The Novel as History

“Old Nat.” You hear people calling Nat Turner that to this day, even though he was barely past thirty when he was executed for leading the single most effective slave uprising of antebellum America. Black people over the decades since that summer-of-1831 rebellion in Virginia have claimed a kind of exclusive intimacy with “Old Nat” in song and folklore. More than a martyr for generations of African Americans before and after Emancipation, he has been an heirloom, a talisman, a cautionary tale, a heroic paradigm. Because so little has been known of the real Nat Turner beyond the “Confessions” transcribed by a white lawyer, Thomas Gray, shortly before Turner was hung on November 11, 1831, people have projected their own frustrations and dreams upon his ghost to fill in the blanks. That’s what we have always done with ghosts, whether they’re as enchantingly distant from our own time as Cleopatra or as newsreel-close to the contemporary bone as Lee Harvey Oswald. Imagination isn’t an antidote to mystery, but it’s all we have. Poets and novelists use their imaginations to seek what is most plausibly human within the ethereal. But as anybody who watches horror movies will tell you: Traffic with ghosts and you’re begging for trouble.

William Styron may have known or at least suspected this when he began writing The Confessions of Nat Turner. It was a novel he’d been carrying within him from a childhood spent in the Tidewater region of Virginia, where he’d read and heard stories of the Turner uprising, which was part of the ancestral memory of nearby Southampton County. The ghosts of “Old Nat,” his coconspirators, the white people who met their deaths, the authorities who brought brutal revenge upon black rebels and non-rebels alike—the story haunted Styron, as did the appalling legacy of slavery and the “strange bifurcated world of whiteness and blackness in which I was born and reared.” As far back as 1952, when he was living in Paris, Styron had been gathering material for the Nat Turner novel. “God, I know it’s going to be a long, hard job,” he wrote to his father. By 1962, with encouragement from his friend James Baldwin, Styron was ready to begin his deep dive into the past to bring to the surface of his troubled present what he considered a “meditation on history.”

The Confessions of Nat Turner was published in October 1967 to enthusiastic reviews and near-oceanic hype. By November, it was ruling the New York Times’s best-seller list and remained in the number-one spot well into 1968, the year it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. At the time, I was hardly alone among the book’s potential black readership in feeling some gratitude (at first) that a white novelist as ensconced within the post–World War II literary elite as Styron would engage an early exemplar of the black insurgency, an insurgency that by the late 1960s was galvanizing America into agonizing, disruptive, and, one hoped, ultimately transformative reassessments of its collective identity. In a Newsweek cover story, Baldwin, who among that literary elite most abetted that upheaval, delivered upon Styron a benediction that was at once the pithiest and most fulsome: “He has begun the common history—ours.”

Another Baldwin quote in that same story, “Bill’s going to catch it from black and white,” proved more prophetic. This compels my own confession: I didn’t read Confessions of Nat Turner until forty years after its publication. The book I’d read back in 1968 instead of Styron’s was William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, which was published that summer by Beacon Press. Edited by activist-scholar John Henrik Clarke, Ten Black Writers dogged Styron’s own book like a hectoring shadow, as its contributors, including journalist Lerone Bennett Jr., novelists Mike Thelwell, John A. Williams, and John Oliver Killens, political scientist Charles V. Hamilton, psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, and historian Vincent Harding, submitted their grievances against Styron and his novel. To roughly summarize: They believed the white southerner took egregious liberties with Turner’s character, the motivations for his revolt, and the nature of American slavery. Being younger, more militant, and more credulous in that dreadful, disillusioning half-century-ago summer of post-assassination trauma and looming reactionary politics, I’d decided after reading Ten Black Writers Respond that I didn’t need to read Styron’s novel, believing, along with countless others who should have known better, that it was at best presumptuous and misinformed and at worst dishonest and racist.

I’ve recently gone back to Ten Black Writers Respond, having by now read, and reread, Styron’s Nat Turner. The latter book, I’m safe in saying, holds up a lot better than the former. Rage and pique never last; it’s their nature to burn bright and hot before flaming out quickly like a straw fire. The anger that informed the essays was what made most of them seem so thrillingly amped-up and impudently provocative in the manner of other militant tracts issued that year, notably Julius Lester’s trenchant, freewheeling, and (in retrospect) more reflective Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! Now I cringe when I come across this from Killens: “Styron, in attempting to write Afro-Americanese, is like a man who tries to sing the blues when he has not paid his dues.” Or from Bennett: “Styron’s Confessions is the worst thing that has happened to Nat Turner since Nat’s Last White Man . . . broke his neck with a rope on a gallows in a Virginia town called Jerusalem.” Hamilton rationalizes the success of Styron’s book as confirming “white America’s racist feelings. Here was an ungrateful slave, taught to read by his master, who repaid that ‘gift’ by murder.” (Why “gift”? And why the quote marks?) Whatever legitimate points are made by these critics (and Styron in later years acknowledged they had some, though he remained embittered about the book’s ostracism by African American readers till his death in 2006), it’s even harder to tell now whether they are angrier at the novel or at its critical and popular success. In “You’ve Taken My Nat and Gone,” Vincent Harding riffs on a line from Langston Hughes’s 1940 poem “Note on Commercial Theater” and laments white transformation of black culture into lowbrow stereotype in popular entertainments. The essays hammer so repeatedly at the erotic elements of Styron’s rendering of Turner—a boyhood homosexual encounter, and his fascination with a southern belle named Margaret Whitehead, who is the only white person he murders among the sixty reported dead in the rebellion—that if you knew nothing else about Styron’s Confessions you’d be convinced it was little more than a thinking man’s version of such pseudo-historical trash romance as Mandingo.

Confessions of Nat Turner is in fact innovative, even borderline postmodern, in the way it stays tethered to rhetorical formalities of the nineteenth-century slave narrative while broadening Turner’s often-constricted perspective with evocative details of his surrounding landscape and furtive insights into white and black psyches. It’s a difficult balancing act that doesn’t entirely avoid anachronism or even artificiality at certain points. But while reading these Confessions, you become aware that both the author and its subject are engaged in a struggle to transcend and ultimately escape the burdens of their respective backgrounds. What nineteenth-century black slave or twentieth-century white author would come up with as scalding a crescendo of sentences as these:

An exquisitely sharpened hatred for the white man is of course an emotion not difficult for Negroes to harbor. Yet if truth be known, this hatred does not abound in every Negro’s soul; it relies upon too many mysterious and hidden patterns of life and chance to flourish luxuriantly everywhere. Real hatred of the sort of which I speak—hatred so pure and obdurate that no sympathy, no human warmth, no flicker of compassion can make the faintest nick or scratch upon the stony surface of its being—is not common to all Negroes. Like a flower of granite with cruel leaves it grows, when it grows at all, as if from fragile seed cast upon uncertain ground.

Any reader with casual knowledge of the subject knows how Nat’s story ends, but you keep turning the pages—watching how this educated, self-styled prophet commits himself to wholesale murder, and wondering whether the sacrifice of lives can lead to the recovery of one’s soul. Few novels, then and now, are as willing to pose such dilemmas, and fewer still at the time were ready to set them in an era of history that to this day makes black and white people uncomfortable and ashamed.

As we’ve lately been disposed to saying about him, Baldwin had this one right all along: Styron’s book did begin a process of grappling with a common history, and the novel is as much a part of that process as the antagonism that stalked it. Baldwin never wavered in his defense of Styron against his critics: “It brought in the whole enormity of the issue of history versus fiction, fiction versus history, and which is which,” he said in a 1984 Paris Review interview. As to his fellow black writers’ attacks, Baldwin’s response was direct and, again, correct: “I will not tell another writer what to write. If you don’t like their alternative, write yours.”

Which is what has happened since: Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, John Edgar Wideman’s The Cattle Killing, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, and James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. I will argue that the autonomy these and other black novelists have retained over the imaginative use of their ancestral history would not have happened if the white man from Virginia hadn’t been so deeply, inescapably haunted by the ghost of Nat Turner. Some of them have been as put-upon as Styron had been for taking the trouble, and I suspect those who continue to play their own changes on slavery will get jumped on some more. That’s what happens when you mess with ghosts.

Gene Seymour is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written about Black Power for The Baffler and about culture in general for