William Styron, the Virginia-born author whose novels plunged readers into the dark edges of historical moments, died of pneumonia Nov. 1 in Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Mr. Styron, 81, won most of the major literary awards of the 20th century, including the Pulitzer Prize for "The Confessions of Nat Turner," the National Book Award for "Sophie's Choice" and the National Medal of the Arts for his lifetime body of work. He partied with presidents and publishers, signed petitions on political issues and testified in court that he saw Chicago police beat demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
His 1979 novel about the horrific decision forced on a character during the Nazi reign in Poland, "Sophie's Choice," was named one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library editorial board. His 1967 novel, "The Confessions of Nat Turner," about the leader of a real slave rebellion, sparked controversy among African American critics who said Mr. Styron did not understand the experience of slaves. His 1990 memoir of depression, "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness," made him a hero to advocates of destigmatizing mental illness and earned him a National Magazine Award.
From the publication of his first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness" (1951), he was considered to be the logical literary successor to fellow Southerner William Faulkner. Mr. Styron's work is characterized by elegant language, characters who grapple with morality and a strong narrative.
He took seriously the advice of novelist Gustave Flaubert: "Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." Mr. Styron's work habits were regular -- he wrote slowly, in pencil, longhand, on yellow legal pads, with few revisions -- and his work broke ground in American literature.
"A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted. You should live several lives while reading it," Mr. Styron said, in his most widely quoted remark.
Both sides of his family had deep roots in the New World: His father's Scandinavian family moved from Barbados to North Carolina's Outer Banks to Virginia's Tidewater area almost 300 years ago. His mother's family settled in Pennsylvania about the same time as the Styrons moved ashore.
Born in Newport News, Mr. Styron learned to read before he entered first grade. His mother, who discovered she had breast cancer two years after his birth, died when he was 13, the same year he began writing short stories.
He enrolled at Davidson College in 1942 but spent only a year there, enlisting in the Marines by memorizing the eye chart to hide his poor vision. He was sent to Duke University, where he was enrolled in the V-12 program, which was designed to hold Navy and Marine officer candidates while they studied subjects expected to be useful once they were deployed. Sent to Parris Island, S.C., for basic training, he landed in the venereal diseases ward of the base infirmary with a misdiagnosed case of trench mouth.
The war ended before he went overseas, but before he was mustered out he spent a month as commander of guards at a naval prison near New York City. He finished at Duke in 1947 with a degree in English. He worked briefly at the McGraw-Hill publishing house in Manhattan, then struck out on his own to write his first novel.
The Marines recalled him during the Korean War, and he edited the proofs of his first book during training camp. The cataracts that he hid in order to enlist in the Marines helped him leave the service almost a decade later.
His first novel, "Lie Down in Darkness," was published to acclaim, capturing the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a society that later named him one of its 4,000 members. The prize required him to spend a year in Rome, and he began that sojourn six months early, touring London and Paris. He became friends with the literary lions of the era, including James Baldwin, Irwin Shaw, James Jones and Norman Mailer, with whom he later had a long feud.
He married in 1953, the same year that he helped Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton set up a well-regarded but little-read literary quarterly, the Paris Review. He also published "The Long March," based on his stint in the Marines.
Mr. Styron settled in Connecticut and Martha's Vineyard, but traveled widely. His books were translated into more than 15 languages.
He said in a 1962 letter to a new literary agent: "You get these queer cultural anomalies. In England I am doubtless best known for 'The Long March,' which is little known in America and as yet unpublished (though forthcoming) in France, and at the same time vaguely recalled as the writer who wrote these dreary and cumbersome novels, 'Lie Down in Darkness' and 'Set This House on Fire.'
"In America, I am known as the writer of an early masterpiece, 'Lie Down in Darkness,' who badly betrayed his talent in a clumsy second work, 'Set This House on Fire.' In France, I am known as the authentic genius who created an incomparable chef d'ouevre, 'Set This House on Fire,' after an obscure and fledgling attempt called 'Lie Down in Darkness.' "
In 1968, Mr. Styron's "Confessions of Nat Turner" received the Pulitzer Prize, but the introspective and psychological work brought bitter criticism, although he called it a "meditation on history" rather than a historical novel. It is now considered his masterpiece. A similar criticism was leveled when "Sophie's Choice" won the 1980 National Book Award. Although some critics objected to the novel's focus on a Polish Catholic character, Mr. Styron was vindicated when the Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation gave him its third annual Witness to Justice Award.
He became involved in some of the major issues of his day. After serving as a pro-Eugene McCarthy alternate delegate to the 1968 Democratic convention, Mr. Styron testified in court that he saw Chicago police beat demonstrators in Lincoln Park. He signed many petitions and wrote a letter to the editor defending President Bill Clinton in December 1998. He became a mentor to prisoner Benjamin Reid, whom he had helped save from execution in 1962. Reid escaped just before his scheduled parole in 1970 and kidnapped and raped a woman as he fled.
Mr. Styron tried to resume work on a long-put-off war novel, but his disciplined work schedule broke down as he slipped into depression, which he attributed to the use of prescription medicine that exacerbated an inherited tendency toward melancholy. The painful experience and recovery from that disease turned into a magazine article and later a short book, "Darkness Visible."
He also published two collections, "A Quiet Dust" in 1982, consisting of nonfiction essays, and "A Tidewater Morning," a 1993 trilogy of stories from his boyhood; and the play "In the Clap Shack," based on his experience in the Marine Corps.
Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Rose Burgunder Styron, three daughters and a son.