March 9, 2008 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Just a few idle thoughts after finishing this late yesterday:

-Funny coincidence: while I was reading this, my wife Jaime was reading a book subtitled The Confessions of Ike Turner. Synchronicity!

-I kind of dismissed the title of this book without a second thought until after I’d finished, but now it has me thinking.  The significance of the title, which is also the title of the actual document written (and/or transcribed) by T.R. Gray based on the historical Nat’s statement (and the preface to which appears as the preface of Styron’s book), now looms large.  I credit some of the shriller criticism of the work with pointing this out to me: there were (are?) suggestions that the book be retitled The Confessions of William Styron or, if you want to be gratuitously insulting, The Confessions of Willie Styron.

I’m taking it a different direction, though: the book is a confession, but whereas the historical confession is a legal confession, detailing what happened when and, so far as Gray can surmise, why and how, this novel is a moral and personal confession, as well.   But Nat remains adamant to the end that he would carry out his insurrection again, given the chance.  So what has he confessed?  His lust; his disgust at the actions by some of his men during the insurrection, especially Will, and his guilt at killing Margaret Whitehead to assure the men that he was capable of killing; perhaps, just perhaps, his confusion (right up until the end) with why he was called to do this only to see it go to hell, and to see none of the effects he hoped for come to pass.  (There’s an ironic twist to the double-titling, too, in that both documents are supposed monologues by a black slave taken down by a white mediator.  I would think that a lot of this is coincidental, but then, from what I know Styron was quite deliberate with his titles: they were important to him.  It’s an obvious title but an interesting one, too.)

-My earlier thoughts on the lack of Jesus in a book so full of the Bible and Christianity (see “The Gospel of the Flies”) recurred to me as Nat has a vision of something like heaven on his way to the gallows, and thinks, “I would have spared her that showed me Him whose presence I had not fathomed or maybe never even known.” In a moment, he thinks, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” It seems to be Styron’s final motion toward hopes of contemporary racial reconciliation, coming as it does after Gray smuggles a Bible to Nat in the jail the night before his execution.

-There are thickets of scholarship on this book, and I’ve just started poking around at the outlying shrubbery. One thing it’s got me thinking, though, is that my nonfiction reading on slavery has been too thin. (Another thing it’s gotten me to thinking is that we, as a country, are kind of in a weird time with the topic right now. I mean, it’s a topic that comes up constantly in public discourse, but so much of the discussion seems trite, facile, or assumptive. Is it exhaustion? Aversion? Or have we never been very good, as a culture, about confronting the actual mechanics of slavery? There was Roots, I guess. And, granted, like most cultures we tend to be more comfortable discussing the crimes against humanity of other people. Maybe this is just my own warped view of things.) Anyway, I’m in the market for some books on American slavery: I’m thinking detailed, well researched accounts of the trade and the day-to-day. Plus a sweeping narrative of broad trends from colonies to Civil War. I could do the legwork on my own, but maybe you’ll save me the trouble. Suggestions, please!

Laying My Vengeance Upon Thee

March 7, 2008 § 4 Comments

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

**Reading next: E.M. Forster, A Passage to India.**

The connection I’m going to try to make here is probably tenuous at best, but the connection in question struck such a chord when I read a certain passage tonight that I have to spin it out a little.

Nat begins to blossom as a preacher as, paradoxically, the hate he feels for white people begins to fester and dominate his life in earnest.  A poor, white “sotomite” named Ethelred T. Brantley overhears Nat preaching to a group of slaves in town one day and asks Nat to save him, however possible.  After a little discussion, Nat recommends a week of fasting and meditation, at the end of which he will baptize him.

When the day of baptism arrives, they find the pond they’ve arranged to use surrounded by a crowd of antagonistic white folks.  But Nat pushes on, and the passage he recites before dunking Ethelred is from Ezekiel (37:6): “I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live, and ye shall know that I am the Lord…”

Maybe you see where I’m going here: when I read that, I instantly thought of Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in Pulp Fiction.  Allow me a fanboy rant at this point: this is, quite simply, one of the greatest film performances of all time.  It’s such a perfect match of role, actor, and film that I don’t think Sam’s ever quite gotten over it.  (As an aside, it is, in retrospect, positively ridiculous that all the hype at the time was about Travolta, and that Miramax (I assume) made the decision to enter Travolta on the Oscar ballots for Best Actor, and Jackson for Best Supporting Actor.  Go ahead, watch the movie again.  Tell me who’s leading and who’s supporting; tell me who the true star of the movie is.)

And of course, Jackson’s recitations of Jules’ version of Ezekiel 25:17 at the beginning and end of the film are the greatest parts of the film.  (Here it is, very little of it actually in Ezekiel: “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”)  It is, on paper, more or less a ridiculous speech.  And it could have been really bad, just this really bad Tarantinified blaxploitation reference, but when you see the movie: damn!   It’s real, it’s fierce, it’s utterly cryptic and compelling and you can feel Jules all the way through it.  I mean, the crescendo of “and you will KNOW my name is the LORD!” in the first speech compared to the taut, thoughtful delivery near the end: it’s absolutely perfect.

Interesting, comparing Styron’s Nat Turner and Tarantino/Jackson’s Jules.  Avenging angels, both, speaking from opposite ends of the civil rights movement.  Both have developed a more or less homemade, individual, somewhat mystical religion for themselves: Nat sees visions of black angels in the sky, calling him to wreak havoc, and Jules recites his pseudo-Biblical verse before blowing his employer’s enemies away, then decides to hang it up and “walk the Earth” after a junkie misses him at point-blank range.  Both are perplexed by their relationship to God, unsure what they can know about him but sure of what they are being told to do.  And both, in spite of their rage and their guilt, are (as Jules says) “tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”

Coincidentally, both also deliver their Ezekiel quotes to white men whose salvation or damnation they hold in their hands.  Nat’s verse is couched in the anger and wrath of Ezekiel just as Jules’ is, but it’s a creative verse; “you shall know my name is the Lord” here is comforting, life-affirming, if still slightly threatening.  Jules’ is, at first, pure destruction, but he shifts his view at the end of the movie, trying to glean a creative (or at least non-destructive) message from it.

Styron and the character embodied by Jackson have, I think, similar motives here in their creations as a whole.  Jules, looking back on a life of violence and anger, is trying to reconcile himself to that past, and find a peaceful way.  Styron, in the midst of the civil rights (and Black Power) movement, is writing about slavery and trying (I suspect) to connect the violent, ugly, oppressive past with the unfocused, unharnessed anger he saw around him, and find its motives, and its alternatives.

The Sex Thing

March 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

As you may know, when NT was published in 1967 there immediately followed a firestorm of criticism, controversy, indignation, scorn. It was a novel written by a white Southerner impersonating the voice of a black slave uprising leader, and it was 1967/68, for God’s sake. Between MLK’s assassination in April 1968, the Black Power movement, the rise of Black academia, and the times’ generally radical politics in intellectual circles, it was bound to stir things up. (Styron probably saw at least a measure of this coming: his carefully worded “Author’s Note” at the beginning points out that he took liberties, but based his account on the sources he could find, and tried to remain truthful to those meager sources whenever possible.)

One of the sticking points for a number of black intellectuals was— ahem— the sex stuff. Here are, so far (I’ve just started Part III, around page 275), the major juicy bits in question: Nat masturbates as a teenager, always to a fantasy of a white girl (see p. 172-73, and 180-183). A little later he befriends another slave, Willis, and the two end up pawing and masturbating each other after Nat has slapped Willis for swearing (203-04). And years later, as his hatred for white people increases, he has a detailed fantasy of raping a white woman who is crying in the street, unable to understand the black man from whom she asked directions (262-66).

There are some other things we could bring up, but I think this is probably enough to give you the idea. Obviously Styron has taken liberties here— scary, questionable, even objectionable liberties. I feel offended by this stuff, frankly, especially the rape fantasy— I can only imagine what a black person would feel reading that, seeming to corroborate and perpetuate hundreds of years of ridiculous miscegenation terrors and myths of black men endlessly craving white women.

That being said, a review of events like the one I gave above is always a bit of a lie without the scenes’ context, and (especially) without the nuances of experiencing the book as a whole. There are, in two of the cases, adjacent negative-exposure scenes of a white overseer raping Nat’s mother, and Nat’s second owner, Reverend Eppes, groping and propositioning him (unsuccessfully). But more than that, there’s the details of language and mise en scene that I can’t get into fully; they bring into focus Nat’s religious self-denial and the disgust for most blacks which he harbors from his (limited) education and his upbringing in the big house. They foreground Nat, I guess I’m trying to say–the individual, not the representative of a race. And I think we’re building to a crucial element at the climax of the book— Nat’s single personal murder, of Margaret Whitehead, a girl who had been kind to and even (after a fashion) befriended him. So the jury, for me, is still out.

But of course Nat always remains a representative of his race. Styron would seem to have no truck with ideological interpretations of literature— all the better— and the examples above should indicate that he was, if nothing else, fearless in his attempts to get at the truth of the matter, not at some kind of allegorical depiction of what we’d like to imagine the truth should’ve been. He was building a story based on the limited facts, but more than that, he was trying to build a story that would resonate not as history, but as meaningful literature for his time (and, I would think, all time). It’s troubling, though, and I wonder where it’s headed.

The Gospel of the Flies

March 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Jaime and I saw the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds in concert a few weeks ago. (They shared a twin bill with Solomon Burke, and last night we saw another twin bill of Booker T. Jones and the Maceo Parker Band. It’s been a good music month.) The Hummingbirds got me thinking about gospel music, for some reason; watching them, somehow gospel made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before.

I’m not an expert by any means, and I’ve never studied gospel, so what I’m about to say is probably blindingly obvious to many. Suddenly it made sense that gospel would be connected so intimately to Jesus, specifically. And it made sense that the profound connection of African American music to religion would be made through the figure of Jesus. He’s an almighty being, mysteriously connected to a father-figure, brought to a strange land, in thrall to his fate and his flesh. With the power, should he choose to use it, to stop the whole chain of events leading to his subjection, brutal abuse, and agonizing death. But choosing, instead, to go through with his physical and mental torture, sacrificing himself that others might be reconciled to their wrongdoing.

I had never thought about this before, how gospel music focuses to such a large degree on Jesus and on the prophets that (in the common Christian understanding of the Bible) prefigure his life and suffering. How of course, if gospel was born of slave songs, those songs would focus on Jesus, on suffering, on redemption. Duh.

Nat Turner, in Styron’s book, quotes compulsively from the Bible, but at least so far he is an Old Testament aficionado: Psalms, Proverbs, Job. His is a religion of people subjected and fighting to throw off their subjection, with a wrathful Jehovah’s encouragement. There’s a remarkable passage, early on, in which Nat watches a fly in his cell. He first thinks of a fly as “one of the most fortunate of God’s creatures. Brainless born… unacquainted with misery or grief.” But he quickly changes his mind, thinking of them instead as “God’s supreme outcasts, buzzing eternally between heaven and oblivion in a pure agony of mindless twitching.” He thinks, “Surely then, that would be the ultimate damnation: to exist in the world of a fly, eating thus [on whatever offal presented itself], without will or choice and against all desire.”

His thoughts connect to one of his masters “saying that Negroes never committed suicide.” And he realizes that this has been true in his experience. Then there’s this:

“…in the face of such adversity it must be a Negro’s Christian faith, his understanding of a kind of righteousness at the heart of suffering, and the will toward patience and forbearance in the knowledge of life everlasting, which swerved him away from the idea of self-destruction. And the afflicted people thou wilt save, for thou art my lamp, O Lord; and the Lord will lighten my darkness. But now as I sat there amid the sunlight and the flickering shadows of falling leaves and the incessant murmur and buzz of the flies, I could no longer say that I felt this to be true. It seemed rather that my black shit-eating people were surely like flies, God’s mindless outcasts, lacking even that will to destroy by their own hand their unending anguish…”

That’s rough stuff. “The righteousness at the heart of suffering” does seem, indeed, to reside at the very core of gospel music (Christianity in general, of course, from denomination to denomination in varying degrees). Music seems to have been part of a whole array of somewhat miraculous activities that, quite simply, kept slaves living, working, dying. It’s beautiful, profound music. And you can see that dark side, that side that Nat identifies in the end of the passage above. What to make of some of these songs now being part of most hymnal books, being performed in concerts as entertainment and part of the American songbook used by anyone, everyone, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, et al.?

Is a Pile of Legal Pads the Same as a Book?

February 28, 2008 § 2 Comments

Before I actually get into The Confessions of Nat Turner, I wanted to briefly discuss the weirdness of reading a book while simultaneously digging through the personal papers of that book’s author to put together an exhibit on his life. I suppose I should state the obvious up front: my views are mine alone, and not my employers’. I don’t plan on impugning or libelling anyone, or revealing any “secrets,” but hey, you never know. And I suppose for those who don’t know (if there are any of you out there), I should explain that I’m a librarian at Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, which holds a large chunk of the William Styron Papers (meaning manuscripts of his works, correspondence, and lots of other things. Here’s a finding aid for the collection, if you wanna see what’s in it.)

It doesn’t sound that weird, I guess, but it is, at least for me. Scholars do it all the time, but in a very different way — typically they’ve already read through a text (most often more than once, if they’ve gotten to the stage of needing to consult its author’s manuscripts) and are consulting a well known source as they work in an archive. I’m reading Nat Turner for the first time, both as research and as personal reading. Duke doesn’t have the manuscripts for Nat Turner, although it has the galleys and a lot of other related material. And it has manuscripts for many of his other works, like Sophie’s Choice.

What’s weird about it is perhaps not what you’d think. Nat was an enormously controversial book when it came out, and there’s a lot of correspondence (mostly supportive; would you write someone whose work you didn’t approve of?) and other materials on the controversy, but that isn’t what’s causing the kind of dissonance I’m getting. It’s not a matter of knowing too much about the book beforehand to read the book on its own terms. No, it’s more the effect of the body of materials as a whole, and especially the drafts themselves of his works.

As you might imagine, working in an archive is an enormously personal, even intimate activity. It can also be extremely misleading: you’re seeing whatever survived, the remnants of a career and a life and not a life in its fullness. Nevertheless, you get a sense of a person when you work with their stuff.

Styron mostly wrote his early drafts on long, yellow, legal-pad-sized sheets of paper, in pencil, with extensive corrections, additions, notes to himself in the margins. He’s got a nice hand, easy to read for the most part, with idiosyncratic t‘s that look like s‘s. He’s said how much of a labor writing was for him, how painful it was; you can kind of feel that in the manuscripts: something about the slant of his hand conveys it, as does the worn, rubbed feel at the margins of some of the pages. That feeling of hard work being done, hard thinking delivered through all those leads of varying sharpness, and rethinking and rewriting being done, the writer handling the pages over and over.

I’m not a “death of the author” person, but I tend to maintain quite a bit of separation between an author and his work. Although I enjoy a good literary biography (and a good biography in general — something very appealing about capturing the arc of a lived life) I tend to care, personally (not professionally), about an author’s biography only insofar as it illuminates the work itself. (I also think that a work that requires biographical info to engage me is probably not something I’m interested in. Plus I am generally disinterested in memoirs, as a genre, although there are exceptions.) I don’t want to get too lit-critty here, but when I’m reading Nat Turner I’ll find myself thinking of how Styron’s hand looks on those long yellow sheets, and I’ll remember all the intermediate stages that come between a first draft like that, fresh from the author’s pencil, and the published work (in ugly library binding, no less!) I have in my hand: all the minds it passed through, all the work by early readers (family, friends), editors, fact checkers, publishers, designers, typesetters, critics, etc. before it reached the published form. The finished book, I guess, seems less like a work of art and more like a… well, a product, produced for practical, business reasons; but also a phenomenon, a thing reaching the world after great travail and continuing through great travail (all those reviews, criticisms, discussions; all its varying manifestations in the separate minds of separate readers!) in both its physical and intellectual forms. The author’s work, all those wild, scrawled yellow pages, domesticated between two covers.

There’s something pleasurable about all this, in one way. And, on the whole, I certainly feel that my working life has informed my reading in lots of interesting ways. To have a better sense of the processes both of publishing and of reception of texts is necessary to many kinds of literary thinking. Thinking about these issues has enriched my reading and has exposed in some works facets I would’ve otherwise overlooked. But in this particular instance of reading an author while exploring his archive, there seems to be something both nearsighted and farsighted about the experience. I feel, just a little, simultaneously estranged from and embarrassingly connected to the work. It’s like a relative you never talk to but with whom you shared a room for a summer. I’ve not quite captured exactly what I mean, but that’s close.

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