Sam Tanenhaus on William Styron on Nat Turner: Have we moved on from the Sixties? The Nineties?

by Corey Robin on August 9, 2016

Last night, I had a bout of insomnia. So I picked up the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and after reading a rather desultory piece by Robert Gottlieb on his experiences editing Lauren Bacall (who I’m distantly related to), Irene Selznick, and Katharine Hepburn (boy, did he not like Hepburn!), I settled down with a long piece by Sam Tanenhaus on William Styron and his Confessions of Nat Turner.

A confession of my own first: I read Confessions sometime in graduate school. I loved it. Probably my favorite work by Styron, much more so than Sophie’s Choice or even Darkness Visible. I say “confession” because it’s a book that has had an enormously controversial afterlife, which Tanenhaus discusses with great sensitivity, even poignancy.

Anyway, I recommend Tanenhaus’s article for a variety of reasons: great narrative pace, with that perfect balance of distance and engagement; it blows hot and cold exactly where and when you need it to; and it moves with an almost symphonic sense of time, back and forth across the decades and centuries.

But here are three things I wanted to comment on.

First, I was struck by the fact that white people in the US, before Styron’s book came out, had so little knowledge of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but it tells you something, I think, about how much our culture has changed that I would be.

Tanenhaus nimbly shows the disparity between the reactions of black people, who were more than familiar with the Turner story, to the novel, and those of white people, who were pretty clueless about it. At best, the Nat Turner story was a repressed memory for white people, only dimly present in a fading billboard from Styron’s Tidewater boyhood. Today, the Nat Turner story is part of a lot of school curricula. We’ve made some progress.

Second, as I said, I always knew about the controversy over the book. Styron, a white man writing at the height of Black Power (though he had begun the novel in the earlier, more hopeful days of the Civil Rights Movement), had ventriloquized a black slave. That and a great many other moves made the book an object of opprobrium across the literary and political stage.

But, as Tanenhaus shows, part of what made the controversy so painful for Styron was that it had been preceded by months of plaudits from all the great and the good of American literature. It was celebrated by R.W.B. Lewis, James Baldwin (albeit ambivalently), Robert Lowell, Alex Haley, Robert Penn Warren, and more. It seemed like it was going to be Styron’s Summa. And then the controversy broke, and suddenly, he was a man without a country. Styron had the crap luck of setting out on the novel when the dreams of interracial brotherhood (not quite yet sisterhood) were riding high, at least in certain literary and political quarters, and finishing it when those dreams had been dashed. There’s something about the way Tanenhaus tells that story of the beginning and ending of a writing project—and that great unpredictable goddess of timing—that’s quite moving.

Last, if you get to the last few grafs of the piece, you’ll notice something really interesting about the tone. Tanenhaus steps back, way back, and assesses the controversy from the vantage of 2016, where questions of cultural appropriation have become quite central, where the fissures between white and black experiences are leading items of presidential debates and electoral campaigns. The Nat Turner controversy might have been the opening shot in the argument (which has never subsided) over whether we can have a common, unifying history in this country. And what the Turner controversy and subsequent controversies reveal, Tanenhaus seems to suggest, is: perhaps we can’t. And he suggests that with, yes, some sorrow, but absolutely no rancor.

And here’s what I found so fascinating about this. Tanenhaus is a kind of moderate, centrist, liberal-ish writer on political and literary topics. (His biography of Whittaker Chambers is the definitive work, and he’s now working on a biography of William F. Buckley, which many of us have been eagerly awaiting for some time. I’ve been quite critical of some of Tanenhaus writings on conservatism and culture over the years: one of the provocations for The Reactionary Mind was his short book on conservatism. But when he’s on, he’s really on.) I can’t help but feel that a much younger Tanenhaus, say from 25 years ago, would have taken a more oppositional, less elegiac tone toward these matters.

Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, there was a whole group of intellectuals, academics, journalists, and writers who, reeling from the assaults of multiculturalism, were bemoaning the loss of a common, unifying narrative of American history. This was by no means limited to the right. Many liberals—like Arthur Schlesinger, Todd Gitlin, Richard Rorty, and many more—gave voice, in a variety of registers (anxious, angry, contemptuous, concerned), to the notion that the United States could not flourish amid so much fragmentation.

Thinking back today on those liberal arguments from a quarter-century ago, they have a kind of ghostly quality (the conservative versions, of course, live on, in Donald Trump and others on the right). Even though I was an avid reader and consumer of these debates, I can’t help but ask myself: What exactly were these people so worked up about? Multiculturalism today seems as American as apple pie. And that expression—as American as apple pie—seems like from another country, or at least another century. In fact, it is.

What I took away from reading the last few paragraphs of Tanenhaus late last night is the realization that for today’s liberal intellectual, those debates are pretty much over, too. They’ve moved on; they’ve embraced multiple narratives, multiple voices. The agony of that confrontation, that moment, is no more. (Again, quite different on the right.)

What you hear in Tanenhaus’s voice is not necessarily a celebration over the loss of a common narrative. But accommodation, acceptance, even equanimity.

Again, progress?



cassander 08.09.16 at 5:07 pm

> What exactly were these people so worked up about?

The massive rise in crime, out of wedlock births, divorce, the decline of social trust, and the various other indices of social dysfunction that were increasing at the time, maybe?


b9n10nt 08.09.16 at 6:05 pm

The economy is a unified system, so efforts to socialize it towards environmental sustainability and human flourishing must be unified as well. And if these efforts are to be unified, they will only succeed as an expression of an “imagined community” that is produced through common acts of listening and speaking, reading and writing, or viewing and filming.


Peter Dorman 08.09.16 at 6:35 pm

I’m one of those 60s leftovers who dreamt of a future in which we would all of us (M and F too) be united in our jeans and workshirts, and then suffered a rude awakening. I completely accept the multiple voices realignment and the notion that being deprived of the right to speak for yourself is a fundamental form of oppression. I agree with CR that, overall, the progress has been wonderful.

But I still have two qualms. The first is that there is a tendency toward identity reification in the current version of “multiple voices”, where differences in group affiliation have a way of suppressing individual variation. (Speaking as a white male, I don’t exactly speak as a “white male”, although I partially do.)

The second is that there is an unexamined privileging of the self-narrative over the external view. Each of us understands something about ourselves that no one else can understand. Each of us is blind to ourselves because we lack critical distance. It’s like native vs outsider anthropology. Neither claim cancels out the other. But in the current moment, if I’m right, the going wisdom is that the self-expression of the members of a group (especially a subordinated or marginalized group) is *the* truth before which all others must remain silent.

Even if Nat Turner were alive today and able to speak for himself, I don’t think his is the only valid perspective on his experience and what drove him to do what he did — much less those today who might claim to channel him. Agreed though that Styron trying to speak through Turner rather than transparently about him was problematic.


PatinIowa 08.09.16 at 9:37 pm

I don’t know if this is on topic or not, but I listened to about five minutes of Terry Gross interviewing Colson Whitehead yesterday and then the whole interview today. In the part I listened to yesterday, she asked him if he had an account of why so many people (if memory serves the examples she gave were all African-American) were interested in thinking/writing about slavery today. I thought, “Why today? Surely he started the novel years ago.

It turns out his initial conception for the novel came 15/16 years ago. So his interest in writing a novelistic treatment of the topic (which he points out has always been part of his family’s (and most African-Americans’) story) has more to do with 2000/2001 than 2016.

Now I’m trying to think of other books (and other long, complex work s0 that, like Styron’s are conceived in one set of historical circumstances, and see the light of day in a very different cultural ecosystem. Any ideas?


Ben Alpers 08.10.16 at 2:02 am

On a similar subject: Alex Haley’s Roots, which was initially conceived as he was finishing up The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1964 and which didn’t appear until 1976 (Haley had been telling his publisher that it was only a year or so away since shortly after the project’s conception).


Kevin 08.10.16 at 1:59 pm

You should give “The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood” by Patrick Breen a read:

Thorough history of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion including a long discussion of how it has been understood through different written works.


Suzanne 08.10.16 at 9:29 pm

Artists should be able to take the risk Styron did. He wasn’t wrong to try, and that others today would be too cautious or intimidated to do so is maybe not such a great thing. (I might feel differently if I didn’t think the book a good one; I’m pleased to note that Gates admires it.)

Interestingly, or oddly, Tanenhaus doesn’t mention that Styron ran into the same buzzsaw, with similar objections, with “Sophie’s Choice,” (I’m no fan of that one) which deals with the Holocaust.

Also, is Tanenhaus really “moderate, centrist, liberal-ish”? Surely he’s a mushier sort of neocon. I’m so glad he’s off the NYT Book review. I found his book on Chambers to be a dullish read, although if you have any interest in the subject you do have to take a look at it.

Off topic with regard to Gottlieb’s observations about Hepburn (recycled; he’s made them before). There’s some truth to them and Gottlieb is a man who knows from divas, but it would have been nice had he got around to reminding his readers that of those three ladies, Hepburn was the only figure of enduring consequence and the only artist. Bacall wasn’t taken seriously as an actor for good reason. Also it was no easy thing for a female actor to succeed at the top of the business as long as Hepburn did, and such survivors tended to be tough cookies and not terribly likable. Also that she subordinated herself to Spencer Tracy in such a way that explains some things……….but I digress too far.

Also if Gottlieb’s book is going to be peppered with sentences beginning with “My great friend [famous and/or rich person X”] it should be a carnival of name-dropping. I hope he has some new tidbits to share about Mr. B.


ZM 08.11.16 at 4:51 am

From the OP:

“Multiculturalism today seems as American as apple pie. And that expression—as American as apple pie—seems like from another country, or at least another century. In fact, it is.

What I took away from reading the last few paragraphs of Tanenhaus late last night is the realization that for today’s liberal intellectual, those debates are pretty much over, too. They’ve moved on; they’ve embraced multiple narratives, multiple voices. The agony of that confrontation, that moment, is no more. (Again, quite different on the right.)

What you hear in Tanenhaus’s voice is not necessarily a celebration over the loss of a common narrative. But accommodation, acceptance, even equanimity.

Again, progress?”

I think this is interesting as I am trying to come to grips with the differences between America and Australia at the moment.

I think in general our countries have a number of similarities historically and culturally, while some notable differences.

But I can’t imagine the Trump Presidential candidacy in Australia.

The most similar political character we have here is probably Pauline Hanson, who has been elected to Parliament again this past election, after being out of Parliament for some years.

But although she is vocal she is not in either of the major parties, and the major parties tend to contain the racist things she espouses, although sometimes also use them to their own advantage.

The OP says “Multiculturalism today seems as American as apple pie” and also says for “today’s liberal intellectual, those debates are pretty much over, too. They’ve moved on; they’ve embraced multiple narratives, multiple voices.”

On John Holbo’s thread we were discussing discrimination in the sense of prejudicial discrimination against categories like women, non-white races, and gay and lesbian people, and John Holbo seemed to think Australia had a quite different set of laws about this compared to what he is used to in America.

In the thread there were correlations and distinctions drawn between the category of gay and lesbian people, and the category of neo-Nazis.

For some commenters these categories were equivalent, e.g.:

“It seems so simple to me. If a cake shop is not a monopoly, it is a minor inconvenience for a gay (or neo-Nazi) couple to go to another cake shop for a gay or (Nazi)-themed cake.” (Ian Maitland)

For other commenters these categories were not equivalent.

But what I found were that more people seemed to think the categories were equivalent than I would expect to find in a similar discussion in contemporary Australia.

Its sort of hard to sum up discussions about multiculturalism and race in Australia from the 1990s to now.

In the 1990s there was an Australian movie about neo-Nazis starring Russell Crowe, Romper Stomper, that got a lot of attention and caused a lot of controversy and discussion when it came out. An even greater controversy, somewhat reminiscent of the controversy of Styron’s Confessions, was a book The Hand The Signed The Paper by Helen Demidenko who was later revealed to be Helen Darville and to have fabricated her personal history to enhance the success of the book on the basis of cultural “authenticity”. Then we had a lot of discussion in the History Wars as well, about the writing of the history of colonisation and the frontier. This was basically settled by government, since Prime Minister Keating made the Redfern speech, and then Prime Minister Rudd made an apology to the Stolen Generation.

Corey Robin raises the question here of whether we’ve moved on from the 1960s and the 1990s.

I don’t live in America and I have never been there, but some discussions make me wonder if America has moved on from the 1990s in a more relativist direction of multiculturalism than Australia has.

I think of Jonathan Franzen here, and his early books about corruption; then The Corrections starts with climate change and the elderly parents and Chip the post-modernist who goes to make money doing some scam in Eastern Europe, and returns home to marry a doctor and be middle class; then Freedom about climate change again with the bird lover who favours Mountain Top removal, and the son who makes money from wars in the Middle East then donates it to charity and nothing is politically solved and the happy ending is like how in The Corrections Chip marries a doctor, Walter gets back together with his wife after the affair she had with his friend. In The Corrections and in Freedom the “happy ending” is basically becoming comfortable and married and not worrying too much about problems as much as possible. I haven’t read the latest one Purity. Jonathan Franzen wrote an annoying wrong headed essay on bird conservation for The New Yorker though saying that climate change wasn’t a very important issue for bird conservation — this is despite him writing two major books treating the topic of climate change so he isn’t unaware of it — which is not science based, the bird NGOs already say climate change is a big issue for bird conservation, and the New Yorker usually has good and fact based (if somewhat pessimistic) climate change coverage by Elizabeth Kolbert. I don’t know how the editor even let Jonathan Franzen publish it without correcting his scientific errors and sending it back to him to rewrite.

Sometimes it seems like liberalism in the American sense has gone in quite a relativistic direction compared to Australia, even in publications that have a good reputation, not just Fox News or something.

Is this right, or am I missing something?


F. Foundling 08.11.16 at 9:47 pm

Haven’t read the Styron book. Out of curiosity, I read a plot summary. It seemed to say that the book is about some fellow who has had a tough life and therefore butchers an innocent girl under peer pressure, whereupon he expects to be reunited with her in Heaven.

Maybe it’s all somehow better than it sounds, but alas, I’m beginning to notice that my nerves really aren’t what they used to be, and it somehow just doesn’t feel fair anymore that I should have to read a book without having the author at my disposal within punching distance at the moment when I turn the last page.


stevenjohnson 08.11.16 at 10:09 pm

Read the plot summary of Taras Bulba…sounds like a soap opera with homicide. I’ll watch when History Channel swipes it for Vikings.


F. Foundling 08.12.16 at 2:48 am

Yes, I’ve just read a plot summary of Taras Bulba for comparison, and it does look similar: again, it seems that a fellow and his chums have had a tough life and therefore butcher a lot of people, including innocent ones. On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be an equally pronounced ambition to maintain some kind of universalist humanist perspective, since the author is a bit less eager to emphasise that the enemies (Poles and Jews) are human, too. Perhaps the similarity would have been greater if Taras Bulba had been written by a Pole unusually sympathetic to the Ukrainians.

Speaking of 17th century Cossack revolts, another, even more apt comparison would be with the famous rebel Stenka Razin and the deeply soulful and romantic song apparently rendered in English as ‘From beyond the wooded island’. Again, to prove to his followers and comrades his idealistic commitment to the cause of liberty, our hero has to heed the call of duty and snuff a random female that happens to be at hand, and that in spite of the fact that the poor sensitive fellow actually feels quite uncomfortable and unhappy about doing that – all the more so because he had intended to put that specific female to different use. Touching!


F. Foundling 08.12.16 at 2:48 am

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