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Nat Turner Revisited
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the most controversial historical novel in memory, the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner speaks of a novelist’s duty to history and fiction’s strange power not only to astonish but to enrage
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
Twenty-five years ago this November, I found myself in Ohio, where I was being awarded an honorary degree at Wilberforce University. The university, one of the few all-Negro institutions in the North, was named after William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist of slavery, and so I marked the special appropriateness of this honor when I accepted the invitation a few weeks earlier. My novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, based on the Virginia slave revolt of 1831, had been published early in October to generally glowing reviews, had received a vast amount of publicity, and had quickly ascended to the top of the best-seller lists, where it would remain for many weeks. Only the most disingenuous of writers would, I think, fail to confess being pleased by such a reception.
I was also gratified to have the blessing of both the Book-of-the-Month Club and The New York Review of Books. There was a lavish movie contract from Twentieth Century-Fox and an admiring review in the New Republic from one of America’s pre-eminent historians. I am stressing these outward signs of success only to point up the reversal of fortune the book would soon undergo. Like any writer who is honest with himself, I knew that Nat Turner had defects and vulnerabilities—Faulkner remarked that we novelists will be remembered for “the splendor of our failures”—but that it was hard not to feel a I certain fulfillment that fall, more than five years after having sat down at my desk on Martha’s Vineyard, determined to re-create, out of an extremely sketchy and mysterious historical record, the life of a man who led the only significant slave revolt in our history, and to try to fashion in the process an imagined microcosm of the baleful institution whose legacy has persisted in this century and become the nation’s central obsession. In 1962, when I began writing the book, the civil rights movement still had the quality of conciliation; Martin Luther King, Jr.’s grand and impossible dream was dreamed in a spirit of amity, concord, and the hope of a mutual understanding. The following years demonstrated the harsher truths: Birmingham, the bombings, Selma, the death of Medgar Evers, the three youthful martyrs of that Mississippi summer, churches set on fire, unbounded terror. James Baldwin, who was a friend of mine and who had made notes for his great essay The Fire Next Time while living in my house, had seen his prophecy come to pass in the smoke and flames of Watts and of Newark and Detroit. I’ve often been surprised, reflecting on this time, at the naiveté or perhaps blindness that prevented my perceiving in that tumult a suggestion of the backlash that awaited Nat Turner.
The principal item I had to deal with, and freely reject, was the character of Nat himself. He was a person of conspicuous ghastliness.
But on the campus of Wilberforce University there was no hint of the gathering storm. The angry word had not yet gone out. In a sea of smiling black and brown people, I was greeted with good will, thanks, praise. During lunch the university’s president publicly expressed his appreciation for my story, for the way I had illuminated some of slavery’s darker corners. At the convocation ceremony I made a brief talk in which I expressed the hope that an increased awareness of the history of the Negro (I used this word, which, though moribund and about to be replaced within months by black, was still acceptable), especially of Negro slavery, would allow people of both races to come to terms with the often inexplicable turmoil of the present.
There was much applause. George Shirley, a Wilberforce alumnus who was a leading tenor with the Metropolitan Opera, gave a spine-chilling rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in which the audience joined together, singing with great emotion. Standing in that auditorium, I was moved by a feeling of oneness with these people. I felt gratitude at their acceptance of me and, somehow more important, at my acceptance of them, as if my literary labors and my plunge into history had helped dissolve many of my preconceptions about race that had been my birthright as a Southerner and allowed me to better understand the forces that had shaped our common destiny. For me it was a moment of intense warmth and brotherhood. It would have been inconceivable to me that within a short time I would experience almost total alienation from black people, be stung by their rage, and finally be cast as an archenemy of the race, having unwittingly created one of the first politically incorrect texts of our time.