In William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, and the responses to his novels, two contrasting discourses emerge: a commitment to the idea that histories of slavery and the Holocaust can be explained by economic motives, on one hand, and, on the other, a commitment to the idea that these histories are defined by racial sentiments against blacks and Jews, respectively. This essay considers Styron’s commitment to the economic explanation alongside the fate of that explanation in Robert William Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s controversial history of slavery, Time on the Cross. All of these works were controversial because critics claimed they failed to take racism seriously and, in failing to do so, produced exculpatory accounts of Holocaust and slavery perpetrators.

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