Academic journal article Hollins Critic

William Styron and Human Bondage: The Confessions of Nat Turner

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

William Styron and Human Bondage: The Confessions of Nat Turner

Article excerpt

I.

   "If this is true, from my soul I pity you ..."
   --Judge Cobb, sentencing Nat Turner.

This time Styron was off to a good start. "A wonderfully evocative portrait of a gifted, proud, long-suppressed human being ..."--Alfred Kazin in Book World. "The most profound fictional treatment of slavery in our literature ..."--C. Vann Woodward in The New Republic. "One of those novels that is an act of revelation to a whole society ..."--Raymond A. Sokolov in Newsweek. "A first-rate novel, the best that William Styron has produced and the best by an American writer that has appeared in some years ..."--Philip Rahv in the New York Review of Books. There were a few dissents, to be sure, but it was clear that The Confessions of Nat Turner was making its way from the outset.

In that respect it was in startling contrast to Set This House On Fire, which when it appeared in 1960 was jumped upon by almost everybody. That novel had the misfortune to be the long-awaited second novel by a man whose first book was a tremendous success. In the nine years that followed Lie Down in Darkness (a novella, The Long March, didn't really count), the critics grew tired of waiting. Almost everyone had predicted great things for William Styron, and the longer it took for him to produce a second big book, the more exasperated everyone became. So that when Styron finally managed to complete his second novel, its publication was almost certain to be anti-climactic. In addition, Set This House On Fire was very long, it was filled with much soul-torment, and there was no neat tragic pattern such as characterized Styron's first novel. Thus when Set This House On Fire finally appeared, all the journalistic reviewers began scolding at once. Supposedly the new book was windblown, self-indulgent, sentimental, bathetic, over-written, and so on--the chorus of castigation rose to an impressive decibel volume. Only a corporal's guard of reviewers dared to disagree, to insist that while Set This House On Fire wasn't a flawless novel, it was nevertheless a very impressive accomplishment, a moving work of fiction, in every way worthy of if not superior to Lie Down In Darkness, so that its author need in no way feel that he had failed to live up to his notices.

During the seven years between Set This House On Fire and Styron's new novel, however, critical opinion has pretty much come around to the viewpoint that Styron's second book was a quite respectable performance. Once the reviewers in the critical quarterlies, who are notably unswayed by journalistic reviews, began writing about the book, the initial verdict was reversed. Critical essays and chapters of books appeared which treated Set This House On Fire as a work which, though flawed in parts, contains some of the better writing of our time. For example, a good critic, Frederick J. Hoffman, has this to say about Set This House On Fire in his recent book The Art of Southern Fiction: "Styron's most recent novel sets the imagination agoing, in the expectation of an American literature of existentialism ... But it is perhaps best not to name it that, for fear of weighing it down with labels and classifications. The important fact is that Styron has used his talents mightily and to a good effect in this novel."

Set This House On Fire is the story of Cass Kinsolving, an artist unable to paint. A World War II veteran, married and living in Europe, he must undergo a terrifying stay in the lower depths before he can win his way back to sanity and creativity. The leading characters, very unlike most Southern fictional folk, engage in long, probing psychological analyses of their inner souls. There are no Negroes (though there is a memory of them), no First Families going to seed, no church services, no blood-guilt of generations, no oversexed Southern matrons. It is thoroughly, completely modern, even cosmopolitan. Cass Kinsolving is a man in bondage; in Paris, Rome and Sambuco he lives in an alcoholic daze, tortured by his inability to paint, drinking, wandering about, pitying himself, doing everything except confronting his talent. …

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