October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
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
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.
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.
The story of Nat Turner had been long gestating in my mind, ever since I was a boy—in fact, since before I actually knew I wanted to be a writer. I could scarcely remember a time when I was not haunted by the idea of slavery or was not profoundly conscious of the strange bifurcated world of whiteness and blackness in which I was born and reared. In the Virginia Tidewater region of my beginnings, heavily populated by blacks, society remained firmly in the grip of the Jim Crow laws and their ordinance of a separate and thoroughly unequal way of life. The evidence was blatant and embarrassing even to some white children, like myself, who were presumably brought up to be indifferent to such inequities as the ramshackle black school that stood on the route we traveled to our own up-to-date and well-equipped edifice, with its swank state-of-the-art public-address system, very advanced for the late 1930s. Many black schools in Virginia at that time had outside privies.
Despite our own fine local facilities, Virginia—in the era of the hidebound Harry Byrd political machine—ranked in public education among the lowest of the states, down there with Arkansas and Mississippi, and the quality of instruction in the black schools had to be even worse than what we white students were given, which (except for a few individually outstanding teachers) was desperately mediocre. I was painfully sensitive to this disparity, just as I was conscious of the utter strangeness of this whole segregated world: the water fountains and rest rooms marked “White” and “Colored,” the buses in which black folk were required to sit in the rear, the theaters with blacks seated in the balconies (in the larger towns there were actually separate theaters); even the ferryboats crossing the rivers and bays enforced a nautical apartheid, with whites starboard and Negroes portside. I was perpetually bemused by this division and the ensuing isolation.
It was a system both ludicrous and dreadful, and I sensed its wrongness early, probably because of my parents, who, while hardly radical, were enlightened in racial matters, but also out of some innate sense of moral indignation. Although of course I was an outsider, I fell under the spell of négritude, fascinated by black people and their folkways, their labor and religion, and especially their music, their raunchy blues and ragtime and their spirituals that reached for, and often attained, the sublime. Like some young boys who are troubled by their “unnatural” sexual longings, I felt a similar anxiety about my secret passion for blackness; in my closet I was fearful lest any of my conventionally racist young friends discover that I was an unabashed enthusiast of the despised Negro. I don’t claim a special innocence. Most white people were, and are, racist to some degree, but at least my racism was not conventional; I wanted to confront and understand blackness.
Then there was the incomparable example of my grandmother. In a direct linkage I still sometimes find remarkable, I am able to say that I remain separated from slavery by only two generations and that I was related to and was familiar with and spoke to someone who owned slaves. Born in 1850 on an eastern North Carolina plantation, my father’s mother was the proprietress of two slave girls who were her age, twelve or thereabouts, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many years later, when she was an old lady in her eighties and I was eleven or twelve, she told me at great length of her love for these children and of the horror and loss she felt when that same year, 1862, Union forces from an Ohio regiment under General Burnside swept down on the plantation, stripped the place bare, and left everyone to starve, including the little slave girls, who later disappeared. It was a story I heard more than once, since I avidly prompted her to repeat it and she, indulging her own fondness for its melodrama, told it again with relish, describing her hatred for the Yankees (which remained undiminished in 1937), the real pain of her starvation (she said they were reduced to eating “roots and rats”), and her anguish when she was separated forever from those little black girls, who were called, incidentally, Drusilla and Lucinda, just as in so many antebellum plantation novels. All of the deliciously described particulars of my grandmother’s chronicle held me spellbound, but I think that nothing so awed me as the fact that this frail and garrulous woman whom I beheld, and who was my own flesh and blood, had been the legal owner of two other human beings. It may have determined, more than anything else, some as-yet-to-be-born resolve to write about slavery.
Nat Turner entered my consciousness through brief references to his revolt in my text on Virginia history. But most memorably he appeared in the form of a historical highway marker adjoining a peanut field in Southampton County, where I traveled with our high school football team in the fall. This was a remote, down-and-out farm region, whose population was 60 percent black. I was transfixed by the information conveyed by that marker, paraphrased thus: Nearby, in August of 1831, a fanatical slave named Nat Turner led a bloody insurrection that caused the death of fifty-five white people. Captured after two months in hiding, Nat was brought to trial in the county seat of Jerusalem (now Courtland) and he and seventeen of his followers were hanged. I recall how this sign set off in my mind extraordinary resonances, which were clearly in conflict with my grandmother’s story: What was the connection, if any, between her loving memories and this cryptic notation of terror and mayhem? Perhaps more important, I remember wondering whether that bygone moment of sudden disaster didn’t reflect something sinister in the divided white and black world in which I lived, so outwardly peaceable yet, except to the blind, troubled and jumpy with signs of resentment, sullenness, covert hostility and anger. The Virginia of my boyhood, like virtually all the South, was a place where the amiable, if often edgy, relations between the races rose from an impulse that was mutually self-protective, keeping in abeyance much white fear and much black rage.
Daily life produced an unstated precariousness. There were strong, even passionate bonds of affection between individuals, black and white, but the social arrangement was a different matter; in the vast rural areas a form of pseudoslavery prevailed, and the white man’s whim was law. Urban existence, not much better, gave rise to ghettos where crimes by black against blacks went ignored and unrecorded. At its worst, the South was filled with intimidation and brutality on a terrifying scale; in the Deep South lynchings were still more than occasional. At its best, kindheartedness and decency, along with genuine love spontaneously reciprocated, were the rule, but even so, the South suffered, in its Jim Crow shackles, from the sickness of alienation. It was a bizarre, culturally schizoid world with falsity at its core, not to speak of a glaring inhumanity. I’m sure that my early fascination with Nat Turner came from pondering the parallels between his time and my own society, whose genteel accommodations and endemic cruelties, large and small, were not really so different from the days of slavery. I think I must have wondered whether this tautly strained calmness might not someday be just as susceptible to violent retribution.
I wrote several works of fiction before I finally tackled Nat Turner. Then in the early 1960s I decided that the time was ripe; certainly I was never anything but intensely aware of the way in which the theme of slave rebellion was finding echoes in the gathering tensions of the civil rights movement. Although it didn’t dawn on me at the time, I later realized that one of the benefits for me in Nat Turner’s story was not an abundance of historical material but, if anything, a scantiness. This was a drama that took place in a faraway backwater when information gathering was primitive. While it may be satisfying and advantageous for historians to feast on rich archival material, the writer of historical fiction is better off when past events have left him with short rations. A good example might be the abolitionist John Brown, who made his prodigious mark on history only thirty years after Nat Turner but whose every word and move were recorded by enterprising journalists, producing documents enough to fill a boxcar.
The novelist attempting John Brown’s story is in conflict with the myriad known details of the chronicle, and his imagination cannot simply run off in a certain direction—which is what fiction writers need their imaginations to do—because he is fettered by already established circumstances. He is in danger of being overwhelmed by an avalanche of data. That is why the writing of novels about plentifully documented figures—Lincoln, say, or John F. Kennedy—is a risky matter, constricting for the writer himself who, while quite free to take liberties with the known facts (the shopworn but sound concept of artistic license), must still take care not to violate the larger historical record. (Although even here the convention has often been broken; history has taught us, for example, that Richard III was not an unmitigated villain, nor a hunchback, but only pedants carp at Shakespeare’s nasty portrayal.)
The single meaningful document having to do with the Turner revolt was a short (seven-thousand-word) transcript that gave the title to my own work. The original Confessions of Nat Turner, which comprised both Nat’s account of his upbringing and a description of the events leading up to the revolt, as well as the details of the revolt itself, was put in writing by a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas R. Gray, who took down the words from Nat’s lips as he sat chained in his jail cell during the October days before his execution. From the first word this discourse poses serious questions of veracity. At a time when justice for slaves was at best a sham, and in the aftermath of a sensational trial where the state’s absolute authority must have prevailed, how reliable or authentic was anything Nat said, when filtered through the mind of this minion of the state? Still, despite this problem, the bulk of the document appeared genuine—Nat himself had nothing to lose at this point by telling the truth, and while some of Gray’s interpretation is doubtless suspect, he had little to gain by substantially altering Nat’s statement—and so I was generally disposed to use it as a guideline, a loose guideline, for my own narrative.
Aside from Nat’s own Confessions and a number of contemporary newspaper articles, most of which added little to Gray’s account (except to emphasize the immediately devastating psychological effect the event had on Southern society), there was virtually no material of that period that was useful in shedding further light on Nat Turner as a person or on the uprising. Such a near-vacuum, as I say, seemed to me to be an advantage, placing me in the ideal position of knowing neither too much nor too little. A bad historical novel often leaves the impression of a hopelessly over-furnished house, cluttered with facts the author wishes to show off as fruits of his diligent research. Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist critic whose monumental The Historical Novel should be read by all who attempt to write in the genre, views the disregard of facts as a state of grace; the creator of historical fiction, he argues convincingly, should have a thorough—perhaps even magisterial—command of the period with which he is dealing, but he should not permit his work to be governed by particular historical facts. Rather, his concern “is to reproduce the much more complex and ramifying totality with historical faithfulness.” At the time of writing Nat Turner, I felt that as an amateur historian I had absorbed a vast amount of reading on slavery in general, not only by way of a great number of antebellum books and essays but through much recent scholarship in the exploding field of the historiography of the slave period; thus, while my command may scarcely have been magisterial, I felt I reasonably fulfilled the first of Lukács’s conditions. It was perhaps serendipitous that Lukács’s other condition, regarding the relative unimportance of facts, made my task easier since I had chosen a man about whom so little was known.
Yet the facts can never be simply ignored, and the principal item I had to deal with, and freely reject, was that which involved the character of Nat Turner himself. The fact; He was a person of conspicuous ghastliness. I eventually read the original Confessions countless times, trying to pick up useful clues about the man and his background, but early on I was struck by the impression that our hero was a madman. A singularly gifted and intelligent madman, but mad nonetheless. No attempts on my part of sympathetic reinterpretation could alter this conclusion: his apocalyptic and deranged visions, his heavenly signs and signals, his belief in his own divinely ordained retributive mission, his obsessive fasting and prayer, his bloodthirsty megalomania and self-identification with the Deity (to a provocative question about himself by Gray, he replied, “Was not Christ crucified”)—there was no shaking the fact that on the record Nat Turner was a dangerous religious lunatic. I didn’t want to write about a psychopathic monster. While the institution of slavery was so horrible that it could readily produce psychopathology, and often did, I wished to demonstrate subtler motives, springing from social and behavioral roots, that could drive a young man of thirty-one to embark on his fearsome errand of revenge. So, without sacrificing the essence of Old Testament vengeance that plainly animated Nat, I attempted to moderate this aspect of his character and in doing so give him dimensions of humanity that were almost totally absent in the documentary evidence. When stern piety replaced demonic fanaticism, the man could be better understood.
I took an enormous liberty with historical actuality when I began to deal with Nat’s childhood and upbringing. I placed the boy in a milieu where he could not possibly have belonged. During the course of Nat’s brief life, Southampton County, where he was born and reared, had already suffered the impoverishment that had come to Virginia long before as the result of the over-cultivation of tobacco and other crops, leaving a surplus of slaves who were constantly in danger of being sold off to the thriving plantations of Alabama and Mississippi—the “Far South.” Virginia’s Southside, as the region below the James River is known, was in those days dotted with small farms and modest holdings, patches of cotton and corn for home use (peanuts had yet to come into their own), apples grown for cider and brandy, pigs in their wallows or rooting in the wild. This bore no resemblance to the romantic view of Old Dixie. The average farmer owned one or two deprived slaves. It was a forlorn, down-at-the-heel section of the Tidewater, where there never existed the celebrated plantations that gave the South its sheen and legendary glamour.
But I felt I had to create a plantation anyway. The plantation was an integral and characteristic part of Southern life in slave times; it was the very metaphor for the capitalist exploitation of human labor, and the plantation owners often represented the best and worst of those whom history had cast as masters in the peculiar institution, carrying within themselves all the moral frights and tensions that slavery engendered. I needed to dramatize this turmoil, and so I contrived to have Nat Turner grow up on a prosperous plantation that might have existed fifty years before far up the James River but that could not have flourished in poverty-racked Southampton. In this way I was able to expose young Nat Turner (from whose point of view the story is told) to the intellectual tug-of-war between the two Turner brothers, owners of the plantation and men diametrically opposed in their views on the morality of slavery. Such a strategy, while disdainful of the facts, enabled me to demonstrate certain critical philosophical attitudes I couldn’t have done otherwise, except didactically, yet still allowed me to remain, in the larger sense, historically faithful.
Two of the most carefully pondered decisions I made regarding Nat’s fictional character were ones that later provoked the greatest outrage from many of those people who became bitter enemies of the book. As is the case with disputes involving so many heroes, contemporary or departed, the bone to pick here was over the matter of sex. Why, came the bitter demand, hadn’t I linked Nat with a black woman? First, in the process of using the Confessions as a rough guide, I was struck by the fact that Nat referred to his relationship with quite a few people—grandmother, mother, father, master, disciples—but never to a woman in a romantic or conjugal sense; apparently he had neither a female companion nor a wife. This absence was quite significant, and I had to use my intuition to guess at its meaning. A wife or companion would have had important resonance, and his mention of such a woman would have forced me to create her counter-part. But since no other reliable source ever spoke of Nat’s being married (a pointless connection in the formal sense, slaves being legally forbidden to wed) or even being involved with a woman, it made it all the more plausible for me to portray a man who was a bachelor, or at least womanless, a celibate with all the frustrations that celibacy entails. Further, such a portrayal was entirely compatible with both the real Nat Turner’s revolutionary passion and his religious zeal; chastity, combined with a single-minded devotion to a cause, has been the hallmark of religious rebels and reformers throughout history, and I saw a commanding reasonableness in having Nat share their condition, in which austerity clashed with feverish sexual temptation.
But by all odds my most crucial choice, as I picked my way through the facts and factoids of the original Confessions, was the one that also gave rise to the most furious misinterpretation later—and this was to invent a relationship between Nat Turner and a teenage white girl, the daughter of a small landowner. No decision I made shows so well the pitfalls waiting for the historical novelist who, however well intentioned, creates a situation or concept repugnant to ideologues; at the same time, nothing so deftly illustrates the invincible right of the novelist to manipulate historical fact and pursue his intuition concerning that fact to its artistically logical conclusion. Here are two intertwined facts, recounted by the perpetrator and recorded by Thomas Gray with the clinical dispassion of a modern-day homicide report: During most of the course of the revolt, in which fifty-five people were slaughtered, the leader of the murderers could not kill or inflict a wound on any of the victims although he confesses that he tried more than once. This is the second fact: Toward the end of the bloody proceedings Nat is finally able to kill, and he kills—seemingly without qualm—a young woman named Margaret Whitehead, once described as “the belle of the county.” It is his only murder. And after that murder his insurrection seems to quickly run out of speed. Why?
These are two of those undecipherable facts so consequential that they can’t be sidestepped; indeed, for me they acquired such importance that my need to fathom their meaning became a dominant concern. And here it may be interesting to comment on the roles of the historian and the novelist, each of whom would be presented with different but overlapping opportunities to make sense of this terrible moment. Hewing more or less to the written record, both the historian and the novelist would be able to set the same scene, although the novelist would probably allow himself more descriptive breadth: the tranquility of a hot August day in the still countryside; the band of black marauders bursting out of the pinewoods and engulfing the simple whitewashed frame house where the sun-bonneted mother is swiftly decapitated by a muscular, screaming black man; the pretty young girl fleeing across the field, falteringly pursued by the Negro—irresolute at first, then determined—who, when she stumbles down in a heap, stabs her with his sword, then batters her head with a fence rail until she moves no more. Who was this Margaret Whitehead and what brought her together with Nat Turner? The facts tell us nothing else.
For this reason the historian’s concern with Margaret Whitehead would most likely end here, and he would pass on to other matters. Let us pause for a moment. The killing of Margaret is near the climax of Nat Turner’s chronicle, and it might be a convenient place to reflect on the immense effect the uprising had on American history and how its violence may have helped churn up a larger violence undreamed of by even the most obdurate slaveholder in 1831. Throughout that year the Virginia legislature had been engaged in a debate concerning the abolition of slavery; because of strong antislavery feeling in the Piedmont region and the western counties, where slaves were few, it appeared likely that abolition would become a reality, if not immediately, then in the near-future. The Turner cataclysm caused a wave of fear to sweep through the state, as well as much of the rest of the South, and may have been the most important factor in assuring the continuation of slavery in the Old Dominion. A legislator is reported to have said in public, “We’re going to lock the niggers in a cellar and throw away the key.” Had Virginia, with its great prestige among the states, abolished slavery during that critical time, the impact on the future (especially in terms of the possible avoidance of events leading to the Civil War) is awesome to contemplate.
But as a novelist I couldn’t abandon the relationship of Nat Turner and Margaret Whitehead to the vacuum into which it had been cast in the Confessions. It was nearly inconceivable that in the tiny bucolic cosmos of Southampton the two had not known each other, or had not been acquainted in some way. And if they had known each other, what was the nature of their affinity? Had she been cruel to him, slighted him, snubbed him, subjected him to some insult? Since she was his sole victim, could the entire rebellion have been conceived as his retribution against her? Farfetched perhaps, but history is full of catastrophes in which many have been sacrificed because of one person’s lethal wrath against another. Or was it something else entirely that bound them, something absurdly obvious, the very antithesis of hatred? Had they been lovers? This seemed unlikely, given one’s conviction about his basic asceticism. Perhaps, however, she had tempted him sexually, goaded him in some unknown way, and out of this situation had flowed his rage.
Perhaps nothing at all had occurred between them, and her death came merely as a needful act on the part of a man who, having been unable to kill, having failed to prove his manhood in front of his followers, desperately sought to destroy the nearest living body at hand. This I very much doubted, and rejected, though no one, of course, could ever know the truth. But it was my task—and my right—to allow my imagination to range over these questions and determine the nature of the mysterious bond between the black man and the young white woman. In The Confessions of Nat Turner I strove to present a complex view of slavery, and Nat and Margaret’s story would occupy a relatively small place in the larger scheme. But from the first page I was drawn irresistibly to that final scene of horror in the August heat, knowing that, to my own satisfaction at least, I had discovered a dramatic image for slavery’s annihilating power, which crushed black and white alike, and in the end a whole society.
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.
But the prevailing tone was strident and crude, sounding very much like the agitprop flatulence of the 1930s. Over the entire enterprise hovered the spirit of the historian Herbert Aptheker, the official United States Communist party “theoretician,” who had done pioneering work on Nat Turner and American slave revolts in the 1930s and 1940s. A militant quotation from Aptheker set the tone of the book. Aptheker’s work had been ground-breaking and useful at a time when Negro history was almost totally neglected, but it was badly skewed by party dogma; his thesis that the institution of slavery was threatened by constant rebellion simply did not, and does not, hold up under scrutiny. He underestimated slavery’s suffocating might. My own view, shared by many students of the history of slavery, was that the institution in the United States was almost uniquely despotic, a closed system so powerful and totalitarian that organized insurrection was almost entirely precluded, though, of course, rebelliousness on an individual level was always present.
This overview necessarily dominated my Nat Turner. Aptheker, upon whose preserve I had so seriously poached, was incensed by my book and for a while trudged around the university circuit preaching a gospel in which I was cast as one of the supreme liars ever to write about American history. (He never seemed to grasp the fundamental fact that I had written a novel.) It was unfortunate that in Ten Black Writers Respond so many recklessly unprovable allegations were made; they were also written in shabby and slipshod rhetoric that even permeated the essays of well-thought-of black figures like the political scientist Charles V. Hamilton and the psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint; the impression left upon many people (including myself and those sympathetic to the black cause) was of intellectual squalor. For me the most frustrating aspect of Ten Black Writers Respond was that writing filled with so much overheated absurdity should have acquired real authority in black America, causing my work to be lodged in a kind of black Index Expurgatorius from that point on, along with such overtly racist novels as The Clansman and Mandingo. Lest such a notation appear overstated, I would point out ample evidence of Nat Turner’s, being not only unread by blacks but in perpetual quarantine. This came from reports filtering back to me from black studies programs in the years up to the present. Several times I learned the dismal news that in specific courses Ten Black Writers Respond would be required reading, while The Confessions of Nat Turner was not listed. This has echoes of Alice chatting with the March Hare. I have often felt perversely gratified that my work could inspire such fear, though scarcely such stunning mindlessness.
In my few ill-considered public appearances that year, when I was unwise enough to accept invitations to defend my fictional choices in front of predominantly young black audiences and tried to show the inner logic that dictated my interpretation of Nat Turner and some of his relationships, the result was disastrous. Writers of novels should never defend themselves, but this was a somewhat special case. In these often raucous sessions, where the gathering was drenched with hostility, I would attempt to explain why I had made certain decisions. I observed, for example, that in the matter of one of the most inflammatory issues—that of Nat’s wife—the ten black writers had simply got it wrong. There was no documentary evidence of a wife, or the equivalent, and if there had been, my conscience would have compelled me to give him one, even though as a novelist I had no such strict obligation. Likewise Margaret Whitehead. A careful reading, I insisted, would show that Nat’s motivation was complex, flowing from a relationship containing hatred as well as love, but not the simpleminded lust claimed by the critics. This made little impression, the response was pitched between sneering disbelief and incomprehension, and for the first time in my life I began to share the clammy chagrin of those writers and artists who have stood before whatever intimidating tribunal, hopelessly defending their work to cold-eyed political regulators. By this time I was being stalked from Boston to New Orleans by a young dashiki-clad firebrand, who unnerved me. Somewhat belatedly, I realized that Nat Turner was not, in this case, an aesthetic object but a political whipping boy—the most prominent one that the black activists possessed at the moment—and I quickly backed off from public view, letting others act as counsel for the defense.
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.
Color and its tragedy, in this troubled year of 1992—which so resembles the troubled year of 1967—has made me think often of James Baldwin and the stormy career of The Confessions of Nat Turner. Naturally I didn’t create the book with a political or social agenda in view, but as Georg Lukâcs points out, historical novels that have no resonance in the present are bound to prove of only “antiquarian” interest; certainly in the back of my mind I had hoped that whatever light my work might shed on the dungeon of American slavery, and its abyssal night of the body and spirit, might also cast light on our modern condition and be understood by black people, as well as white, as part of a plausible interpretation of the agony that has bound the present to the past. But while the book remains alive and well and widely read by white people, it is, as I say, largely shunned by blacks, sometimes with amazing hostility neither articulated nor explained, as if the admonitions of those ten black writers a generation ago still provided a stony taboo. I am less bothered by this boycott in itself—for despite what I’ve just said, I am far from believing that my book, or any novel, has any real relevance to the contemporary crisis—than the way in which it represents a continuation of that grim apartness that has defined racial relations in this country and that seems, from all signs and portents, to have worsened over the twenty-five years since The Confessions of Nat Turner appeared. That year much of Newark and Detroit burned down; this year the fires of Los Angeles seem anniversary fires too cruelly symbolic to accept or believe.
It was typical of Jimmy Baldwin’s intransigent spirit that he never truly abandoned hope. I doubt that he would give up hope, even today. A recent essay on Baldwin quoted some brave and lovely words of Jimmy’s that reminded me of the time when he and I, with our boundless and defiant ambitions, were both setting out to break through the imprisoning walls of color and into the alluring challenge of alien worlds: “Each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other—male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are part of each other.”