Defending Nat Turner | The Nation


Defending Nat Turner

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About the Author

William Styron
William Styron is the author of Lie Down in Darkness (Modern Library), The Long March (Vintage), Set This House on Fire...

Roxbury, Conn.

DEAR SIRS: Since I don't believe that history, once interpreted, remains impervious to new insights or that I should not be able to accept the wisdom which often evolves from a new understanding of the past, I think that I can explain the "fulsomeness" of 1961 and the "denunciations" of 1968 with little strain at all. We all have letters in our dusty files. I have been told that it is unlawful to quote from them in print without first obtaining the writer's permission, as Mr. Aptheker has failed to do with mine, so I won't follow suit; however, a letter was written to me in 1964 by Mr. Aptheker himself, who sought to solicit my favor by allowing him to use lines from the letter he has just quoted as part of the publicity which was to accompany the publication of his book on Nat Turner. Mr. Aptheker seems to have as good a nose as any bourgeois writer for the opportune plug. At any rate, I refused--I think politely-not because I am adverse to helping a fellow writer along, nor because I did not believe that some of the praise I had set down In my correspondence did not hold true (some of it still does today) but because the fulsomeness which Mr. Aptheker attributes to me was indeed fulsome, especially in the light of the fact that after several years, most of his historical insights no longer appeared to me valid. Exciting new investigations into the nature and effect of American slavery had become available to me, and were persuasive, and I had reread what scanty material existed on Nat Turner's revolt.

While it was true that, in regard to Mr. Aptheker's book on slave revolts, I had "made much use of it in laying the groundwork for a new novel" (for "much" read "some" though I might add that his chapter on Nat Turner is, generally speaking, a very competent job and can be read today as a primer on the revolt). I felt no longer that the entire work was "an admirable book"; I saw it to be, rather, tendentious, stonily ideological and filled with "evidence" about the prevalence of slave rebelliousness which now appeared to be dubious in the extreme. As for the other book--the thesis on Nat Turner, which I had read in manuscript--I remembered little about it; but three years after reading it and after having absorbed the work of historians keener, and wiser than Mr. Aptheker, I could hardly say to him that what I wrote in a letter in 1961 now struck me as wildly ridiculous without perhaps bruising Mr. Aptheker's feelings. It is a tribute to the soundness of the law regarding the unauthorized publication of letters that it was designed with the knowledge that personal correspondence as such, being an intimate affair even among strangers, may flatter or please or enrage but it is almost never objective testimony to human feelings and their sovereign changeableness and hence comprises unworthy evidence.

Now then, to the more important point of "denunciations" Mr. Aptheker seems to forget that the question of the "historicity" of my book first began in a Nation review [Oct. 716. 1967] by Mr. Aptheker himself--an attack which I didn't feel was necessarily ad hominem but was certainly based on matters substantive. At any rate, I regret that some of the statements I made in a telephone interview with The New York Times came out the way they did in print. For one thing, I did not refer to myself as a "historian" but as a student of history, and I feel myself as qualified to use that phrase as Mr. Aptheker.

I have also long been aware of the fact that Communists, as Mr. Aptheker points out, cannot realistically hope for success in libel actions, and, I find this deplorable; for Mr. Aptheker to imply that I knowingly took advantage of such a situation in order to besmirch his reputation is as underhanded a dander as the one he imputes to me. Anyone who has been concerned with Negro history knows that Mr. Aptheker was making pioneer efforts in the field when few other scholars bothered to concern themselves with this important and difficult subject, and he should receive due credit for his early endeavor, I may or may not have said in my interview with The Times that "neither I nor anyone else in the field of history has any respect" for Aptheker, I do not think I did, but if that is the case I owe him an apology. What I would say now without fear of libel is that Mr. Aptheker's rigorously doctrinaire and simplistic notions about the nature of Negro slavery have since rendered his theories suspect in the eyes of practically all of the reputable scholars presently working in the field.

In writing The Confessions of Nat Turner I at no time pretended that my narrative was an exact transcription of historical events, bad perfect accuracy been my aim I would have written a work of history rather than a novel, lone of the advantages of which is its ability to allow a certain free play to the imagination. I stated all this in a preface of the book, and also clearly Implied that not only were there some places where the dictates of art caused me to depart from the actuality (such as it can be tenuously known) but large areas where all was quite frankly pure invention. Mr. Aptheker's somber insistence that each departure from "fact" (and how little we know about facts!) represents a sinister distortion on my part has had the sad effect of leading a few of the gullible and naive to construe the book as a "racist" tract. This is too bad, because the book is neither racist nor a tract but a novel, an essay of the imagination where the necessities of always-questionable "fact" often become subsumed into a larger truth.

The greatest Marxist literary critic, Georg Lukacs, has written in The Historical Novel: "The deeper and more genuinely historical a writer's knowledge of the period, the more freely will he be able to move about inside his subject and the less tied he will feel to individual historical data.... Every really original writer who portrays a new outlook upon a certain field has to contend with the prejudices of his readers. The image which the public has of any familiar historical figure need not necessarily be a false one. Indeed, with the growth of a real historical sense and of real historical knowledge it becomes more and more accurate. But even this correct image may in certain circumstances be a hindrance to the writer who wishes to reproduce the spirit of an age faithfully and authentically. It would require a particularly happy accident for all her well-known and attested actions of familiar historical figure to correspond to the purposes of literature." The truth of this statement is even more compelling when applied not to a Bonaparte or a Cardinal Richelieu or a John Brown, who left in their wake a litter of documents to encumber the creative imagination, but to Nat Turner, who bequeathed only his fragmentary, enigmatic "Confessions," taken down in a backwoods jail cell by a white man whose own reliability as an amanuensis must be questioned.

As for the matter of Nat Turner's wife, I find it odd that a scholar who professes to the scrupulosity that Mr. Aptheker does, should accept either Higginson's testimony thirty years later or an article written a full century and a quarter after the event by a "descendant." I did do my homework on this question, since it was Mr. Aptheker himself who sent me the essay in the Negro History Bulletin, but I was not convinced by the evidence; it seemed to me as lacking in substance as those queer screeds in genealogical journals which purport to prove that the writer was descended from the bastard offspring of Ulysses S. Grant. Do we have to accept the authenticity of something merely because it has attained the sanctity of print?

There is not a shred of contemporary evidence-not a hint, not a single statement either in the original "Confessions" or in the few newspaper accounts-to show that Nat Turner had a wife; putting Lukacs' flexible theory aside, I might have given the fictional Nat a wife had she been mentioned even fleetingly in the original sources, but no such figure existed. She remains to me as illusory and as insubstantial, as those dozens of "great-grandchildren" of Nat who, since the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner, have written to me from all parts of the country, each of them claiming proof of kin. Had Nat Turner been able to spawn so many descendants he would have had no time for an insurrection, though surely he would have gained renown as the most philoprogenetive American in history.

Mr. Aptheker completely misread the account in The New York Times concerning the statement I made about the authenticity of the original "Confessions." I have never questioned their authenticity, whatever semantic emphasis is placed on that word: I am convinced that a white lawyer named Thomas Gray visited Nat Turner in his jail cell a few days before the trial and execution, and after some hours of interrogation wrote the 5,000-word document which both Mr. Aptheker and I have been able to examine. What I do question--and what apparently Mr. Aptheker takes as gospel truth, revealing more faith in the probity of a Southern white lawyer than I do--is the accuracy of the "Confessions," the overall fidelity to the circumstances of Nat's life and career which Gray maintained during the course of what must have been, considering the hysteria of the moment, an exceedingly difficult and prickly interview.

The entire pedantic, impossibly elevated and formal tone of the "Confessions" makes me believe that they were not recorded with "little or no variation" from Nat's words, as Gray states in his prologue, and so how much during that tense encounter was a subtly bent and twisted by the interrogator? Gray was a man of his time, a Southern racist, and as a functionary of the Commonwealth it may well have been to his advantage (and in spite of his disclaimer to the contrary) to distort many things that the helpless prisoner told him, to add things, to leave things out.

None of the many angry critics who have attacked my Nat Turner on "racist" grounds have faulted me, for instance, for diverging broadly from the original "Confessions" when, totally without historical support, I caused Nat to invent a difficult strategy whereby he would capture the county seat and proceed to refuge in the Dismal Swamp. There is no mention of such a plan in the "Confessions" yet it is hard to believe that Nat did not have some such scheme and that Gray did not worm this information out of Nat; the eventual plan finally divulged by Nat was doubtless considered an unfit subject for advertisement or propagation. If presumably my critics can accept this elaborate but totally imaginary feat of strategy-which demonstrates the power of organization that Nat must truly have possessed--they display much less honesty in not being able to accept relatively minor divergences on my part from the original "Confessions," complaining for instance that the fact that I caused Nat to be taught and reared by a benevolent white master rather than by his parents, as he told Gray, demonstrates the tendentious "racism" of my work--and to this point in a moment.

But let me quote again from Lukacs who, in a brilliant essay in which he erects a bridge between the social insights of Marx and European historical literature, says: "What matters in the novel is fidelity in the reproduction of the material foundations of the life of a given period, its manners and the feelings and thoughts deriving from these. This means that the novel is much more closely bound to the specifically historical, individual moments of a period, than is drama. But this never means being tied to particular historical facts. On the contrary, the novelist must be at liberty to treat these as he likes, if he is to reproduce the much more complex and ramifying totality with historical faithfulness. From the standpoint of the historical novel, too, it is always a matter of chance whether an actual historical fact, character or story will lend itself to the particular method by which a great novelist conveys his historical faithfulness."

Certainly it was just his and no subtle trickery that dictated my choice of the fictional means by which Nat was educatied and reared. Those who ahave attacked the book on this point have of course seen in such a choice the specter of benevolent paternalism; once again the Negro and his hard-won abilities are willfully by-passed in favor of an image of white superiority, white supremacy. As one critic, Mike Thelwell, writes in a long essay in a forthcoming issue of The Massachusetts Review:

This is the Golden Age of Southern Chivalry, and what is being reconstructed for us is the enlightened benevolence of the "Old Dominion" version of slavery, surely the least oppressive serfdom in mankind's history. This only applies, as Mr. Styron is careful to indicate, to slaves fortunate enough to be owned by the enlightened gentry; it is the poor white overseers, and small landowners who made the lot of slaves unendurable. Surely we have some right to expect serious novelists in 1967 to eschew this kind of fanciful nonsense? Especially if we know that it is precisely on these large Virginia plantations that the most degrading and debasing form of slavery was developed. Even as early as the 1830s...these enlightened aristocrats had begun converting their plantations to breeding farms...

Aside from the fact that careful research by honest investigators has turned up practically no evidence at all of breeding farms ever existing (surely we should expect essayists in The Massachusetts Review to abandon this Mandingo nonsense?) it remains clear that almost nothing is known of Nat Turner's childhood and upbringing, and also that "enlightened benevolence" did in truth, alas, exist. Chance dictated my setting Nat in the environment-not to frustrate Mr. Thelwell's and Mr. Aptheker's metaphysical fantasy of our hero as an amalgamated black Paul Bunyan and Daniel Boone--a superslave battling against Simon Legree stereotypes of degradation and debasement--but to create an irony which, I suppose, is lost on minds incapable of making an ironic connection: in this case, that slavery in its most bestial form was terrible enough but that it was precisely this enlightened benevolence which in the end ameliorated nothing, instilled a false hope, brought Nat to disaster, and constituted a betrayal at least as cruel as the nightmare of captivity in the Deep South. It was for this reason-"to reproduce the much more complex and ramifying totality with historical faithfulness"--that I chose to have Nat reared in relatively pleasant circumstances by a kindly master, and I could not care less if this fails to correspond to anyone else's vision of the possibilities or the reality.

At a large gather in New Haven some time ago, a young Negro wearing the appurtenances of a Black Muslim (and accompanied by a pretty white girl) got up and asked me why I had written such a racist book? Why had I perverted history? Why had I, among other things, set down the impossible scene of armed Negro slaves aiding their master in repelling the insurgents? Why, above all, did I perpetuate the mendacious cliché of the black man being hopelessly hung up on white women? He then paraphrased some lines from Mr. Aptheker's Nation review of Nat Turner to support his depositions. "Man, it's a pity," he said as he sat down beside the admiring blonde, "that LeRoi Jones didn't write your book," thereby underscoring a certain obvious pathos.

I made an evasive reply, I believe, since I was a beginner at countering punches at the book, then. I did not explain, as I might now, that neither he nor I nor Herbert Aptheker could in fact ever say that it was inconceivable, much less untrue (how does Mr. Aptheker know it's untrue?) that armed Negro slaves might, at their master's behest or even voluntarily, rise to defend the only homes they had ever known. I would say now that to me such an eventuality was logically and eminently conceivable, that my guess was as good as the young man's or better-that he was black and I was white but I knew more about the institution of American Negro slavery than he did--and that unless he could offer proof to the contrary I would stand by the choices which, as a novelist, I had made.

I might also say now that I had "perpetuated" the stereotype of the black man's hang-up on white females because I feel it was--quite probably--true; that maybe he himself had such a hang-up and that unless the absurd and puerile hypocrisy ceased, unless Negro males stopped holding hands with them, adoring them, hating them, molesting them, screwing them, marrying them, rejecting them, mocking them, painting them, being involved with them in whatever manner (obviously anyone who wants to believe I am a racist can take these words out of context to justify his viewpoint)--I would insist that my own historical insight was as true as anyone's, Nat's fateful impulse valid then as now, and that Nat Turner was hung up on Margaret Whitehead, bashing her brains out because of the same hatred and love and despair that make Americans today as then all hopelessly hung--black and white-one with the other, wedded inseparably by the error and madness of history. I expect now that would explain that I felt no need whatever to apologize for any liberty I took with the "facts" concerning a man who still, to me, whatever the fictional transmutations, was a figure of tragic magnitude and nobility.

"'Truth of passions, verisimilitude of feelings in imagined circumstances,' " writes Lukacs, quoting Pushkin, " 'that is what our mind demands of the dramatic writer.' " And Lukacs concludes: "the writer's historical fidelity consists ion the faithful artistic reproduction of the great collision, the great crises and turning points of history. To express this historical conception in an adequate artistic form the writer may treat individual facts with as much license as he likes, for mere fidelity to the facts of history without this connection is utterly valueless."

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