To call William Styron’s "The Confessions of Nat Turner" and the response to it a seminal event would be understating its impact. The 1967 novel focusing on a visionary who led the most effective and lethal slave rebellion in American history won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which a group of black intellectuals said it did not deserve.
Their criticisms were encapsulated in a book published in Boston titled “William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.” The year was 1968, but the literary battle over the legacy of Nat Turner continues.
Kenneth Greenberg, a history professor and a scholar of American slavery at Suffolk University, said it is neccesary to understand the circumstances that led to the slave rebellion of 1831 and the man who led it, Nat Turner.
“He's different from almost every other person who rebelled against slavery, because unlike the others he left an interesting document, which was published as 'The Confessions of Nat Turner,'" Greenberg said. “Those confessions were copied down by a white lawyer; someone who, in fact, hated him. The original confessions were distortions of Nat Turner's voice, but Turner is in there somewhere.”
But where he was, literally, at the time of the confession is the reason writer Jabari Asim considers Styron’s interpretation of Turner’s history to be so untrustworthy.
“It's a confession supposedly given by an African American while in police custody. I think just on a fundamental level we could never take such confessions seriously,” Asim said.
Styron’s novel is interpreted from the notes of the white lawyer, Thomas Gray, noted Asim, a creative writing professor at Emerson College and author of a forthcoming book on Turner and Styron.
“Thomas Gray's confession is really a skeletal document that Styron attempted to put some flesh on. And the animating impulse for much of Nat Turner's behavior and Styron’s book is a psycho sexual obsession with white women," Asim said. "And I find that an absurd premise to use as the motive for an historically significant rebellion on the part of the enslaved.”
Greenberg, who knew Styron and spoke at his funeral in 2006, agreed with that assessment. Greenberg said his friend’s focus on the killing of a white woman at the hands of the rebel Turner, and Styron’s imagined sexual obsession with her, blotted out the history of Turner’s own wife, a black slave who Greenberg said Turner cared for deeply. Instead, Styron focused on a part of the confession in which Turner allegedly describes murdering Margaret Whitehead.
“There were black critics at the time who will notice this about the novel. Styron read that scene and his imagination went crazy with it," Greenberg said. "Styron wasn't as careful as he should have been and produced an invention, which was not true to the historical record even though he presented it that way."
Yet the book was widely hailed as a masterpiece. One reviewer wrote in Styron’s defense at the time: “Partisans of the revolutionary tradition, and especially black militants see Turner as a folk hero, and are understandably offended that Styron portrays him as aloof and contemptuous toward most blacks.”
Styron insulated himself from some of the criticism by pointing to his close friendship with noted black writer, James Baldwin.
“I'm a huge James Baldwin fan, but I think it did diminish his standing among black writers and intellectuals because the book is so clearly, clearly anti-black," said Kim McLarin,a Baldwin scholar and writing professor at Emerson.
But Styron’s book was widely read in inner-city schools and libraries and black reading clubs. At a time when their leaders were being jailed and assassinated, African Americans were looking for heroes, but did not find one in Styron’s book.
In Greenberg's and Charles Burnett’s documentary, “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property,” the author described Turner as “a lunatic.”
Black intellectuals in 1968 pushed back against Styron’s characterization of Turner. Among the black writers who excoriated him in the book published locally by Beacon Press was noted Boston psychiatrist Alvin Poiussaint. Their 10 essays portraying Turner as a more complex individual would also become the lens that filmmakers and future novelists would later adopt.
But some versions of Turner were also infused with heroic mythology. While many, then and now, have questioned who has the moral authority to address the experiences of slavery, Greenberg said that was not the question posed by black writers in 1968 in their rebuke of Styron.
“The criticism of the black writers that they were claiming that Styron had no right to write about Nat Turner because he was a white man — I never saw that in the black writers. ... That is an invention," Greenberg said. "Sometimes there were white writers defending Styron who pushed that on the black writers. So that was a false claim against the black writers.”
On a South End street recently, historian and State Representative Byron Rushing reflected on the lessons of the 1968 controversy. He said in an age when some politicians casually promote alternate truths and revisionist history, heroes are needed more than ever.
"We're at a time when we're ready to look at history primarily as the telling of truth and then using the truth in ways to organize," Rushing said.
That truth is often complex, like Nat Turner himself, he added.