My Kazmir trade analysis was posted this morning.
William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1967 and is on the TIME 100, but its main claim to fame is the controversy that surrounded its publication, as African-American writers and scholars largely banded together to criticize the book’s fictionalized portrait of its title character. Turner led the only major slave rebellion in the U.S., killing 55 white men, women, and children before the rebellion fizzled out and he was captured, but very little is known of his life other than what we have in the 20-page document known as “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” the accuracy of which is in question because it represents Turner’s words as written by one of the white attorneys working on his case. The novel did little for me – the prose was bombastic and the story is so full of digressions, tangents, and internal monologues that Turner’s reasons for rebelling are beaten into the ground – but the controversy is worth a deeper look.
The edition I read was the 25th-anniversary reprint that includes a new afterword from Styron, who quotes his (African-American) friend and fellow author James Baldwin to argue that, had he himself been black, he would not have caught the same criticism. That is, his biggest crime was being a white author writing about an African-American icon, intruding into territory in which he did not belong. I’m sure there was some element of that in the backlash against Styron’s book (which included an influential book of essays called Ten Black Writers Respond), but Styron glosses over some of the least flattering elements of his portrayal.
Styron ties Turner’s desire for rebellion to three causes. One is religious fanaticism, which we know was a factor from the actual confessions; Turner was a preacher who believed his violent rebellion was a divine mission. Another was certain aspects of his life as a slave for both cruel and kind masters, which was fictionalized but is almost certainly a valid explanation. But the third is a deep sexual repression that manifests itself in disturbing ways from a sexual encounter with a teenaged boy to a fantasy of raping the woman who is perhaps the only white person in the book who treats Turner as something approximating a full human being. The portrayal, which as far as I can tell has no basis in reality, demeans Turner and diminishes his myth by removing any righteousness from his cause. Demonizing Turner would have been easy enough through more attention to the violence of his makeshift army’s rebellion, where revenge was taken on all whites, including young children. Adding this bizarre sexual-repression twist seems to tie into the view of white slaveowners, that blacks were more akin to animals than to whites.
The book is fiction, not a biography, and Styron emphasizes that point in his afterword in response to critics of the book’s inaccuracy. I have no particular issue with an author creating a backstory for an actual historical figure about whom so little is known. What bothered me was the creation of a backstory that delegitimizes the simple idea (or myth) that Turner rebelled against the system that enslaved him and over a million other blacks at the time of the rebellion. We can condemn the violence of the insurrection while still understanding and sympathizing with its causes.
Next up: I’m a little behind, having just finished Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees this morning. Let’s just say for now that I don’t agree with the Baltimore Sun critic who referred to Kidd as “a direct literary descendant of Carson McCullers.”