- An Accidental Boswell: Writing the Life of William Styron
I became William Styron's biographer more or less by accident. During the summer of 1985 I was spending time in Newport News, his home city on the James River in Virginia. I was looking into the history of his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, published in 1951. That book, something of a roman à clef, was set in a fictional version of Newport News called "Port Warwick." I wanted to look at the places Styron had fictionalized—the C&O railway station where the novel begins, the James River Country Club where some of its scenes are set, and the huge shipyards that are present throughout the book. I was curious to see Styron's boyhood home in Hilton Village, a planned community built for shipyard workers just after the First World War. I also wanted to talk to people, to Styron's teachers and boyhood friends and to residents of Hilton Village who had known his father and mother during the 1930s.
My plan was to write a short book about the making of Lie Down in Darkness—a study of its sources, surviving drafts, bowdlerization, publication, and textual history. I quickly became aware, however, that I was gathering information for a much bigger project—a full-length biography. This information, I could see, would probably vanish in a few years. Newport News was then (as it is now) a busy industrial town with only a passing regard for its history. By 1985 the C&O station had been abandoned; the James River Country Club was undergoing renovations; and the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, modernized and expanded, no longer resembled the industrial workyard that Styron had known as a boy. The people I was interviewing were growing older, and their memories were beginning to fade. But biographical information about Styron was there to be gathered. Should I be the one to do the gathering and, later, the one to write the life?
I had no experience as a biographer, but during that period in Newport News I found that I liked the work. Most of my scholarly labors until that point had been performed in rare-book rooms and manuscript collections, quiet places in which I sat for hours and studied the literary remains of long-dead authors. Biographical work on a living writer was different; it involved maps and photographs and local histories, telephone calls and inquiries, lunches in cafés and diners, afternoons of interviewing and nights during [End Page 445] which I tried to collate and organize my notes. I liked the unpredictability of the work—never knowing exactly what might turn up or where it might lead. I also enjoyed the interviews—listening to people tell their stories and offer their insights.
Later in that summer of 1985 I visited Styron on Martha's Vineyard, where he and his wife, Rose Burgunder, maintained a summer home in the town of Vineyard Haven. I told him about my trip to Newport News and about the kinds of information I was turning up. "I seem to be working on a biography of you," I said. "If you want me to stop, I will. Otherwise I'd like to keep going." He thought for a few moments, then answered as I had hoped he would. "Why don't you just go ahead," he said. "I'll be curious to know what you find." We talked for another half-hour and came to an understanding. I would proceed, asking only for permission to examine his literary papers. I would check in from time to time and tell him how the investigations were going; he would not ask to see the chapters as I wrote them. ("You and I are working the same territory," he said.) He would wait until I had finished the manuscript and would then read it to be sure I had not made factual errors. Otherwise I was on my own.
Colleagues have since told me that this was an extremely loose arrangement. A lawyer friend all but insisted that I have a series of documents drawn up...