A literary anniversary passed unobserved in 2017: the 50th anniversary of the publication of William Styron’s enthralling historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which tells the story of the slave who led a bloody rebellion in Virginia. While Vintage International’s 25th anniversary edition remains in print, the publisher hasn’t offered an edition honoring the book’s 50th year, and to my knowledge, no commemorative articles have appeared.
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My guess is that the nonobservance springs from reluctance to get embroiled in a replay of the controversy that erupted soon after the novel appeared. The Confessions of Nat Turner was celebrated when it was published in 1967—a Pulitzer Prize winner and Book of the Month Club selection, it made the New York Times bestseller list and scored a movie deal with Twentieth Century Fox. But Styron was soon condemned by black intellectuals for an offense more broadly condemned in 2017 than in 1967: a white novelist and native of Virginia, he had presumed to write historical fiction in the first person about a real human being who had been a rebellious black slave. He even had the temerity to lift his title from the original “Confessions of Nat Turner,” the brief document based on statements by Turner that white lawyer Thomas Gray recorded shortly before Turner was hanged in 1831, at about the age of 31.
The attacks on Styron in the late 1960s sound like a prelude to what we often hear and read half a century later. Less than a year after the novel appeared, Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, a collection of essays in which the novelist was called “an unreconstructed Southern racist” suffering from “moral senility” who “dehumanizes every black person in the book” to affirm “all of the myths and prejudices about the American black man.” The attacks prompted Invisible Man novelist Ralph Ellison to declare that he wouldn’t read the novel.
In his afterword to the 25th anniversary edition, Styron recalls that he naively persisted in making public appearances before “predominantly young black audiences” to plead his case. The encounters often turned out to be “raucous sessions, where the gathering was drenched with hostility.” Styron adds that “[b]y this time, I was being stalked from Boston to New Orleans by a young dashiki-clad firebrand, who unnerved me.” Twentieth Century Fox shelved plans for the film.
“The ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction,” novelist Lionel Shriver warned last year in a speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival. She put on a sombrero during the speech to demonstrate that novelists were being warned by SJWs that “you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”
Naturally, she was crucified by the left for telling the truth.