Nat Turner Revisited

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I received as strong and vigorous a defense as a beleaguered writer could expect. I was especially well served by Eugene D. Genovese—who was then on his way to becoming the preeminent historian of American slavery and whose devotion to the black cause could scarcely be questioned—when he issued a massive rebuttal to the black essayists in The New York Review of Books; clearly as much dismayed as angered by the book’s irrationality and philistinism, Genovese took up its main arguments one by one and effectively demolished them. This inflamed the black critics and their colleagues even more, and in counter-rebuttals that filled the back pages of the The New York Review the ugly debate raged on. Inevitably the storm died down, but the controversy has remained at a slow simmer until this day. Literally hundreds of articles have been written about the dispute, and at least four full-length books have appeared, including a ponderously comprehensive study of the entire affair that appeared only this year. Amid this vast scholarly debris it is possible to salvage at least a few commentaries whose insight and wisdom are worth preservation, and one of these is the Gross-Bender essay. Like Genovese, the historians deal harshly with the ten black writers and briskly dispose of their charges, but they have further illuminating things to say about the perennially enigmatic figure of Nat Turner and his place in our history.

They make the point that while Nat Turner was relatively obscure until my book appeared, he had “always belonged to those who used him—as a myth, as an imagined configuration of convictions, dreams, hopes and fears.” What has helped make the man such a fascinating subject for speculation is his very inaccessibility. Neither historians nor writers of fiction have ever been able really to make much sense of the original document or to draw from it an identity with which everyone can agree by concluding: This is the historical truth. No firm truth can be established from such an incoherent text, or from the silhouette of the man, and, therefore, Nat has been the subject of wildly varying interpretation. One of the most prominent black historians of the nineteenth century, William Wells Brown, sallied forth on an ostensibly historical account but ended up drawing an elaborate imaginative portrait that resembled fiction; like me, he was repelled by Nat’s religious mania, and like me, he minimized or softened his biblical bloodthirstiness. In most other respects this chronicle by a historian plainly baffled by the obscurities and paradoxes of the record is as novelistic as mine. And Brown makes no mention of a Mrs. Nat Turner.

On the other hand, the illustrious Thomas Wentworth Higginson, ardent champion of black rights, was fascinated by Nat Turner and did supply the hero with a spouse in his account, which was quasi-historical or semifictional, depending on the reader’s definition of this blurred region, but in any case almost totally fanciful. Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington Williams, and numerous other writers of the last century, both black and white, tried to pin Nat down, but this “black Spartacus,” as he was termed by one commentator, utterly evaded a consistent portrayal; the fabled insurrectionist, mad or sane or simply beyond comprehension, was truly a chameleon. As recently as this year, in an off-Broadway play about the insurrection by a black playwright, Nat Turner’s ultimate motivation for violence is the rape of his “wife” by slaveholder—acceptable enough if one subscribes to the principle of artistic license, but a far more flagrant deviation from prima facie evidence than anything in my own work. Gross and Bender conclude that my own attempt was “very much part of a tradition. Styron has ‘used’ Nat Turner as Gray, Higginson, Wells Brown, and, indeed, the accusing critics themselves have used him—reading into him, and out of him, those usable truths which seemed to him to coalesce about the image he was contemplating.”

When I mentioned James Baldwin earlier, it was with the memory of our friendship and of the time when he was encouraging me to do what at first caused me hesitation, and that was to take on the persona of Nat Turner and write as if from within this black man’s skin. Baldwin was wrestling with his novel Another Country, which deals intimately with white characters, and we both ultimately shared the conviction that nothing should inhibit the impulse that causes a writer to render experience that may be essentially foreign to his own world; it is a formidable challenge and among an artist’s most valuable privileges. Baldwin’s determination to pursue this course aroused the ire of many militant blacks, who saw such a preoccupation as frivolous and a betrayal of a commitment to the black cause. He stuck to his belief though his conscience and his persistence brought him rebuke and bitter alienation. My attempt, of course, was an even greater effrontery, and after Nat Turner was published, Baldwin told an interviewer most accurately, “Bill’s going to catch it from black and white.” Some months later, when I saw him, he offered me congratulations on the book’s success and commiseration on the uproar, adding with the voracious full-throated Baldwin laughter that was one of his trademarks, “If you were just darker, it would be you, not me, who was the most famous black writer in America.” It was at least partly true: my problem was less that of my work than that of my color.