Two Novels about Slavery and Slave Rebellions: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron and Dessa Rose, by Sherley Ann Williams.
Some years ago I taught an "Images of Women" course in which we read The Confessions of Nat Turner. My focus was on the treatment of Margaret, the white woman that the rebellious slave Nat rapes and kills. At the same time, I was reading Dessa Rose in Nancy Porter’s Twentieth Century women’s literature course.
I found that these novels played well against each other. They share a similar plot line--a slave rebellion, a "confession." Much of Nat Turner reaches out beyond the bounds of the story, mostly to unfortunate and often unwittingly comical effect. Dessa Rose is at least in part a response to The Confessions of Nat Turner, but that’s just where her story begins. Rebellion and imprisonment are not the end of everything, as they are for Nat.
One of my students read The Confessions as an attack on Christianity. She said that Nat gets the idea of taking revenge on the slaveholder from reading the bloodier passages in the Bible. (Note that her point of view prescribes docility for slaves, not rebellion.) This is a different angle from the usual "the more you give them, the more they want," take on uprisings. Of course Styron provides big metaphorical arrows labeled "irony" pointing in that direction. An obvious sort of fellow, Styron italicizes Nat’s biblical passages.1 And as soon as he gets the hang of sounding biblical, Nat makes up his own italicized passages in Bible-type language and ends up raving about the "beast," having become a tool of the dark forces of evil. How ironic, thinks the implied reader, that teaching a slave the words of the Lord has led this black man to the worship of Satan and ultimately to murder.
Styron also italicizes the words of Margaret, the pure young white woman Nat will sacrifice, so that the alert reader realizes that Margaret is the sacrificial lamb of the Old Testament, white as the driven snow. Ah, what a contrast in black and white. Yes indeedy, as some passages from a romantic play she writes and puts on with her friends clearly show. This play, called The Melancholy Shepherdess, contains such lines as, "Oh I would fain swoon into the eternity of love,"
At this point in the novel, Nat starts italicizing about raping Margaret. "Abandon all for these hours of terror and bliss," "now, take her now," say the voices in his head. It must be fate.
But better death than dishonor for our pure heroine, as with Lucrece, the pure heroine of a long poem by that other great writer, William Shakespeare. Margaret’s death will be both poetic and terrible and really sexy, thinks the aroused implied reader.
Now my "confession" is that I chose this novel deliberately in order to attack it as a horrible example of "the great American novel." It has all the devices that the post WW II male authors made use of to show what magnificent writers and thinkers they were, yet real men at the same time.2 ]They wanted to have it all— write popular best sellers (scatology, sex, violence), be talk-show celebrities (charming Ivy League and/or Southern gentleman personalities),garner respect from the Academy (profound understanding of life and dazzling literary skill) and nail hot chicks.
Styron's success with Nat Turner--his continued success as an author--shows the advantage that even as inferior a writer as Styron has, if he’s a man, has gone to Yale, and knows the right people. He has flourished. His awful Sophie’s Choice must have netted him a fortune in film royalties. It's hard for me to say which I hated more: the book or the movie.
In Nat Turner, the basic message is reactionary and really vile. Nat seems subhuman, and his foil, Margaret, is just a prissy female that we can take much salacious pleasure in seeing ravaged and murdered. In Dessa Rose,Sherley Anne Williams shows how to take such sordid material as The Confessions and twist it into radical shape.
Negatively inspired by this book, she starts out in a similar way to Styron, but the leader of a failed slave rebellion in her book is a woman. She sets up a situation in which a white man threatens to co-opt Dessa’s story, just as the lawyer who (in real life) took down Nat’s confession did to him, and just as Styron does, putting words in Nat’s mouth. Dessa pours out her story to Nehemiah, speaking a dialect which he transcribes into his own stilted English.
Dessa, unlike Nat, escapes confinement and goes forward. She finds shelter with a white woman and a group of runaway slaves. These enterprising folk eventually support themselves with a scam involving selling themselves, escaping, and selling themselves again. The white woman acts as their owner in this brilliant con game. This woman, Rufal, so named by her black wet nurse, also nurses Dessa’s baby since Dessa has no breast milk, in a fascinating black-white interplay.
Of course no one can say such things actually happened; however, if Styron can make absurd claims on the past, so can Williams. And she has a much better handle on "black" dialect than Styron, who seems to think that "gwine" is a dialect word.3 If she does not entirely convince, well, neither does Styron. What happens is that as she gets farther away from the "rebellion" story and into her own storytelling territory, she starts painting a more and more plausible picture. That’s because she has something brand new and important to say. She provides a new set of possibilities for relationships between white women and black women, showing a white woman who cares for the black woman and her child instead of the usual situation where the black woman is the caregiver.
So, while Styron kills everything with his polluted imagination, Williams brings a future possibility to life through an imaginative reworking of the past.
1. Faulkner started this unfortunate Southern italicizing habit, and it has spread far and wide, leaving few authors unscathed.2. Norman Mailer is probably the archetype. But Kate Millet did such a hatchet job on him in Sexual Politics that he never recovered his reputation. 3. As Lenny Bruce put it, "What’s a ‘gwine?’ "
© 2002, Marianna Scheffer