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.



(The entire section is 405 words.)