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When The Confessions of Nat Turner first appeared, it was acclaimed as breakthrough both in fiction and in race relations. A white southerner, steeped in the history of his region, had boldly entered the mind of a black slave, according him the dignity of an articulate voice and making him into a modern hero. Certainly, Styron’s Turner is cruel in his taking of close to sixty lives, but he is nevertheless the poet of the aspirations of a people. Early reviews lauded the language and the sympathy with which Styron presented the story.

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Soon, though, a group of African American writers attacked the book, accusing Styron of distorting history, of co-opting their hero, and of demeaning Turner by endowing him with love for one of his victims, a young white woman. These critics saw Styron as usurping their history, much as white people had usurped the labor and the very lives of their ancestors. They rejected the notion that a white southerner—or any white person, for that matter—could fathom the mind of a slave.

Styron defended himself admirably, for he had made a close reading of the historical record and knew exactly where he was taking liberties with history, and he was supported by several historians. Less defensible, or at least problematic, was his decision to endow Turner with a contemporary imagination. Turner does speak in the accents of nineteenth century Virginia; he thinks very much like Styron. Yet even this seeming defect in the novel may be its major strength. Styron’s point is that Turner was, in many ways, ahead of his time: This self-taught slave probably had the mind of a genius, and it would be condescending to express his thoughts in language less sophisticated than the writer’s own.

Quite aside from this controversy, The Confessions of Nat Turner can be read as a tragic love story, of a Nat Turner who learns much from white people even as they oppress him. Styron shows that tenderness was possible between the races even under the regime of slavery—a fact the historian Eugene Genovese has corroborated in his research. By thinking of Turner as his equal, Styron was able to remove the clichés from the presentation of race in fiction. That he touched a nerve in his critics, who strongly attacked him, suggests something of the power of that love story and how it might pose a threat to those who doubt the races can reconcile.


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William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner is a lengthy book organized into four chapters, three of which take biblical allusions for titles. In the opening chapter, “Judgment Day,” the attempted rebellion has already occurred, and Turner and his fellow slave friend (and second in command) Hark have been imprisoned and are awaiting trial and the inevitable hanging. Turner is tormented by his inability to pray or read the Bible, two matters that Thomas Gray, an atheist lawyer and magistrate, uses to coax Turner into making his “confessions.” Styron constructs an imagined dialogue between Turner and Gray, which turns into something of a personal debate between Christian belief and atheism. Turner is tormented, not knowing why the rebellion ultimately failed if God were indeed on his side; and Gray successfully transforms these doubts into proof that the black race is inferior and that, as he says several times in refrain, “[N]igger slavery is going to last a thousand years.”

The second chapter, “Old Times Past: Voices, Dreams, Recollections,” is essentially a fictional biography of Turner. Styron takes the bare facts of Turner’s life and embellishes them with relentless and bountiful license. This account of Turner’s life records the horrors of slavery in the context of his family history and his life under his four owners. Styron also gives readers imagined insight into Turner’s spiritual development, beginning...

(The entire section contains 994 words.)

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