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Nat Turner and “Dred”

In response to:

Mrs. Stowe's Vengeance from the September 3, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

In her muscular defense of the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe (New York Review, September 3), Ellen Moers has added an odd footnote to a tiresome controversy. I certainly can take no serious exception to Miss Moers’s implied assumption that Mrs. Stowe’s vision of Nat Turner may be more appealing or meaningful or aggressively militant than my own. Like Miss Moers I feel that Dred is a neglected work, despite all of its ghastly shortcomings as a work of fiction, and I’m sorry that it has not attracted over the years more readers since in its primitive way it does indeed show (tut-tut Miss Moers, not prove; no novel proves anything) that “slavery is horrible.”

But I wish that in her haste to express enthusiasm for Dred at the expense of my own novel (the same sin of which, vice versa, she accuses Professor C. Vann Woodward) she had been less haphazard with certain historical “facts,” the faithfulness to which presumably makes Mrs. Stowe a better witness to the character of Nat Turner than myself. Miss Moers first says that Dred “is guilty of none of the ‘distortions’ to which objection has been raised in the controversy over William Styron’s novel on the same subject.” She then points out that in Dred the hero is educated by Negro parents while my Nat Turner is taught by white people, and it is true that here Mrs. Stowe adheres to the original Confessions—for whatever they may be worth—while in this respect my own version is at variance with them. But let Miss Moers go on. Mrs. Stowe’s Dred, she says,

…lives and dies in the Great Dismal Swamp…. Dred has both wife and children, who live with him and rely on his love, support, and protection in the swamp. Far from being a rebel in isolation, he is presented by Mrs. Stowe as a product of the Denmark Vesey uprising.

And she says finally:

These aspects of her hero and her story Harriet Beecher Stowe lifted whole from the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner…and also other documents of unrest in the ante-bellum South, black and white.

I assume that Miss Moers means just what she says by the phrase “lifted whole.” But in plain truth there is not a single word in the 1831 Confessions to indicate that Nat Turner had anything to do with the Great Dismal Swamp, and it can be stated flatly even at this late date that the historical Nat certainly did not live or die there. Furthermore, if Miss Moers will carefully reread the original Confessions she will find that Mrs. Stowe could not possibly have “lifted whole” any reference to Nat Turner’s wife and children, since there is no mention of either, nor is there even an oblique reference to the Denmark Vesey uprising (not an uprising, by the way, but an aborted revolt) or any other slave insurrection. I have read the same documents of unrest in the ante-bellum South as Mrs. Stowe did, and concluded it unlikely that Nat Turner was motivated by the example of Denmark Vesey. Mrs. Stowe thought otherwise but in either case it is a matter of conjecture, a novelist’s guesswork. Why should such a choice absolve Mrs. Stowe of “distortions” while leaving me on the hook?

I suspect that Mrs. Stowe caused Dred to live and die in the Dismal Swamp because she shrewdly understood both the responsibilities and the liberties of a novelist, and such an existence in the swamp seemed an honest possibility for her hero—not because it actually happened. My own Nat Turner dreamed of the Dismal Swamp as a possible refuge after his revolt through fictional logic no more queer or strained or distorted. I am reasonably certain that Mrs. Stowe had the same motive of honest possibility in the case of the unmentioned wife and children and the unmentioned Denmark Vesey. As fictional hypotheses these are by no means unacceptable, especially given the romanticism in Mrs. Stowe and her “belief in the necessity of heroes.” Whatever, the principle of honest possibilities was the only recourse for Mrs. Stowe—as well as myself—when so little of consequence is really known about the man whose life one is trying to re-create.

As for my own work, I’m afraid that—despite the charges laid against me of flagrant inaccuracy—my old-fashioned, unromantic regard for the crude historical evidence is so great—greater than Mrs. Stowe’s—that I would have supplied Nat Turner with a Dismal Swamp and all the other places and persons and appurtenances had he made reference to them, but in the end, like Mrs. Stowe, I felt free as a novelist to indulge my fancy.

Miss Moers has every right to feel as she wishes that my rendition of slavery is deficient compared to that of Mrs. Stowe—that hers is less full of the “lassitude and self-pity” she sees me sharing with such a funny bedfellow as LeRoi Jones; to object to a writer’s vision of his material is every reader’s privilege. But she has hardly shown Mrs. Stowe to be free of “distortions” which I might add have been not only the right but the frequent necessity of all historical novelists from Scott and Stendhal and Tolstoy down to the present day.

William Styron

Roxbury, Connecticut

Ellen Moers replies:

I am delighted to reply to Mr. Styron’s flaccid letter.

I was not “in haste to express enthusiasm for Dred at the expense of [Styron’s] novel”—if that implies a central concern with his book, which I read for the first time while preparing this article. Had I not mentioned Mr. Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner while discussing Mrs. Stowe’s Dred, I would have been guilty of the only “sin” of which I accused Professor Woodward: omission.

It was specifically and exclusively “the ‘distortions’ to which objection has been raised in the controversy” over the Styron novel which I discussed in regard to Dred, putting “distortions” in quotation marks on the one hand because I wanted to attribute the accusation to others; and on the other hand, because I accepted Mr. Styron’s intention and right to create a “meditation on history,” as he has put it, rather than to write history or even historical fiction. I also accept the right of those who consider Nat Turner a historical hero for Black America to criticize Mr. Styron for what they hold to be “distortions” of the very slim record we have of Turner’s life and mind.

Nat Turner, incidentally, is no hero of mine, though I find the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner a moving and tragic document which deserves to be widely read. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, I don’t like killing—and this of course (why does Mr. Styron not mention it?) was her widest departure from the historical record: her refusal to show the man she saw as a hero engaged in acts of violence, rather than merely threatening to carry them out. Far from suggesting that Mrs. Stowe stayed close to Nat Turner’s history when she asserted that Dred was inspired to rebellion by Denmark Vesey, I pointed out how far she let her fancy roam in making her fictional hero a son of the historical Vesey. “She had little interest in history,” I said; “she was concerned less with past or future than with the permanent romantic present…”

As Harriet Beecher Stowe protested when people accused her of “distortions,” she was immersed in the writings and the records of innumerable American Negroes when she wrote Dred and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and to the power of those novels the words and deeds of Black America made a direct and essential contribution. If I have a quarrel it is not with Mr. Styron but with those who distort the American past by ignoring historical relationships between races, classes, and regions, between highbrow and lowbrow, between rough and genteel. We have had enough barriers in our history not to raise artificial ones.

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