To read them is to enter a kind of literary rapture. Antebellum slavery is on many minds—its sins and crimes, its irreducible impact, its consequences that divide us to this day, evident in the recent bloodshed in Ferguson and Baltimore, Dallas and Baton Rouge, and in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Turner's Revolt, Nat ()
Every week, it seems, another headline screams at us: the Confederate flags at last removed from southern statehouses after the mass murder of African-American churchgoers in Charleston; the Jesuit founders of Georgetown University who paid off their debts by sending slaves, including infants, to hellish plantations in the Deep South; the battles over John C. At 36, Parker is one year older than Styron was when he began work on his novel in But this harsh judgment rests on an ineradicable truth.
This was the reason for its initial praise—from black readers as well as white. But it also became the reason for the startling reversal of fortune that followed.
Today the furor over The Confessions of Nat Turner is more relevant than ever. The questions Styron struggled with continue to provoke us. Who gets to tell which stories—and why? Is artistic license a hallowed precept or a stale presumption? Bill Styron learned the answers in the most direct and painful way. The idea had haunted Styron since he was a teenager and saw a sign on Route 58 in Virginia.
Wielding axes and swords, farm tools and muskets, Turner and his followers butchered the residents of 20 households across the choked wetlands, leaving 57 corpses, many the remains of women and children, some slaughtered in their beds. After two days, as the insurgents closed in on the county seat, Jerusalem later renamed Courtland , they were met by a waiting and well-armed militia. It was the nightmare that had long vexed the South: field hands suddenly grabbing their implements and turning on their masters.
And when that fear became fact, it unleashed an orgy of retaliatory carnage. Vigilantes killed as many as black men and women, some tortured, mutilated, decapitated. At least one head was mounted on a stake as a gruesome totem—and warning. A local road still retains the ignominious name: Blackheads Signpost.
Turner himself, captured after a two-month search, might have been erased from history. But Thomas Gray, a mysterious Baltimore lawyer, had visited him in his prison cell and made a record of their exchanges.
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He had mastered the Bible and sounded himself like an Old Testament prophet. Within days, Turner was hanged and dismembered. But he had challenged slavery in a way that foretold its doom. After the revolt, the Virginia legislature seriously debated abolishing slavery. The measure was defeated and, instead, slave states tightened their regimes, which only fed the growing protests of those convinced that slavery was a moral stain on the Republic.
It was in a similar spirit that Styron, active in liberal causes and Democratic politics throughout the s, supposed he might reconstitute the mind-set of a black man from the s. Styron, that September, had just begun to immerse himself in his background reading when his wife, Rose, picked up the phone. Styron offered Baldwin his guesthouse, a small barn, which was near the main house with an arbor in between.
For the next eight months, off and on, Baldwin stayed with the Styrons and their three small children, working on his novel Another Country. The three would retreat to the living room in the back of the house, with its high ceiling, stucco walls, and glass doors.
Both were talkers, though of different sorts: Styron was a raconteur, deliberate, measured, almost diffident, as he carefully shaped his phrases, pausing between thoughts; Baldwin, bristling with nervous energy, had blazing dark eyes and a silken voice roughened by the booze and the Marlboros.
It was more friendship than literary partnership. We sang songs, drank a little too much, and on occasion chatted with the people who were dropping in to see us. This history brought them closer together by the calculus of high liberal optimism in the early 60s when civil rights had become not just an issue or a cause but a call to ennoblement.
10 Things You May Not Know About Nat Turner’s Rebellion
Baldwin was months away from going to Chicago for a rare interview with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, and then writing about it in his great book of essays The Fire Next Time , with its warning that white America had much to answer for. It was a prodigious leap. Midcentury artists were intellectual free agents, who could steal whatever they found. Examples were rife and extreme. The hothouse flower Tennessee Williams had created the feral, brutish Stanley Kowalski. Baldwin himself peopled his books with narrators who crossed racial and sexual boundaries.
And yet for Styron the risks were higher. Great writers like Melville and Faulkner had tried, but from a distance. In April , the Kennedys invited Nobel laureates and other V. Baldwin and Styron, two promising writers in their mids, were in attendance. Jackie leaned over and told Rose to expect a visit on the Vineyard that summer.
The talk turned to politics. He told the president about Nat Turner. The following year, , civil-rights marches spread throughout the South. There were tense showdowns in Birmingham, the authorities turning fire hoses on protesters and children while the TV cameras rolled.
Over a week period there were demonstrations in cities, capped by the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. One night the Styrons, Jack, and Jackie found themselves at a party at J.
Nat Turner Essay
Many of the guests were theater people. The president and the Styrons made eye contact. Kennedy flattered the couple with teasing blarney. That was Friday, November 8.
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Two weeks later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The previous summer, Styron had begun. He nudged a No. The most methodical of novelists, he demanded utter silence, even with small children in the house. He had a stone wall built in front to try to muffle the noise of passing vehicles, according to his daughter Alexandra in her memoir, Reading My Father. His pattern was all but inviolate. Up at noon, leisurely lunch or brunch with Rose. Once he was done he tinkered very little.
Roxbury was becoming a hub for artists and writers. On occasion, Styron, an animated reader, pulled out pages of Nat Turner , and Loomis, having driven up from 11th Street, in the Village, heard much of the novel in progress. He was represented by lawyer Thomas R. Gray, who wrote down Turner's confession.
Turner pled not guilty during his trial, believing that his rebellion was the work of God. He was sentenced to death by hanging, and this sentence was carried out on November 11, Many of his co-conspirators met the same fate. The incident put fear in the heart of Southerners, ending the organized emancipation movement in that region.
Southern states enacted even harsher laws against slaves instead. Turner's actions also added fuel to the abolitionist movement in the North.