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History Versus Historical Fiction

March 2023
1min read

The article about Nat Turner’s rebellion in our October, 1973, issue (“Children of Darkness,” by Stephen B. Oates) evoked this interesting comment from William Styron, the eminent author of the novel The Confessions of Nat Turner:
I think thai the article covers the ground quite lucidly and comprehensively, and shows that Professor Gates has read the available source material well. It also demonstrates that while we can unearth a multitude of fascinating “facts” about the insurrection, the man himself and his deeper motivations remain, as with so many obscure historical figures, a matter of conjecture—hence the impulse to write plays about them, or novels, which should never even pretend to absolute “accuracy” even if accuracy were possible. Although I have never heard of Professor Gates, he is a professional historian and I am not; therefore under ordinary circumstances I suppose 1 should be rattled that he should consider my fictional treatment of the rebellion “unacceptable.” But other historians, vastly more eminent than Professor Gates and certainly more sophisticated in their understanding of the differences between fiction and history—I am thinking of C. Vann Woodward, Eugene Genovese and Martin Duberman —have all publicly testified to the historical integrity in my vision of Nat Turner. So I rest easy. In any case, I am pleased that Professor Gates seems to be so happily engaged in the cottage industry I established up at the University of Massachusetts and elsewhere.

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