NEW YORK – 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 in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. 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.
A handsome, muscular man with a strong chin and wavy dark hair that turned an elegant white, 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.
The subject of Nat Turner and the slave revolt of 1831 had been a lifelong obsession of Styron’s. 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, whom Styron concluded was both hero and madman. “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.”
His other works included “Sophie’s Choice,” the award-winning novel about a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and “A Tidewater Morning,” a collection of fiction pieces. He also published a book of essays, “This Quiet Dust,” and the best-selling memoir “Darkness Visible,” in which Styron recalled nearly taking his own life.
Styron was a liberal long involved in public causes, from supporting a Connecticut teacher suspended for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance to advocating for human rights for Jews in the 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.
Writing was an increasing struggle in his latter years. Styron was reportedly working on a military novel, yet published no full-length work of fiction after “Sophie’s Choice,” which came out in 1979.