Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00


William Styron, Jr.

By Peter Matthiessen

I am very pleasedindeed honoredto be offering the Academy tribute to William Clark Styron, Jr., of Virginia, who was inducted here in 1966 at the relatively young age of 39, mostly on the wings of Lie Down in Darkness, a brilliant and precocious first novel.

Published in 1951, that novel had won the prestigious Prix de Rome of this Academy, which provided for a year’s stay at the affiliated American Academy in Rome. On his way there in 1952, he stopped over in Paris, emerging from the shadows of my dark fourteenth-floor landing one warm spring afternoon bearing an indecipherable scrawled note of introduction. The young stranger was quiet, rather shy, and as it turned out, somewhat discomfited, since word of his literary fame had not preceded him and none of our aspirant young writer friends in Paris had ever heard of him; we could only take his word for it that he was the real living author of an honest-to-goodness published book.

My young wife and I gave him a drink or two, then took him to dinner at a little Breton café around the corner. We were already much taken with “Bill” Styron, who turned out to be an exceptionally engaging fellow: well-informed, well-read, humorous, and very curious about Paris on this first visit. We became fast friends and would remain so for the next half-century.

A month later, when Lie Down in Darkness actually arrived in the W. H. Smith bookstore on the Right Bank and we had a chance to read it, we were properly astounded: we had not realized what a greatly talented person had come among us. By this time, Styron was already participating in the founding of our new literary journal in my modest fourth-floor walk-up studio off the railroad yards of the Gare Montparnasse, which later served him as a location in his second novel Set This House on Fire (1959); he was in fact present at the historic meeting when our nebulous publication was christened The Paris Review. He would also compose the stirring manifesto that appeared in the first issue, and would subsequently sit still for one of the earliest of the Art of Fiction interviews that helped to establish the Review, still alive and well here in New York 55 years later. For the rest of his life, Bill would serve the Review as an advisory editor, and his charming wife Rose remains an esteemed member of the Review board. I’m delighted to say that Rose is here with us this afternoon, together with two of her lovely daughters and their handsome husbands.

In the summer of 1952, while still in Paris, Styron completed the striking novella The Long March, based on a march he endured himself on Parris Island while in Marine training. He went off to Rome in early autumn and returned that December with the beauteous young poet Rose Burgunder. The following spring, I attended their Rome wedding on the Campidoglio, and with my wife would visit them for a few weeks of that fine summer at Ravello on the Mediterranean before returning to the U.S. Talking with Bill about writing and literature was always a delight, and in a fine tradition that commenced in Ravello with my own second novel, we became blunt but generous critics of each other’s early drafts.

In 1954 the Styrons would establish themselves in Roxbury, Connecticut, buying a summer place in Vineyard Haven perhaps ten years later. We visited and traveled often, shared many lively friends, watched our families grow. After everyone had gone to bed, we might debate and dispute over books into the early morning, whiskey glasses still lolling in our hands.

It was in that post-midnight witching hour, on the soaring wings of Beethoven or Mozart, that he would pace up and down the room, unable to sit still in the uprush of ideas which sprang forth from what a reverent eulogist might call his noble brow. What I thought I glimpsed in those exhausted pre-dawn hours (when the conscious mind no longer overpowers the unconscious) were the hidden workings of a formidable creative mechanisman intuitive intelligence and sensibility that pried the portals of his brain just long enough to set free onto the page the strangeness and exaltation of those great passages which illuminate three of his four symphonic novels.

“These things are like climbing mountains,” Styron has observed about writing novels. “You give it every bit of your power, and every now and then you reach an impasse, go up the wrong path, and have to start another route. But I’d rather be a failed ambitious writer than a mediocre writer who has tried nothing”by which he meant, of course, ‘risked nothing.’ One has to admire and applaud the risks Styron took throughout his writing career. That risk is everything.

In 1967the year after he was inducted into this Academyhe published his third novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was given the Pulitzer Prize in 1968; in 1970 he was awarded the Academy’s Howells Medal for Fiction with Sophie’s Choice (1979) still to come. (Though this is generally considered his greatest novel, that strangeness and exaltation whichI believelie at the very heart of his work manifest more wonderfully in Nat Turner and Lie Down in Darkness.)

Bill’s great confidence in his own gifts, which never wavered until darkness became visible, gave him the heart and courage to construct those books in his own majestic, almost archaic voice: as befit such a voice, he chose to confront the most controversial subjects of his time. Having survived a great amount of outrage from black writers for having the audacity to reflect and write in the voice of such an iconic figure as Nat Turner, he went straightaway into Sophie’s Choice, whose Polish heroine and victim was to provoke even more outrage from those who claimed Auschwitz and the so-called Holocaust as a purely Jewish horror rather than a great cold evil curse like the Black Death that had befallen humankind. In both cases, his critics behaved as if Styron had intruded wrongfully, even stolen something, when in fact he had only accepted the novelist’s responsibility to illuminate and lay bare the nature of human good and human crueltythe great and terrible nature of our species, which to this day we have not fully faced, if we are to judge from the cruel apathy we have shown to Rwanda and Darfur in recent times.

Styron was always concerned with justice, from writing in defense of the undefended whom he perceived to be unjustly punished to lobbying Congress for tax relief for writers; I shall always be grateful that he and Rose came to my assistance in the long fight to free the American Indian activist Leonard Peltier. Bill attended and wrote about William Faulkner’s funeral for Life magazine and the Democratic convention of 1968 for the NYRB and on various disgraceful topics for Esquirefor he could always be great fun. I’ll miss that sudden outburst of lewd glee, that delighted laugh of joy, upon hearing of the latest grotesque manifestation of the comical sexual folly of the human animal.

Styron’s essays, when compared to his three great novels, seem merely excellentthe title piece in the collection called This Quiet Dust being my favoritebut one cannot discount the benefit to thousands everywhere of Darkness Visible. Many among that multitude, of course, had bought that book, and one evening downtown when Bill was roasted, his pal Art Buchwaldalso a depressive (and also a recently departed member of this Academy)observed that Styron had made more money out of his damned depression than Art had made from all his books put together.

Bill Styron was unusually intelligent, not merely bright. And he was thoughtfulnot as in “considerate,” but in the rarer sense. He knew when to listen, feeling no need to dominate conversations. He had the confidence of his own silence. He considered what he said, and people listened.

For all his well-merited recognition and acclaim, his seeming worldliness and sophistication, there remained something inextinguishably “innocent” about Bill, a boyish nose-to-the-candy-store-window curiosity about all that was new and different in the world. He never lost that.

To be sure, he passed rather quickly through that window, and earned life membership very early in an exclusive realm of privilege and rewards. One wonders, however, if those rewards could compensate even a little for his later years of intermittent but severe clinical depression. I hope so, but I do not think so. Styron was an artistarguably a great artistso he must have grieved that those dark years deprived him of fulfillment in what might have been another mighty work.

In my view, the significance of our good old friend’s contribution to American lettersand the commonwealwill not be disputed in the future.

Bravo and Amen! How we will miss our good old friend and colleague! How the world of literature will miss William Clark Styron, Jr., of Virginia.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 4, 2007.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters