New York Review of Books Exchange
Historian Eugene Genovese defended William Styron in a review of William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond published in the New York Review of Books on September 12, 1968. Contrary to reason, Genovese asserted that the novel was historically sound and denounced “the ferocity and hysteria of the attack.” He contested Vincent Harding’s argument that Nat Turner was part of black people’s “living traditions.” Yet, novelist and critic Albert Murray had refuted this alleged black amnesia in his article “A Troublesome Property”—published in the New Leader on December 4, 1967—when he quoted a children’s song that went: “Well you can be milk-white and just as rich as cream / And buy a solid gold carriage with a four-horse team / But you cain’t keep the world from movering round / Or stop old Nat Turner from gaining ground.”
Historian Eric Foner wrote in his 1971 sourcebook Nat Turner, “Few historians…have tried to tap the folk memory of Turner, and many have doubted that it exists at all.” But, he stated, stories handed down to a man by his parents and grandparents showed that even in the 1960s “the folk memory of Turner is still alive in Southampton County.”
Nevertheless, Genovese asserted, “If Nat Turner is now a name widely known to black and white America, and if the existence of armed resistance to slavery is now generally appreciated, William Styron deserves as much credit as any other writer.”
In a following issue, two contributors to the book—Harding and Mike Thelwell—as well as author Anna Mary Wells, responded to Genovese who, in turn, responded to them. Wells concluded her piece by stating, “Professor Genovese’s contention that black Americans should be grateful to Styron for having rescued their hero from oblivion even though he has perverted him in the process seems to me equaled only by the argument of slave-owners that blacks ought to be grateful for slavery because it enabled them to have instruction in the Christian religion.”
Eugene D. Genovese, “The Nat Turner Case,” New York Review of Books, September 12, 1968.
Anna Mary Wells, Vincent Harding, and Mike Thelwell, with reply by Eugene D. Genovese, “An Exchange on ‘Nat Turner,’” New York Review of Books, November 7, 1968.