Sad news about the death of William Styron, who died at the age of 81.
Styron was a singular talent. He'll be best known, and rightly so, for his novels Sophie's Choice and Lie Down in Darknes. He also wrote a remarkable memoir, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, but I think I'll remember best his controversial novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.
That novel, perhaps because it did win a 1967 Pulitzer, was eventually excoriated in William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, edited by John Henrik Clarke. These essays took to task Styron's liberties with the facts of Turner's life, that Stryon's was another case of white appropriation of Black Culture. Most objectionable, it seemed, was the depiction of Turner's sexuality and married status (in the novel he's a celibate with one homosexual encounter, whereas the "real" Nat Turner had a wife who was a slave on another plantation), and of what was seen as black authenticity, as the essays chided Styron's handling of "black" psychology and religiosity.
Styron had longed defended his novel as an imaginary excursion, as a novel. Eugene Scheel of The Washington Post asked of Styron his response to this controversy in 2001:
Replying to such criticism, Styron told me in June that his book is too often treated as a work of fact. He pointed out his author’s note: "During the narrative that follows, I have rarely departed from the known facts about Nat Turner and the revolt of which he was the leader. However, in those areas where there is little knowledge in regard to Nat, . . . I have allowed myself the utmost freedom of imagination."Unfortunately, this essentialist attack, grounded in the politics of the Black Arts Movement, held sway among liberal intellectuals in the late 60's. To be fair, the essays in Clarke's book also called for black artists to take up their histories, to draft their own Nat Turners, to stake a claim in their own histories, and so the polemic was more than just an attack on a Southern white novelist.
It is not surprising that Styron with gusto then launched into a novel about a Catholic Polish woman and her surviving the internment of Auschwitz. Styron's defiance was purely and simply an affirmation of the imagination--this is what writers such as James Baldwin, Charles Johnson, and Ralph Ellison have championed in Styron as well.
Yes, Stryon did appropriate Turner's voice. But that's true of any novelist or poet who uses the first person perspective for any character--and this is true of my own first book of poetry, which was written mostly from the perspective of a trapped and dying miner. But that appropriation is a gift of the imagination, to be in someone else's shoes. How small and narrow, then, if we are restricted to inhabit the shoes of those only closest to us, our own kindred and kin. Without the imaginative gifts, we are alone. For this important reason, I am deeply grateful for William Styron.