Mr. Styron's novel has been given a Pulitzer Prize. Considering the wide critical success the book enjoyed, this result was foreseeable. Most of the novel's acclaim is explained to be due to these virtues: the human validity of its hero, the historical veracity of its factual information, and the merit of its social impact.
One point must be clearly made before a valid consideration of this novel can be undertaken. Today a novel on any phase of the black revolution is de facto propaganda and allegory, whatever the author's disposition toward his subject matter may be. In consequence, aesthetic considerations must take second place to the social and political ones in criticizing such a book. With artistic considerations aside, Mr. Styron's novel is little more than an attempt to demean Nat Turner and the black people. The book fails to make good its claim to historical veracity and perpetuates a large number of anti-black myths and assumptions.
Careful reading of the book causes one to question Styron's ideals. For example, Styron continuously points out the excesses of callousness and cruelty practiced by a minority of slave owners. However, I looked in vain for a condemnation of slavery as an institution, or even a bare implication that black people would have been better off as free men than as slaves.
The range of fabrications and inaccuracies is large but the following are among the more important.
First, Styron totally demeans Nat Turner as a human being and individual. The real Nat Turner's wife was taken from him and sold to another plantation by Turner's owner. In a manner chillingly reminiscent of this slaveholder, Styron refuses to admit her existence and proceeds to misrepresent Turner's entire family life.
Second, the author implies that Turner's influence over the other blacks was the result of his status as a house slave.
Third, as a totally gratuitous addition, Styron has Turner spend two-thirds of his life lusting to rape a white girl, any white girl.
Fourth, Styron's Turner is a remarkedly implausible minister.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the author betrays an unremitting contempt for black people throughout the book.
1) Turner's Family Life
Styron's hero is an unwed celibate, his one and only sexual experience being with another black man. He has a Moynihan-style one-parent family. His mother is much contented with her life as a house slave. He leads a life of loneliness and frustration during his childhood, thoroughly cut off from other children his age. He receives all of his education from whites.
By contrast the historical Turner is known to have had a wife and reported to have had a son. Rather than growing up in a Moynihan-model A.D.C. family, Nat Turner knew and loved both of his parents and his grandmother. He was taught to read by his parents. He was regarded with awe and respect by the slaves in the area from the time he was a child.
2) Turner's Ability to Lead
When four years old, Turner was able to recount events that occurred before his birth, events that he could not possibly have known by normally explainable means. Since black people believed in the efficacy of the spirit world, this act established a large amount of respect in the minds of all those blacks who heard of it. Turner was well on his way to leadership in the black community before he was five years old.