'Sophie's Choice' Author William Styron Dies - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

11/2/06-NEW YORK

'Sophie's Choice' Author William Styron Dies

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Styron, author of "Sophie's Choice," died Wednesday at 81. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Styron, author of "Sophie's Choice," died Wednesday at 81.

 William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who wrote "Sophie's Choice," died Wednesday in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

He was 81.

Styron's daughter, Alexandra, said the author died of pneumonia at Martha's Vineyard Hospital. Styron, who had homes in Martha's Vineyard and Connecticut, had been in failing health for a long time.

"This is terrible," said Kurt Vonnegut, a longtime friend. "He was dramatic, he was fun. He was strong and proud and he was awfully good with the language. I hated to see him end this way."

The Virginia native was a handsome, muscular man, with a strong chin and wavy dark hair that turned an elegant white. His obsessions with race and class informed such tormented narratives as "Lie Down In Darkness" and "The Confessions of Nat Turner."

"Confessions" won a Pulitzer despite protests that the book was racist and inaccurate.

"Confessions" carried this passage: "Was it not fact, known even to the humblest yeoman farmer and white-trash squatter and vagabond, that there was something stupidly inert about these people, something abject and sluggish and emasculate that would forever prevent them from so dangerous, so bold and intrepid a course, as it had kept them in meek submission for two centuries and more?"

'Sophie's Choice,' then a lull

Styron penned "Sophie's Choice," the award-winning novel about a Holocaust survivor from Poland. It was later turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep who won a Best Actress Oscar.

"Sophie ceased looking at the pictures -- all became a blur -- and her eyes sought instead the window flung open against the October sky where the evening star hung, astonishingly, as bright as a blob of crystal," Styron wrote. "An agitation in the air, a sudden thickening of the light around the planet, heralded the onset of smoke, borne earthward by the circulation of cool night wind. For the first time since the morning Sophie smelled, ineluctable as a smotherer's hand, the odor of burning human beings."

Styron was reportedly working on a military novel, yet he published no full-length work of fiction after "Sophie's Choice," which came out in 1979.

He did produce "A Tidewater Morning," a collection of fiction, and compilation of essays called "This Quiet Dust."

A public life fighting liberal causes

A liberal long involved in public causes, the author supported a Connecticut teacher suspended for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. He also advocated for human rights for Jews in the former Soviet Union.

In the 1990s, Styron was among a group of authors and historians who successfully opposed plans for a Disney theme park near the Manassas National Battlefield in northern Virginia.

Although he was often cited along with Vonnegut and Norman Mailer as a leading writer of his generation, he produced little over the past 15 years. He remained well connected, whether socializing with President Clinton on Martha's Vineyard or joining Arthur Miller and Gabriel Garcia Marquez on a delegation that met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2000.

"He was always generous to me as a younger writer," said E.L. Doctorow, who, like Styron, has been published for decades by Random House. "He stood in my mind as a sort of writerly presence, an iconic Southern writer."

The son of a shipbuilder, William C. Styron Jr. was born in Newport News, Virginia, to a family whose history harkens back to the colonial era of that state.

The writer was awed by the torrential fiction of fellow Southerner Thomas Wolfe and knew by his late teens he wanted to be a writer.

His own life offered strong material.

A self-proclaimed 'hell-raiser'

At age 13, his mother died, transforming him into a self-proclaimed "hell-raiser" with an unhealable guilt. He served as a lieutenant in the Marines during World War II and in 1945 was stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

He was to take part in the invasion of Japan and didn't expect to come out alive. But the battle never took place. The United States dropped the atom bomb instead on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"Some of my problems, I think, came from a continuing anguish over my mother's death and if I had gotten shot it would have been, I suppose, some kind of completion," Styron told The Associated Press in a 1980 interview. "It's hard to say how that would have worked out.

"When I was a young Marine platoon leader, there was this incredible sense of fate," he continued. "The myth at that age is you're going to live forever. Well, I never believed that and my friends didn't. I thought I was going to die."

After the war, Styron graduated from Duke University in North Carolina and moved to New York where he worked briefly as a copy editor at McGraw-Hill until the publishing giant fired him "for slovenly appearance, not wearing a hat, and reading the New York Post."

With extra free time and financial help from his family, Styron was able to complete "Lie Down in Darkness," detailing the destruction of a Southern family in a tempest of alcoholism, incestuous longing, madness and suicide.

It is told in the third person -- except for the final passage, a soliloquy by the daughter, Peyton Loftis, in the moments before she commits suicide by jumping out a window.

Styron was recalled to the Marines in 1951, just as "Lie Down in Darkness" was being published, and his second book -- "The Long March" -- drew on his experiences at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

He took a lengthy tour of Europe after his discharge, offering moral and literary support for the founding of journal The Paris Review and meeting his wife, the poet Rosa Burgunder. They had four children.

After publishing the novel "Set This House on Fire" in 1960, Styron turned to what had been a lifelong obsession: Nat Turner and the slave revolt of 1831. As a child, Styron lived near where the uprising had taken place and he never forgot a brief, harsh reference to Turner in his grade school history book.

In the early 1960s, "intensely aware that the theme of slave rebellion was finding echoes" in the growing Civil Rights movement, he worked on a fictional account of Turner, who Styron concluded was both hero and madman.

"Confessions" fulfilled the prediction by his friend, the renowned author James Baldwin, that "Bill's going to catch it from black and white."

Styron was called "psychologically sick" and "morally senile" by critics for "Confessions."

He was criticized for making Turner an "indecisive and emasculate wimp" and condemned for even writing the book, with some saying a white, Protestant Southerner could not truly understand or explore the thoughts of an African slave.

The novel was furiously condemned in a 1968 book, "William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond."

Styron's reply: Writers of fiction have a duty to "meditate" on history and bring understanding through imagination.

The author's focus on the Holocaust for the novel "Sophie's Choice," which won the National Book Award is based partly on Styron's years in New York,

"Sophie's Choice" is narrated by a young Southerner who meets a Polish-Catholic survivor of the war and learns of her sufferings in a Nazi concentration camp.

Once again Styron was the target of critics, who said he could not possibly navigate the feelings of a woman, a Jew or a survivor of the camps.

Styron claimed vindication in 2002 when the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation, an organization led by his friend, the businessman Fred Schwartz, gave the author its third annual Witness to Justice Award.

"This award sort of clears the air for me," the writer told the AP in a 2002 interview. "It is a kind of solid validation for me of what I tried to do as a novelist."

But he also had enemies from within to conquer.

In late 1985, suffering from depression that only worsened when he was prescribed the drug Halcion, Styron narrowly stopped short of killing himself and instead checked into a hospital.

In a short book "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness," Styron discussed his experiences, speculating that some of his early characters grew out of his own depression. He also wrote about other writers who have suffered from mental illness.

"Death ... was now a daily presence, blowing over me in cold gusts," he wrote in the memoir.

"I had not conceived precisely how my end would come. In short, I was still keeping the idea of suicide at bay. But plainly the possibility was around the corner, and I would soon meet it face to face."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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