, low-key narrative proceeds then to evoke the author of Lie Down in Darkness, Set This House on Fire, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice and, more recently, Darkness Visible. In the postwar generation in which he was first seen as a Southern gothic inheritor of Faulkner, Styron (b. 1924) emerged as an original, residing well north of the Mason-Dixon line and becoming best known for the striking Holocaust novel Sophie's Choice, in which the heroine is, paradoxically, Polish and Catholic, and no scene is set inside the death camps. For the texture of Styron's life and the sources of his characters and situations, West, Distinguished Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, is authoritative. However, he is sometimes less assured when he strays, alleging, for example, that the workaholic Anthony Trollope wrote only one hour a day; misplacing Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement in both time and country; and labeling U.S. (and U.K.) involvement in the Korean War (in which Styron was recalled to duty) "immoral." Authorized lives of living subjects are delicate challenges, but West brings off his biography well, covering events from Styron's unpromising beginnings to literary elder statesman attempting to cope with his fame. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 506 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (March 10, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679410546
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679410546
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,574,613 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Steve on April 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
After a slightly tedious beginning (who cares if Styron had the sniffles and recurring earaches as a kid?), West's biography delves into the heart of Styron's life and work. I was stunned to learn of the many and varied connections between the two: much of what appears in Styron's books is based upon actual experiences he had and people he knew. West clearly has a deep respect for his subject, and the portrait we receive of Styron is one of a dedicated, sometimes angst-ridden literary genius, slowly and methodically creating his masterpieces. West occasionaly sidetracks into Styron's interesting relationships with other authors, including his controversial feud with Norman Mailer. The main quibble is that the final quarter of the book seems awfully hurried. One might expect "Sophie's Choice", Styron's most recent and well-known novel, to receive the most treatment, but West seems to give it the least. Those hoping for a more in-depth look at Styron's battle with depression than is found in his memoir "Darkness Visible" will probably be disappointed, as West adds little new to the saga, and in fact often seems to quote it directly (which seems rather lazy). Still, a mostly fascinating read, and one that any fan of Styron will find engrossing.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Frank Cunat on February 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I've read all of Styron's fiction and all his published nonfiction, and was happy to find out that this biography explores in detail the mind of the writer who has created such beautiful, enduring prose. Author West has had unusual access to working papers, unpublished works, and early drafts of Styron's well-known books, and is able to illustrate how the changes Styron made during the editing process reveals his character. You couldn't ask for a more deeply felt biography. In contrast to the main review on this page, I also felt that this was one of the only biographies I've read in which the connection between the subject's childhood and writing was made clear. If the only book of Styron's you've read is the excellent Sophie's Choice, this biography may give you more information than you want. If you have more of an interest in Styron's other writing, this book is a fascinating adjunct. By the biography's end, you feel you know Styron and you hope he completes the "Marine novel" he's been working on for so long.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 1, 1999
Format: Hardcover
For anyone who is amazed by William Styron and all that he creates, this book provides the glimpses behind the start of each creation. We do not need to know every bit of Styron's emotional life to know what it is that compels him to write in the genius that he does. We understand him because we can see what motivates all of his great works. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who is a writer, reader or lover of his works.
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