Today would have been writer William Styron’s 90th birthday. The author of Sophie’s Choice, The Long March, Set This House on Fire and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, among other works, was born June 11, 1925 in Newport News, Va. Styron died on Nov. 21, 2006, at age 81 and was buried here, at the West Chop Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
As he wrote about in several forms, Styron struggled with severe depression and the urge to commit suicide, which he described most vividly in his memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, also tackles the subject, telling the story of a woman struggling against insanity and the desire to kill herself. This YouTube video from Open Road Media features Styron reading a short excerpt from the work:
The quote on Styron’s grave comes from the end of Darkness Visible: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” It is a translation of the final line of Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, line 139: E quindi uscimmo a rivider le stelle.
In 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Styron’s youngest daughter, Alexandra, at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. There, she read and signed copies of Reading My Father, a powerful and mesmerizing memoir about her father who, as she candidly describes, was a drinker, a carouser and “a high priest at the altar of fiction.” Styron helped define the concept of the “Big Male Writer.” But he was also a loving father and a husband–a complex, compelling man who Alexandra was able to better understand through the writing of this book, and that she so generously shares with us. It’s a fabulous, insightful and inspiring read.
One of the official blurbs for the book says:
Alexandra offers a vivid look at the experiences that shaped William Styron’s life and his novels: the death of his mother; his precocious success with Lie Down in Darkness; his military service and his early loves. From Europe, where he helped found the Paris Review and met his wife, Rose, to New England where he would live out his storied career, William Styron is vivid in all his epic, tragic complexity in Reading My Father.
I loved Reading My Father and believe a most appropriate way to celebrate Styron’s life and birthday would be to add it, or one of his books, to your summer reading list. I’m adding Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner to mine.
– Cindy Wolfe Boynton