I want to say how pleased I am to be here tonight, and to congratulate the Whiting Fellows on their good fortune. It must be a great honor to be in your seats tonight, and I am heartily sending you my congratulations, with a caveat or two. I say a caveat or two, because I’m sure as your careers come to fruition, as they certainly will, you will have all sorts of extraordinary things happen to you. Among them, you will become the recipient of the attention of people who want to write doctoral theses.
Now, this is a mixed blessing, mostly negatively, I’d say. And to give you an example of what I’m talking about, I want to give you a précis of the introduction to a doctoral thesis that came my direction several years ago on an innocent afternoon in my Connecticut house. I was expecting nothing so elaborate as this package that came from a place in California by Federal Express.
And it was indeed a doctoral thesis, and I unwrapped it, having nothing better to do, and began to read the first page. Now, all of this is, I guarantee, verbatim. I have my wife here, and she can attest to it. There was a covering letter asking me to read it, and the first page read as follows, the title page: “Sophie’s Choice: A Jungian Perspective,” then, “Prepared for the course in therapeutic process.”
This came from, I will call it, a nameless college in California. “Prepared for the course in therapeutic process,” and then the name of the professor. And then the following, verbatim: “As Sophie Zawistowska, the heroine of this drama, is a complex personality, demanding a complex analysis, I have, in this thesis, endeavored to probe her character primarily through the use of Jungian psychology. However, I have also employed the resources of Greek tragedy, Shakespearian drama, and the modern theories of such critics as Jacques Derrida and Lacan.”
Then came, to my enormous astonishment, the first footnote, which goes as follows: “All references in my text will be based on the Alan J. Pakula film, Sophie’s Choice.” Followed by this: “Where the film is obscure, I have referred to the William Styron novel of the same name.” As I say, I have a testament from my wife that guarantees that to be true. So, as you venture off into your career, keep this sort of thing in mind, because it’s going to happen to you too.
I was asked to say a few words about my own career as a writer, thinking it sort of befits the occasion. I’ve jotted down a few memories about the creation of my first novel, which went as follows.
When I was fired from the first and only job I’ve ever held, I wanted one thing out of life, and that is to become a writer. I left my position as manuscript reader at the McGraw Hill book company, with no regrets. The job had been onerous and boring. It did not occur to me that there would be many difficulties to impede my ambition. In fact, the job itself had been an impediment.
All I knew was that I burned to write a novel, and I could not have cared less that my bank account was close to zero, with no replenishment in sight. At the age of 22, I had such pure hopes of my ability to write not just a respectable first novel, but a novel that would be completely out of the ordinary, that when I left the McGraw Hill building, I felt, as Mr. Belknap just recorded with amazing prescience, the exultancy of a man just released from slavery, and ready to set the universe on fire.
At that time, I was sharing a cheap apartment with a fellow graduate from Duke University, a southerner like myself, a rather gloomy basement affair far up Lexington Avenue near 94th Street. I was reading gluttonously and eclectically, novels and poetry, plays, work of history, anything. But I was also doing a certain amount of tentative, fledgling writing.
A novel had not yet revealed itself, and so most of my energies were taken up with short stories. The short story, I thought, possessed considerably more prestige than now. Certainly due largely to an abundance of magazines, the short story then had a considerably larger readership, and I thought I’d make my mark in what, again, I thought was a less demanding art form, while the novel to be germinated in my brain.
And this, of course, was a terrible delusion. The short story, whatever its handicaps, is one of the most demanding of all literary mediums, and my early attempts proved to be pedestrian and uninspired, and the rejection slips began to come back with burdensome regularity. Yet plainly there was a talent somewhere inside signaling its need to find a voice, and the voice was heard. An extremely gifted teacher named Hiram Hayden was conducting a writing course at the New School, and I enrolled there.
Hayden was a pedagogue in the older, non-pejorative sense of the word, which is to say a man who could establish a warm rapport with young students. He had a fine ear for language, and something about my efforts, groping and unformed as they were, caught his fancy and led him to encourage me and both embarrass and please me. Hiram Hayden was also an editor in a book publishing house. He said that he felt my talents might be better suited to the novel and suggested I start in writing right away, adding that his firm would underwrite my venture to the extent of a hundred dollar option.
While hardly a bonanza then or now, this was not nearly as paltry as it might sound, though indeed on second thought it was pretty paltry. It was mainly a note of confidence that spurred my hungry ambition. The only drawback now was that I had no idea about how I would go about starting a novel. It seemed as menacing a challenge as all the ranges and peaks of the Himalayas.
What, I would ask myself, pacing my damp Lexington Avenue basement, what in god’s name am I going to write about? There can’t be anything quite as painful as the doubts of a young writer, exquisitely aware of the disparity between his capabilities and his ambition, aware of the ghosts of Tolstoy and Melville, Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Flaubert, all these cautionary presences crowding around his writing table.
Anyway, that winter, between Christmas and New Year’s, a monumental blizzard engulfed New York City, the greatest snowfall in 60 years, since the famous blizzard of ’88. During that snowbound time, two things occurred to me that precipitated my work into the novel, as opposed to daydreaming.
The first of these was my receipt of a letter from my father in my hometown, down in the Virginia tidewater, telling me of the suicide of a young girl my age, who had been the source of my earliest and most aching infatuation. Beautiful, sweet, and tortured, she had grown up in a family filled with discord and strife. I was appalled and haunted by the news of her death. I’d never so much as held her hand, yet the feeling I had for her from a distance, at time to time, had verged on a kind of lunacy. And you know, the only kind that you can get — where adolescent passion is involved, it’s madness. The knowledge of this foreshortened life was something that burdened me painfully all through those holiday days, yet I continued to read, in my obsessed way, and then there was this amazing book which came my way and helped become a turning point in the struggle.
It was Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. I was amazed by such talent. No work since that of Faulkner had so impressed me, impressed me by sheer marvelousness of the language, vivid characters, it’s narrative authority, the sense of truly felt and realized life. It’s a book that thrilled me and challenged me, and gave me hope.
And so it was that soon after finishing All the King’s Men, I began to see the first imperfect outline of my novel, then untitled, which would become Lie Down in Darkness. I figured I would write about a young girl of 22 who committed suicide. I’d begin the story as the family in Virginia assembled for the funeral, awaiting the train that returned her body from the scene of her death in New York City.
The locale of the book, a small city in the Virginia tidewater, was my own birthplace, familiar to me as something in my own bloodstream. And so even as the book began to take shape, I became excited by all the rich possibilities, the weather and the landscape and the tidewater, against which the characters began to define themselves: father, mother, sister, and the girl herself, all doomed by fatal hostility and misunderstanding, all helpless victims of a domestic tragedy.
In writing such a story, like Flaubert in Madame Bovary, which I passionately admired, I’d be also able to anatomize the bourgeois family life of the kind I knew well, the WASP world of the modern urban south. It was a formidable task, I knew, for someone my age and inexperience, but I felt up to it, and I plunged in with happy abandon, modeling my first paragraphs on what else, the opening chapter of All the King’s Men.
Any reader who wishes to compare the first long passage of Lie Down in Darkness with the rhythms and the insistent observation and the point of view of the beginning pages of Warren’s book will easily see the influence which only demonstrates that it may not always be a bad thing for a young writer to emulate a master, even in an obvious way.
Lie Down in Darkness also owes its enormous debt to none other than, of course, William Faulkner, the god and the demon of all southern writers who follows. Writers as disparate as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy have expressed their despair at laboring in the shadows of such a colossus, and I felt a similar measliness.
Yet, although even at the outset I doubted that I could rid myself wholly of Faulkner’s influence, I knew the book could not possibly have real merit, could not get unto itself the lasting and needful power and I suppose beauty I wanted it to have unless the voice I developed — the voice, the voice, always the voice — became singular, striking, and somehow my own.
And so then, after I had completed the first 40 pages, all of which I was satisfied with, and which remained intact in the final version, there began a wrestling match between myself and my own demon, which is to say that part of my literary consciousness which too often has let me be indolent and imitative, false to my true vision of reality, responsive to facile echoes, rather than to that important, unique inner voice.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for a writer in his early 20s to be entirely original, to acquire that voice, but I was plainly wise enough to know that I had to make the attempt. It was not only Faulkner, I had to deafen myself to echoes of Scott Fitzgerald, always so easy and seductive, rid my syntax of the sonorities of Conrad and Thomas Wolfe, cut out wayward moments of attitudinizing a la Papa Hemingway. Above all, to be myself.
This, of course, didn’t mean that the sounds of other writers couldn’t and didn’t occasionally intrude upon the precincts of my own style. T.S. Eliot, who was also a great influence at the time, showed definitely how the resonance of other voices could be a virtue. But it did mean, nonetheless, the beginning of a quest for freshness and originality.
I found the quest incredibly difficult, so completely taxing that after those 40 or 50 pages, I began contemplating giving up the book. There seemed no way that I, someone who had not even published a short story, could reconcile all the complex components of this vision of mine, all of the elements, the character and prose rhythms and dialogue and revelation of character, and out of this reconciliation produce that splendid artifact we call a novel.
And so, after a fine start, I quit. I went down to Durham, North Carolina, where I’d gone to college, and there took a tiny back street apartment, which I shared with a very neurotic cocker spaniel, with the hideous sentimental name of Mr. Chips. And here I tried to write again.
I toyed with the novel, but it wouldn’t move or grow. The dispirited letters I wrote to Hiram Hayden must have told him that his $100 had gone down the drain. But plainly, he was not to be discouraged, for after a year, he wrote me from New York, suggesting that my energies might be recharged if I moved back up north.
It seemed a reasonable idea, and so, in the summer of 1949, after transferring ownership of my spaniel to a professor of philosophy at Duke — I want to interject here that I was wretchedly, miserably unhappy when I had to part with this dog. I was devoted, as I would later become devoted to ladies. And I mean, my heart was wrenched, and I took the dog over to this professor, gave it to the family, and left vowing never to go see the dog again, but finally, I was overcome by emotion. About two weeks later, I did go over there, and the damn dog leaped out of the bushes and bit my wrist, and my ankle.
Anyway, I came back to New York and took a cheap room in the heart of Flatbush. I stayed there only a month or so, but it was invaluable experience, demonstrating the serendipitous manner in which life often works to a writer’s advantage, for that month’s residence provided the inspiration for Sophie’s Choice.
Salvation from all my damned up torment came soon in the form of two loving friends I’d met earlier in the city. A young woman and her mother invited me to live with them in the hills behind Nyack, and there I collected my wits, and with a now or never spirit, set forth to capture the beast which had so long eluded me.
And as I began to discipline and harness myself, I began for the first time to examine as coldly and as clinically as I could the tough problems, which I had refused to face. I had a fine revelation. I realized that what had been lacking was a sense of architecture, a symmetry, perhaps unobtrusive but always there, without which a novel sprawls, becomes a self-indulged octopus. It was a matter of form.
Up until now, this was an issue that, out of laziness or fear or perhaps both, I tried to avoid. I didn’t have to construct a diagram or a plot. This I had never done. I merely had to keep aware, as I progressed with the narrative in flashback after flashback, using the funeral as the framework for the entire story, that my heroine, Peyton Loftis, would always be seen as if through the minds of the other characters. Never once would I enter her consciousness.
Further, she would be observed at progressive stages of her life, from childhood to early adulthood, always with certain ceremonials as a backdrop: a country club dance, a Christmas dinner, a football game, a wedding. And each of these ceremonials would not only illuminate the tensions and conflicts between Peyton and her family but provide all the atmosphere I needed to make vivid and real the upper middle class Virginia milieu I had set out to describe.
Only at the end of the book, toward which the entire story was building, in Peyton’s Molly Bloom-like monologue, would I finally enter her mind. And I hoped that this passage would be all the more powerful, because it was suddenly and intensely interior and personal.
This, at any rate, was the scheme which I evolved, and from then on, the writing of the book, although never easy, took on a brisk, self-generating quality in which I was able to command all other aspects of the story, dialogue, description, wordplay, to my own satisfaction, at least. And I felt that it worked.
I completed Lie Down in Darkness on a spring evening in 1951, in a room on West 88th Street in Manhattan, where I’d moved after my liberating year in Rockland County. I finished Peyton’s monologue last, having already written the ultimate scenes, and if, to the present-day reader, the passage has an added sense of doom and desperation, this may be because a few months before I’d been called back by the Marine Corps to serve in the Korean War.
Thus, I think I had, like Peyton, only meager hopes for survival. I was 25 years old, and like Peyton, much too young to die. But I survived, happy beyond my craziest dreams at the generally good reviews and at the fact that Lie Down in Darkness actually reached the best-seller list. This is on the same list as two other first novels—which Time magazine said later on that year, with its usual prescience—express, like mine, a depressing and negative trend in American letters — From Here to Eternity and The Catcher in the Rye.
William Styron (1925– 2006), a native of the Virginia Tidewater, was a graduate of Duke University and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. His books include Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, Set This House on Fire, The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie’s Choice, This Quiet Dust, Darkness Visible, A Tidewater Morning, and Havanas in Camelot. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Howells Medal, the American Book Award, and the Légion d’Honneur. With his wife, the poet and activist Rose Styron, he lived for most of his life in Roxbury, Connecticut, and Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, where he is buried.