When William Styron Ruled the Best-Seller List
HAPPY OLD YEAR: Half a century ago, in the winter after the Summer of Love, American reading habits were as turbulent as the culture at large. William Styron’s novel of slave rebellion, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” ruled the fiction best-seller list of Dec. 31, 1967, where it was joined by titles as varied as “The Exhibitionist” (Henry Sutton’s sex-soaked Hollywood romp), “The Chosen” (Chaim Potok’s coming-of-age tale about Jewish identity) and “The President’s Plane Is Missing” (Robert J. Serling’s political thriller about a constitutional crisis). And — in maybe the clearest sign that you would have needed the Richter scale to measure the zeitgeist of the late 1960s — the same list made room for both “Christy,” Catherine Marshall’s historical Christian romance, and “Rosemary’s Baby,” Ira Levin’s tale of satanic horror. Strange days, as the Doors noted that fall.
Styron’s novel has probably demonstrated the longest staying power of any book on that week’s list. That’s partly because its account of America’s roots in slavery feels as fraught as ever, and partly because the artistic debate it ignited — about racial imagination and appropriation — still burns like a wildfire through today’s cultural landscape. After a planned movie adaptation was postponed in early 1970 (it was eventually canceled altogether), Styron railed against the “black pressure groups” he held responsible. “I feel that the attacks on the book are completely irrational,” he told The New York Times, “since they come mostly from blacks who resent that a white man has written about their black hero.” Twentieth Century Fox, for its part, maintained that the decision was financial; the movie, with James Earl Jones cast as Nat Turner and Sidney Lumet set to direct, had sprinted past its initial budget. Not that it hurt Styron, who was reportedly paid $600,000 for the film rights. “I don’t feel I’ve been shortchanged, because I’ll get the money,” he told The Times. Meanwhile, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” went on to spend 60 weeks on the hardcover and paperback best-seller lists, 25 of them at No. 1.
IN FACT: The Dec. 31, 1967, nonfiction list was all over the place as well. Here are the top four titles:
1) “‘Our Crowd’: The Great Jewish Families of New York,” by Stephen Birmingham.
2) “Nicholas and Alexandra,” by Robert K. Massie.
3) “Rickenbacker,” by Edward V. Rickenbacker.
4) “Memoirs,” by George F. Kennan.