The recent movie called A Birth of a Nation, directed by Nate Parker, is about the unsuccessful slave rebellion led by Nat Turner on August 21, 1831. I haven’t seen the movie yet but it gives me an opportunity to recommend a historical novel I read years ago, The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1967.
Styron’s novel was loosely based on a “Confession” that Nat Turner gave lawyer Thomas Ruffin Grey while Turner waited for his execution. William Styron had grown up close to where the resurrection took place in Southampton, Virginia and was obsessed with the rebellion for many years.
The novel is basically Nat’ s confession to lawyer Thomas Grey. Turner was taught to read by one of his slave owners and later Nat became a preacher. Turner believed that God told him to plan an uprising against slave owners and had visions of a white angel and a black angel fighting. The resurrection was not successful though, despite Turner’s followers killing slave owners and eventually law enforcement found all the members of the revolt and put them on trial.
Styron’s book is very sympathetic towards Turner but the book was very controversial, especially in the African American community. James Baldwin, a close friend to Styron read the book and said, “Bill’s going to get it from all sides.” Baldwin was loyal and faithful to his fellow writer but the book was criticized in part with how nice Styron made some of the slave owners and passages where Turner indulged in rape fantasies, which are not acceptable in today’s climate. Some African Americans were outraged that a white man dared to tackle the subject.
Still, I think despite criticism, the book is still worth reading. William Styron was one of the best post-World War II writers of his generation. The book paints a complicated portrait of Nat Turner, a man of God who believed in violence as an end to a means. If you read this historical novel, you can actually follow up reading non-fictional accounts of Nat Turner’s uprising, to learn even more.
Before I stop talking about Styron, who is best known for writing Sophie’s Choice, I would like to encourage people to read his first novel, Lay Down in Darkness, published in 1951. It’s an excellent portrait of Peyton Loftier, a mentally unstable young woman who is very close to her father. The chapter where she has a nervous breakdown living in Manhattan is a tour de force of stream of consciousness.
I wanted to end this blog post talking about Bob Dylan winning this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Some people seem very angry about it. There are people who were hoping that Philip Roth or Haruki Murakami would win the Prize this year. I actually applaud the Committee’s bold move. In the past, the award sometimes goes to an obscure scribe in an obscure corner of the World. I am glad that they thought outside of the box this year. I’m not a huge fan of Bob Dylan’s music, especially his singing style, but there is no doubt that he is a great lyricist. His lyrics can be considered like poetry to many people.
I think this goes to changing what we consider to be literature. I can see that perhaps 15 or 20 years from now, with the gaining popularity of graphic novels, that a person who just writes in that genre might win the Prize. For purists, note that Dylan wrote one novel back in the 60’s called Tarantula. I hope it will come back to print because of the win. And let’s face it, this is the first time in decades that people have ever talked about the winner for the Literature Prize. Isn’t that a good thing?
As always. leave your thoughts on either The Confessions of Nat Turner or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. Next month this blog turns one year old and I will discuss my feelings about it in the next post.