M. Cooper Harriss
Fifty years ago this month, William Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner—an historical novel that became a flashpoint for arguments about race and representation during a particularly trying period of U.S. history. Styron, a white Virginian reared in the vicinity of Nat Turner’s 1831 uprising—the bloodiest revolt in U.S. slavery—deployed Nat’s voice in a vivid first-person interior narrative that owed less to overt strains of regional black vernacular than to the King James Bible. Early reviews deemed Styron’s novelistic venture inside the mind of an enslaved black man largely successful. Alfred Kazin described Styron’s “luxurious imagination” in the Chicago Tribune. Wilfrid Sheed in the New York Times claimed, “no historical novel has ever done more.” James Baldwin (a black writer who wrote white characters in the first person) lived with Styron during the novel’s composition and encouraged the project, claiming later that “He has begun the common history—ours.” Wilberforce University honored Styron that November, and the novel won the Pulitzer Prize in the spring of 1968—well on its way to becoming a contemporary classic.
Or so it seemed; not everyone agreed with such sanguine assessments. By early 1968 protesters began to haunt Styron’s public appearances, chiding him for any number of infractions. At a Southern Historical Association panel convened by C. Vann Woodward (and featuring Styron’s friends Robert Penn Warren and Ralph Ellison), several interlocutors took issue with his depiction of Nat: “[T]he facts you included would sell. The whites wanted to read that Nat Turner was not a strong, black revolutionary figure.” By year’s end a veritable movement had been mounted against Styron, resulting in a significant publication, William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Styron, these Ten Black Writers argued, placed the impetus for the uprising not on Nat’s experience of slavery but, rather, on his unrequited love for the lovely, young, and white Margaret Whitehead (the only white person Nat claims to have killed in the 1831 document also titled The Confessions of Nat Turner that served as Styron’s problematic primary source). And yes, one wonders at his obliviousness on this count. Contemporary readers will also find troublesome homophobic attitudes among the Ten Black Writers, who deem a homoerotic baptismal episode between Nat and his young friend Willis an attempt by Styron to delegitimize Nat’s revolutionary power, rendering him in the words of one writer, “half man, half faggot.” Still others query the relationship of Styron’s fiction to historical “truth,” leading to categorizations that trouble Styron’s self-proclaimed fealty to textual sources through recourse to black oral traditions about Nat, his wife (whom Styron omits because she is not in the 1831 sources), and his motivations.
My goal here is not to adjudicate between these positions but to remark on what they reflect about relationships between race and religion over the course of the past half-century. An additional point of criticism leveled against Styron held that the religiosity of Nat’s depiction in the novel further diminished his revolutionary power. Except for Vincent Harding’s strong contribution, the Ten Black Writers understand biblical language, Nat’s vocation as a preacher, his interpretation of signs, and his belief in his own calling to divine vengeance to undermine Nat’s identity as a freedom fighter (despite the evidence of such properties in both written sources and oral tradition). Seymour Gross and Eileen Bender amplify this assumption in a 1971 American Quarterly article, noting that white men had long rendered Nat “a possessed, deluded, religious maniac.” The primacy of religious belief and practice signifies delusion and mental illness that deny him revolutionary agency. The seeming myopia of such an assessment proves mind-boggling in the immediate wake of prominent religiously organized freedom movements of the 1960s, or given the proximity of these sources to something like the publication of James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power in 1969 (though, significantly, this context reveals Cone seeking to legitimize Black Theology for this reluctant audience in the language and conceptual architecture of Black Power—in the process he identifies Nat as a “Baptist preacher” who “felt commissioned by God”). Religion proved anathema to this faction of activist resistance.
The opening decades of the twenty-first century have seen the emergence of a new Nat Turner—one recognized and fully embraced for the religious dynamics he both derived from and advanced. Consider Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (2016), a troublesome film that nevertheless takes Nat’s religiosity for granted, relentlessly spotlighting his charismatic power as a preacher, his fascination by signs and spiritual forms, the oral tradition of his anointing to a greater purpose, and deals in terms of holy violence. Other recent texts reflect a similar trend. Kyle Baker’s graphic novel Nat Turner (2008) features vivid images that dwell at length on Bibles, the act of preaching, as well as non-Christian retentions among its enslaved subjects. The Resurrection of Nat Turner (2011), a two-volume novel by Sharon Ewell Foster—the popular Christian novelist who writes romance and historical fiction pitched to African-American audiences—also reflects Nat’s evangelism and evangelicalism at length (“with a Bible in one hand, brandishing a sword in the other”), going so far as to have Nat begin a sermon with the phrase “I have a dream.” A new play, Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem, staged last fall at the New York Theater Workshop, hinges on late-night theo-political conversations between Nat and his confessor Thomas Gray on the eve of Nat’s execution. Religious dynamics of racial identity that once provided evidence of Styron’s ill intent toward Nat now speak to his authenticity.
Nat Turner resonates uniquely at a time when the “matter” of black lives, harrowingly, still registers as “controversial” in public discourse. The newfound “legitimation” of his religious identity, however, finds consistent reproduction in the cultural artifacts of the age, suggesting that on some level our tolerance—or perhaps our desire—for rougher gods and more urgent justice has grown considerably in the past half-century. The criticism leveled against William Styron largely makes sense, yet he recognized something powerful in this violence and dared to call it holy. For this reason his reputation suffered; for this reason he also warrants renewed attention. The Confessions of Nat Turner is not as good as initially supposed, but nor is it, fifty years on, as bad as many have deemed it. Among novels about slavery by white authors it pales in comparison to Huck Finn, but remains an unambiguously better novel—literarily and politically—than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Finally it articulates ongoing questions surrounding racial identity, representation, and appropriation as matters of religious significance. Thus, ironically, Styron’s prescience (accidental or not) outlives the diagnostics of his major detractors.
- Baker, Kyle. Nat Turner. Harry N. Abrams, 2008.
- Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Beacon Press, 1968.
- Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. Harper & Row, 1969.
- Davis, Nathan Alan. Nat Turner in Jerusalem. New York Theater Workshop. September 7, 2016 – October 16, 2016.
- Ellison, Ralph, et al. “A Discussion: The Uses of History in Fiction,” The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Spring 1969): 57-90.
- Gray, Thomas R. The Confessions of Nat Turner. 1831. Electronic edition at the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South digital publishing initiative. Accessed October 8, 2017.
- Gross, Seymour, and Eileen Bender. “History, Politics, and Literature: The Myth of Nat Turner,” American Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 4 (October 1971): 487-518.
- Kazin, Alfred. “Instinct for Tragedy: A Message in Black and White.” Book World (Chicago Tribune, Washington Post). October 8, 1967.
- Sharon Ewell Foster. Simon & Schuster. Accessed October 8, 2017.
- Sheed, Wilfrid. “The Slave Who Became a Man.” Review of The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. The New York Times. October 8, 1967.
- Styron, William. The Confession of Nat Turner. Random House, 1967.
Image: Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation (Fox Searchlight, 2016)
|Author, M. Cooper Harriss (PhD’11; Marty Center Junior Fellow ’08-09), is an assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, where he teaches courses on American religion, literature, and culture. He is the author of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology (NYU, 2017) and is at work on a new book titled Muhammad Ali and the Irony of American Religion.|
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