The Confessions of Nat Turner
by William Styron
Random House, 428 pp., $6.95
This is a first-rate novel, the best that William Styron has written and the best by an American writer that has appeared in some years. One reason at least for its creative success is that its author has got hold of a substantial theme central to the national experience. Moreover, he has been able to adapt it to his imaginative purposes without political or sectional bluster. It is a theme that relates mainly to the past but surely to the present as well, for it is obvious that we have by no means seen the last of the consequences of chattel slavery.
In the novel there is no substitute for a real theme, as all the important works of American fiction demonstrate—from The Scarlet Letter to The Great Gatsby and Light in August. (This is, of course, true of fiction generally.) The reason for the relative sterility of the American novel in this decade has not been lack of talent, but a failure on the part of the practitioners of the genre to identify meaningful themes and to work out the proper novelistic method in relation to them. All of this leads one to think that in some significant sense our literature has lately lost contact with its society, perhaps because of the immense confusion that at present prevails in it. I say this in spite of the frenzied, hyperbolic mystique of America, whether blandly positive or perversely negative, by which our literature is now dominated. Styron is one of the very few writers who has not succumbed to this mystique which regularly confounds universal human traits and behavior with “unique” expressions of “the American character.” In recent fiction this American mystique has been twisted to accord with an exhibitionistic, empty, posturing, “avant-gardist” subjectivism, manically expressed, as well as with the “new” pornography, which pretends to be “literary” and “audacious” and which, instead of converting its sexual subject matter to aesthetic and social uses, actually exploits it in a flagrant drive for popular success.
Matthew Arnold once wrote that “for the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment.” Styron’s novel illustrates the truth of this dictum. The political and intellectual climate of the Sixties has surely provided the appropriate moment (not to be confused with ephemeral fashion or mere topicality). Moreover, Styron, a native Virginian born and raised not far from Southhampton County, the locale of Nat Turner’s rebellion—the only sustained action of its kind in the history of American slavery—convinces us in this work that he is pre-eminently equipped to deal with the theme. I think that only a white Southern writer could have brought it off. A Northerner would have been too much “outside” the experience to manage it effectively; and a Negro writer, because of a very complex anxiety not only personal but social and political, would have probably stacked the cards, producing in a mood of unnerving …