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Why William Styron had to write ‘Nat Turner’

“Born in 1850 on an eastern North Carolina plantation, my father’s mother was the proprietress of two slave girls who were her age, 12 or thereabouts, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many years later, when she was an old lady in her 80s and I was 11 or 12, she told me at great length of her love for these children and of the horror and loss she felt when that same year, 1862, Union forces…  under General Burnside swept down on the plantation, stripped the place bare and left everyone to starve, including the little slave girls, who later disappeared.

“It was a story I heard more than once, since I avidly prompted her to repeat it and she, indulging her own fondness for its melodrama, told it again with relish, describing her hatred for the Yankees (which remained undiminished in 1937), the real pain of her starvation (she said they were reduced to eating ‘roots and rats’), and her anguish when she was separated forever from those little black girls, who were called, incidentally, Drusilla and Lucinda, just as in so many antebellum plantation novels.

“All of the deliciously described particulars of my grandmother’s chronicle held me spellbound, but I think that nothing so awed me as the fact that this frail and garrulous woman whom I beheld, and who was my own flesh and blood, had been the legal owner of two other human beings. It may have determined, more than anything else, some as-yet-to-be-born resolve to write about slavery.”

– From “Nat Turner Revisited” by William Styron in American Heritage, October 1992