A novel writer’s obligation to the facts?

In March we shared a post about the writer William Styron and the controversy he stirred in the 1960s with his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. The post referred to an article by Styron’s daughter Alexandra and discussed her father’s intentions in writing the book and the difficulties he had in defending himself against the charges of cultural misappropriation.

The daughter’s article, as you might imagine, took a largely sympathetic view of what her father had gone though during that difficult period of his life.

Not so sympathetic is Christopher Tomlins, a UC-Berkeley law professor and historian who has written a book on Turner titled, In the Matter of Nat Turner (available from Princeton University Press). In a recent LitHub.com article, Tomlins takes Styron’s work to task:

William Styron had no real desire to understand Turner on any terms but his own. Styron wanted to rewrite the historical Turner that appeared in the 1831 pamphlet “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by Virginia attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray. That Turner, Styron believed, was “a ruthless and perhaps psychotic fanatic, a religious fanatic,” and this was a figure with whom he wished to have nothing to do. “I didn’t want to write about a psychopathic monster,” Styron said.

So, claiming “a writer’s prerogative to transform Nat Turner into any kind of creature I wanted to transform him into,” Styron invented his own Nat, inspired by “subtler motives” than those he thought were on display in the historical record, motives that he thought would enable the man to be “better understood.” He would discover that he was wrong. Source: William Styron’s Misguided Meditation on History | Literary Hub

Tomlins believes that if you are going to appropriate a historical character and meditate on that person, you have some obligation to get your facts right — something he says Styron did not do.

Like William Styron, my own book In the Matter of Nat Turner attempts a meditation on history. But unlike Styron I am a historian. This means I believe that an actual existing Nat Turner is accessible in remnants or traces that one must attempt to comprehend, a Turner with whom it is possible to communicate if one listens for him and to him with all the powers one can muster.

Maybe. Tomlins undoubtedly is a good historian — he has many well-received publications to his credit — but historical characters are not as accessible to us as he states. Even though they once existed as human beings, they have become symbolic beings to those of us who live in the present. Making them “real” again is one of the noble but often fallible conceits of the historian.

 

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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