Confronting the Late Emancipation Novel

Written by
Sarah Malone, Department of English
March 20, 2024

Who “gets” — who has a right, who has a responsibility — to write on topics of great importance to a particular group? What, in each particular case, is an appropriate approach? What audience is imagined? Appropriate, after all, is a judgment that rests with an audience. Who is in a position to judge, and for their judgment to have sway?

Such questions ran through “Nat Turner and the Late Emancipation Novel,” the March 5 public lecture by Christopher Freeburg, the Presidential Humanities and Social Sciences Endowed Chair and professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, drawn from Freedom Acts, a book in-progress that reimagines the problem of objectification in seminal works of African American literature. Freeburg interwove discussion of the text of William Styron’s 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner with discussion of its reception, from initial lauding by the largely white literary establishment — culminating in the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the largest fee for film rights at that time — to responses in William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, edited by John Henrik Clarke, and successful efforts by Ossie Davis and other Black actors in Hollywood to prevent the film’s production.

Freeburg focused line-level attention on certain passages, reading aloud Turner describing wonder at touching male skin, in language Freeburg characterized as approaching religious fervor. Freeburg later shared Black writers’ and critics’ contention that the fault in Styron’s novel wasn’t so much its controversial subject matter but its overwrought style. For them, Styron showed no aptitude for listening to how Black people actually speak, and thus fell short in representing a Black first-person voice. Freeburg offered Margaret Walker’s novel Jubilee (1966) as a contrast to Confessions, and observed how the vast publicity bestowed on Styron by the publishing establishment curtailed early attention for Walker’s novel, which only belatedly earned recognition as a groundbreaking work.

Students, faculty and staff attending the lecture engaged with the range of issues Freeburg raised. Taking up his observation that Styron had endeavored to humanize Turner, a graduate student considered whether humanism as such reached a conceptual limit point in the brutal facts of enslavement, much less a white writer’s efforts to represent them. Associate Professor of African American Studies and English Autumn Womack, noting that she was fresh from studying books on craft, suggested that the requirements of a novel — creating a character to enact a story through motivations — can conflict with the requirements of a historical subject to stay true to the facts. Following on Womack’s remarks, an MFA graduate noted that the discussion in progress would have been unlikely in many creative writing workshops, with their longtime emphasis on the sentence, and on substance arising from it.

Audience members contrasted the complications of relying so closely on historical events with Toni Morrison’s creative license in using folk and mystical elements. Interest outran the time booked. Associate Professor of English and African American Studies Kinohi Nishikawa wrapped up discussion by reflecting that Confessions, while its issues make it perhaps difficult to get through, merits reading especially in dialogue with James Baldwin’s novel Another Country (1962), for the kind of conversation about representation that the group was having.

The talk was a public lecture in connection with the graduate seminar “Postwar New York,” organized by Joshua Kotin, sponsored by Postwar New York: Workshops, a Humanities Council Magic Grant for Innovation and the Department of English, and cosponsored by the Department of African American Studies.