THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER by William Styron (1968)

This novel is a fictionalised account of a slave insurrection that took place in 1831 in the town of Jerusalem, now named Courtland, in Southampton County in the state of Virginia. It is based on an account of Nat Turner’s confessions published by a local lawyer, Thomas Gray.

William Styron, a Virginian by birth, assumes the voice of Turner, an educated slave and local preacher , who together with an assembled band of “ferocious miscreants” killed 59 whites; actions condemned by the white community as “random butchery”.

In an author’s note, Styron writes: “Perhaps the reader will wish to draw a moral from this narrative, but it has been my own intention to try to re-create a man and his era, and to produce a work that is less a ‘historical novel’ in conventional terms than a meditation on history”.

It is important to note that black intellectuals fiercely rejected Styron’s portrayal of the rebel leader and angrily accused the writer of being an apologist for slavery. Essays denouncing the novel were collected in The Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner, published in 1968.

Nat Turner

Accusations of deliberate racism seem to me to be unfair but, at the same time, Styron’s portrayal of Nat Turner is certainly unconventional. For someone who wanted to see the negroes rise up and fight for their freedom it is curious that Turner is represented as someone who frequently looks down on his own race as docile and backward, at one point he refers to his fellow blacks as “God’s mindless outcasts”.

Turner is depicted as a man of strong passions but also one who struggled to maintain a vow of chastity which he took after a brief homosexual encounter. We see him fighting his sexual urges, with the principal object of his lust being a comely young white woman Margaret Whitehead.

Critics point to the fact that Nat Turner was actually married and that the separation from his wife was almost certainly one of the causes of his thirst for vengeance. Lerone Bennett in his essay ‘Nat’s Last White Man’  comments with heavy irony:“one can only wonder why Styron dreams of black revolutionaries dreaming of white thighs”.

Perhaps a more accurate point made in the novel is that Nat’s education is largely what set him apart from his peers to the point that he:”transcended his sorry state and had become not a thing but a person”. The legal status of slaves was that of “animate chattel” and the common view was that it served the interests of whites to keep them in a state of ignorance.

Turner learns to read and becomes a skilled carpenter. This raises his status although it doesn’t mean that he is immune from abuse and mistreatment.

One slave owner concisely sums up the philosophy on how to treat these ‘goods’:  “…beat a nigger, starve him, leave him wallowing in his own shit, and he will be yours for life. Awe him by some hint of philanthropy, tickle him with the idea of hope, and he will want to slice your throat”.

Though initially ashamed by his “niggerness” , Turner is driven by an “exquisitely sharpened hatred for the white man” after witnessing the daily cruelty, injustice and indignity inflicted upon the black people.

He immerses himself in biblical studies and finds in God’s teaching a mandate to destroy all white people. He sets out to recruit a trusted band to carry out this divine mission, believing that an uprising in Virginia would provide the impetus for a wider ranging rebellion.

Yet, throughout, Styron seems reluctant to give Nat Turner too many truly heroic qualities. For instance, Turner is shown as a general who can orchestrate violence but cannot do the dirty work of killing the enemy n cold blood.

Equally, Turner’s prowess as a preacher merely struck me as someone misguided enough to think he was on a mission from God rather than someone fighting a noble social cause in the interests of humanity.

When his plans go wrong Turner looks for spiritual guidance and finds none. He looks heavenwards for answers to his prayers but sees only “a grey impermeable sky”.

When order is restored, Thomas Gray is able to observe with some justification : “Reverend, single-handedly you done more with your Christianity to assure the defeat of abolition than all the meddlin’ and pryin’ Quakers that ever set foot in Virginia put together.”

The accusation that Styron set out to be a white man’s apologist is debatable but, even so, his liberal-minded ‘meditation’ ends up rewriting history with the effect of toning down the revolutionary significance of  a key event in black history.