WILLIAM STYRON came to Winthrop House the evening of the bust. He said he had spent the whole day traveling, he had only heard radio news summaries, he wanted to know what was happening on campus. Nevertheless, the conversation turned almost immediately to The Confessions of Nat Turner, and it stayed there until Styron left.
Very few other topics have held the floor against University events that night. Styron's Nat Turner is one of those rare books which delighted most of the reading public and hit one part of the public--black militants--in a spot so sore that they responded in print. Possibly only individual memoirs have provoked similar reactions, and those from a much smaller group of people. "No novel," Styron says with that heavy calm that makes irony sound imperial instead of petty, "has ever been accorded the extraordinary accolade of having a whole book written about it as soon as it was published."
That accolade is William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, which attacks Styron for portraying Turner as a sensitive, hesitant, psychologically troubled leader instead of as a ruthless revolutionary. The responding writers make a number of objections on historical grounds and try to discredit the sociology of Stanley Elkins, whose work Styron called "enormously important" and which influenced Styron called "enormously important" and which influenced Styron's portrait of plantation slaves. In part, Elkins compared black's reaction to the authoritarian system of slavery to Jews' reaction to German concentration camps.
Styron handles objection with unnerving adroitness. No, Turner probably did not have a black wife, he makes no mention of one, the only evidence is a sentence in not-so-reliable memoirs published thirty years after Turner's death. Why did Styron push Nat's African ancestry back a generation? He had to account for white women are possible--look at the sociological evidence; Styron points to other slave revolts. Styron's voice adds an edge, he had heard all these questions before, he has answered them before.
Above all, Styron has written a novel, not a history. "My prerogative as a novelist is such that I so not have to apologize for anything unless it can be shown to have been otherwise," he says. He only has to say it once, because he answers the historical objections anyway.
STYRON'S Problem, at least it was his problem that night in Winthrop House, is that he replies to those objections so unanswerably. After the discussion, Styron asked why the students--and the students weren't black militants, they were white, or moderate, or both--had insisted in asking questions which verged, well, on insult. The reason is that Styron didn't look like an author, a man deeply troubled by hard-to-grasp, will-o'-the-wisp problems; he looked like an administrator.
Deep down, we would like every writer to be either a natural reaconteur or a mystic. Partly, this is because the role goes with the job, as the priest's garb goes with his--we want assurance that the author is inspired. Partly, it is because personality is something we can grasp and bring down to earth: if we can possess the personality, perhaps we can possess the inspiration. The poet-priest is sacred; no one (now) would dare be hostile to Borges.
But Styron wears respectable blue suits with lots of buttons, he knows how to light a cigar still moist from the humidor, and he answers questions in a matter of fact way. He is broad and tall, perhaps six feet, but he appears even taller, without being overwhelming. He has an impressive head of grey-black-white hair, combed straight back. And, for all his size, he has that cultured look of American aristocracy. If you catch his face from just the right angle, a side view from behind the ear, there is a trace of John Lindsay. You can see how Styron supported McCarthy but not Robbert Kennedy.
But it is harder to see how this the man who wrote Lie Down in Darkness, The Long March, Set This House On Fire, and The Confessions of Nat Turner, how this man is, at 44, an heir to William Faulkner and all that Faulkner was heir to. The Southernness is right: "A homogenization has taken place. I'm not sure Faulkner's 'South' still exists, it exists only as a memory. But unless I still smelled the country I know so well, I wouldn't have chosen to write..." What doesn't show is the artist's sensitivity.
A FRIEND of Styron's tells me I came on the wrong night. She says there are moments when that quiet struggle rises to the surface. At first, she says, Styron was immensely troubled by attacks on Nat Turner-Styron says he did not anticipate all the fuss. When it came, he had to struggle with it; perhaps there came a point when he decided his attackers were unjust and decided finally to shut himself off.
A turning point that my information saw, she says, came in New Orleans. Styron was speaking before a large audience, she says, when a familiar, young, black face stood up to interrupt the lecture. "You're a liar, Bill Styron," the critic yelled. "I called you a liar in Boston, and I'm calling you a liar here. I came all the way here to call you a liar. Do you remember me?"
"Yes,"Styron cut him off, "yes I remember you. I guess I might call you my bete noire."
Styron is no bigot. His bete noire is irrational criticism. He has reexamined Nat Turner and found it perfectly defensible; he finds it hard to see how anyone else who examines the historical evidence can find it otherwise.
Styron says he can understand why his black critics had "this emotional response, and I can accommodate myself to it." But he cannot let it bother him any more. "Some of the points are well taken," he says of Ten Black Writers, "but ninety per cent of it is shallow. I can excuse them for their passion, but not for the preposterous things they said."
His voice is soft--there's no southern drawl, but there is a hint of Virginia that makes Styron easy to listen to: "Had I had any basic intellectual respects for what was in that book, I would have been seized by agues and palsies and taken a three or four-year trip to Europe."
Styron does not discuss the work as literature: "I don't think it's right to ask an author to defend his work on literary grounds, and I didn't come here to do that."
On the point of general faithfulness in portraying a man and his times, Styron says, "I have no qualms."
If you qualms, Styron's lack of them is disturbing. But if Styron's quiet reason conquers you--I must say it conquered me--there is a reassuring solidity even in that well-dressed figure that stands between the public and the muse.