William Styron, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose explorations of the darkest corners of the human mind and experience were charged by his own near-suicidal demons, died Wednesday of pneumonia in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. He was 81.
Styron’s book “Sophie’s Choice,” about a Holocaust survivor from Poland, reached the bigscreen in 1982, with Alan J. Pakula nominated for the adapted screenplay Oscar.
Styron’s daughter Susanna wrote and directed the 1998 film “Shadrach,” based on her father’s short story about a former slave.
Styron was a Virginia native whose obsessions with race, class and personal guilt led to such tormented narratives as “Lie Down in Darkness” and “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which won the Pulitzer despite protests that the book was racist and inaccurate.
He also published a book of essays, “This Quiet Dust,” and the bestselling memoir “Darkness Visible,” in which Styron recalled nearly taking his own life.
Styron published no full-length work of fiction after “Sophie’s Choice,” released in 1979.
He served in the Marines during WWII, graduated from Duke U. and worked briefly as a copy editor at McGraw-Hill until the publisher 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.
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, N.C.
He made a lengthy tour of Europe after his discharge, offering moral and literary support for the founding of the Paris Review and meeting his wife, the poet Rosa Burgunder, with whom he 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.
“The Confessions of Nat Turner,” published in 1967, earned Styron the Pulitzer Prize but also fulfilled his friend James Baldwin’s prediction that “Bill’s going to catch it from black and white.”