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William Styron is born

Novelist William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice and other critically acclaimed novels, is born on this day in Newport News, Virginia.

Growing up in the segregated south troubled Styron, whose father’s family had once owned slaves. An only child, Styron became a voracious reader and skipped ahead in school. He went to Davidson College in North Carolina but nearly flunked out before he joined the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific for the invasion of Japan. When he returned, he finished his education at Duke University in North Carolina, where he studied writing.

He moved to New York, hoping to become a writer. He finished his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, about a woman struggling against insanity and suicidal urges, but was called back to the Marines to serve in the Korean War before the book’s publication in 1951. His next book, The Long March (1956), about a brutal march forced on Marine recruits in training, became a critical and financial success. He won a major award, the Prix de Rome, that allowed him to travel abroad and write. In Rome, he met his future wife, Rose Burgunder, and in Paris he helped found the Paris Review. He made friends with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and other writers. His novel Set This House on Fire (1960) was attacked by U.S. critics but praised abroad. In 1967, he explored his interest in race issues with The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), written in the voice of Nat Turner, leader of a failed slave uprising. Some black writers attacked Styron, claiming a white writer could not accurately portray the psychology of a black slave. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. His bestselling novel Sophie’s Choice, dealing with the devastating aftermath of the Holocaust, was made into an award-winning movie in 1982.

Styron struggled with severe clinical depression and suicidal urges, which he described in his memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (1990). He died on November 21, 2006, at age 81.

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