The Confessions of Nat Turner, Paperback
3.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


In 1831 Nat Turner awaits death in a Virginia jail cell.

He is a slave, a preacher, and the leader of the only effective slave revolt in the history of 'that peculiar institution'.

William Styron's ambitious and stunningly accomplished novel is Turner's confession, made to his jailers under the duress of his God, a first-person narrative that depicts a good man's transformation into an avenging angel.

Encompasses the betrayals, cruelties and humiliations that made up slavery - and that still sear the collective psyches of both races.




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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.

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I have never run so hot and cold about a book before. On the one hand William Styron has a beautiful writing style. His descriptions of the Virginian south in the 1830s are breathtaking while his depictions of slavery are simultaneously heartbreaking. What I didn't care for was the obvious artistic liberties Styron took with the plot surrounding historical fact. Obviously, in order to fill an entire novel he needed to expound on the factual confession of Nat Turner which was less than a standard chapter in length. He had to assume supporting plots and characters, but was it necessary to have Nat Turner only lust after white women? Do we know this to be a true trait of Nat? His sexuality seems to be fodder for controversy. I saw <em>The Confessions of Nat Turner </em>to be the truth bundled by fiction. At the heart of Styron's novel is Nat Turner's confession, but what surrounds it is pure imagination and speculation. While the book garnered a Pulitzer Prize it was also banned in some parts of the south. That should tell you something.

Review by

This is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. The descriptions of everything, from the most beautiful to most horrific are so vivid, you feel like you're right there.

Review by

This book caused quite a controversy when it came out in 1967, and judging from some of the reviews here and on Amazon, it's continuing to do so. I didn't know about any of that when I started it, but the more I read the novel, the more dissatisfying and even irresponsible it started to seem.Some have traced the outcry which followed its release to the simple fact that a white Virginian author was writing his way into the mind of a 19th century black slave, but that is hardly the issue. The book may have won the Pulitzer, but for me it has two major problems: the narrative voice is wildly inappropriate and the characterisation is on ethically shaky ground.The book is narrated by Nat Turner, the poor and uneducated slave who led a rebellion against white society in 1831. Nat has scrabbled together a self-taught literacy through a study of the Bible. Yet the register of his narration is jarringly elevated:<i> It may be the commencement of spring or perhaps the end of summer; it matters less what the season is than that the air is almost seasonless – benign and neutral, windless, devoid of heat or cold.</i>This is from his introductory remarks on the first page. By the end of the book, as he really tries to ratchet up the sense of drama, he is writing things like this:<i> I heard from afar, across the withering late summer meadows, the jingle of a cowbell like eternity piercing my heart with a sudden intolerable awareness of the eternity of the imprisoning years stretched out before me: it is hard to describe the serene mood which, even in the midst of this buzzing madness, would steal over me when as if in a benison of cool raindrops or rushing water I would suddenly sink away toward a dream of Isiah.... </i>Does this really seem like the way a psychopathic uneducated slave would talk? Not to me it doesn't. What it sounds like is an overeducated middle-class 20th-century writer. Of course this is fiction, and there is no real reason why Styron can't just abandon verisimilitude and write however he likes – and if the writing were beautiful I would probably not care. But I'm afraid I didn't find it especially beautiful – just overblown and consciously literary in a way which distracted from the story.Nat Turner writes suspiciously like William Styron – and identifying author with character turns out to be of particular concern in a book like this. Where this moves from literary concerns to moral ones is the way Nat's stylistic flourishes are contrasted with the dialectal speech of other slaves. Not only do other black characters have their patois transcribed in detail and almost to the point of caricature, but Nat himself is made to see it in the worst possible terms.<i> ‘Yam, me tek 'ee dar, missy, me tek 'ee dar.’ I listened closely. It was blue-gum country-nigger talk at its thickest, nearly impenetrable, a stunted speech unbearably halting and cumbersome with a wet gulping sound of Africa in it.</i>I can't help feeling that this represents not the thoughts of a fellow-slave, but rather of the kind of racist white society around him. That's not to say that no slaves internalised this racism and looked down on other black people: I'm sure that happened. But for an author to stress this element so strongly seems rather precarious, and taken with how much Styron's own writing seems to speak through Nat's narration, leaves the author open to some dangerous criticism.If it were just the language it might be surmountable, but it isn't. In so many ways Nat is given exactly the feelings that anti-emancipationist, pro-slavery militants liked to imagine blacks had. Despite leading a slave rebellion, Styron's Nat Turner is himself the most fervent despiser of black people. He sees them as ‘a disheveled, ragged lot [...] filled with [...] laughter high and heedless, and loutish nigger cheer’ – ‘faces popeyed with black nigger credulity’, ‘sweat streaming off their black backs in shiny torrents, the lot of them stinking to heaven’.And suddenly Nat's identification with the author begins to have sinister overtones. Nowhere is this more unnerving than in sex. Racist activists liked, then and later, to portray black people as sexually voracious, lusting wildly after god-fearing white people's wives and daughters. In that context it seems particularly irresponsible to give exactly these impulses to Nat. Disgusted at the rest of his own race, our narrator disappears into sexual fantasies of raping white girls:<i> It was always a nameless white girl between whose legs I envisioned myself – a young girl with golden curls [...] when I stole into my private place in the carpenter's shop to release my pent-up desires, it was Miss Emmeline whose bare white full round hips and belly responded wildly to all my lust and who, sobbing ‘mercy, mercy, mercy’ against my ear, allowed me to partake of the wicked and godless yet unutterable joys of defilement.</i>Again, I'm not saying these psychological dynamics never happened, only that representing them in a balanced way is an incredibly delicate job and I don't find Styron up to it. To speak the question, then, that lies behind these criticisms: if Nat's high writing style is more representative of the author than the character, then can the same be said of Nat's unpleasant opinions on race?Probably not – Christ, I hope not – but while Styron's intention may have been to show how the system of slavery brutalised everyone, the fact remains that he has come up with a portrait of a black man which would have pleased the most unpleasant proponent of white supremacy. This is a real problem. Add to that a writing style I could never believe in, and you have one of the few books that left me with, to put it mildly, serious misgivings.

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