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Novelist William Styron Dies At 81

Author William Styron listens to speakers during a news conference in New York, Wednesday, May 27, 1998. 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 Nov. 1, 2006 in Martha's Vineyard, Mass. He was 81.
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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.

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. He did remain well-connected, whether socializing with President Clinton on Martha's Vineyard or joining Arthur Miller and Gabriel Garcia Marquez on a delegation that met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2000.

The son of a shipbuilder, William C. Styron Jr. was born in Newport News, Va., to a family whose history extends to colonial Virginia. He was awed by the torrential fiction of fellow Southerner Thomas Wolfe and knew by his late teens he wanted to be a writer. His own life offered strong material.

At age 13, his mother died, transforming him into a "hell raiser" with an unhealable wound of guilt. He served as a lieutenant in the Marines during World War II and in 1945 was stationed in Okinawa. He was to take part in the invasion of Japan and didn't expect to come out alive.

The battle never took place; the United States dropped the atom bomb instead.

"Some of my problems I think came from a continuing anguish over my mother's death and if I had gotten shot it would have been, I suppose, some kind of completion. It's hard to say how that would have worked out," Styron told The Associated Press in a 1990 interview.

"When I was a young Marine platoon leader, there was this incredible sense of fate. The myth at that age is you're going to live forever. Well, I never believed that and my friends didn't. I thought I was going to die."