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The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)
von William Styron
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Historical Fiction (334)
Tagged 19th Century (74)
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First edition good
Good historical novel of a slave who led a revolt against their masters in the early 1800s in Virginia. Makes you think about slavery and what it does to people. I listened to it as an audiobook.
The Confessions of Nat Turner is a 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by American writer
William Styron. Presented as a first-person narrative by historical figure Nat Turner, the novel concerns
Nat Turner's slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, but does not always depict the events accurately.
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.
Here's what I wrote after reading in 1985: "Fictional characterization of the 1831 slave revolt leader, Nat Turner. Violence, hatred, and sorrow throughout." Won a Pulizer but was critiqued for a variety of ways in which Styron characterized both whites and blacks, slaves and slave-owners, in the novel. Based on actual event, a slave revolt in VA led by Nat Turner who was found guity and killed.
[Review written by my younger self]
Why is a novel that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 on my "Hate" list? Author Styron has no question about the important presence his novel has; he states that he is giving readers a fictional presentation of the actual history surrounding our title "character" in 1831. With this, Stryon takes on a certain authorial latitude that can be easily misconstrued with actual history.
I can understand the message Styron wishes to communicate. He presents the historical precursor for the problems and prejudices that haunt urban African-Americans today. But, with this, is it necessary to add his own altering of the actual history of this slave rebellion?
Here are some of the true facts Styron presents either directly or indirectly: 60 white persons killed, 17 perpetrators hung, 12 more sent to Alabama to die in slavery, and 131 free and enslaved Americans killed by a mob. With 220 dead and America's laws at the time becoming increasingly harsh (think of the Fugitive Slave Law), how much more latitude does Styron need to express his point?
With such a novel that uses an actual person and event, how much responsibility does Styron hold to historical accuracy? Many would say that he holds none at all. There is, indeed, the anonymously-written Primary Colors, among others, that takes its own version of history and "tweaks" it for entertainment appeal. So let's consider Styron's purpose? Is it entertainment? In the book's afterword, Styron writes that the real Nat Turner was a person of "conspicuous ghastliness" and "a dangerously religious lunatic". So what does Styron want to do? He wants to change this person of demonic fanaticism with one of "stern piety".
Thus Styron wants to alter this man's personality. With this, the story becomes one of a tortured man who feels that being cut off from God is a fate worse than death. Throughout all his brutal and grotesque violence, he claims himself in the fictional parts of this novel to be a man of God. Has Styron acted responsibly in doing this? More importantly, does this alteration make it easier to swallow this historical event, and should that even be a consideration?
This event is just a small slice of the over 60 million slaves whose lives were lost. What if these and other figures were altered in other historical events? What if the numbers and events were altered regarding the over 12 million lost in the Holocaust? What if authors decide they want to take some authorial license over the recent events in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Kosovo?
I do not discount the fact that the actual historically-accurate circumstances regarding Nat Turner are of great significance today. But can readers benefit from a story that claims to present important history and yet is not wholly accurate? In a book entitled Ten Black Writers Respond, the title persons say that both they and their white counterparts would have better benefited from an unbiased assessment and chronicling of history as it is truly presented. In fact, in one of the most obvious historically-accurate omissions of Nat Turner being married with at least two children, activists and black writers accused Styron of adding firewood to the white racist view that black men are obsessed with white women.
By taking liberties with the story and the man, Styron seemed to brush off the fact that slaves' lives were actually worsened by Nat Turner and his rebellion. The fact that Turner seems almost as prejudiced against field slaves as well as masters is soon overshadowed by the fact that he later becomes a champion of slaves nationwide. Styron overlooks the fact that the real Nat Turner had a wife, and that his last few masters were actually relatively kind in a system of slavery that did not afford many kindnesses.
These overlooked historical facts could have only added to the human complexity that Styron was aiming for. Noting all of these fallbacks, it seems the author was seeking a preposterous self-aggrandizement by claiming unabashedly that his novel is a complete "meditation on history."
As a historical novelist, Styron did not do what historical novelists should do--i.e., investigate the facts. Therefore, Confessions is not an accurate portrayal of Nat Turner, and dangerously takes a controversial figure of race relations and distorts him. Only by presenting true accounts can historical novelists hope to honor and understand the complexity of the past and present this importance to their readers.
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Presents a fictionalized account of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)813.54Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
Klassifikation der Library of Congress [LCC] (USA)
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