Styron's Nat: Or, the Metaphysics of Presence
Forthcoming (in condensed draft) in Critical Analysis of Law
41 Pages Posted: 23 Mar 2015
Date Written: March 21, 2015
In 1967, the American novelist, William Styron, published his third major work of fiction, a book entitled The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron’s Confessions represented itself as the autobiographical narrative of an African American slave, known as Nat Turner, who in August 1831 had led a slave revolt (the Turner Rebellion) in Southampton County Virginia, not far from the Virginia Tidewater region where Styron himself had grown up. Both Turner and the revolt that bore his name were real enough. But for Styron the Turner of record was “a person of conspicuous ghastliness” with whom he wished to have no connection. And so, claiming “a writer’s prerogative to transform Nat Turner into any kind of creature I wanted to transform him into,” Styron invented his own Nat, inspired by “subtler motives” than those manifested by the historical Turner. Why did the William Styron who had been obsessed by the story of Nat Turner since he was a boy make no attempt to comprehend the Turner whom he actually encountered in the sources he consulted (“I didn’t want to write about a psychopathic monster”)? Why “re-create” Turner in a persona that might be “better understood”? The answer seems to lie in what Styron represents as an act of self-expiation that is simultaneously an act of regional and even national expiation, an act that led him to claim that his Confessions was not a “historical novel” but a “meditation on history.” By re-creating Nat Turner and his motives, Styron seeks respite from American history’s bloody racial rampage in cathartic reconciliation with (through knowledge of) “the Negro.” The attempt was, of course, hopeless. Styron’s Nat is not a knowable Negro at all but the figment of an authorial imagination that, notwithstanding Styron’s insistence that he had respected “the known facts,” sedulously refused all of Turner’s own explanations of himself. Yet the attempt was neither uninfluential nor unimportant. As a published book Styron’s Confessions was a major commercial success. It became one of the principal channels through which white America, in the midst of its confrontation with civil rights agitators, Black Power, and the urban riots of 1967 and 1968, renewed its acquaintance with slavery and slave rebellion. It generated intense controversy within late 1960s academic and “public intellectual” circles. And it stimulated critical assessment of the novel’s fictive realities and their relationship to the representation of historical events. In this paper I ask what called Styron’s fictive realities into being, and how they were crafted. I ask what made his work a “meditation on history” – and why it failed. Finally, I ask whether it is possible to redeem Nat Turner from the effects of our attempts to “understand” him; whether, that is, he might achieve a historical presence of his own that is ever other than ghostly, or ever other than past.
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