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

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?


  1. Benjamin David Steele August 9, 2016 at 10:52 am | #

    I went to high school in the early 1990s. I remember all the acrimonious and anxious debates, the whole mood of culture war divisiveness and post-Cold War ennui. But I honestly didn’t care about any of it. I was still young enough in that decade, having graduated high school in 1994, to not be overly concerned about what excited the political and intellectual elites in the adult world.

    Maybe it would have been different if I had stayed in college, instead of having immediately gone into the workforce as low wage worker. In the world I knew and the places I had lived, multiculturalism was already a reality—even in the public schools I attended when younger. It never occurred to me to be worried about whether American history was a single narrative or not.

    All of that was already a non-issue for people like me. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War era and the Reagan administration. I’m not clueless about what came before. But entering into adulthood in the mid-to-late 1990s offered a different kind of perspective.

    Sam Tannenhaus, on the other hand, was born a couple of decades before I was. I’m sure he was already in college before I was born and his college experience made all of that seem so important to his early thinking. I guess it is interesting that many people who once would have been excited about these debates have finally hit the acceptance phase of the grieving process.

  2. Aaron August 9, 2016 at 10:54 am | #

    On the progress note, I thought the descriptions of James Baldwin in the piece were really fascinating. Two which stood out:

    “Before leaving Roxbury, however, Baldwin insisted, in fact dared, Styron to write Nat Turner’s story from inside the character’s own head.”

    “Bill’s going to catch it from black and white,” James Baldwin asserted as the book came out. “Styron is probing something very dangerous, deep and painful in the national psyche. I hope it starts a tremendous fight, so that people will learn what they really think about each other.”

  3. Donald August 9, 2016 at 11:03 am | #

    I read the novel in the late 70’s and then the book of essays criticizing it. I loved the novel, but after I read the essays could see their point. Setting aside the criticism that a white man couldn’t imagine what it was like to be a black slave, it was still amazingly tone deaf for Styron to invent Turner’s love for a white woman he later kills. If that had been based on fact, fine, but it wasn’t and that makes me lose some ( not all) of my sympathy for Styron. Novelists playing around with real history are going to take liberties, but this was a stupid liberty to take.

  4. Barbara Winslow August 9, 2016 at 12:06 pm | #
    Eugene Genovese defended the book. Read the exchange that followed.

  5. foppejan2 August 9, 2016 at 1:57 pm | #

    I suppose it is progress of sorts, but it sure obscured the other (dare I say more important?) discussions, about social “justice” (I’m not at all crazy about this term), or what passes for it. Though I suppose that wasn’t new either, given that social climbers anywhere (whether the ones described by Arendt, or today’s liberals — by the way, for that case study you were asking for, see Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, specifically the discussion of the changes to how NYC’s are paid, and what they must do to ‘make a living’) have always been uncomfortable with the notion that one might question the value of the value systems they play, and the ladders they desire to climb to ‘prove’ themselves, to others.

    Alternatively, the pearl clutching over “the loss of a shared vision” was (on the liberal side) in the best case an outgrowth of 40-50 years of red-baiting, which has now mostly receded and recognized as ridiculous (although HRC and her ilk are trying to revive it). Whatever its cause, it was as problematic then as it would be now, considering how that kind of talk almost always serves to “justify” ignoring the needs of certain populations, whether “illegals”, the “undeserving …”/”uneducated …”/”white trash”, etc., who have all been discarded thanks to globalization and “meritocracy”.

  6. Graham Clark August 9, 2016 at 6:01 pm | #

    “…for today’s liberal intellectual, those debates are pretty much over, too. They’ve moved on; they’ve embraced multiple narratives, multiple voices… Again, progress?”

    Alternately: If they’re embracing something, assume there’s something wrong with it and try to figure out what.

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