The Confessions of Nat Turner

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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.


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.

Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968. An attack on Styron for distorting historical facts about a black hero. Some valid criticism, some merely racist.

Lang, John. “The Alpha and the Omega: Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.” American Literature 53, no. 3 (1981): 499-503. Explains Nat Turner’s religious views, particularly the redeeming role of Margaret Whitehead.

Mallard, James M. “The Unquiet Dust: The Problem of History in Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Mississippi Quarterly: The Journal of Southern Culture 36, no. 4 (1983): 525-543. Claims that Nat Turner’s personal quest for salvation tends to subvert his slave rebellion.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

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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...

(The entire section contains 2822 words.)

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