Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

William Styron at Duke, 1943-44

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

William Styron at Duke, 1943-44

Article excerpt

William Styron came to Duke University in late June 1943, only a few days after his eighteenth birthday. He had just completed his freshman year at Davidson College (where he had not been particularly happy), and would embark on his first term as a sophomore as soon as he could settle in at Duke. This accelerated pace was caused by World War II: nearly all American colleges and universities were offering a streamlined academic schedule so that trainees in campus military units could earn as many credits as possible before leaving for the war. Styron had enlisted in the Marine Corps that spring at Davidson and had been transferred to Duke to join the Navy V-12 unit, an officer-training program on campus there. His move to Duke put him into a progression that would eventually, he believed, take him to the Pacific where he would fight against the Japanese.

Styron was not entirely happy to be coming to Duke. Its academic reputation, though respectable, was not as high as it would later become. Duke was then known as a good private university which catered to well-heeled Northerners unable to get into Ivy League colleges. (Campus wags, in consequence, sometimes referred to Duke as "The University of New Jersey in Durham.") All things considered, Styron would rather have gone to the University of North Carolina in nearby Chapel Hill, a more typically Southern school, but the machinery of military bureaucracy had instead shuttled him to Duke.

That university in 1943 was a well-endowed, rapidly emerging private institution that traced its lines of descent to Trinity College, a small Methodist school founded in Randolph County, North Carolina, in 1839. Trinity College had moved to Durham in 1892 and, in 1924, had been chosen by the Duke family to receive a large endowment which would transform it into a major national institution. The college had been renamed Duke University, and new facilities and programs had been added. Some of the old Trinity College buildings in West Durham had become a large adjunct campus, principally for women students. A new main campus had been erected in West Durham, with gray limestone and granite buildings in the Collegiate Gothic style. Schools of divinity, law, medicine, nursing, and engineering had been established, so that by the time Styron arrived there in 1943 Duke had completed its transformation into a true university.

Styron noticed the differences between Duke and Davidson immediately. Though Duke had carried over its Methodist affiliation from Trinity College, there was no compulsory chapel and no Bible-class requirement--as there had been at Davidson, a conservative Presbyterian college. Duke was large and bustling, with a diverse, cosmopolitan mixture of undergraduate, graduate, and professional-school students. The medical school was a dominating presence, and, for the first time since his sophomore year in high school, there were girls in his classes. Most of the non-military undergraduates were from conventional, middle- to upper-class families; many of them wore expensive clothes and had ready spending money. Fraternities were much in evidence, but one could have a social life without joining: Styron could have affiliated with the Phi Delta Thetas since he had been initiated to the Davidson chapter the previous spring, but he decided against it. He had lost interest in fraternities while at Davidson, never having developed a taste for their style of socializing. Besides, as a V-12 trainee he was in a different orbit from the fraternity boys. He wore a uniform every day and was kept almost constantly busy with military indoctrination and training.

The war had caused great changes in student and faculty life at Duke. The V-12 program had brought in almost one thousand new male students and had radically altered the curriculum and academic calendar. The V-12 program was designed to hold young Navy and Marine Corps officer candidates in college for several semesters; there they could mature while studying subjects that would be useful once they went on active duty. …

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