When The Confessions of Nat Turner first appeared, it was acclaimed as breakthrough both in fiction and in race relations. A white southerner, steeped in the history of his region, had boldly entered the mind of a black slave, according him the dignity of an articulate voice and making him into a modern hero. Certainly, Styron’s Turner is cruel in his taking of close to sixty lives, but he is nevertheless the poet of the aspirations of a people. Early reviews lauded the language and the sympathy with which Styron presented the story.
Soon, though, a group of African American writers attacked the book, accusing Styron of distorting history, of co-opting their hero, and of demeaning Turner by endowing him with love for one of his victims, a young white woman. These critics saw Styron as usurping their history, much as white people had usurped the labor and the very lives of their ancestors. They rejected the notion that a white southerner—or any white person, for that matter—could fathom the mind of a slave.
Styron defended himself admirably, for he had made a close reading of the historical record and knew exactly where he was taking liberties with history, and he was supported by several historians. Less defensible, or at least problematic, was his decision to endow Turner with a contemporary imagination. Turner does speak in the accents of nineteenth century Virginia; he thinks very much like Styron. Yet even this seeming...
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