Appreciating the 'Darkness' of Styron

William Styron titled his first novel Lie Down in Darkness and his final memoir Darkness Visible. His career followed shadowy paths of pain, guilt and madness. His death at 81 came after years of contemplating his own passing.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm John Ydstie.

The author William Styron died this past week at the age of 81. Styron was a son of the South, born in 1925 in Virginia. But he lived most of his adult life in the North and died on Martha's Vineyard, where he made his home for many years. William Styron's literary career was marked by swift fame and long periods of silence.

Essayist Diane Roberts has this appreciation.

DIANE ROBERTS: Darkness brackets William Styron's career. He titled his first novel Lie Down in Darkness. His last great book, a memoir of depression, is called Darkness Visible. Like fellow Virginian Edgar Alan Poe, Styron spent his career traveling shadowy paths of pain, guilt and madness. Poe spoke of the blackness of darkness. Styron stared deep into it and tried in his writing to shine a light so fierce, the darkness would dissipate like smoke.

William Styron's native Virginia was still, in all the ways that matter, the Old South, not so far from where he grew up, like Confederate cemeteries, relics of the nation's most devastating war. Styron came of age at the height of Jim Crow and started publishing during the first electric hum of the civil rights movement.

1951's Lie Down in Darkness was an exercise in Faulknerian gothic, a novel about one of those tormented Southern families descending into depravity and suicide. Then Styron unleashed The Confessions of Nat Turner. He was called brilliant, bigoted, a genius, and a thief, in this re-imagining of the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion. 1967, the year Nat Turner came snarling on the scene, saw race riots in Detroit and Newark, the Black Panther Party carrying rifles into the state capital in Sacramento, and the likes of George Wallace still vowing to resist integration.

Nat Turner was like lighted match tosses on to a lake of gasoline. The country suddenly took a break from burning tires, the Summer of Love, and Vietnam, to argue about an incendiary work of art.

Sophie's Choice, what was to be his most famous novel, came out in 1979 and was made into an even more famous film. Again, Styron was criticized. Who was he to write about the Holocaust? But Styron thought it was the writer's job to explore aching moral dilemmas and to confront evil wherever it lived. All his long life he agitated for freedom of speech, for the release of prisoners of conscience, and for an end to racism.

And all his life he fought depression. The story of his struggle with mental illness, published in 1990, takes its title from Milton's description of hell in Paradise Lost. Yet from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible.

He produced no major work over the last 15 years. But what he leaves is surely monument enough. He said once, most books, like their authors, are born to die. Of only a few books can it be said that death has no dominion over them. They live and their influence lives forever.

YDSTIE: WEEKEND EDITION essayist Diane Roberts.

Sixteen years ago, when he published Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, William Styron appeared on this program and talked about the moment when thoughts of suicide almost claimed him.

Mr. WILLIAM STYRON (Author): When depression takes hold and seizes oneself in itself in its fullest intensity, the pain is so great and so unrelenting that one begins naturally to think of a way out. As I described in the book, there was a day - or night, I should say - toward the end of this seizure, before I went into the hospital, in which the pain became so absolutely intense that I knew that was ready to commit some act against myself. Fortunately, I did not. I went to the hospital and the hospital saved me.

But certainly I was on the verge, and I was therefore in that state in which one judges that life is not worth living.

YDSTIE: William Styron died this past week at the age of 81.

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