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The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)

von William Styron

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2,530324,845 (3.93)213
Presents a fictionalized account of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia.
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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. ( )
  MGADMJK | Dec 11, 2021 |
[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. ( )
  irrelephant | Feb 21, 2021 |
I don't really care for this author's work that much, not that I have read it all. Thomas Wolfe is one of my favorite authors and Styron disliked his work so that may be why. Anyway, Styron has Turner down as gay. I suppose that is possible but isn't it more likely that the slave community fearing reprisal closed ranks around Turner's family and gave them a new identity in the confusing aftermath. ( )
  JoeHamilton | Jul 21, 2020 |
Outstanding read related to slavery ( )
  atufft | Jul 5, 2019 |
By sword and ax and gun you run a swath through this county that will be long remembered. You did, as you say, come damn near to taking your army into this town. And in addition, as I think I told you before, you scared the entire South into a condition that may be described as well-nigh shitless. No niggers ever done anything like this.

During my arrogant youth I signed up for a History of Slavery course, you know, so I could marshall evidence against The Man. I went the first day, inspired by Huey Newton, wearing a Ziggy Marley t-shirt, cargo pants and my Barca soccer cleats. I entered the room with Wretched of the Earth prominently displayed and discovered that the class was 80 percent black. This is southern indiana, mind you. I tried to participate and often did, the undertow of history kept clipping my thoughts and outbursts. The instructor was also white and spent most of the semester bursting into tears. The term project required reading a literary treatment of the period (Gone With The Wind, Beloved) and comparing it to slave narratives. I chose William Styron's novel, well, because it concerned Nat Turner. I did listen to Public Enemy after all.

I did enjoy the novel and can remember a number of aspects. Reading the critical responses to such, i can certainly empathize with those that felt that were being disinherited or disabused somehow by this nuanced portrait. The chanteuse Abbey Lincoln proclaimed on Ken Burns' Jazz, in this country they'll steal your ancestors. That's a great deal of baggage for a goodreads review. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
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To James Terry and to Lillian Hellman and to my wife and children
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TO THE PUBLIC - The late insurrection in Southampton has greatly excited the public mind and led to a thousand idle, exaggerated and mischievous reports.
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This is William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). It is not the same work as The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), edited by Thomas R. Gray from his interviews with Nat Turner.
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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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