Books Magazine

The Praise And Criticism Of William Styron

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

The Confessions of Nat Turner is just a fascinating novel.

The fact that it’s loosely based on a true story, the fact that a white man had a big enough pair to write this novel, and the fact that he received a ton of backlash for doing so, make this book full of intrigue.

Last week, I mentioned that William Styron, as a white author, attempts to get inside of the head of Nat Turner, an African American slave from the 1830s, a “character” who actually exists.

When the novel was released in 1968, The Confessions received a lot of praise. The novel was a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. Styron was even well received at a historically black college. He told The New York Times:

“I felt gratitude at their acceptance of me,” he wrote, “and, somehow more important, at my acceptance of them, as if my literary labors and my plunge into history had helped dissolve many of my preconceptions about race that had been my birthright as a Southerner.”

James Baldwin, the African-American author of Go Tell It On The Mountain, was a friend of Styron and praised the novel for having “begun to write the common history—ours.”

Not long after the book was published, however, all hell broke loose with race relations in America. MLK and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and riots broke out all over the country.

The New York Times explains some of the criticism the novel received soon thereafter:

In the broader African-American intellectual world, the novel was widely condemned. “Ten Black Writers Respond” has to be read in light of this history: as a polemic and corrective that introduced a spectrum of opinion mostly ignored in the mainstream press. “For all its prose power and somber earnestness,” Loyle Hairston wrote, “Styron’s novel utterly fails the simple test of honesty.” “This is meditation mired in misinterpretation,” Charles V. Hamilton wrote, “and this is history many . . . black people reject.” John Oliver Killens: “In terms of getting into the slave’s psyche and his idiom, it is a monumental failure.” The 10 writers — magazine editors, psychiatrists, librarians, academics — argue with Styron’s rejection of the historical record, his interpretation of Turner’s scriptural and religious inspirations, his use of African-American dialect and his invocation of inflammatory stereotypes in both black and white characters. The book’s tone at times echoes avant-garde manifestoes and agitprop pamphlets, but just as often it is pained, searching and evenhanded. Mike Thelwell wrote that “The Confessions” “demonstrates the persistence of . . . myths, racial stereotypes and literary clichés even in the best intentioned and most enlightened minds. . . . The real ‘history’ of Nat Turner, and indeed of black people, remains to be written.

As you can see, the critics on both sides of the argument about this novel are passionate.

In sum, the novel is either awesome or it’s racist. That seemed to be the message from critics. I’ll be reviewing Confessions next week (finally), so I won’t elaborate, but I will say this: I don’t believe the novel is racist, but I do believe Styron is a little loose with his representation of some of the slaves, especially Nat.

More next week!

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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