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Where is Nat Turner?

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books and culture

Where is Nat Turner?

One of the best American novels of the postwar period is too controversial to commemorate. December 8, 2017
Arts and Culture

A literary anniversary passed unobserved in 2017: the 50th anniversary of the publication of William Styron’s enthralling historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which tells the story of the slave who led a bloody rebellion in Virginia. While Vintage International’s 25th anniversary edition remains in print, the publisher hasn’t offered an edition honoring the book’s 50th year, and to my knowledge, no commemorative articles have appeared.

Interest in American slavery has surged since that 25th anniversary edition appeared in 1992. Nat Turner himself was the subject of the 2016 film, The Birth of a Nation, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. (It might have gone on to win multiple Oscars had its director, Nate Parker, not been tainted by a rape allegation dating back to 1999.) So why the deafening silence about Styron’s masterpiece?

Perhaps I’m dreaming up a conspiracy. Maybe Vintage decided against bringing out a new edition for the prosaic reason that in the age of e-readers, paperbacks don’t sell as well as they did a quarter-century ago. But Golden Anniversary Kindle editions have appeared of novels like The Outsiders, The Master and Margarita, and Catch-22. And Styron, who died in 2006 at age 81, has hardly been forgotten: Sophie’s Choice, a searing novel about a non-Jewish victim of Auschwitz, and Darkness Visible, an unforgettable account of the writer’s struggle with depression, are still in print, along with other Styron titles.

My guess is that the nonobservance springs from reluctance to get embroiled in a replay of the controversy that erupted soon after the novel appeared. The Confessions of Nat Turner was celebrated when it was published in 1967—a Pulitzer Prize winner and Book of the Month Club selection, it made the New York Times bestseller list and scored a movie deal with Twentieth Century Fox. But Styron was soon condemned by black intellectuals for an offense more broadly condemned in 2017 than in 1967: a white novelist and native of Virginia, he had presumed to write historical fiction in the first person about a real human being who had been a rebellious black slave. He even had the temerity to lift his title from the original “Confessions of Nat Turner,” the brief document based on statements by Turner that white lawyer Thomas Gray recorded shortly before Turner was hanged in 1831, at about the age of 31.

The attacks on Styron in the late 1960s sound like a prelude to what we often hear and read half a century later. Less than a year after the novel appeared, Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, a collection of essays in which the novelist was called “an unreconstructed Southern racist” suffering from “moral senility” who “dehumanizes every black person in the book” to affirm “all of the myths and prejudices about the American black man.” The attacks prompted Invisible Man novelist Ralph Ellison to declare that he wouldn’t read the novel.

In his afterword to the 25th anniversary edition, Styron recalls that he naively persisted in making public appearances before “predominantly young black audiences” to plead his case. The encounters often turned out to be “raucous sessions, where the gathering was drenched with hostility.” Styron adds that “[b]y this time, I was being stalked from Boston to New Orleans by a young dashiki-clad firebrand, who unnerved me.” Twentieth Century Fox shelved plans for the film.

It’s easy to imagine such a response, and worse, had The Confessions of Nat Turner been published in 2017 by a white Southern novelist. In 1967 and 1968, though, something else occurred that seems far less likely in today’s environment: a few white intellectuals rose to Styron’s defense—in prominent publications. The New York Times Book Review chose historian Martin Duberman to review Ten Black Writers Respond. The editors must have known that Duberman had already praised Nat Turner in a review for The Village Voice. “Speaking as a professional historian,” Duberman had written, “and one who has done most of his teaching and writing about the pre-Civil War years, I was astonished at Styron’s mastery of both the details and interpretive themes of the period.” In his review of Ten Black Writers Respond, Duberman called Styron’s novel “superlative history . . . [which] provides the most subtle, multifaceted view of antebellum Virginia, its institution of slavery and the effects of that institution on both slaves and masters.” Calling the charges against Styron “grotesque,” “absurd,” and “obscene,” Duberman added, “what makes Styron a better historian than any of his critics is that he will not bury unpleasant evidence or minimize the complexities of past experience in order to serve some presumed contemporary need.”

The New York Review of Books had already run a rave review of Nat Turner in 1967 by literary lion Philip Rahv, who called it “a first-rate novel” and said that “its author has got hold of a substantial theme central to the national experience.” It chose historian Eugene Genovese to review Ten Black Writers Respond. Styron’s novel was “historically sound,” affirmed Genovese, who was doing research that would establish him as an authoritative source on American slavery. “Styron takes liberties with fact, as every novelist does, but he does not do violence to the historical record. The same cannot be said for his critics.” Speaking of these critics, Genovese concluded with a judgment that resonates today. “[T]he black intelligentsia faces a serious crisis. Its political affinities lie with the black-power movement, which increasingly demands conformity, myth-making, and historical fabrication.”

When the film about Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation, came out in 2016, Vanity Fair ran an interview with Parker, who not only directed the film but also wrote it and starred in it. Asked to reflect on Styron’s book, Parker repeated some of the calumnies in Ten Black Writers Respond but revealed no familiarity with the novel itself. “Styron’s novel ignited much-deserved criticism,” Parker observed, “as he annihilated Turner’s character, painting him to be both a sexually disturbed lunatic whose sole motivation hinged on his uncontrollable lusts for white women, and a rebel who lacked any real purpose or intelligence.” Parker added that Styron “conceived Turner as an inept, violent, impotent, self-loathing fanatic.” In the same issue of the magazine, perhaps as a corrective, Vanity Fair ran an essay by Sam Tanenhaus, who praised the novel. But Tanenhaus did not address Parker’s specific charges, lauding him instead for having “spent years researching Turner’s life,” and even making the fantastic claim that “in some respects [Parker’s] movie fulfills Styron’s original ambitions.”

In no respect can it be said that The Birth of a Nation fulfills the ambitions of The Confessions of Nat Turner. Whatever we might think of the film (some critics liked it; I found it dull and cliché-ridden), it mainly fulfills the vision of the ten black writers, who believed (in the words of one) that the “real” Nat Turner was “a virile, commanding, courageous figure.” Maybe he was; in any case, his character is open to interpretation, since so little is actually known about him. But as Duberman wrote of Styron’s  more nuanced portrayal, “It is unthinkable to [the ten writers] that Turner could have been irresolute in battle or ambivalent about committing murder, as it is that he could have hankered after a white woman.”

I don’t regret that The Confessions of Nat Turner was not adapted for the screen, since the novel’s strong first-person voice would be almost impossible to capture on film. It would be one thing if the protagonist Turner simply recounts the events of his short life. But he keeps reflecting in candid terms on his own drives, ambivalences, and beliefs. There is, for example, the long passage in which he explains to the reader—and to himself—why he came to his “acceptance of a divine mission to kill all the white people in Southampton, and as far beyond as destiny might take me.” We are shocked by that statement. Yet we understand how this person, in this time and place, could adopt such a “divine mission.” Styron unflinchingly depicts Turner and his rebels slaughtering women and children. Parker’s film, for all its claimed historical accuracy, refrains from portraying these stark facts. Also impossible to translate to film is the dazzling style in which the novel is written. As readers, we accept the aesthetic conceit that Turner, self-educated as a lay preacher on the cadences of the Bible, can write as well as William Styron, in a nineteenth-century prose so exquisite as to bear comparison with some of the greatest stylists in English.

At least Styron had an advocate in the black essayist and novelist James Baldwin, a friend who had encouraged him to write about Turner in the first person, just as Baldwin himself had taken the point of view of white characters in his novel Another Country. Styron concludes his afterword to the 25th anniversary edition by quoting these “brave and lovely words” of Baldwin’s: “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.”

Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

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