In response to:
The Nat Turner Case from the September 12, 1968 issue
To the Editors:
Eugene Genovese’s defense of the historical accuracy of William Styron’s Nat Turner [NYR Sept. 12] shakes one’s faith in historians. I am currently editing a collection of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essays on slave rebellions, including Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser as well as Nat Turner, and so have had recent occasion to read the same source materials available to Professor Genovese and Mr. Styron. Higginson had the useful habit, not shared by Genovese, of citing his sources fully and accurately. His work is mentioned several times in the review of Ten Black Writers Respond, but never by name.
On the point of the existence of Turner’s slave wife and children, Genovese says: “The evidence for Turner’s alleged black wife comes from an account written thirty years after his death.” This, of course, is Higginson’s Nat Turner’s Insurrection, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861, when Turner’s widow would have been in her late fifties. Higginson’s sources, as he clearly states, were the Confession and the local and national newspapers contemporary with Nat Turner, as well as word-of-mouth legendary material from living survivors of the insurrection. His brief mention of the wife, whose existence had then never been questioned, included the fact that she was “tortured under the lash” after her husband’s death in an effort to get her to reveal the hiding place of his secret papers. This fact would seem ample explanation of Turner’s failure to mention her in his Confession, which Genovese takes as negative evidence of her non-existence. Nat hoped, no doubt, to spare her further suffering, as many a twentieth-century political prisoner has done, and as vainly.
Mr. Styron has pointed out that no legal marriage could have been contracted between slaves in Virginia in the 1820s, since the institution was specifically outlawed. The best evidence for its existence thus would seem to be the large body of descendants, of whose number and volubility Mr. Styron has publicly complained. Several of them have published reminiscences of their grandparents, which presumably Professor Genovese has not read. He says that we “have yet to be shown evidence that slaves and postslavery blacks kept alive a politically relevant legend of Nat Turner.” If the book he is supposedly reviewing does not present such evidence, I respectfully suggest that he consult the files of the Journal of Negro History; in every single volume I have ever had occasion to use, Nat Turner has had several index listings, long before Mr. Styron’s novel. They may, of course, not be “politically relevant,” whatever that means; Nat Turner was not allowed to vote any more than he was allowed to marry.
As for the link between Turner and the white woman for whom Styron shows him impotently lusting: in a general confession of a large number of murders, Nat Turner offers unpleasant specific details of three. They show him as awkward and badly armed, or perhaps both. In two cases a comrade with a sharper sword and fewer scruples finished off the victim for him; in the third he did it himself. It is, as Professor Genovese says, perfectly possible for a novelist to move from these grisly facts to a fantasy of some special association with the woman Turner killed. But for a historian to argue that such a connection is implied by the facts or by Turner’s way of relating them is another kettle of fish entirely. Such folk-psychiatry notoriously works both ways; why not a special relationship with the woman he couldn’t finish killing? Or, better yet, with the man? Or, best of all, with the infant who was almost forgotten (but Freud knows we never forget anything)?
To fantasize such a connection is readily possible, but the link Mr. Styron has provided flatly contradicts the record at a point where it is perfectly explicit. Neither Margaret Whitehead nor his own parents taught Nat Turner to read; he picked up the art from a picture book, amazing his parents and the neighborhood whites thereby and first establishing, thus early in life, his reputation as a remarkable human being. How and where his parents got him that picture book is a legitimate field for historical research. So far as I can discover, no one has ever tried to find out. He perfected his skill from the discarded textbooks of white children and their occasional, sometimes unwitting help. Nothing about the man terrified his white owners as much as this, and he was used for years by white Southerners as a dreadful example of the perils of teaching a Negro to read long before Mr. Styron so used him.
Professor Genovese’s contention that black Americans should be grateful to Styron for having rescued their hero from oblivion even though he has perverted him in the process seems to me equaled only by the argument of slaveowners that blacks ought to be grateful for slavery because it enabled them to have instruction in the Christian religion. Judged by such standards American Negroes have indeed a great deal to be thankful for.
Anna Mary Wells
New Brunswick, New Jersey
To the Editors:
I represent only one tenth of the authorship of William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, so I have been hesitant up to now to comment on the writings of various critics concerning the volume. For better or worse, Eugene Genovese relieved me of that ambiguously felt reticence when he devoted a significant part of his review of the book (NYR, September 12, 1968) to my essay, “You’ve Taken My Nat and Gone.” Indeed he went so far as to offer several choice paragraphs of rebuke, praise, and correction directly to me, paragraphs which seem to require some response. Nevertheless, the words that follow are more than a personal reply. They comprise a relatively brief attempt to address some of the larger issues raised in Genovese’s review, especially those dealing with the intellectual community and the black experience in America.
The overarching theme of my own comments on Styron, his work, and the reaction of many white critics to it was a reflection on tragedy. In the essay I referred largely to that tragedy created by the non-black authorities on black life who are certain that they have eaten and drunk so fully of our experience that they are qualified to deliver homilies to us (at the least provocation) on how that experience should best be understood, recorded and lived, now and in the future. In essence they seek (perhaps unconsciously, but nonetheless effectively) to become the official keepers of our memories and the shapers of our dreams. I suggested that the society which eagerly accepts such assumptions offers to those of us who are black a slavery at once more subtle and more damaging than any we have known before.
AS I CONSIDERED Gene Genovese’s review it seemed to me that he moved fully, indeed enthusiastically at times, into that very element, trailing behind him all the ironic humor and strange blindness that one associates with the tragic course. Let me offer several examples of this direction:
Mr. Genovese, who has done significant research and writing on the institution of slavery in the New World, now becomes an authority on all of black life, including its contemporary and folkloric aspects. Thus, in his review he can boldly tell me that I am deceiving myself and others when I say that Styron’s Nat Turner bears no resemblance to the fascinating man who exists “in the living traditions of black America.” Indeed, Genovese claims that there were no such traditions until Styron “rescued” Turner “from obscurity.” Here Mr. Genovese’s precise words are important for my response. He writes, “we have yet to be shown evidence that slaves and postslavery blacks kept alive a politically relevant legend of Nat Turner or of any other Southern slave leader.”
This would be laughable were it not so tragic. Obviously it is Genovese and many other non-black authorities on the black experience who comprise that “we” which has “yet to be shown evidence” of a living tradition concerning slave rebellions and the relevance of those events to the continuing struggles of black people in America. Thus Mr. Genovese (and others who have written even less interesting admonitions to us elsewhere) has arrogated to himself the task of deciding what is in “obscurity” and what is alive and well in the continuing traditions of black America.
Such a position usually presumes rather extensive knowledge of the subject under consideration, especially when the opinion is stated in so prestigious a publication as this one. But there is another “we” (the black part of the pronoun, one might say), and we wonder if Mr. Genovese is not familiar with the writings and speeches of former slaves and other black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Samuel Ringold Ward, Henry Highland Garnet, Harriet Tubman, or H. Ford Douglass, to name only a few. For the memory of Turner evidently lived among them and was offered by them to black people as an inspiration to resistance.
That other, black, “we” gathers that Genovese has not read the sermons and the speeches and writings of scores of post-Civil War black editors, preachers, and historians. (George Washington Williams is a good example of the latter.) For if he had, Nat Turner could not possibly have remained obscure. We urge him to peruse the pages of Marcus Garvey’s widely read Negro World or to read the poetry and fiction of Sterling Brown, Robert Hayden, Arna Bontemps, and Margaret Walker if he wishes to find a vital tradition concerning Turner, Vesey, and others. Let him settle down among the pages of the recorded slave recollections in the Federal Writers’ Project papers. Let him listen to the black people from Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia who speak of the Sunday School and Lodge pageants and plays of their childhood which dealt with the life and work of Nat Turner. Finally, let him listen again to the voice of Malcolm X.
Here, in all of these areas of the black world, and more, is where Nat Turner continued to live, long after he was hung, long before William Styron was born, very long before Eugene Genovese became an expert on “the living traditions of black America.” The “obscurity” in which Nat Turner and other black slave rebels languished (until rescued by William Styron and others) was created out of the same material as the “darkness” of pre-sixteenth-century Africa: the blindness of white observer-experts. That the publishing and book-reviewing world should hail such latter-day darkness as light is part of our American tragedy.
Another of Genovese’s concerns in his review was the way in which I—among others—sharply criticized Styron for snatching Turner from among the unique formative influences of the black community and placing him in an ambiguous limbo within the white world. Again Genovese claimed that “we know so little and can say so little” about whether or not there existed “a special kind of subterranean life in the slave quarters which might have proven far more powerful than we now appreciate [Emphasis mine].” It is at this point that he throws a personal challenge to me, saying, “If you say that black folk life can be unearthed and made relevant, then do it….”
I am pleased to entertain challenges, and even more pleased to state that I am currently working on research closely related to that question. But there are again more central issues at stake than the personal one. For it is at least tragic-comic to have Eugene Genovese ask for the unearthing of black folk life. Some of us are of the opinion that much of it has been on top of the earth all along (like the light in darkest Africa), that a man like Martin Luther King, Jr.—for instance—has often used it in very relevant ways in our generation, and that we have been participants in its development.
We look at the men and women who are our great grandparents and grandparents and we recognize the strength, integrity, and endurance so many of them represent, in spite of American slavery (and in spite of Sambo), and we know immediately the subterranean life with all its power. The black folk life is made evident in the slave narratives, in the spirituals, in the work songs, in the stories told by black men and women and passed down through the generations.
In areas where digging is needed, much that is valuable has already been done by social scientists and artists like W.E.B. DuBois, St. Clair Drake, Charles S. Johnson, LeRoi Jones, Sterling Stuckey, Julius Lester, and Paule Marshall (again, to name only a few). So while it is true that Harding must work, it is also imperative that Genovese explore the work already done by Harding’s forefathers. Significant portions of the folklife are available only to the folk, of course, but much is out in the open. Let those who have eyes see it, and while they are looking and learning, may “we” ask that they acquire the humility of occasional silence in the presence of our experience?
SOME of the more ironic aspects of Genovese’s personal words to me related to the subject of black religion, one of the most significant and powerful elements of that subterranean life to which he referred. This matter of religion was the central focus of my own essay on Styron’s Confessions and it was the area in which I sensed most deeply the novel’s failure as an evocation of an Afro-American experience. For many reasons, not to be repeated here, I concluded that “the novel has snatched Nat Turner out of the nineteenth century, out of the community of black religious rebels, and placed him totally into our own age of nothingness and fear.” I cited Styron’s striking inability to catch the folk rhythms of the single sermon he belatedly tried to place in preacher Nat’s mouth, and his total denial of black religious music as being among the key technical indications of his inadequacy to cope with black folk religion (and with religion generally). Nevertheless, Gene Genovese felt qualified to say that Styron did indeed know black religion and that Harding was missing the boat.
How, I wondered, did Gene Genovese know? Where has he demonstrated his scholarly competence in the understanding of the religion of black America? Or when was the last time he has tasted the peculiar experience of one of those rural-urban black churches where Africa, the American South, and the concrete hardness of the urban North leap and play in dazzling juxtaposition? How can he know what was missing from Styron’s nineteenth-century exhorter if he has not known his twentieth-century counterparts? Does some significant level of academic expertise in one area of the black experience in America really qualify a nonblack man to comment knowingly, almost homiletically on all the rest? (And here, of course, it should be clear that Genovese is also a paradigm of a larger situation.)
Not only did Mr. Genovese miss the heart of my comments on black religion, but in the course of doing battle with them he created a new Nat Turner of his own, one who was engaged in “class war” and who had to repent for the “hatred” which led him to destroy the now celebrated white teen-ager, Margaret Whitehead. Leaving Nat’s “class war” to Genovese as his special province, I can nevertheless understand why he would have expected hatred to be involved in a black slave’s rebellion, and specifically in Styron-Turner’s attack on Margaret. But let him read the account in the novel again. There is no emotion so powerful as hatred given to Turner in the entire episode (or, one must say, in the entire book). Instead there is the indecisive, sexually symbolized impotence, the killing without conviction which marks Styron’s black-white man indelibly as a twentieth-century anti-hero. This, indeed, was at the heart of my quarrel: Styron’s Turner has no hatred to repent for. Margaret Whitehead is a false, sometimes ludicrous and forced figure in the novel. She is about as real as the two other white women Styron creates for no other observable purpose than to start Nat’s sperm on its wasted pathway into the dirt. One does not hate mannequins. Or—more importantly—shadows cannot hate.
While on the topic of Styron-Turner’s relationship to Margaret, it is evident that Genovese missed the point of my essay again, so eager was he to lecture us on the role of interracial sex in American life. The issue for me was not simply how many white women Turner desired, nor whether or not he has married. The crucial flaw resided in the fact that the black leader was offered no meaningful love relationship with a black woman in the novel, not even in the fantasy world he so often shared with awkwardly imported white women. Indeed it was clear that he despised black women.
Finally, in his familiar omnicompetent vein, Genovese claims in his review to know what demands Black Power is making upon black intellectuals (an interesting and important topic, but one which might have been more adequately and appropriately raised if the NYR had, for instance, solicited and published a symposium of articles by black intellectuals in response to Harold Cruse’s valuable Crisis of the Negro Intellectual). He concludes that our essays show “the extent to which the American intelligensia is splitting along racial, rather than ideological lines.”
My opinions concerning Gene Genovese’s qualifications for making judgments about black writers and their relationship to Black Power are probably obvious by now, but I think it would be well to say one last extended word on the crucial issue of the “splitting” of the American intellectual community. Genovese—as I understand him—surely places himself ideologically to the left of the white, liberal intellectual establishment; but his words on this matter reminded me too much of relatively recent comments from other directions. For instance, when I read his statement I remembered all the tears shed in the South in the 1950s and early 1960s over the way the late Civil Rights movement was “splitting” that wonderful community of loving black and white people which had existed in peace and harmony since at least 1865. I thought, too, of the hurt cries emanating from the deep suburban North over the past few years about how nice it used to be when everyone was color blind and when every cocktail party had at least two Negroes.
THE ANSWER to Genovese, then, is no different from the responses which had been made to those other, similar complaints: The intellectual community has always been racially split (and ideology is not separate from race in America is it?). Of even more importance is the fact that one of the primary reasons for the ancient division has been the presumptuousness exemplified by Genovese’s review and Styron’s novel.
Black intellectuals have had to suffer every new, instant expert on blackness as he loudly declared that nothing was known until he came to reveal it. They have had to listen to countless lectures and sermons on how black history and culture ought to be seen and used. And when they dared to answer—with at least impatience and often anger—they were told that their responses were too racial, emotional, and academically insupportable. Meanwhile, until this recent resurgence of interest in matters black, many of them have also had to suffer the rejection notes of a publishing community which thought it knew very well how to judge matters of blackness with no help from black people, especially those blacks who might wish to sit at an editor’s desk.
Although much now seems different for those of us Afro-Americans who have more recently entered the academic arena of Black Studies, although we seem to be more eagerly sought after than our predecessors ever dared to hope, I cannot allow this shoddy and—I insist—tragic past to be forgotten in the midst of the present euphoria concerning blackness. (Indeed, as the response to Styron’s work reminds us, it may be impossible to forget or expunge that past, since so many of its attitudes are still present.) My black intellectual fathers suffered too much that was unjustifiable and created too much that was invaluable for me to be silent about them in the midst of statements which would suggest that things were different.
Meanwhile, let it be clear that I am not in total disagreement with Mr. Genovese. I applaud his final words: “Until a people can and will face its own past, it has no future.” That was the theme of the last section of my own essay, and I sincerely believe it to be true. But it is no less true that the task of facing that past has often been made very difficult by the many mediators who continue to stand in the way, insistently—almost evangelically—waving their own definitions of the black past in our faces, calling us at least mistaken and at most absurd if we don’t accept them, predicting, finally, our ultimate damnation.
Perhaps, though, after all has been said and done, those who judge us all in some future time will decide that both Mr. Genovese and I should have taken more seriously one of the few valuable opinions placed by William Styron into the mouth of his Nat Turner: “There is no doubt about it. White people often undo themselves by such running off at the mouth, and only God knows how many nigger triumphs have been won in total silence.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. Library Project
To the Editors:
Professor Genovese is by repute a brilliant historian and an arrogant man, both of which qualities appear in his essay, and in combination caused him to miss or ignore the real meaning of the collection of essays, Ten Black Writers Respond. I wish to speak briefly and generally to the real issue…. What is being challenged in the essays is the basic assumption and distortion of black reality that lies at the heart of that tradition [of white southern historical writing], so for Professor Genovese to refer smugly and worshipfully to “the literature” is for him to miss the point. Yes, Professor Genovese, we know that this tradition exists. We also know the great disparity between its findings and the raw material out of which it comes, and it is just that process of interpretation, definition, and abstraction—which is so faithfully followed by Mr. Styron in the face of impressive factual detail to the contrary—to which we object.
Mr. Styron’s novel fails precisely at the point where he has to give a living, breathing, credible psychological and social reality to Turner, because he, like Professor Genovese, has of course only a series of literary clichés, abstractions, and stereotypes which parody and violate the integrity of black experience and reality.
“Styron,” writes Professor Genovese, “creates a believable Nat Turner, although by no means the only possible one.” He is on both counts wrong. Styron’s Nat Turner is not credible, psychologically or historically in terms of what is known about him and his life. But he is, sadly enough, the only one that could have possibly emerged from the framework out of which Styron and Genovese operate. That is to say he is the creature of whiteness, stereotyped perceptions, and racial clichés, and from that vast body of historical interpretation from which neither Styron nor Genovese seems able to extricate himself. For example, Professor Genovese’s comment, given almost in passing, that “…historians have done little work on…slaves, drivers, preachers, and particularly field slaves…” is illuminating and ironic. This glaring omission in the historical literature is precisely the point. Since he obviously depended exclusively on the literature Styron was unable to create a character who was both field slave and creature and the novel is eloquent testimony to the deficiency of this particular literary historical tradition. Thus I have undertaken to defend the historicity of this novel—which as we remember, alleges to render the sensibilities and perceptions of a black slave—Professor Genovese is also attempting to defend as coherent a historical tradition which is by his own admission incomplete in a most crucial area. But Professor Genovese’s rigidity is understandable. Evidence and materials concerning the slave culture and world view, although largely ignored, do exist. And it is the responsibility of the black scholar of this generation to pull out, articulate, and define the form and meaning of that past in ways that have never been done. This is our particular responsibility since we appear to have the freedom to do this and have it recognized—which was denied to other generations of black men. And as this is done—and it does not entail, as some people have implied, the formulation of vulgar and reductive myths and stereotypes since blacks have nothing to fear from the past—it will mean that many of the most cherished shibboleths of white scholarship will have to be reexamined. For it is true that many of the currently fashionable and orthodox notions about slavery and black people are simply the view from the great house one generation removed. Black people have nothing to lose or fear from a hard unsentimental reexamination of the American past and a loosening of the cramped and limited intellectual structures into which all history and reality have been stifled.
University of Massachusetts
Eugene D Genovese replies:
If it will help to restore Miss Wells’s confidence in historians, I should like to make a confession. As a historian I believe that the evidence indicates that Nat Turner did have a black wife. My point was simply that there is room for doubt, especially about her importance in his life, and that, therefore, a novelist has room for an imaginative reconstruction. Many of Styron’s critics refuse to recognize that a novel is a novel—even a historical novel is. The demand for historical exactness, if yielded to, would reduce every novel about historical figures to political hack work, which is invariably bad politics as well as bad art. On this and related matters I refer readers to Styron’s reply to Herbert Aptheker in The Nation—the item Miss Wells cites—as well as to the work of Georg Lukacs, to which Styron himself refers. Tomorrow, someone may close the debate and prove, beyond all doubt, that Turner had a wife and that she played an important role in his life. Whatever theories may follow from this disclosure, I do not see its significance to an evaluation of Styron’s novel.
Miss Wells writes of “Professor Genovese’s contention that black Americans should be grateful to Styron…” Had I in fact written such words I would deserve her rebuke. I wrote not of black Americans, but of Americans, white and black, who are committed to racial equality; I wrote not of “gratitude,” but of “approval.” I fail to see how Miss Wells could translate my words into those she has attributed to me—or how she could possibly think that the two statements have anything essential in common.
Mr. Thelwell was one of the two writers—the other being Professor Harding—whose contributions to William Styron’s Nat Turner; 10 Black Writers Respond, I described as intellectually responsible and valuable. In his essay as well as in his letter he attacks Styron on aesthetic grounds; he is right in saying that social values, ways of thought, and a generally racist historiography have conditioned everyone’s aesthetic sensibilities on this subject. But suppose we accept his argument about Styron’s book? Styron would then be judged to have written a bad novel not because he lacks talent but because he has let himself be imprisoned by certain historical sources and community attitudes. Since he clearly set out in an anti-racist spirit to avoid this, his failure would be an ironic as well as a tragic one. The main points of the contention are, however, that Styron is a racist, a deliberate falsifier of history, a moral degenerate, and an apologist for slavery. As I emphasized in my review, Thelwell and Harding make no such charges and do contribute to serious discussion, but they are associated, by their own choice and for their own reasons, with those who do.
THELWELL and Harding charge that I ignore the real black history while concerning myself with a racist historiography. Thelwell classes me with those historians who see life from the vantage point of the great house one generation removed—a hell of an accusation to level against a man of working-class Italian-American origins and socialist politics. Harding wants to know what makes me a specialist in black history and specifically in black religion. Since I have been at work for many years on a book on the life of the black slave, including his religious life, I am not sure how to interpret these charges. Since Harding and Thelwell know this and since they are serious men, I think it safe to assume that they are driving at something other than a demand for formal credentials. The burden of their argument seems to me to be that white historians have been blind to black culture and sensibility—and they are unquestionably right. I shall therefore not attempt to defend my own credentials, nor reply to the charge that my work falls within their strictures. Perhaps we can then deal with some of the questions about black life, white racism, and historical writing which they so forcefully present.
Harding rebukes me for lecturing, exhorting, and admonishing black people, but with very few exceptions, I have never written a line specifically for black people. My historical writing is for those, black and white, who care to read it; my polemical writing, including the review under discussion, is primarily aimed at the white Left and potential-Left. When I characterized certain tendencies in the black liberation movement, it was not to offer advice to black people, for only a fool these days does not know that black people have had quite enough of that kind of thing. I do not tell blacks what their movement ought to think and do and am not soliciting advice on what my own white Left movement, feeble as it is at present, ought to think and do. I did, it is true, make a statement about what the black movement—I should have said, certain important sections of it—demands from its intellectuals, but the evidence for my remarks rings in our ears every day. The urge to admonish, lecture, and “educate” one another is not, I fear, limited to whites.
In their increasingly harsh polemics, Thelwell and Harding—as well as Cruse, Stuckey, and other black intellectuals—have been making important claims: that much history has been written with a class and race bias; that black people have left their own kinds of historical evidence, which every honest historian must take into account; that to write history without its cultural dimension is to write superficial and misleading history; and that a rising generation of black intellectuals, for a variety of reasons, is able to see these things more clearly than most whites seem to be able to do. Harding points out, in his handsome tribute to his predecessors, that previous generations of black scholars fought manfully, in the face of the indifference and viciousness of the white intelligentsia, to make these points. (When he calls the record “shoddy,” he exercises unnecessary restraint: The record is not shoddy; it is criminal.) Harding and Thelwell seem to think that my agreement with Styron on many historical matters proves me guilty of ignoring black sources and of being blind to black sensibilities. Surely, other conclusions are possible.
I did by-pass Harding’s illuminating work on black religion and Thelwell’s useful suggestions for the study of black culture, but I did so only because their relevance to Styron’s novel, in my opinion, remains to be established. I did not, and do not, question the general value of their work on a wide range of matters. As a matter of fact, the value of their insights far transcends questions of black history. The indifference of white historians to black history and culture has been only a special case of a more general bias—a class bias. As Professors Herbert Gutman and Jesse Lemisch have been demonstrating, historians have been blind to the life of the white lower classes as well. A pervasive racism has added a special quality to the application of this class bias to black history, but the problem has been a general one, as Cruse, for example, has convincingly argued. Far from wishing to slight the tremendous achievement of young black intellectuals in forcing these questions into the open, I firmly believe that their work is helping to revolutionize American history as a whole, not just black history. My argument with Thelwell and Harding is that they have picked the wrong terrain and have seriously undermined their important message by framing it in what I frankly think to be an irresponsible attack on a novelist who does not deserve it.
The trouble, from my point of view, comes from their insistence that Styron intended to explain the “black mind” (whatever that may be). I suppose that some of Styron’s enthusiastic and even self-serving white critics have said such silly things, but I doubt that Styron has. Even if he has, or does, it would still have nothing to do with the novel he wrote. I assume that Styron, like any serious writer, was trying to make a statement about a number of human problems by using a particular historical incident as a focus. To do so he had to reconstruct the people involved, most of whom were black, and had to speak through them. For doing so, he has been denounced as presumptuous and worse, but he is no more guilty than, say, Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin, for speaking, when they choose to, through white characters. No one would—or at least no one should—think of accusing them of trying to explain the “white mind.” The question, then, is: Does Styron make his characters believable as black men, as slaves, as rebels, and as human beings?
In my reading of the novel I find the hatred, slowly and ominously building up, that Harding demands and cannot find; I find the dignity and heroism that many of Styron’s black critics do not find; I find the triumph of black humanity that some others seem to think is denied. I do not find the deep grasp of black religion and its social role that Harding wants and that might well have been an important part of Nat Turner’s life. This may or may not be a major criticism of a novel. For myself, I think the novel did many things superbly, and there is a limit to what ought to be asked of a single work. But, surely, there ought to be room for diversity of opinion among literary critics and laymen on these and other matters. It is not useful—and in fact, it is harmful—to wage a necessary fight for an understanding of black culture by waging a bitter ideological war against an honest writer who has offered us his understanding, his reconstruction, his sensibility toward one way of looking at the past and present. If Styron’s novel suffers from insensitivity to some important aspects of black life, I see no reason to assume that he would close himself to criticism from those who present their ideas in a constructive spirit, and without personal attacks and impossible demands on the novel as an art form. If Styron’s novel is used by racists or others for their own purposes, he is not automatically responsible, and I suspect that even the work of Harding, or Thelwell, or myself could be used for such purposes by people who insist on reading things to suit their own prejudices.
IF WE LEAVE ASIDE the obscurantist assaults—those that explicitly or implicitly deny that a white historian could or should try to understand black history and culture—we may be able to face other problems. A black man today, no matter how oppressed or close to his own people, is not a slave, and there is a class as well as a racial distinction here. No one can reconstruct precisely the slave condition. A common body of experience, traditions, and historically conditioned sensibilities tie together black people, past and present, and that alone makes it essential for white historians to listen to what black historians have to say. But historical reconstruction requires many viewpoints and many kinds of ideological, ethnic, and class preconditioning, for objectivity is impossible. The trouble with the old white historiography was not that it presented the view from the great house but that that was all it did. To write a history of slavery without sympathetic attention to the master class—which need hardly imply approval—would be to repeat all the old mistakes in another, if more politically acceptable, form. For this reason, among many others, white historians need to hear what black historians have to say about the masters, as well as the slaves, and the occasional, brilliant excursions by Dr. Du Bois in this subject provide a good indication of how much our understanding may be enriched.
So with a novel, sociologically considered. By definition, Styron’s understanding has to be partial, but even if it were shown to be wholly wrong, the answer to it would not be a violent attack on his integrity, but a better novel by a better artist. I think The Confessions of Nat Turner is a fine novel, which provides valuable insights into many perplexing historical questions, but I am prepared to believe that another novel could some day offer more.
I confess to taking a perverse delight in Thelwell’s rebuke on the matter of my knowledge of drivers, house slaves, field hands, et al. White writers, he and Harding assert, have ignored these people. Yes, but so have black writers. Harding and Miss Wells are kind enough to offer me reading lists; I appreciate the gesture but have read these and a few other books besides. When my book on the black slave is finished, it will contain extensive discussions of these and other slaves, and in constructing the portraits I have had little help from previous historians, white or black. But Thelwell and Harding are right in thinking that various kinds of sources, largely untapped at least in part for racist reasons, are helping a good deal. I only ask that they take these particular complaints elsewhere. If my book is poor, it will be the result of a failure of talent, not of indifference to or contempt for the story black people have been trying to tell the world. From the vantage point of this research I defended Styron against the charge of historical falsification by reference to facts that are yet to be challenged by his critics or mine.
When I wrote of the legacy of Nat Turner and his revolt, I did not say that no story existed in the living experience of black people. My point was that, whereas Palmares, the Jamaican maroons, or the astonishing drama of Haiti lived in the popular mind in such a way as to inspire other revolts and mass movements, Nat Turner’s revolt left only a whisper. That whisper has been important, and black people today, thanks to the older men cited by Harding and thanks to Harding, Thelwell, and many others, are transforming that whisper into a battle cry. Nothing in American life today offers so much hope for our country and the world, and I in no way meant to slight it. But it has been a long, painful struggle to keep that tradition alive and to establish its political power. Black people have largely done it themselves, but some whites have done what they could. William Styron, I believe, is one of them.
November 7, 1968