The Confessions of Nat Turner
First edition cover
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|ISBN||0-679-60101-5 (1st ed)|
|LC Class||PS3569.T9 C6 1994|
The Confessions of Nat Turner is a 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by U.S. writer William Styron. Presented as a first-person narrative by historical figure Nat Turner, the novel concerns the slave revolt in Virginia in 1831. It is based on The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia, a first-hand account of Turner's confessions published by a local lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, in 1831.
The novel is based on an extant document, the "confession" of Turner to the white lawyer Thomas Gray. In the historical confessions, Turner claims to have been divinely inspired, charged with a mission from God to lead a slave uprising and destroy the white race.
Styron's ambitious novel attempts to imagine the character of Nat Turner; it does not purport to describe accurately or authoritatively the events as they occurred. Some historians consider Gray's account of Turner's "confessions" to be told with prejudice, and recently one writer has alleged that Gray's account is itself a fabrication.
Styron takes liberties with the historical Nat Turner, whose life is otherwise undocumented. The "Confessions" is largely sympathetic to Turner, if not to his thoughts.
The time is November, 1831. Black slave Nat Turner sits in a Virginia jail awaiting execution for his crimes. Nat led a slave rebellion which ended in total failure, resulting in the deaths of dozens of white people as well as many of his own closest friends. Thomas Gray, a smug, oily prosecuting attorney, urges Nat to "confess" his crimes and make peace with God. Nat begins to think back on his past life and tells the novel in a series of flashbacks.
Nat's first master was Samuel Turner, a wealthy Virginia aristocrat who believed in educating his slaves. Nat learned to read and write, and also became a skilled carpenter. Unfortunately, when he was still a child Nat's mother was brutally raped by an Irish overseer while the master was away. This traumatic experience gives Nat both a burning hatred of white people and a secret revulsion from women's bodies and the sexual act.
Samuel Turner has vaguely promised Nat his freedom, but through a series of misunderstandings Nat is sold instead to an impoverished preacher named Reverend Eppes. Eppes is a filthy, drooling homosexual who is obsessed with young boys, and he is determined to make Nat "pleasure" him at the earliest opportunity. Though Nat is not especially interested in young women at this point, he finds Eppes physically distasteful and shies away from physical contact. Discouraged, Eppes soon sells young Nat to a pair of cruel redneck farmers who brutally whip the frightened, timid slave and treat him like an animal. This intensifies his growing hostility towards whites.
After bouncing around different masters for a number of years, Nat finally ends up as the property of a decent, hard-working farmer named Travis. Travis allows Nat to do skilled work as a carpenter and to read his Bible and preach to other slaves. During his religious fasts deep in the deserted woods, Nat begins to have strange visions of black and white angels fighting in the sky. Gradually he comes to believe these visions mean he is to lead the black race in a holy war to destroy all whites.
Complications arise, however, when Nat meets Margaret Whitehead, the beautiful, vivacious daughter of a wealthy widow who lives nearby. Though her family owns many slaves, high-spirited Margaret opposes slavery and openly admires Nat's preaching. Gradually the two of them become friends, though Nat is haunted by the fear that if his plans succeed lovely Margaret must die.
With several loyal slaves behind him, Nat finally launches his rebellion in late August 1831. This is a time when most wealthy whites are away on vacation, which will make it easier for the slaves to seize weapons and attack the nearby town of Jerusalem. From the very beginning, however, Nat's rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat's leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army. And Nat himself, unexpectedly sickened by the sight of blood and the screams of his white victims, begins to doubt both his own mission and God's plan for his life.
The final crisis occurs as the slaves storm the Whitehead plantation. In a tragic twist, Margaret and her sisters have not gone away on vacation after all. Filled with unreasoning hatred, Will the axe-wielding maniac slays all the white women but Margaret, openly taunting Nat and daring him to prove his black manhood to the rest of the recruits. With a heavy heart, Nat grabs his sword and chases Margaret into a nearby field, where he slays her with great reluctance. As the breath leaves her body, the pure young maiden sighs her forgiveness for her unwilling executioner.
Back in the jail cell, lawyer Gray smugly announces that the hangman is ready to punish Nat for his crimes. As he concludes their final interview, he asks the failed black leader if he has any regrets for having caused so much suffering and death. Nat calmly replies that he has only one regret, and marches off to the gallows with dignity, already envisioning a heavenly reunion with Margaret Whitehead.
Literary significance and criticism
Despite defenses by notable African-American authors Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, the novel was strongly criticised by many black Americans. Styron's portrayal of a legendary black resistance leader as a reluctant warrior who bumbles every attack and fumbles his way to total defeat generated enormous resentment. No less offensive to many black readers was the narrator's flattering portrayal of many of the novel's slaveowners, such as the "saintly" Samuel Turner. The character of Margaret Whitehead, in particular, seemed to enrage black readers, as she is permitted to flirt with Nat and chatter on endlessly about her love for poor downtrodden blacks while remaining sunnily unaware of her own slaveowning status. For much of the novel Nat sighs over the slim, virginal blonde like a love-struck adolescent, while showing little or no interest in women of his own race.
Issues of class divided readers as well. While the white slaveowners in the novel, especially the wealthy ones, are represented as generous, courteous, and basically decent, poor whites are held up to ridicule as simpletons and deviants. Turner and his supporters (particularly the scene-stealing, scenery-chewing madman Will, who many readers saw as a thinly disguised version of black rock and roll pioneer Little Richard) are caricatured as disturbed, monstrous figures. Nat and his rival Will are both continually shown fantasizing about sexually assaulting white women. Critics took issue with Styron using the "myth of the black rapist", as portraying black men as prone to sexual violence against white women. Suspected sexual assault was a longstanding racist stereotype used as rhetorical justification for lynching black men.
In order to address these concerns, ten leading black intellectuals wrote essays criticizing the work, collected in William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968). Historian Eugene D. Genovese defended Styron's right to imagine Turner as a fictional character.
Despite protests against the novel, Styron's work won critical acclaim and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut has Billy Pilgrim in a Manhattan radio studio amongst a group of literary critics there "to discuss whether the novel was dead or not." "One of them said that it would be a fine time to bury the novel now that a Virginian, one hundred years after Appomattox, had written Uncle Tom's Cabin"--a reference to Styron's novel.
- Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Boston: Beacon P, 1968.
- Genovese, Eugene D. "The Nat Turner Case", review of William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, ed. John Henrik Clarke, The New York Review of Books, 12 September 1968, Vol. 11, No.4
- Mellard, James M. “This Unquiet Dust: The Problem of History in Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner”, Mississippi Quarterly 36.4 (Fall 1983): 525-43.
- Ryan, Tim A. “From Tara to Turner: Slavery and Slave Psychologies in American Fiction and History, 1945-1968”, Calls and Responses: The American Novel of Slavery since Gone with the Wind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2008: 63-113.
- The Confessions of Nat Turner, original 1831 publication
- "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005", Time Magazine, accessed 17 April 2009
- http://www.theroot.com/views/truth-about-nat-turner?page=0,0&wpisrc=root_lightbox The Root Article
- Nell Painter, "Who Was Lynched?", reprinted at Nell Painter, from The Nation, 11 November 1991, Vol.253, #16, p. 577
- Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Boston: Beacon P, 1968