The Confessions of Nat Turner

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Work

In 1835 Nat Turner led the most successful slave insurrection in American history—a Virginia uprising that lasted more than two months and killed more than fifty white people. Styron published his novel about Turner at the height of the Black Power movement during the 1960’s, at a time when African American writers and activists championed black separatism over integration. Narrated by Turner himself, Styron’s novel is daringly speculative about Turrner’s private life, and particularly his love for one of his white victims, Margaret Whitehead.

Black novelist James Baldwin, a personal friend of Styron, praised The Confessions of Nat Turner, and the novel won a Pulitzer Prize. However, other novelists, historians, literary critics, and psychologists published The Confessions of Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, angrily attacking Styron as a white Southerner whose attempt to enter the mind of a black slave demeaned Turner. They condemned both the execution of the novel and the idea behind it. In defending his right to imagine a black slave’s life, Styron was vigorously supported by Eugene Genovese, one of the leading historians of American slavery.

The controversy over the book proved so great that director Norman Jewison abandoned his plans to film the story, even though the celebrated actor James Earl Jones had agreed to play Turner.

Bibliography

Betts,...

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The Confessions of Nat Turner

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

The Work

The Confessions of Nat Turner begins with Nat Turner, a black preacher, lodged in a jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia, in 1831. Nat listens as the “confession” he has dictated to Thomas R. Gray, his court-appointed attorney, is read back to him and begins to reflect on his life experience. While he was Samuel Turner’s slave, he learned to read and studied the Bible. At age twenty-one, he went to work in Richmond, Virginia, as a carpenter to prepare for the emancipation his master had promised. Unfortunately for Nat, Samuel Turner went bankrupt, selling Nat to the Reverend Mr. Eppes, who agreed to carry out the promised emancipation but instead overworked Nat and then sold him to slave traders. Nat eventually became the property of Thomas Moore and found his disappointment had turned to hate. At the same time, a homosexual encounter with a younger slave resulted in guilt that sparked a religious conversion. Increasingly identifying with the Old Testament prophets, Nat accepted what he believed was a divine commission to kill the whites of Southampton County. Recruiting followers through his Bible class, Turner launched an insurrection in August, 1831, in which fifty-five whites were killed. Nat, himself, however, killed only Margaret Whitehead, a girl who had treated him kindly but unknowingly exerted a strong sexual attraction on the slave. After three days of rebellion, Nat was captured. Awaiting his execution, he is sure that he would revolt again but is unsure what God wills.

Impact

Published by Random House, The Confessions of Nat Turner became a Book-of-the-Month Club...

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Virginia

*Virginia. Southern state in which the historical Nat Turner (1800-1831) led the revolt on which William Styron’s novel is based. Following the historical record, the novel is set in various locations in Southampton County, in the state’s southeastern corner. Styron suggests that Virginia’s “relatively benign” atmosphere may have made it the only state in which a revolt such as Turner’s could have occurred, as conditions in states south of Virginia were so dehumanizing that slaves had little leisure with which to contemplate their condition and consider changing it. By contrast, many slave owners in Virginia were mild enough to permit slaves the leisure to contemplate their slavery, and even, in the case of Turner, permit them to learn to read. Indeed, it is through reading the Bible that Turner is inspired to mount his revolt.

*Jerusalem

*Jerusalem. Site of the Virginia jail where Turner awaits his execution and dictates the confessions that form this novel after his revolt collapses. During his last days, the “gray dawn” approaches “stealthily,” and the “pale frost” awakens Turner to the “hard clay” of his cell’s floor and to the “mournful” sounds of the city and the “hysteria” that hangs over Jerusalem “like thunder.” Ironically, when Turner begins his revolt, its ultimate goal is to reach Jerusalem, where he intends to seize the armory so he can supply weapons to his incipient army. Jerusalem becomes his final destination, though not in the way he originally plans. In this depressing atmosphere at the end, under the “gray impermeable sky,” Turner feels, for the first time, not closer to God in Jerusalem, but utterly separated from the God whose will he originally believes he is obeying.

*Dismal Swamp

*Dismal Swamp. Large swampy...

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Literary Techniques

Styron's wrote this novel backwards, beginning with Nat Turner's incarceration in his cell long after his capture and leading up to the...

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Ideas for Group Discussions

Styron's novel clearly wrestles with the enormous fact and function of slavery in the American South. He produces instances and images of...

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Social Concerns

Since Styron grew up in the Tidewater region in Virginia, where Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion took place, and came from a family who at...

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Literary Precedents

Styron has admitted that he borrowed the structure of beginning his novel with Nat Turner's awaiting his execution and recollecting his...

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Related Titles

The collection of critical essays Ten Black Writers Respond (1968) is invaluable in a consideration of the rage and outrage that...

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Adaptations

Wolper Pictures purchased the film rights for the novel in 1968, but no film has yet been made.

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Betts, Richard A. “‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ and the Uses of Tragedy.” College Language Association Journal 27, no. 4 (June, 1984): 419-435. Discusses the novel as having the conventions of classical tragedy, including Nat Turner as tragic hero.

Casciato, Arthur D., and James L. W. West. “William Styron and the Southampton Insurrection.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 52, no. 4 (1981): 564-577. Argues that the novel was carefully researched but that the author took a risk in inventing detail.

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(The entire section is 427 words.)