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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
Several years after my novel appeared, two historians named Seymour L. Gross and Eileen Bender published a long essay entitled “History, Politics and Literature: The Myth of Nat Turner.” The essay was a carefully argued defense against the attacks on The Confessions of Nat Turner, which were chiefly embodied in a polemical book called William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Professors Gross and Bender made the interesting point that as a result of the extraordinary denunciation I had received, my book had been cast, as far as blacks were concerned, into the abyss. “Like the white schoolchildren in South Carolina at the turn of the century,” they wrote, “who had to take an oath never to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin because there was no truth in Mrs. Stowe, present-day blacks are being similarly assured that they can safely despise Mr. Styron’s book without having to read it.” There was a curious element of prophecy embedded in this statement, because much of the limbo status of Nat Turner (again insofar as black readers have been affected) has extended until the present day; as recently as the mid-1980s Paule Marshall, a fully grown black writer and a reputable one, was quoted in The New York Times Book Review—where she was playing a game in which writers were asked to name “Books I Never Finished Reading”—as saying that she never even started reading The Confessions of Nat Turner, since she had been assured that the work was “racist.”
The racist tag was affixed to the novel soon after the publication of Ten Black Writers, which appeared the summer after I spoke at Wilberforce. The book was published by Beacon Press, under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a high-minded group ostensibly dedicated to preserving the truth. This collection, which contained critical pieces by largely well-known black intellectuals from various disciplines (English, sociology, psychiatry, history), along with several critics and fiction writers, was an extraordinary book by any standard; a collective cri de coeur of throbbing pain and rage, its overall lament was that I had written a malicious work, deliberately falsifying history, that was an affront to black people everywhere. The volume received much attention: the front page of The New York Times Book Review, two consecutive reviews in the daily Times, and so forth. There was nothing restrained about the assault; in the splenetic tone of the sixties I was labeled “psychologically sick,” “morally senile,” and was accused of possessing “a vile racist imagination.” The major complaint was apparent from the book’s first sentence: How dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?
Following close upon this indictment were other charges: that (aside from the outrageous business about the young white woman) I had “missed the beauty of the Afro-American idiom,” that I had created an indecisive and emasculate wimp rather than the stalwart figure of history, that the text reflected an approving view of the paternalism of slavery, that my description of a fleeting homoerotic episode in adolescence meant that I regarded Nat as a “raving homosexual,” that I had failed to give him a wife, that the secret agenda of the entire work was to demonstrate how the black struggle for freedom was doomed to failure—the bill of particulars was interminable. Virtually nothing in my work, according to these inquisitors, had merit; the most innocuous and tangential aspects of the novel received scathing treatment.
A couple of the essays, a bit less irate than the others, were at least well considered; they had in common the conviction that I had somehow missed the religious and emotional center of the black experience—and they may have been right. I knew from the beginning the hazards of setting foot in exotic territory and was aware that even though I was dealing with long-ago Virginia, instead of, say, Harlem or Watts (about which I would never have been able to write with authority), my stranger’s perspective might not always ring true to black people. One of these more rational critics, who called Nat Turner a “tragedy” (in the noncomplimentary sense) and my figure of Nat “a caricature,” expressed the general hurt and frustration he shared with his fellows by saying that “[Styron] has done nothing less...than create another chapter in our long and common agony. He has done it because we have allowed it, and we who are black must be men enough to admit that bitter fact. There can be no common history until we have first fleshed out the lineaments of our own, for no one else can speak out of the bittersweet bowels of our blackness.” Right or wrong, this was a civilized sentiment that I could take seriously.