Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner
by William Styron
read: 2013
Time 100 NovelsPulitzer Prize

I read William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner as the first book in a series of four I'm going to read this February for Black History Month. It's a curious choice, because it has something of a reputation for being a racist work. Nat Turner was a real figure in history, a slave who led a revolt in Virginia in 1831, resulting in the death of 55 whites (and more than twice as many blacks in retribution). "The Confessions of Nat Turner" is the official court document where Turner describes the planning and execution of the uprising and many of the scant biographical details we know today. Styron writes his novel from Turner's perspective, but, as he writes in the prefacing Author's Note, allows himself "the utmost freedom of imagination" in filling in the gaps in the story and Turner's life. It's a work of fiction, not history. The liberties he took have led to the novel's unsavory reputation in some circles.

Styron admits, in an afterword to the version I read, "Most people were, and are, racist to some degree but at least my racism was not conventional; I wanted to confront and understand blackness." I'm not qualified to answer the question of whether Styron succeeded in his goal - even Styron admits, "... [M]y stranger's perspective might not always ring true to black people" - but I tend to believe that he did not intend Confessions to malign or mis-represent African-Americans. Styron's view of Turner probably is wrong, certainly is incomplete, and is certainly influenced by Styron's whiteness, but this isn't because of racism; it's because "the very fact of a person's otherness to you means there is always something fundamentally hidden about them."

The article in Ebony linked above (an excerpt from a book most recently published as The Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner) suggests Styron wrote the book to paint blacks as dumb, subservient, and degenerate, and Turner himself as an impotent and ineffectual leader. Styron is taking liberties with some of his characterizations, but often they are in the service of showing the evils of slavery. Turner is disgusted at the way Hark submits to the whites, but notes that "the unctuous coating of flattery" is there to disguise a hidden anger. Slavery was evil, and one of its evils was to repress blacks, socially, spiritually, intellectually, even morally. The characters in Confessions are flawed, but their flaws can be read largely as a product of the dysfunctional society surrounding them.

That said, some of Styron's liberties do put a bad taste in my mouth. In the afterword, Styron views Turner as "a dangerous religious lunatic," but he doesn't "want to write about a psychopathic monster," preferring to "demonstrate subtler motives" and "moderate this aspect of his character." This is a fine line to walk. Artistically, he can do whatever he wants, but the very need to moderate and make more subtle strikes me as part of what distances Styron from the black community critical of the book. There are those for whom the scars of racism are fresher, the rage more justified, and Turner's actions are heroic. Turner himself does not show the regret Styron attributes to him, entering a plea of "not guilty" because he says he feels no guilt.

Finally, the imagined relationship between Turner and Margaret Whitehead, the only victim he personally dispatched, is a real stretch. Styron notes that Turner does not mention a wife in his confessions and attributes a pious celibacy to him, assuming an absence of evidence to be an evidence of absence. Styron's Turner finds love, grace, and repentance in Whitehead, though their relationship cannot be consummated (or even acknowledged) in this world. Styron himself says of his representation of the Turner / Whitehead relationship:
No decision I made shows so well the pitfalls waiting for the historical novelist who, however well-intentioned, creates a situation or concept repugnant to idealogues; at the same time, nothing so deftly illustrates the invincible right of the novelist to manipulate historical fact and pursue his intuition concerning that fact to its artistically logical conclusion.
What exactly is an "artistically logical conclusion?" In a sense, fiction is "truer" than non-fiction, because a fiction can be completely true within its imagined world and non-fiction always has to answer to the reality of this one. Styron is writing a world that may be true to itself, but its relationship to this one is dubious. Is that bold, artistic, dishonest, offensive? Probably some of each.