The Peripatetic Reviewer
by Edward Weeks
In August, 1831, in a remote section of southeastern Virginia, Nat Turner, an educated Negro slave, a young preacher steeped in the Old Testament, led a sustained and bloody revolt in which all the whites within a radius of twenty miles in Southampton County met their death. That Nat felt himself divinely appointed is clear from his Confessions, which were published in Richmond a year later and which contain the few known facts about him and his crusade; this document is the starting point of WILLIAM STYRON’S novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER (Random House, $6.95). With poetic license Mr. Styron amplifies Nat’s statement into a narrative covering his thirty years of life, the happy boyhood when as “a house nigger” he was trained to read, the degradation that was heaped on him after he was sold and his hopes for freedom dashed, and the needling and harassment that in his late twenties turned his dismay into implacable vengeance. “The year 1831,” says Mr. Styron in his foreword, “was simultaneously, a long time ago and only yesterday,” and no reader can fail to compare Nat’s uprising with the riots of last summer. As a native of Tidewater Virginia who has brooded on the motivations of this revolt. Styron is well qualified to write what he terms a “meditation on history.” The novel which results is a work of power, of loving and hateful descriptions, of little mirth, and, for the most part, of persuasive psychology.
The story is told in Nat’s own words, as if he were seeking to justify himself to posterity. When he is reflecting or recounting, his English is pure and uninhibited; when he is preaching or conspiring he uses the familiar Negro dialect, charged with biblical quotations and eloquent; when he is defending himself against the white world, suspicious of his education, his talk becomes obsequious, concealing his motives and disgust. Nat draws strength from the thunderers of the Old Testament, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Job, whose lamentations and threats he knows by heart, and with these frequent quotations there are apologetic asides, as if he were pleading with God or posterity to accept the reasons for his killings. This sweet reasonableness side by side with the cold-blooded murderous plot would appear implausible if it did not duplicate the ruthless inconsistency which Nat experienced at the hands of his white owners.
How rebels are formed
Nat Turner never knew his father, who was killed before he was born, but his mother was comely and a favorite on the plantation at Turner’s Mill. Nat’s uncommon intelligence showed at an early age. Educated, trained in carpentry, and promised his freedom by the Turners, he was sold into further slavery when their plantation went bankrupt. In his adolescence Nat had become ascetic, shut off from the laughter and friendship of his contemporaries; he took his free time in the deep woods fasting, incanting the holy words, and awaiting some sign from the Lord. A strong and handsome Negro, he could not suppress his sex, and as a result of propinquity the women he lusted after were white, chief among them Miss Emmeline, who after a ball he observed being ravished by her cousin, and young Margaret Whitehead, a Southern flirt who led him on. How credible are these attractions each reader must decide for himself; apparently they added to Nat’s inner tension and restrained him with compassion when the bloody work had to be done.
After his departure from Turner’s Mill Nat’s bondage is a nightmare. He is sold first to the Reverend Eppes of Shiloh, a sex-starved miser who overworks him on animal rations, and then to the crude Thomas Moore, under whom he slaves for a decade. There in his young manhood he witnesses the beatings, the separation of Negro families, the sadistic torturing of his contemporaries. For himself he adopts “the role of humility, the soft voice and hound-like obedience,” but the Bible has armed his spirit, armed him with the incantations which make him forget his own misery. A vision that comes to him after a five-day fast convinces him that he must recruit and lead his army of revenge, and when the whites have been exterminated he will take his followers into the safety of Dismal Swamp. He is betrayed, of course, by the animal spirits which he and the brandy can arouse but which he cannot control when the blood flows and the white women are at the mob’s mercy.
The slaves that come and go in the book seem to this Northerner extraordinarily well drawn, though the whites are naturally distorted in Nat’s vision. Wash, who was Nat’s only boyhood friend and who was sold away from him in the night; Hark, his trusted lieutenant in the final days (“the plantation system had leached out of his great and noble body so much native courage, so much spirit and dignity, that he was left as humble as a spaniel”); Sam, the yellow-skinned; Henry, the deaf; and the venomous Will. The suffering they endure and their attempts to escape, such as Hark’s six weeks of blind circling, have the feel of authenticity. One hears repeatedly in the felicitous prose Nat’s perceptive love of his native country, but almost never the note of laughter, for he was too obsessed for that.
The hole in the wall
The silence which effectively walls in the life of the Negro in South Africa has been broken by ERNEST COLE’S HOUSE OF BONDAGE (Random House, $10.00), introduction by Joseph Lelyveld, and the window it provides for us is a shocking one. Born a black African, Mr. Cole at some risk had his classification changed to Colored to give him the mobility he needed. He had been studying photography via a London correspondence school since his eighteenth year — he is now twentyseven — and his entire book with its superb photographs, many unpremeditated, is an illustration of how the African’s every experience is converted into misery, ranging from simple starvation to the enforced separation of families; harassment in many forms, even to the endless waiting for treatment in hospitals, is the daily dosage. Only the police court functions promptly for the African. On a normal morning a single magistrate can ring up eighty convictions before lunch. Mr. Cole quotes with irony the annual crime statistics, which are appalling until one understands that one third of these crimes consist of an African being found in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong papers. Unemployment, for instance, is a serious crime. “It is an extraordinary experience,” says the author, “to live as though life were a punishment for being black.”
The Afrikaner is fully aware that his economy depends upon the black workers, but apartheid dictates that the blacks shall live apart in the most refined captivity technology and double-talk can devise. And the Bantus take it; their education is stunted, their property-owning middle class a tiny fragment, and their Siberia the barren veld of Frenchdale for those chiefs or bold spirits who resist (the Basotho chief who refused to cull his herd of cattle has been there fourteen years). Mr. Cole’s pictures tell a story we have never seen before: they show us Albert Luthuli, the fine-looking leader who was officially in banishment when he received the Nobel Prize; they show us the boys of ten and twelve, the runaways now living the life of the streets on their way to becoming the tsotsi, the pickpockets and drug addicts, and they show us the black policemen and the informers who enforce apartheid against their own.
A matter of mood
Humor is the most perishable of literary commodities, and what little of it is to be found today has an astringent taste very different from the glorious nonsense of Robert Benchley, the madly funny universe of James Thurber, and the precise and elegant observation of E. B. White which regaled us in the 1920s. COREY FORD calls it the Golden Age of American Humor, and in his new book, THE TIME OF LAUGHTER (Little, Brown, $5.95), he revives the humorists and the comedy that flowed from so many sources in that untroubled decade. It was, as he said, a self-centered, materialistic era, “largely concerned with making money, making love, making whoopee.” But we did laugh at ourselves, and there was a galaxy of writers, actors, and artists intent on making us do so. There were magazines which commissioned humor: the old Life, Judge, Vanity Fair, Ballyhoo, College Humor, soon to be joined by the heir apparent, the New Yorker. There were columnists like F.P.A. to introduce the beginners, comedians who literally stopped the show while the audience rocked in the aisles, as W. C. Fields did in Poppy, or Will Rogers, once he began to talk through his twirling lariat. The Saturday Evening Post was publishing the Tish and Aggie stories by Mary Roberts Rinehart and “Alibi Ike” by Ring Lardner; and books by Dorothy Parker, Donald Ogden Stewart, and P. G. Wodehouse were high on the best-seller list because people wanted to laugh.
Gorey Ford was one of the younger members of the galaxy. On his graduation from Columbia, where he had been editor of the Jester, he moved down to Forty-second Street to write parodies for Vanity Fair under the signature of John Riddell, with illustrations by Covarrubias. He parodied the Rover Boys until the author of those 300-odd volumes threatened to sue him for libel; he parodied Hemingway as a bullfighter so effectively that Scott Fitzgerald read it aloud to Papa in a Paris bar, much to the latter’s annoyance. He did another entitled “The Bridge of San Thornton Wilder,” and another on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy which made such fun of the laborious prose and dated dialogue that Dreiser himself called the parodist over to a speakeasy on First Avenue and set him up to drinks through a long, friendly afternoon.
Mr. Ford recalls his heroes with affection and quotes them at their best. He remembers F.P.A. listening impatiently to a long-winded bore who concluded an interminable anecdote with, “Well, to make a long story short —” “Too late,” said F.P.A. tersely. Ford identifies the stars like Howard Dietz, Deems Taylor, and Newman Levy who made their first appearance in Adams’ column, “The Conning Tower”; he quotes from Bob Sherwood’s criticism of the movies, on Tom Mix: “They say he rides like part of the horse, but they don’t say which part.” He gives us the vintage Benchley with its combination of nonsense and nonsequitur, and his characterization of Benchley — how he looked on himself as an amateur, how and why he was always out of money, and how he appeared in his delivery of that deadpan, stumbling monologue “The Treasurer’s Report.”
He was one of Harold Ross’s dependables in those dubious days when the New Yorker was trying to get out of the red; he relished the constant kidding that went on between Ross and Thurber when the magazine was on easy street and beginning to make fun of Henry Luce, and he shares with us all a respectful awe for the brilliance of E. B. White. The chapter on the one and only W. C. Fields should be read aloud. I am a little surprised to find no reference to Fred Allen, whose caustic satire held the fort when humor had begun to dry up in the Depression, and I am saddened that Mr. Ford’s most successful parody in its day, “Salt Water Taffy,” does not make good chewing after all these years. It is hardly to be expected that those born after 1939 will find in this book the merriment and nostalgia that I do.
Artist and bon vivant whose leonine head with handlebar mustaches always reminds me of a Victorian dandy, OSBERT LINCASTER is a lover of Greece, a writer of parodies (The Saracen’s Head, a takeoff on the Crusades, is the funniest in print), and a critic whose witty pen is as trenchant in prose as in cartoon. He has been writing his autobiography in installments, and the new one, WITH AN EYE TO THE FUTURE (Houghton Mifflin, $4.50), gains much of its entertainment from his efforts in young manhood to establish himself as an artist. His adversaries were his tiny but dominant mother, who ordered his life during the First World War, his preparatory school, Charterhouse, where his role was not heroic and where “Send any fag but Lancaster!” became an established formula, and the Oxford dons, who found him an elusive student. At Lincoln College he first tasted independence; he acted, edited, designed scenery, attended a life class, and entered into lasting friendships with Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh, Maurice Bowra, and David Cecil. All of this he so relished that he needed a fourth year for his studies and barely squeaked through with a degree.
Whether he is writing about his travels with his mother, or his chilly, rawboned public school; those Oxford characters, the Dean of Wadham, or Colonel Kolkhorst, with his exuberant Sunday morning receptions; dancing or skiing with his fiancée, Karen; or drawing his first cartoons for his chubby, able editor Arthur Christiansen, the text is informed with gaiety. This is an “in” book for those Americans who are familiar with the stiletto play of English badinage and the idiosyncrasies of Oxford and St. James. The illustrations by the author are a deft and spirited part of the text.