In 1968, The Confessions of Nat Turner, a book based upon the most significant slave revolt in American history, won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. William Styron’s novel about Turner continues to provoke discussion in the decades since its publication because it addresses the complicated relationship between black versus white, fact versus fiction, and art versus history. The Confessions of Nat Turner has been a controversial novel, but it is also a book that can stand on its artistic merits. To create a rounded character, Styron expanded upon the limited material of the slave’s life presented in the actual confession. The result is a fictional character who is credible. The negative side of Styron’s approach is that it left him vulnerable to charges of racism and historical falsification.
Nine months after publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner, a book of vehement disapproval appeared. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond attacked the novelist for distorting the image of a black hero. They complained that Styron turned a strong black man into an indecisive and emasculated figure. In reality, Turner’s revolt had far-reaching effects because of the strength of its leader. Most slave revolts never got as far as Turner’s Rebellion. The significance of the revolt is easily seen in the reaction to it. Turner undermined the theory that slaves were docile and happy, intensified the always-present fear of slave revolts, provoked the tightening of slave regulations, sparked the enactment of harsher policies toward slaves and free blacks, sped the decline of abolitionism in the South and its rise in the North, and influenced John Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The reception of the novel, especially the ferocity of attacks from black readers, shocked Styron. He mistakenly assumed that Turner’s “heroic” deeds were erased from the historical memory of African Americans.
Styron’s work appeared in print in 1967 as the United States experienced a round of riots and other forms of rebellion by blacks who protested their second-class citizenship. The social and political context of the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement shaped the public response to The Confessions of Nat Turner. At the time, some black revolutionaries embraced black philosopher Frantz Fanon’s belief that oppressed peoples could liberate themselves psychologically as well as politically only through murderous violence. Styron convicted Turner of moral blindness and sent him, a penitent, to Judgment. Styron’s critics challenged the presumption that Turner’s actions lacked morality. Vincent Harding, in William Styron’s...
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