William Styron: 40 years later, how shall we think about the Confessions of Nat Turner?

Historians in the News

Nineteen sixty-eight began as a promising year for William Styron. After six years of intense work, he had published, the previous fall, the novel he thought would cement his reputation: “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” an account of an 1831 slave revolt in Southampton County, Va., narrated in Turner’s voice. It was a risky, even provocative book — he’d always known it would be — but the gamble appeared to have paid off. “The Confessions” got excellent reviews, appeared on the best-seller list, was sold to 20th Century Fox and won a Pulitzer Prize. Best of all, Styron said, was the response from many African-Americans. Later in life (Styron died in 2006) he recalled traveling to a historically black college to receive an honorary degree shortly after “The Confessions” was published: “I felt gratitude at their acceptance of me,” he wrote, “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 then history intervened.

Amid the upheavals of the spring and summer of 1968 — Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April, Robert Kennedy’s in June, rioting in American cities, the disastrous Democratic convention in Chicago — Beacon Press published a slim volume of essays called “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.” Almost overnight, “The Confessions” became the center of a debate that has helped shape American literature ever since....

But it would be a mistake to describe the “Confessions” controversy only as a struggle over who has the right to tell the story of slavery. (“I do not believe that the right to describe . . . black people in American society is the private domain of Negro writers,” the novelist John A. Williams wrote in “Ten Black Writers Respond.” “I cannot fault Styron’s intent.”) Styron himself admitted that his novel was an effort to adapt Turner’s sensibility and language to the 20th century, and it was the artificiality of this adaptation that most infuriated his critics. The prevailing mode of much historical fiction since then has been precisely the opposite: to take a term from the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky, novelists have wished to “defamiliarize” history by making it unrecognizable, unknowable, fantastic, brutal. “Beloved,” with its harsh, fragmented narration of infanticide, is the most obvious example, but consider also Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” which portrays the Mexican frontier in the 19th century as an apocalyptic wasteland populated by psychopaths and mystics. Whether these novels are more honest than “The Confessions of Nat Turner” is perhaps an unfair question — honesty in fiction is a moving target — but they do embody a radically different sensibility, one that refuses to collapse the past into the present and that makes history almost fetishistically “different,” difficult to accept or assimilate.

It may be unfair to celebrate a writer for being so publicly rejected and railed against, but 40 years’ perspective should allow us to credit Styron for taking the risk of writing “The Confessions” and to appreciate the courage of the 10 writers who dissected it in searing detail. Their confrontation helped shatter the idea that there can or should be one version of “how slavery was”; now we have a hundred different versions — some omnipresent, some long silenced, some real, some fictional — telling a messier, trickier, less comforting story. This may not be the “common history” James Baldwin spoke of, but at least it’s a step in the right direction....

Read entire article at Jess Row in the NYT Book Review

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