Tonight I finished reading William Styron's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). This was a deeply controversial book upon its publication, because the white author Styron chose to dramatize the life of the leader of the only successful slave revolt in American history. Nat Turner was hung to death in 1831 for his actions, and dictated a confession that Styron uses as his jumping off point. Styron was accused of indulging in racist stereotypes in his depiction of Turner, and (more generally) of not having the moral authority to tell the story of a black man. This was the 1960's, when the identity politics that still Balkanize us today were in their infancy.
I'd known about the controversy surrounding this novel for years, but only picked it up a few months ago. Then it sat on my desk for a while. Finally,on President's Day (a day off from work for me), I cracked open the covers. By the time I went to bed that night, I had read 175 pages and easily could have read many more. Few novels make me pause sentence by sentence, but passages of Nat Turner made me do just that. Within the space of a paragraph, I would move from reclining on the couch to sitting upright with rapt attention.
So I recommend this book.
Styron's house guest at the time he wrote Nat Turner was the African-American novelist James Baldwin, who caused controversy of his own by using white protagonists in his novel Another Country (1962). Baldwin and Styron are two of the greatest writers of the last century, who forged a legitimate friendship that surmounted the predictable politics of elite pontificators. Long live art.