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I suspect that Mrs. Stowe caused Dred to live and die in the Dismal Swamp

because she shrewdly understood both the responsibilities and the liberties of a novelist

   

William Styron

on Nat Turner and Dred

 

In her muscular defense of the novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe (New York Review, September 3, 1970), Ellen Moers has added an odd footnote to a tiresome controversy. I certainly can take no serious exception to Miss Moer's implied assumption that Mrs. Stowe's vision of Nat Turner may be more appealing or meaningful or aggressively militant than my own. Like Miss Moers I feel that Dred is a neglected work, despite all of its ghastly shortcomings as a work of fiction, and I'm sorry that it has not attracted over the years more readers since in its primitive way it does indeed show (tut-tut Miss Moers, not prove, no novel proves anything) that "slavery is horrible."

But I wish that in her haste to express enthusiasm for Dred at the expense of my own novel (the same sin of which, vice versa, she accuses Professor C. Vann Woodward) she had been less haphazard with certain historical "facts," the faithfulness to which presumably makes Mrs. Stowe a better witness to the character of Nat Turner than myself. Miss Moers first says that Dred "is guilty of none of the distortions to which objection has been raised in the controversy over William Styron's novel on the same subject." She then points out that in Dred the hero is educated by Negro parents while my Nat Turner is taught by white people, and it is true that here Mrs. Stowe adheres to the original Confessions--for whatever they may be worth--while in this respect my own version is at variance with them. But let Miss Moers go on. Mrs. Stowe's Dred, she says,

. . . lives and dies in the Great Dismal Swamp. . . . Dred has both wife and children, who live with him and rely on his love, support, and protection in the swamp. far from being a rebel in isolation, he is presented by Mrs. Stowe as a product of the Denmark Vesey uprising.

And she says finally:

These aspects of her hero and her story Harriet Beecher Stowe lifted whole from the 1831 Confessions of Nat Turner . . . and also other documents of unrest in the antebellum South, black and white.

I assume that Miss Moers means just what she says by the phrase "lifted hole." But in plain truth there is not a single word in the 1831 Confessions to indicate that Nat Turner had anything to do with the Great Dismal Swamp, and it can be stated flatly even at this late date that the historical Nat certainly did not live or die there. Furthermore, if Miss Moers will carefully reread the original Confessions she will find that Mrs. Stowe could not possibly have "lifted whole" any reference to Nat Turner's wife and children, since there is no mention of either, nor is there an oblique reference to the Denmark Vesey uprising (not an uprising, by the way, but an aborted revolt) or any other slave insurrection. I have read the same documents of unrest in the ante-bellum South as Mrs. Stowe did, and concluded it unlikely that Nat Turner was motivated by the example of Denmark Vesey. Mrs. Stowe thought otherwise but in either case it is a matter of conjecture, a novelist's guesswork. Why should such a choice absolve Mrs. Stowe of "distortions" while leaving me on the hook?

I suspect that Mrs. Stowe caused Dred to live and die in the Dismal swamp because she shrewdly understood both the responsibilities and the liberties of a novelist, and such an existence in the swamp seemed an honest possibility for her hero--not because it actually happened. My own Nat Turner dreamed of the Dismal Swamp as a possible refuge after his revolt through fictional logic no more queer or strained or distorted. I am reasonably certain that Mrs. Stowe had the same motive of honest possibility in the case of the unmentioned wife and children and the unmentioned Denmark Vesey. As fictional hypotheses these are by no means unacceptable, especially given the romanticism in Mrs. Stowe and her "belief in the necessity of heroes." Whatever, the principle of honest possibilities was the only recourse for Mrs. Stowe--as well as myself--when so little of consequence is really known about the man whose life one is trying to re-create.

As for my own work, I'm afraid that--despite the charges laid against me of flagrant inaccuracy--my old-fashioned, unromantic regard for the crude historical evidence is so great--greater than Mrs. Stowe's--that I would have supplied Nat Turner with a Dismal Swamp and all the other places and persons and appurtenances had he made reference to them, but in the end, like Mrs. Stowe, I felt free as a novelist to indulge my fancy.

Miss Moers has every right to feel as she wishes that my rendition of slavery is deficient compared to that of Mrs. Stowe--that hers is less full of the "lassitude and self-pity" she sees me sharing with such a funny bedfellow as LeRoi Jones; to object to a writer's vision of his material is every reader's privilege. But she has hardly shown Mrs. Stowe to be free of "distortions" which I might add have been not only the right but the frequent necessity of all historical novelists from Scott and Stendhal and Tolstoy down to the present day.

Roxbury, Connecticut

William Styron, born 1925 in Newport News, Virginia,  spent a brief stint in the Marine Corps during World War II. Styron graduated from Duke University in 1947. He worked briefly in New York as an associate editor for McGraw-Hill, and in 1951 he published his first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, for which Styron was awarded the Prix de Rome from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Styron married Rose Burgunder in 1953 and settled in Roxbury, Connecticut, his current residence. In 1967, Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, a fictional account of the Southampton slave uprising of 1831, became front-page news. The book received the Pulitzer Prize. Styron's introspective and psychological portrayal of Nat Turner brought him immediate and bitter criticism, especially from some African-American authors who believed that Styron had little understanding of the slave experience and that Styron's Turner was tinged with racism.

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

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Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All

By Russell Simmons

Russell Simmons knows firsthand that wealth is rooted in much more than the stock  market. True wealth has more to do with what's in your heart than what's in your wallet. Using this knowledge, Simmons became one of America's shrewdest entrepreneurs, achieving a level of success that most investors only dream about. No matter how much material gain he accumulated, he never stopped lending a hand to those less fortunate. In Super Rich, Simmons uses his rare blend of spiritual savvy and street-smart wisdom to offer a new definition of wealth-and share timeless principles for developing an unshakable sense of self that can weather any financial storm. As Simmons says, "Happy can make you money, but money can't make you happy."

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The New Jim Crow

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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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Related files: The Social World of Cross Keys  Styron Turner and Dred  The Social World of Cross Keys