So I have been up in Algonquin Park on a canoe trip for the last few days, but I managed to finish William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner. The novel was the centre of a storm of controversy when it was published in 1967 because of its content and the author’s race. The book retells, with plenty of fictional licence, the events of the 1831 slave revolt in Virginia. The problem was, for many African-American writers of the time, that Styron was himself white. Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin had both publicly expressed their support for the book and its author but that did not stop the backlash. Regardless, Styron won the Pulitzer Prize and I have to say that this is an excellent novel.
In case you didn’t know, Nat Turner, a black slave who learned how to read and was something of a preacher, led a very violent and somewhat successful slave revolt in Southhampton County. Even though the revolt was stopped within a few days, Turner hid out in the swamps for several months before he was caught. While in jail, a lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, interviewed him and wrote down his entire confession which was published as The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia. Styron’s novel used this book as a source text, but fleshes out Turner’s story to make him an empathetic narrator. The novel begins in prison and ends here as well, but moves back in time through Turner’s early life right through to the events of the rebellion itself. It is a strategy that works quite well although I did find myself flipping back a few times, sorting out whether I had met certain characters before.
One of the most impressive things about Styron’s novel is that it makes Turner, a villain for most Americans up until the late 1960s, into an empathetic character. The novel shows how the institution of slavery turns men and women into absolutely defeated human beings. I am not saying that I support or endorse what Turner did, but Styron makes a very compelling case as to why Turner did what he did. Unfortunately for Turner, the long-term effects of the revolt did not cause widespread uprisings but instead saw a rash of white violence against slaves and a tightening of laws against blacks. Some of these included the banning of teaching reading to slaves and the banning of slave religious gatherings without a licensed white preacher. This is a powerful novel and well worth reading if you want to gain some historical perspective and insight into race-relations in the United States.
I would recommend this book to fans of American literature and to those who enjoyed Laurence Hill`s The Book of Negroes.
Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, 1967. Print.