William Styron's, The Confessions of Nat Turner, was the long awaited masterpiece of a promising southern writer. Although his first novels, Lie Down in Darkness(1951), The Long March(1953), and Set this Houses on Fire(1960) all achieved minimal popularity, they won the interest of literary critics. Styron's southern proponents were eager to compare him with the well loved William Faulkner as the next great southern novelist. Styron's response to the hype that surrounded the release of his fourth novel was a four hundred page tale that incited a wealth of response, a Pulitzer prize award, close to a year long run on the best seller list, and left a burning question about the state of race relations in the United States that still exists today. The Confessions of Nat Turner was published on October 9, 1967. It debuted on the best seller list at #7 during the week of October 23. By November 6, it had been catapulted to #1. It enjoyed a thirteen week run at the top of the charts as compiled by Publisher's Weekly. Nat Turner stood alone on the fiction list as the only novel that was primarily classified as an historically based tale. Other novels that enjoyed popularity throughout the year 1967 ranged from the number one spot held by The Arrangement, the story of a Beverly Hills personality which sold over 212,000 copies that year, to a quartet of suspense, or politico-suspense novels like, Topaz, Rosemary's Baby, The Plot, and The Gabriel Hounds. The other novels that rounded out the list were The Chosen, a tale of a young boy ?s rebellion against the orthodox ways of life of his Hassidic rabbi father, Christy, and The Eighth day, a novel by well-known author Thornton Wilder. Although the fiction books were not historically based, the top selling nonfiction novel was; The Death of a President, a look in to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In fact, the sales figures of Death of a President exceeded all those by non fiction and fiction books alike by over 500, 000. It seems that Nat Turner benefited not from the popular trends of the year 1967, but of the year prior when at least one of the genres that novels were concerned with was history. Novels such as Tai-Pan, a historical novel about Hong Kong and The Fixer, a tale of a handyman in Czarist Russia graced the 1966 best seller list which was characterized by the overwhelming landslide of sales figures in the non fiction category. The top ten leading non fiction titles outsold the ten leading fiction novels 2 to 1 in 1966, with the first ten novels all selling 100, 000 plus copies. Only the top three fiction novels sold more than 100, 000. Nat Turner was, it seems, less a trendsetter than a follower. Certainly, this is even more apparent when one looks at the best seller lists for 1968. This compilation was clearly dominated by suspense (Airport by Arthur Haley) espionage( The Salzburg Connection by John Le Carre) and sex ( Couples by John Updike).
While Nat Turner may not have reflected the popular tends of novels, it certainly reflected and resounded through current events of the time. To many African Americans, the story of Nat Turner was one of legend. The tale of a militant black slave who fought for freedom by rising against the slave owners of the Southampton region of Virginia was a cherished part of African America history and folklore. For many African Americans, Nat Turner's struggle was emblematic of their own, and at no time was this more readily apparent than in the 1960s. The beginning of the sixties marked a new era in the struggle for civil rights. Racial tensions exploded across America from the deep south all the way to the northeast. Youth involvement gave the movement new life, along with an increased sense of militancy. Sit ins and demonstrations, pictures of black students assaulted by white policemen filled the airwaves and television screens as the movement breathed air into the homes of every American, black and white. As the movement gained momentum in the middle years of the sixties, increasing violence against movement members caused a split within movement leaders. Instances such as the one in 1964 when three young members of CORE, (Congress of Racial Equality) disappeared in a small town in Mississippi, only to have their bodies surface later that year, caused the younger members of the civil rights movement to demand a heightened sense of militancy among blacks. When Stokley Carmichal ascended to the head position of the SNCC( Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) , it marked the first steps toward the infusion of black power into the movement's agenda. Shortly before Nat Turner was released in 1967, there was a series of riots that left 26 dead in Newark and 43 dead in Detroit. Violence such as this, along with the assassination of two prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King Jr., in 1968, forced every American to take a deeper look at themselves and at society. Although the civil rights movement was certainly the most contingent event occurring in the sixties with reference to Nat Turner, one cannot forget that this was also the time of the escalating war in Vietnam, the assassination of President Kennedy and later his brother Robert. It was in the center of this turmoil that William Styron gave his novel up to the fires of the American public.
Reactions to Styron's novel ranged from that of an overwhelming success, to racist propaganda. Critics response to Nat Turner hinged on three main points of contention; namely whether the reviewer was black or white, whether they felt that telling the story in the first person narrative was an attempt to change Nat's character or to enhance it and lastly, whether or not the story was indeed historically based, or severely mishandled.
The southern response to Styron's novel was largely popular. Southerners felt that Styron had accurately been able to bring the legend of Nat Turner and the feel of the Tidewater region in 1831 to life. To them, reliving the past through the story of Nat Turner was an important peek into a stained history they had difficulty reconciling with their immense sense of pride in being southern. The Southern Literary Journal stated that, " The Confessions of Nat Turner is a paradigm of the present: William Styron has used memory and imagination for a liberation-ours and his-from time future as well as time past. Nat's ultimate redemption, Styron suggests, is our own......We are therefore redeemed from time...." Nat Turner gave southerners piece of mind about the past, a release from the burden of the terrible history of slavery, almost an excuse. Nat Turner was, for the southerner, a reconciliation, a way, as Core states, to be redeemed. In the same review, the notion of historical accuracy is raised and passed as George Core states that, " Styron's slight departures from the text of the original Confessions are beside the point." Core also declares, " I will flatly say that Nat Turner's story, as Styron presents it, is a historical novel." Core also wrote a piece for the Southern Review in which he further emphasizes the point that Nat Turner is indeed an historical novel. In this particular review, however, the racial stereotypes of the southern community come through in some of Core's statements. For instance he states that, " Styron's most difficult problem is to depict the Negro mind, the mind of an uncommonly sensitive and intelligent man who in many ways does not outgrow his primitiveness and naiveté.." Core later writes that Styron "... creates Nat with a sensitivity and intelligence which are greater than he possessed in fact." Culturally bias reviews such as this dangerously flooded the markets, so that Nat Turner became at the same time a magnificent hit and a terrible failure, depending on which review one read and which biases one already held.
Part of the South's praise for Styron extended from their comparisons between Styron and Faulkner, especially Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! which also touches on the issues surrounding race relations. The Mississippi Quarterly stated that Styron was surely, " a careful student of Faulkner and the modern novel. " Another comparison made in style and content is to that of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men in which Penn Warren depicts the big city machine of Willie Starks, a fictions character modeled very close to the real life big city bossman, The Southern Review claimed that, " Like Faulkner, Warren and Lytle, William Styron is a born storyteller who recognizes that narrative movement is at the heart of the novel.." The most notable similarity between the three novelists however, is that they are all southern born novelists. In the opening of George Core's piece in the Southern Review, he exemplifies just how important Styron's southern heritage is when he says that, " The Confessions of Nat Turner not only shows that its author has at last found his true voice and idiom, but it also demonstrates that novels of the highest order can still be written in the South. " Just as Styron's heritage proved to be an added incentive to read the novel to southerners, his white southern background proved to be his nemesis in the black community. Comparisons to Faulkner abounded from the black community as well, although this time with negative connotations. In John Oliver Killens essay entitled, The Confessions of Willie Styron, he states, " William Styron, darling of liberal critics, inheritor of the mantle bequeathed to him by ?Sippian Willie Faulkner, like his namesake, Marse Willie, has not been able to transcend his southern-peckerwood background." The comparison here is often drawn between the stereotypes of blacks as portrayed in Faulkner's, The Sun Also Rises, with those emulated by the characters in Nat Turner. Critics accuse both Faulkner and Styron of depicting blacks according to racial prejudices.
As mentioned in previous assignments, Styron's most ardent form of attack came in the form of a book published the year after Confessions called, William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The book contained ten essays which vilified Styron as an arrogant southern man who overtook the voice of a prominent black legend and turned him into a fool. From the ten essays the greatest source of controversy comes from the omission of certain facts from the original Confessions concerning Nat's family history, his sex life and why he planned the revolt. According to the original Confessions, Nat did have a surviving relationship with both his father and his grandmother. Styron omits these relationships by telling the reader that Nat's grandmother died shortly after giving birth to Nat's mother and concocting the tale of Nat's father as having run off after being hit by his owner. There is also historical evidence to suggest that Nat Turner had a wife. Styron, however, not only makes absolutely no reference to a wife, but instead fills Nat's sexual desires with a homosexual encounter at the age of eighteen as well as continual masturbation scenes which hold white women as the object of Nat's desires. Lastly, while African Americans cling to the image of Nat as a heroic figure who rose up against the oppression of slavery in the name of freedom, critics feel that Styron's suggested reasoning for Nat's revolt is his desire to become more " white. " Scenes such as the one that Styron depicts when Nat is waiting to be picked up by his new owner recall this theme of Nat's passion for a better life, which centered around being white:
Solitary and sovereign as I gazed down upon this wrecked backwater of time, I
suddenly felt myself its possessor; in a twinkling I became white-white as clabber
cheese, white, stark white, white as marble Episcopalian... Now, looking down at
the shops and barns and cabins and distant fields, I was no longer the grinning
black boy in velvet pantaloons; for a fleeting moment instead I owned all, and
so exercising the privilege of ownership by unlacing my fly and pissing loudly on
the same worn stone where dainty tiptoeing feet had gained the veranda steps a
short three years before. What a strange, demented ecstasy.! How white I was!
What wicked joy! (p.232).
African American critics saw this passage as an attempt to render Nat as a certain type of traitor, ashamed of his blackness, not wanting to help his people be free but wanting to help them achieve the life of a white man. As Alvin F. Poussaint states in his essay, The Confessions of Nat Turner and the Dilemma of William Styron, " Styron's reconstruction of events is an example of the stereotyped belief that black people rebel primarily because of an unfulfilled psychological need to be white and not because of a sense of their own dignity."
Perhaps the most troubling part of Nat's apparent obsession with all things white within the African American community, is his affection for white women. Certainly Styron's imaginative writings concerning this area of Nat's life could be construed as an attempt to somehow explain why it is that the leader of the revolt himself took part in the killing of only one white person, that person being a young woman named Margaret Whitehead. For the critics, however ,this reasoning was not justification enough for the continual references to white women as the main objects of Nat's unrequited lustings. For instance, even as Nat is about to be hanged, his last thoughts are consumed with the image of his young white misses:
And as I think of her, the desire swells within me and stirred by a longing so great
that like those memories of time past and long ago voices, flowing waters, rushing
winds, it seems more than my heart can abide. Beloved, let us love one
another..,and now beyond my fear, beyond my dread and emptiness, I feel the
warmth flow into my loins and my legs tingle with desire. I tremble and I search
for her face in my mind, seek her young body, yearning for her suddenly with a
rage that racks me with a craving beyond pain; with tender stroking motions I pour
out my love within her; pulsing flood; she arches against me, cries out, and the
twain-black and white-are one.(p.426).
Alvin Poussaint again questions why Styron would choose to cause Nat to have an " overwhelming, erotic and quasi-religious attachment to this young girl and her ?whiteness'. " Poussaint begs the question, " Why is not the author able to imagine that Nat Turner had a young, feminine, beautiful and courageous black woman who stood by his side throughout his heroic plan to revolt against slavery!?" Just as one is able to see the biases seep through in the reviews by the southerners, the notion of Nat as a legend can be seen in the reviews by African Americans. Through reading the reviews of black critics, it seems quite obvious that any defiling of character that Styron did to Nat Turner was taken as a personal affront to the character of the African Americans community as a whole.
Although most reviews focused their attentions on the racial controversy that surrounded the novel, there were some that made sure to comment on the style of Styron's prose. Whether or not the reviewers felt that the prose came from Styron's point of view as imposed on Nat, or Nat's point of view as imaginatively conjured by Styron, most critics agreed that it was beautifully drawn. Certainly the novel would not have won the Pulitzer prize in 1968 had not Styron been capable of such enlightening literary prose. Most notable were the passages that described the natural setting of the tidewater region. Since Styron grew up in the region, it was surely to his benefit to have been able to experience them first hand. Passages such as the one that follow are characteristic of Styron's ability to bring the words to life so that the reader feels as if he or she is right there alongside the characters: This particular passage describes Nat's view from his cell window:
Over Jerusalem hung a misty nightfall, over the brown and stagnant river and the
woods beyond, where the water oak and cypress merged and faded one into the
other, partaking like shadows of the somber wintry dusk. In the houses nearby,
lamps and lanterns flickered on in yellow flame and far off there was a sound of
clattering china and pots and pans and back doors slamming as people went about
fixing supper..Already the dusty fall of snow had disappeared; a rime of frost lay in
its place, coating the earth with icy wet pinpricks of dew, crisscrossed by the tracks
of squirrels. In chilly promenade two guards with muskets paced round the jail in
greatcoats, stamping their feet against the brittle ground.(p.114-115).
As Wilfrid Sheed states in his review of Styron's Nat Turner in 1967, Styron's nature writings, " ..are some of the best nature writings going.." A review done in October in the New York Times hailed Nat Turner as a " triumph," and a " rich, powerful and cathartic novel.."Certainly much of this praise was a result of Styron's carefully crafted writing which, despite the opinions about its content, was nevertheless exquisite.
With all the questions and controversies raised by Nat Turner, it seems impossible that the novel would not have been a success. Any book that stirred up so many emotions across so many racial lines is bound to find itself on the best seller list. It is not remarkable then that Nat Turner enjoyed such a successful run through the years of 1967 and 68. What is remarkable, however, is the fact that William Styron was courageous enough to write this novel in the first place, especially as it is written in the first person narrative. Through all my readings of reviews I have found this aspect of the novel to be the one pointed out time and time again as the center of what is right or what is wrong with the novel. By giving Nat a direct voice Styron begged for the criticism to fall down upon him. After all, how dare a middle class white male attempt to give a voice to a slave? How dare William Styron pretend to imagine that he can possibly feel the pain and emotion of an African American when his ancestors were those that owned slaves themselves? Was it arrogance that led Styron to this decision, was it a basic deep set racism, or was it simply an author's attempt to give Nat's story as virile a life as possible? If one choose to believe the first two answers, then it is very possible to read Nat Turner as a racist novel. The opening scene which describes Nat's vision of a white temple could symbolize his desire to assimilate in to white culture. Nat's derogatory statements about the field hands, himself being a house servant, could be construed as Nat looking down on his own race as inferior beings. The ommitance of Nat's most famous statement taken from the real Confessions when he responds to his lawyer's question of " Do you not find yourself mistaken now? with "Was not Christ crucified? could be seen as an attempt to tear down an African American hero. However, if one chooses to accept Styron's novel and the use of the first person narrative as a means to infiltrate the character of Nat Turner and bring this legend to life through an imaginative tale based, and not grounded, in historical fact, then Styron's novel is a book well worth reading. As David Galloway noted in his book, The Absurd Hero in American Fiction, " when The Confessions of Nat Turner appeared , there was a predictable, if unhappily misguided desire...to see the work as a manifesto or, at least, as a footnote to history rather than what it so memorably is; the compelling existential portrait of an agonist." This reading of the novel gives Styron more leeway with his descriptions, a green light to use his literary ability to create the Nat Turner he wants to create. Here, Styron is first and foremost a novelist, a writer attempting to tell the best story possible.
Although the fault of the controversy surrounding Nat Turner lies mainly with the desire of the critics to view Nat Turner as much more than a novel, part of the blame lies also with Styron himself. His was the first novel to give life to the legend of Nat Turner and thus it was ultimately up to him to create Nat's character as millions of Americans would see him. Most average Americans did not even know the story of Nat Turner and so not only was Styron introducing the character of Nat Turner, but he was doing so to an audience who had no preconceived notions of what Nat Turner was all about. It would have been impossible for Styron to not be aware of the mounting tensions and racial violence that encompassed our nation at the time of his novel's release, nor could he have been immune to the rising sentiments of black power and militantism. He could not have turned his back on the hundreds of student protests against the government's involvement in Vietnam, or the terrible tragedies of the assasinations of extremely important social and political figures. Styron had to have known what Nat Turner would do to stir the already heightened emotions of Americans, black and white, who read his novel. Styron's disclaimer at the beginning of Nat Turner stating that, " I have rarely departed from the known facts about Nat Turner and the revolt of which he was the leader.. " only added fuel to the fire. Was this novel historically accurate? Was this the Nat Turner we should all accept as the real man? By calling his novel a " meditation on history" Styron welcomed any and all to find out just how close to the facts he came. He also invited anyone to look and see what facts he choose to include and why. In essence Styron provided his critics with a both a ways and a means to attack the novel as well as his own personal character. Indeed, the critics took full opportunity of the window Styron had left them.
Even today Styron carries with him the burden and the boost of Nat Tuner. In a speech given by Styron at the PEN gala awards in Cambridge, Mass in April of 1997, Styron acknowledged that while Nat Turner is still in print and, " widely taught...it retains an ambiguous image for black readers.." Surely, this ambiguity is part of what made Nat Turner so popular in 1967 and continues its popularity today. The numerous award won by Styron for his work on Nat Turner also points to the importance of the novel in American literature, whether one sees it as a racist composition or not. After finally being able to read the novel myself I too was left with an ambiguous feeling about the character of Nat Turner. At times I did feel that Nat's affection for the white community seemed to guide his desires, yet I also saw in these desires a real need to assert his freedom and his power. Without question, The Confessions of Nat Turner is a powerfully wrought complex tale of revenge and justice. I cannot fault Styron for his abilities as a writer and a storyteller. Certainly he deserves the recognition his work has gained. Just as surely, however, does Nat Turner, the man and the legend deserve recognition for his life and accomplishments. Perhaps Styron was not the best man to have given the literary world its only peek into Nat Turner's psyche, but, if nothing, else Styron did, at last, provide a vehicle to showcase Nat Turner to the world.