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William Styron: The Confessions of Nat Turner

Styron’s novel tells the story of the historical 1831 slave revolt. Styron has Turner narrate his story in the first person and based his account on the actual confessions Turner made to Thomas Gray, his lawyer, just prior to his execution. The novel was highly controversial, written as it was just after the 1965 Watts riots. Whites thought Styron was too sympathetic to Turner while blacks felt that Styron had distorted history. Indeed, a group of writers published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, criticising Styron’s approach. Some critics also felt that the Confessions, as written down by Gray, were slave-owning propaganda. Styron won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel.

Styron’s Turner, who does differ somewhat from the one we find in the original Confessions, is an intelligent man. Like other Styron heroes, he is an outsider, complicated by the fact that he works in the house and is therefore alienated from his fellow slaves. He is even taught to read and taught a trade, carpentry. However, while Turner’s owner is fairly liberal and treats his slaves well, even having a vague plan to emancipate them, when his farm fails, he sells Turner to the cruel Reverend Epps, who works Turner very hard. Turner has sexual fantasies, but they involve white women, as he looks down on his fellow blacks, of both sexes. But, with Epps, he realises that his dreams – of freedom, of somehow entering white society – are gone. Inspired by the vengeful Old Testament God, he plans his revolt with his fellow slaves, after Epps has sold him to the equally cruel Thomas Moore. When he hears God calling him to lead a revolt, he and his fellow slaves steal horses and guns and attack the Travis family, who now own him after the death of Thomas Moore. Nat initially finds that he cannot kill but then kills a white woman who had befriended him (the only person he kills) and the slaves go on a killing spree. The revolt is soon put down. Turner escapes and hides but is eventually caught and condemned to be hanged. He has no remorse for his crimes.

It is difficult to properly judge whether the book is racist. Were the Confessions as written down by Gray accurate or merely propaganda? Can a twentieth century white man possibly begin to understand how a nineteenth century slave would feel and think? Many writers have obviously written about people of different times and different races and clearly a writer should have such liberty, though he does lay himself open to charges of racism, particularly given what was happening in the United States at the time of writing. It is clear to me that Styron has made a credible attempt to examine Turner’s motivation. He has no obligation to paint him as a saint (or, indeed, as a devil) and has chosen to paint him as a complex man, even if some of his fellow slaves are less so. When I first read the book I was very impressed at Styron’s achievement and I still remain impressed with it.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by Random House