CBR10Bingo – Home Something Home
So I grew up in and currently live in Virginia. And I am from the western part of the state, which is more conservative than I like to admit these days, but also was significantly poorer and mountainous than the huge farming belts in the middle and eastern parts of the state. And so begins the lie that many white people like to tell themselves reflecting on their place in the South in a post-Civil War society. The people of my hometown as a whole were no more “innocent” of slavery and its crimes than anybody else in the South. It’s same kind of uncomfortable complicity many of experience in late capitalism. Right thinking, with no real divestment, doesn’t negate the consequences of capital choices we make or are made in our name. I would begin to suggest that Virginians that defied their birth and fought for their North at began the reconciliation necessary to deal with that original sin of American slavery.
But there’s also a kind of liberal defensiveness around slavery and racism too, and championing Black voices and Black writers and putting some work into it doesn’t do much to actually assuage any of the potential guilt felt, and it’s the rare Left leaning person who can maturely take their lumps and not lash out defensively. I am among those who also feel defensive at times when addressing privilege or having it addressed for me.
And so a novel like this, which supposes to take a Black voice, and especially the voice of Nat Turner, the most famous leader of a Slave Rebellion, and speak through them takes a special brand of audacity and arrogance. But the appeal also makes sense. The work of dismantling the psychology of slavery and race in this country is a nearly impossible task, and unrooting and untangling that from your own brain as a white person requires some really uncomfortable truths. So there’s an appeal of the liberal, to take be beyond that and in a state of already-past that has its appeals. But it’s all a lie. And I think that William Styron writing this novel, with its beautiful language, and seemingly earnest take on Nat Turner; its sympathetic understanding of oppression; its inner-voice…all speaks to that belief that he could get beyond the heart of the issue and lend his talented voice to it.
Put another way, I think that his liberal consciousness and his friendship with exceptional figures like James Baldwin got the best of him.
And so this book exists, and doesn’t get exist but won the Pulitzer. It’s a book that’s not all that much more egregious than some of Faulkner and some of Mark Twain, and is definitely “better” politically than Hemingway or Steinbeck or Erskine Caldwell, but it’s the added insult of overstepping bounds more so than committing an obvious foul.
But also, it’s substantial. It’s a dense 430 book full of the inner voice of a completely voiceless person, who committed the worst of all crimes (in the sense of betraying the very capital system of slavery — a crime that’s made so much worse because it exposes the foul sin of an entire hemisphere). So what to do? For one, read some excerpts, but the whole of the novel is too much. I was 100 pages out when I was ready to write this, and by the my mind was trying to process it all, I was ready to stop reading.
But also reckon with the novels that sort of happen in the wake of this novel — intentionally or not. So it’s unfair to say that these other novels are related at all except through subject-matter to Styron’s, but they exist within the way too small world of publishing. Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Alex Haley’s Roots are two most obvious ones. In addition, any and all slavery narratives — which helps to show more of a genre developing, but also create a diversity of viewpoints (Olaudah Equiano’s narrative is not only very good, but challenging to 2018 sensibilities). And then in recent years Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and especially Jame McBride’s The Good Lord Bird add tremendous value to novels similar in plot. McBride’s novel deals especially well with the recklessness of White allies.
Ultimately, I champion Styron’s other novels, especially Sophie’s Choice, and I can’t stand by this one. But since he tells us in the introduction he’s very interested in the writing of history and how it plays through novels, it’s interesting then that he distracted his readers from his very own novel.