The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron

Most of this blog covers genre fiction – I tend to leave more traditionally “serious” books to those who wish to make a career (or, at least a serious hobby) out of debating literature. However, and despite its great popular and critical impact upon publication, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) may have attained a kind of genre status over time, given how contemporary critics place it on the wrong side of enlightened opinion.


Random House 1st edition.

The Confessions of Nat Turner deservingly won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Novel the year it was published, but drew critical backlash soon afterward – mainly due to Styron being a white Southerner. I became interested in the book after reading James Baldwin’s excellent Go Tell it on the Mountain and learning about Baldwin’s encouragement of Styron’s audacious work. Eventually, TCoNT was named one of the best 100 English language novels by Time magazine in 2005, but who knows if it would do so today. Time magazine had already descended into a pandering, simpering parody of itself by 2006, so I doubt it would promote Styron’s work in the face of political correctness.

Styron imagined the life, relationships and internal dialogue of Nat Turner, who led the largest and deadliest slave revolt in United States history. His story is told entirely for Turner’s perspective, from childhood as a relatively privileged house slave to the day of his execution. Styron depicts multiple evolving subcultures among the slaves and between slaves and slave-owners, drawing many disturbing parallels in how the various characters resolve their places in society. From his station inside a plantation house, for example, Turner expresses contempt for the slaves who work in the fields every day and live in squalid shacks. His kinship with the outdoor slaves grows over time, when he is forced into the same circumstances – at the apparent expense of his regard for the lives of whites (innocent or guilty of abuses).

The story also features explanations for what might have turned Turner into a killer, as well as how he managed to covertly recruit a band of fellow revolutionaries. Having learned to read, and mostly conceal his intellect from the whites who would fear him the most, he patiently taps into the frustration and rage of other slaves, especially those whose families have been broken by the constant human trafficking between Virginia and other Southern states.

The role of religious inspiration is also explored here – containing some very interesting moments where Turner divines a call to action from two atmospheric events (a solar eclipse, and maybe the effects of a Mount St. Helens eruption). He is also refused an audience by the local white minister, in a kind of obvious condemnation of a church abiding of the slave state at the time. When Turner stabs his only direct victim, a young woman who had befriended him (in her mind at least) a few years prior, she appears to express a kind of Christian forgiveness. This last scene has been used to criticize Styron, but I think it’s a reflection of Turner’s unreliable narration as a conflicted psychotic, and not a heavy-handed attempt to martyrize any of the many victims.

Any responsible description of TCoNT must include the warning that the novel is filled with descriptions of the abuse that Turner and other slaves suffered. The vile language used by the slave masters, traders and other whites – often cleverly linked with the genteel racist terms used inside the plantation houses – is pervasive. Physical and sexual crimes are committed without any sort of retribution or justice. And yet, Virginia is preferred by the slaves over the prospect of servitude in Alabama (where many are sent), a kind of industrial-scale hell on Earth created to supply cotton.

Before this book, the story of Nat Turner had been buried in obscurity, so it could be argued that Styron created one of the most successful works of historical fiction ever written. However, this story is at least as much about mental illness as it is about racism and slavery, and is assured to be uncomfortable reading for a long time to come. 9/10.


NOTE: the Vanity Fair article linked in the first paragraph is recommended for those who are interested in the story of Styron’s novel, if not in reading the novel itself.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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5 Responses to The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron

  1. bormgans says:

    Probably more relevant than The Underground Railroad? Not that I’ve read that…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read Colson Whitehead’s novel – in fact I generally don’t read a lot of historical fiction. It looks interesting, although the I find the most fascinating personality from that time to be Harriet Tubman – who almost made it onto the $20 bill not too long ago.

      There’s also a board game about the Underground Railroad from Academy Games, called “Freedom”, that looks interesting and especially well-researched.


  2. Happy Banned Books Week to all of the librarians out there!


  3. Pingback: September reads – a list | gaping blackbird

  4. Pingback: Brittle Innings, by Michael Bishop – part 1 | gaping blackbird

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