Read: Alexandra Styron on reading her father
By the time my father laid down the final words of Nat Turner, in January 1967, race relations in America had moved into another gear. Malcolm X was dead, the Civil Rights Act of 1966 was dead, and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were organizing a neighborhood-watch group that would become the Black Panther Party. Stokely Carmichael, the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had begun promoting a new phrase in response to what he recognized as the country’s “psychological conflict” over black self-determination. “We gonna use the word Black Power,” he told a passionate crowd at UC Berkeley, “but we are not goin’ to wait for white people to sanction Black Power.” In a rebuke to white allies, Carmichael insisted that “black people must be seen in positions of power, doing and articulating for themselves.” If white America continued to interfere or obstruct black America’s objective, “move over,” Carmichael warned, “or we’re goin’ to move on over you.” The civil-rights movement, it seemed, had a new prophet, and loving enemies into friends clearly was not his bag.
My father no doubt heard Carmichael’s words. But he had no idea what they signaled for him personally. Through much of 1967, he was at ease, enjoying the swell of prepublication buzz for Nat Turner. The Book-of-the-Month Club (the Oprah’s Book Club of its time) paid my father the highest price for a novel in the company’s history. The paperback, serial, and foreign rights sold in a frenzy. Hollywood came calling. That July, when riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, newspapers asked him to help white America understand what was happening. By October, when the first reviews appeared, Nat Turner was a juggernaut. “Magnificent,” The New York Times declared. “A new peak in the literature of the South,” Time wrote. “It will endure as one of the great novels by an American author in this century,” the Los Angeles Times predicted. In November, my father was awarded an honorary degree by Wilberforce University, a historically black institution in Ohio. The experience was uplifting and emotional, one he often described as among the most meaningful of his adult life.
As a writer, my father owned the risks he took. An aerialist doesn’t blame the weather when he decides to perform in heavy winds. Still, it’s easy to see how all that early publicity might have worked against him. And how the same racial inequities that made Nat Turner relevant when it was published also contributed to its troubles.
In the late ’60s, there were almost 2,000 daily U.S. newspapers and dozens of literary-minded magazines. But with the exception of John Hope Franklin in the Chicago Sun-Times, no black writers were invited to critique Nat Turner in any major national publication. Worse, perhaps, were the reviewers who used their platform to condescendingly explain the novel’s virtues. Arguing for my father’s unique qualifications in The New York Review of Books, the literary critic Philip Rahv wrote:
Only a white Southern writer could have brought it off. A Northerner would have been too much “outside” the experience to manage it effectively and a Negro writer, because of a very complex anxiety, not only personal but also social and political, would probably have stacked the cards, producing in a mood of simmering rage and indignation, a melodrama of saints and sinners.
The first signs of black dissent appeared by the new year. Articles in, among other publications, The New Leader, The Negro Digest, and Freedomways condemned the novel and the white media that endorsed it. Around the same time, an ugly spat erupted in The Nation between my father and the Marxist scholar of African-American history, Herbert Aptheker. (They both behaved like self-important assholes.) In February, The New York Times ran the first of several pieces exposing an angrier vein: “Styron’s Nat Turner, the house nigger,” declared the professor Michael Thelwell, “is the spiritual ancestor of the contemporary middle-class Negro … [the] type with whom whites including Mr. Styron feel most comfortable.” The writer William Strickland groused that the novel was “the worst thing that’s happened to Nat Turner since he was hanged.” My father’s critics took issue with the book’s dialect and character development, with what he put in (a master who teaches Nat to read, motive for the rebellion separate from bondage) and what he left out (a black wife, unyielding conviction). But probably his greatest crime, as my father reflected 25 years later in an essay for American Heritage, was “apparent from the book’s first sentence: How dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?” In June 1968, the backlash reached its zenith when Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The book generated its own front-page notices, and kept the Nat Turner dispute alive well into the summer.