The Confessions of Nat Turner
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 rage and indignation, a melodrama of saints and sinners. Styron, however, by an act that at once seizes upon his own background and transcends it, maintains throughout his narrative a consistent and highly imaginative realism not only on the objective plane (the economics of Virginia in the 1820s, the social relationships, the ideological defense-mechanisms), but also by recreating the intimate psychology of his characters, the black slaves and the white owners.
THIS NARRATIVE is something more than a novelistic counterpart of scholarly studies of slavery in America; it incarnates its theme, bringing home to us the monstrous reality of slavery in a psychodynamic manner that at the same time does not in the least neglect the social or economic aspects. In The American Scene Henry James records his visit to Richmond, where for a moment “the Spirit of the South” revealed itself to him as “a figure somehow blighted and stricken discomfortably, impossibly seated in an invalid chair, and yet facing one with strange eyes that were half a defiance and half a deprecation of one’s noticing, and much more of one’s referring to, any abnormal sign.” In this great and difficult sentence many things are hinted at that for a long time our literature could not afford to know or tell about. It is only now that a writer of Southern extraction has proved himself finally capable of grappling with that “figure somehow blighted and stricken,” forcing it at long last to speak without equivocation of its “abnormal” condition.
He has gained greatly from his ability to empathize with his Negro figures—with the protagonist. Nat, as well as with some of his followers—to live in them, as it were, in a way inconceivable even for Faulkner, Styron’s prose-master. Whereas Faulkner’s Negroes are still to some extent the white man’s Negroes, Styron’s are starkly themselves. As he himself wrote some years ago in a remarkable article in Harper’s:
Most Southern white people cannot know or touch black people and this is because of the deadly intimidation of a universal law [universal in the South, that is]. Certainly one feels the presence of this gulf even in the work of a writer as supremely knowledgeable about the South as William Faulkner, who confessed a hesitancy about attempting to “thing Negro,” and whose Negro characters, as marvelously portrayed as most of them are, seem nevertheless to be meticulously observed rather than lived. Thus, in The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s magnificent Dilsey comes richly alive, yet in retrospect one feels this is a result of countless mornings, hours, days Faulkner had spent watching and listening to old Negro servants, and not because Dilsey herself is being created from a sense of withinness: at the last moment Faulkner draws back, and it is no mere happenstance that Dilsey, alone among the four central figures from whose point of view the story is told, is seen from the outside rather than from that intensely “inner” vantage point, the interior monologue.
Styron has achieved this “inner” vantage point, this “withinness,” in creating Nat Turner, whose thoughts and memories as he sits chained down in jail awaiting execution comprise a kind of interior monologue. This represents a radical departure from past writing about Negroes, even a breakthrough. The achievement is to no small extent a consequence of Styron’s conviction, as he phrases it in the same essay, that “to break down the old law, to come to know the Negro, has become the moral imperative of every white Southerner.”
The structural properties of the novel are very fine: no wastage and no digressions. The language, though faintly echoing the courtly tones of Southern English in the early nineteenth century, is unmistakably Styron’s, except for the dialogue, which is vigorously and unabashedly naturalistic: but the set of mind, the emotions, and the pathos are entirely Turner’s. I have heard people say that words like “presage,” “effulgent,” and even “apprehension” could not have been known to Turner. This objection is typical of readers unpracticed in the recognition of literary conventions—and the particular convention adopted by Styron in his prose, that of an enlarged vocabulary, is essential to his novelistic aim; for to have attempted to “imitate” Turner’s own restricted idiom, whatever it was, would have sufficed to render the theme only in one dimension. Styron’s strategic decision to employ the rich verbal resources at his command was the right one, it seems to me. In the same way Faulkner bypassed in As I Lay Dying Darl’s native speech in favor of his own, which alone was capable of adequately representing that character’s clairvoyance and singularity of consciousness.
STYRON FULLY ENTERS into the ideology permitting Nat Turner to organize his bloody mission—that of exterminating all the whites within his reach—an ideology which is necessarily religious, absorbed from constant Bible-reading. No other source of ideas justifying his scheme was historically available to him. The prophet Ezekiel declared: “Go through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and cry for all abominations that be done in the midst thereof…. Slay utterly old and young, both maids and little children….” Such exhortations are immediately present to him; the historical sense is missing as yet. This half-educated slave, an extreme rarity among the Negroes of that time, whose reputation among the whites is that of “a harmless, runabout, comic nigger minister of the gospel,” conceals his purpose for years even as he builds up the image of himself as the “illimitable, devastating instrument of God’s wrath.” He fails of course in his larger purpose of a break for freedom, but after his small band of rebels has cut a swath by sword and ax and gun through southeastern Virginia, killing about fifty-five whites and terrifying the entire South, he still insists that he feels no pangs of remorse.
Styron, who is not essentially a political writer, is admirably faithful here to revolutionary psychology. A lesser novelist might have been tempted to finish expediently with some kind of reconciliation scene, such as one showing Nat, the primitive revolutionary, embracing a phony universalist ideal to ease his plight and calm the apprehensive reader. But far from sounding a note of reconciliation, Styron thoroughly explores the Negro militant’s hatred of whites, which grows “like a granite flower with cruel leaves.” It is the first time a white writer has faced up to this “pure and obdurate” hatred; which can on no account be perceived by the slave-owners if they are to preserve their self-righteousness or even ordinary equanimity. This hatred, inevitably bound up with the social and emotional heritage of slavery, is perceived even today by the majority of whites in all sections of the country with bafflement at best and at the worst with a sense of outrage which betrays a wretched failure of imagination. The consciousness produced by slavery still persists and it can be said of this novel that, by virtue of its insights into this consciousness, its “historicity” does not at all exclude contemporaneity. Indeed, it suggests analogues with the present that are vivid and urgent. After all, the national disposition to violence and hypocritical ideologizing to cover up ruthless practices can in no way be dissociated from the experience of slavery. In the shaping of American culture—and I am using “culture” in an anthropological rather than in a literary or philosophical sense—this experience has proven to be far more lasting and significant than the professors of our history and literature, sheltered by a “cloud-canopy of idealism” (the phrase is Van Wyck Brooks’s), have ever allowed us to understand. Our literary scholars, with their endless mouselike fussing about the Brahmin culture of Boston and related matters, have been particularly slack in distinguishing between historical actualities and professed ideals.
In 1832, months after the rebellion, a brief pamphlet of some twenty pages, by a T.B. Gray, was published in Richmond. This document, entitled “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” is a bare recital of facts, without elaboration or any effort to understand Nat’s mentality. Styron has not only used this document but also has incorporated Gray into his cast of characters. As he visits the prisoner, taking down his testimony and arguing with him, he blurts out his essential atheism, blaming Christianity for the enormities committed: “Nineteen hundred years of Christian teaching plus a black preacher is all it takes—is all it takes to prove that God is a God durned lie!” Gray is only one of the many whites on the scene who are sharply individualized. There are, among others, the decent, philanthropic owners, like Marse Samuel who encourages Nat to learn reading and writing, but whom financial need drives to sell his Negroes into bondage in the steaming, dreaded plantations of the lower South; there is the “nigger-breaker” Mr. Francis; the Irish overseer who rapes Nat’s mother as the boy watches; and Judge Cobb, the enlightened Virginia gentleman who nonetheless cannot believe that there can arise among the blacks “one single specimen capable of spelling cat.” The position of the whites is thoroughly explored, both those deploring the institution of slavery and those upholding it, without rancor or even a hint of political parti pris on the author’s part. It is Nat who sees them, knows and judges them. The upholders of the system are of course the majority among the whites, and typical of them is a Mr. Benjamin, who is convinced that “a darky is basically as unteachable as a chicken…his only value is the work you get out of him by intimidation, cajolery, and threat.”
THE NOVEL HAS DRAMATIC coherence; its texture consists of innumerable details, firmly planted, the concreteness of which compels our belief. Some of the scenes are truly arresting, such as the one exhibiting a pair of traveling Episcopal clergymen—“the Bishop’s visitants” as they are called—garbed in funereal black, “blinking through square crystal glasses and emitting delicate coughs behind long white fingers as thin and pale as flower stalks.” In another we read of a backwoods fundamentalist, the Reverend Eppes, whose skinny face has “a pentecostal, Christ-devoured…look of laughterless misery about it,” and who tries to bugger Nat behind the woodpile while intoning the question whether “a nigger boy’s got an unusual big pecker on him” as he heard people say. Then too the scenes depicting the relation between Nat and the young white girl, Margaret Whitehead, who likes and confides in him, are very affecting. Though respecting and in a sense recognizing his humanity, she still can run around half-exposed, in her undergarments, in front of him, prattling in a giggly girlish way. She is the only white person he kills with his own hands during the rebels’ rampage through the countryside; for though an inciter of killing, he turns out to be no mass killer in the end. Margaret thoughtlessly provokes his maleness and an overpowering fantasy of rape as, full of sympathy, she sits close beside him on the carriage seat while he drives her to church, “close enough to smell her sweat, pungent and womanly and disturbing.” And again: “Her closeness stifled me…wafting toward me her odor—a disturbing smell of young-girl-sweat mingled with the faint sting of lavender.” Even as he wants her he hates her. “It is not hatred,” he assures himself, the “sudden rage and confusion arise just from that sympathy irresistible and unwanted.” Truly the pangs of life are keenly felt in this tableau of mingled murder and desire.
VERY FEW FACTS are known about the real Nat Turner, and Styron has mostly invented his early and later experiences, his feelings, and the incrustation of religious fanaticism and revolutionary zeal that propelled him toward his brief triumph and final doom. No doubt Styron has benefited from the perspective that historical distance provides and the resulting ability to see the system of slavery clear and whole. It is far more difficult to see our contemporary society with the same clarity and to express its tendencies with equal force. Whether he can progress in this direction is a question to which only his future novels can supply the answer.
It will no doubt be said that this book’s excellence is the result of its author’s splendid talent. To be sure, he is in possession of this talent. But isn’t the word “talent” used all too frequently, so much so that it explains everything and nothing? Styron’s percipience in handling his difficult theme (never before attempted on a large scale by a modern American writer) and the psychological and linguistic modulation of it are poorly explained by that catch-all term. I recall the episode in Anna Karenina when Anna, Vronsky, and their friend Golonischev visit the painter Mihailov’s studio, and on the way back their spirits rise. Tolstoy remarks in his canny way: “They talked of Mihailov and his pictures. The word talent, by which they meant an inborn, almost physical skill, independent of brain and heart, which was their expression for everything an artist gains from life, occurred frequently in their conversation, since they required it to cover something of which they had no conception but wanted to talk about.” Technical proficiency is indispensable of course, but in and by itself it cannot yield creative mastery. Tolstoy knew that it is qualities of “brain and heart,” rare and unspecifiable at bottom, that distinguish the work of art from the ordinary product.