Friday marks the 189th anniversary of the start of Nat Turner's rebellion, a four-day slave insurrection in 1831 that killed 60 white people in rural Southampton County, Va.
White novelist and Virginia native William Styron in 1967 published "The Confessions of Nat Turner," narrated by Turner, the revolt's leader.
Styron imagined much of Turner's character and the bloody events of the uprising, having little historical documentation beyond Turner's own confession in 1831 to prosecuting attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray, published a few years later as "The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va."
While Styron's book won the Pulitzer Prize and initially received acclaim from predominantly white critics, black intellectuals protested his depiction of Turner, the blacks who joined the rebellion and white slave owners. They claimed that Turner was a heroic black figure and that Styron reduced him to a cultural stereotype. Styron indignantly responded that Turner was virtually unknown, even among the black community, and that as a novelist he had the right to re-imagine historical events.
The black anger culminated in the 1968 book "William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond." In Styron's "This Quiet Dust," a 1982 collection of his non-fiction writing, the author said that his book "was the first novel in the long annals of American publishing to evoke such an immediate, entirely hostile attack."
Such attacks have become more frequent in recent years, with authors accused of cultural expropriation if they imagine characters of a different race, gender or sexual orientation. Styron's daughter, Alexandra, in a recent Atlantic essay compared the outrage over her father's book with that engendered recently by the publication of Jeanine Cummins' "American Dirt."
In the essay, Alexandra Styron wondered if her father's book would even be published in today's cultural climate. She concluded that it would be, if written by a major author such as her father. But a little-known writer likely would be censored.
She points out that William Styron's close friend James Baldwin encouraged him to write the book and assume the voice of Nat Turner. Ralph Ellison also praised the book, as did black historian John Hope Franklin in a review in the Chicago Tribune, the only one written by a black writer in the thousands of newspapers that then existed.
Historian Eugene D. Genovese's defense of "The Confessions of Nat Turner" in The New York Review of Books ended the attacks on "The Confessions of Nat Turner." The Marxist historian was known for his examination of slave life, "Roll Jordan Roll, The World the Slaves Made."
It must be admitted that the defense of Styron in a review revered among his intellectual circle looks like a closing of the ranks. While leftist, The New York Review was an organ of mostly white New York intellectuals who despite their liberal views on race closed their doors to many black writers.
Alexandra Styron admits her father' lack of humility in battling his critics. He felt the need to justify "The Confessions of Nat Turner" 15 years later in "This Quiet Dust." The title article, first published in Harper's magazine in 1965, tells about his visiting Southampton County in an effort to retrace Nat Turner's path. He republished the essay to counter black claims that he did insufficient historical research for the book.
The essay, which captures Southern whites' condescension toward blacks, shows Styron at his best.
After fruitless attempts to find surviving signs of the insurrection, Styron comes upon the ruins of the house he believes to be that of Margaret Whitehead, the only white directly killed by Turner. One of the black intellectuals' most heated criticisms of Styron was his imagined flirtation between Whitehead and Turner.
In the novel, Turner reluctantly murders her at the instigation of another slave seeking to take over leadership of the revolt. Another violent black stereotype, the critics said.
Styron went on to write "Sophie's Choice." Although Harold Bloom accused Styron of antisemitism, the book escaped the controversy stirred by Nat Turner and gained widespread popularity, one of the last "literary" American novels that united the country's readership.
Supported by Henry Louis Gates and Spike Lee, and buoyed by Styron's enduring posthumous reputation, "The Confessions of Nat Turner" retains a strong readership, although it's generally avoided on high school and college curricula.
No doubt overly sensitive college students would object to its inclusion on class reading lists. Soon, no books will be acceptable, and English classes will be extinct.
"The Confessions of Nat Turner" drew the first shots in a cultural war that fully rages today.