Revisiting William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner:

Fifty Years Later

Editor: Michael Lackey

The University of Virginia Press has expressed interest in publishing a collection of essays commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was published in 1967.  So that the book can be published in 2017, essays of 6,000 to 10,000 words must be submitted no later than 15 February 2016 to Michael Lackey (lacke010@umn.edu).  Please use the UVA Press’s style and guide sheet for formatting your submission (http://www.upress.virginia.edu/information-for-authors/current-authors/guide-to-manuscript-preparation/#style).  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.  Below is a fuller description of the project. 

We are approaching the fiftieth anniversary (2017) of the publication of Styron’s novel about Nat Turner, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.  Given the controversy this book occasioned, an edited collection commemorating it would certainly be in order.  But there are other compelling reasons why it would be valuable to have a high-level conversation about this work.  Published in 1967, Styron’s novel did not just feature ideas and issues that have become dominant in recent years.  His work in part contributed to the making of our current critical and aesthetic sensibility. 

For instance, after the novel was published, ten black writers responded by viciously criticizing Styron and his work.  Five of the writers specifically condemned Styron for having his Nat Turner have a homosexual experience. Taken as a given in this critique is the belief that homosexuality signifies something negative—it undermines Turner’s heroism, character, masculinity, and rebellion.  Based on all the developments in queer theory over the last thirty years, however, we no longer see homosexuality as necessarily signifying something negative.  To the contrary, it is now oftentimes interpreted in positive terms.  Given this fact, how would contemporary studies about The Confessions of Nat Turner shed new light not just on the novel, but also on shifting assumptions about literature, culture, and criticism? Such is one of the major questions that scholars could answer in this volume. 

But there are even more pressing aesthetic questions critics should address in such a volume.  In recent years, there has been growing scholarly interest in the biographical novel, a literary form that names its protagonist after an actual historical figure.  When The Confessions of Nat Turner was first published, Ralph Ellison faulted Styron for naming his protagonist after an actual person.  His argument was that it is best to change the character’s name so that the author could use the protagonist as a literary symbol that would function to critique the culture and polity.  For Ellison, if an author names its protagonist after an actual person, this would make the main character too historically specific and thus make it impossible for the author to use the protagonist as a symbol for critiquing the culture and the polity.  Given the obsession with biofiction over the last thirty years, it appears that contemporary writers side with Styron rather than Ellison. 

But this development raises this question: to what degree did Styron’s novel create the conditions for the current explosion in biographical novels?  There were, to be sure, some important biographical novels before 1967, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels, Arna Bontemps’ Black Thunder, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain.  But it is only since the 1970s that the literary form has come to dominate—Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Burr, Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Sally Hemings, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Colum McCann’s The Dancer, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall are just a few works that have received critical acclaim. Since Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner was one of the first biographical novels to win major literary awards, is he responsible for determining the texture of the contemporary aesthetic form?  If so, what is the nature of his impact?  These are questions that need to be answered.

There has also been a major shift in race studies, which heavily impacts our understanding of Styron and his novel.  Styron’s novel was published just as the black separatist and Black Power movements were gaining momentum.  But not all black intellectuals supported these movements.  Indeed, there was a number of high-profile blacks, including Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Clark, Phyllis Wallace, John Hope Franklin, St. Clair Drake, Adelaide C. Hill, and J. Saunders Redding, who were making the case for integration as the best way to bring about racial healing and justice.  These black intellectuals belonged to the Haverford Group, and the University of Virginia Press has recently published their 1969 discussion (The Haverford Discussions), which clearly documents their opposition to black separatism and outlines their integrationist political agenda.  As integrationists, the members of the Haverford Group were frequently dubbed conservatives by many black separatists.  But the members of the group considered themselves progressives, who were pressuring the United States to live up to the integrationist ideals implicit in the country’s founding documents.  Styron was friends with two Haverford Group members (Ralph Ellison and J. Saunders Redding), and Redding helped Styron do research for his novel about Turner.  This is important, because while many prominent black separatists accused Styron of being racist, they also characterized many black integrationists as race traitors.  Now that we have rejected the separatist ideology and have embraced the integrationist approach, we can see the Haverford Group in a very different light.  Do the shift in ideology and the recent work on the Haverford Group enable us to see Styron and his novel in an equally different way?  This is a question worth answering. It is important to note, however, that this volume is not intended to be a hagiography.  Some contemporary scholars will most certainly have some objections to Styron’s novel, and we welcome such submissions for this volume. The goal of this volume is simply this: to focus on the way developments in history, literature, and theory have altered our understanding and experience of Styron’s controversial novel and how Styron’s novel contributed to our current sensibilities about history, literature, culture, and theory.

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