- The Return of Nat Turner: History, Literature, & Cultural Politics in Sixties America
To take on "history, literature and cultural politics in sixties America" is an ambitious task, but Albert Stone has here made a prodigious effort at capturing the cultural context surrounding the 1967 publication of William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. Stone sets his investigation inside a frame constructed by the 1968 meeting of the Southern Historical Association in New Orleans, at which Styron was called upon to defend his representation of Nat Turner and to answer the criticism contained in the recently published William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968, edited by John H. Clarke). The author claims this crucial cultural event and appropriates it for his own purposes: the explication of a complex literary network, the delineation of a cultural battle for definitive power, and the tracking of paradigm shifts in historiography. Ultimately, Stone reproduces in his text the semiotic structure of that SHA meeting, challenging—by means of his own analysis—Styron to once again defend his literary and historical choices.
Stone's new historical methodology results in an extensive examination and display of what one might call the Nat Turner matrix: the SHA meeting and its participants; the Styron book itself; the reception of the Styron book; other (and earlier) fictional images of Nat Turner; the development of historiographical representations of slave rebellions; the debate about cultural forms of resistance to oppression; and finally, contemporary references to Turner in histories, textbooks, and fictions. He thus presents the Turner matrix as a complex web of discourse and reader structures, rhetorical strategies, and social situations. In effect, Stone's study is a model of new historical technique: a thick description of a particular historical formation.
The author quotes his sources at length, placing each one in its context and clarifying its relationship to others in the matrix. Writers who have addressed the Turner rebellion in either imaginative or historical form are severely questioned as to their motivations and the facticity of their accounts. Attention to literary concerns is less stringent: in this case, literary merit seems to accrue to those who treat historical subjects in a factually accurate and culturally complete manner. Styron's psychological reconstruction of Nat Turner clearly falls short of the measures imposed here; later fictional constructions based on other events in black history seem privileged because of their cultural focus—if not for the race of their authors. Stone reveals his methodological assumptions early in the book, but never addresses the implications of his own study, one of which seems to be that literature ought to be as historically and culturally "thick" as his own critical description. The book concludes with two "microcontroversies," the [End Page 948] banning of Styron's novel in Thompson, Iowa in 1987 and an episode of National Public Radio's Sunday Edition in 1988 which debated the awarding of the MacDowell Award for Lifetime Achievement to William Styron; a more compelling conclusion might have considered how Stone's own study contributes to the cultural matrix it defines and whether indeed literary constructions are obliged to conform to historical documentation.