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The Return of Nat Turner in Sixties America

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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One of the less publicized public events of that annus mirabilis 1968 was the annual meeting in November of a venerable academic institution, the Southern Historical Association. Convened in New Orleans was a group of intellectuals knit together by, among other professional ties, a common preoccupation with the Southern past. Prominent among these was C. Vann Woodward of Yale, arguably America's most eminent historian of the South. Also present were three famous novelists: Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison, and William Styron. All native-born Southerners (if Oklahoma City, Ellison's birthplace, qualifies as a Southern city), they were there as participants in a panel, chaired by Woodward, on “The Uses of History in Fiction.” The session took place on November 6, the day after the election of Richard Nixon and seven months and two days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was probably the liveliest, best-attended event of an otherwise staid meeting of professors. Much of the interest was generated by the topic and the distinguished panelists, but additional electricity was contributed by a cluster of young blacks in the audience. As passionately interested in the subject as were those on the platform, they were in attendance chiefly to question and challenge Styron. It was his use of history in fiction upon which much of the evening's discussion devolved.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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1. “The Uses of History in Fiction,” Southern Literary Journal 1 (Spring 1969): 5890Google Scholar. Parenthetical references hereafter are to this source.

2. Styron, William, The Confessions of Nat Turner (New York: Random House, 1967)Google Scholar, paperback edition (New York: New American Library, 1968).

3. Publisher's Weekly, 07 31, 1967, 53.Google Scholar

4. Newsweek, 10 16, 1967Google Scholar, cover story by R. A. Sokolov, 65–69. Book reviews: Boston, Christian Science Monitor, 10 12, 1967, 5Google Scholar; Charleston, S.C., News and Courier, 12 31, 1967, 2-DGoogle Scholar; Indianapolis News, October 21, 1967, 3; Fresno Bee, November 12, 1967, F-16.

5. Time Magazine, 10 13, 1967, 110.Google Scholar

6. Woodward, C. Vann, “Confessions of a Rebel: 1831,” New Republic, 10 7, 1967, 28.Google Scholar

7. Duberman, Martin, New York Times Book Review, 08 11, 1968, 37.Google Scholar

8. Sheed, Wilfred, New York Times, 10 8, 1967, 13Google Scholar; Murray, Albert, New Leader, 12 4, 1967, 1821Google Scholar; Blackwood's (08 1968): 191192.Google Scholar

9. Clarke, John Henry, ed., William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, (Boston: Beacon, 1968)Google Scholar. Contributors include Lerone Bennett, Jr.; Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D.; Vincent Harding; John Oliver Killens; John A. Williams; Ernest Kaiser; Loyle Hairston; Charles V. Hamilton; Mike Thelwell. Hereafter cited as Ten Black Writers Respond.

10. The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va., As Fully and Voluntarily Made to Thomas R. Gray … (Baltimore: Lucas & Deaver, 1831)Google Scholar; reprinted in Clarke, , Ten Black Writers Respond, pp. 92117.Google Scholar

11. See Tragle, Henry Irving, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971), esp. pp. 398414.Google Scholar

12. For information on the projected filming of The Confessions of Nat Turner, see Tragle, Henry I., Richmond Times-Dispatch, 02 12, 1970Google Scholar, A-14, and Bob Brickhouse in the same newspaper, April 15, 1971, A-1, 2.

13. For descriptions and examples of this approach see Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973)Google Scholar; Goffman, Erving, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1959)Google Scholar; and Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961).Google Scholar

14. Brown, Richard H., “Social Reality as Text: The Analysis of Interactions, Institutions, and Politics as Language,”Google Scholar paper delivered at the Rhetoric of the Human Sciences Symposium, University of Iowa, March 30, 1984, p. 8.

15. On this point, see also Gayle, Addison Jr., “Cultural Hegemony: The Southern White Writer and American Letters,” in Williams, John A. and Harris, Charles F., eds., Amistad-I (New York: Random House, 1970), pp. 324.Google Scholar

16. See Stowe, H. B., Dred, A Tale of the Dismal Swamp (Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co., 1856)Google Scholar; James, G. P. R., The Old Dominion; or, the Southampton Massacre (New York: Harper, 1855)Google Scholar; Johnston, Mary, Prisoners of Hope: A Tale of Colonial Virginia (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1899)Google Scholar; Bontemps, Arna, Black Thunder (New York: Macmillan, 1936; rpt. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968)Google Scholar; Panger, Daniel, Ol' Prophet Nat (Winston-Salem, N.C.: J. F. Blair, 1967)Google Scholar; Hayden, Robert E., “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” in Selected Poems (New York: October House, 1966), pp. 7274Google Scholar; Edmonds, Randolph, “Nat Turner,” in Six Plays for a Negro Theatre (Boston: Walter H. Baker, 1934)Google Scholar; and Peters, Paul, “Nat Turner,” in Cross Sections: A Collection of New American Writing (New York: L. B. Fischer, 1944).Google Scholar

17. Bennett, T., “Texts, Readers, Reading Formations,” Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association (Spring 1983): 317Google Scholar. Parenthetical citations are to this source.

18. See Warren, R. P., “William Styron,” Book-of-the-Month Club News (10 1967): 67, 14.Google Scholar

19. See the New York Amsterdam News, 09 2, 1967, 7Google Scholar, and columns by Wilson, Gertrude, “Confessions of a Believer,” 10 21, 1967Google Scholar, and “Styron's Folly,” 12 30, 1967, 13Google Scholar. See also columns by White, Poppy Cannon, “Confessions of Nat Turner,” 11 25, 1967, 15Google Scholar, and “‘The African’ vs. Nat Turner,” 12 9, 1967, 17Google Scholar. See also Chicago Tribune-Washington Post Book World, 03 31, 1968, 11Google Scholar, for letters to the editor from Phyllis N. Braxton of Washington, D.C., and Robert J. Charles of Bridgeman, Michigan.

20. Smith, B. Herrenstein, “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories,” in Mitchell, W. J. T., ed., On Narrative (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 209–32Google Scholar. Parenthetical references hereafter are to this source.

21. Jameson, F., The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), p. 82Google Scholar. Parenthetical references hereafter are to this edition.

22. See Kauffman, S., “Styron's Unwritten Novel,” Hudson Review 20 (Winter 19671968): 675–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23. See Ratner, M., “Styron's Rebel,” American Quarterly 21 (Fall 1969): 595608.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24. Cf. Drewry, William S., The Southampton Insurrection (Washington: Neal Co., 1900)Google Scholar; Williams, George W., History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 …, 11th ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1882), vol. 2, pp. 8592Google Scholar; and Woodson, Carter G., The Negro in Our History (Washington, D.C.: Associated Publishers, 1966), pp. 9394.Google Scholar

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