Book Review: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

Originally on Goodreads, 2012



This book won the Pulitzer in the late 1960s. It was controversial as it is from the POV of a black man, written by a white man. Even today, that would be somewhat controversial, but in the era of Martin Luther King it was quite controversial.

Styron pulls it off, primarily because he lends a voice of authenticity to an actual event, the only real slave revolt in the U.S.

What follows is my MFA craft review (thus less focused on the content), but I tend to blur content and craft all the time.

The difficulty in analyzing this book lies partially in its subject matter and partially in the afterword that the author provides discussing the book. To remain a bit “pure” I have avoided reading the afterward until I am done with this response. In this way, if I have some insight as to the writing techniques used by Styron that he also mentions, I can to myself say that my observations were pure, if not startling.

In considering what I, personally would like to take from Nat Turner and apply to my own, current, writing it would be the feeling of authenticity and believability.

The obvious first technique is the use of not just first person, but largely journal-like structure. There is nothing startling or new in this, so I won’t explore it.

What immediately strikes the reader is the initial language is quite sophisticated. It is not the language of an uneducated slave, nor in fact of an uneducated white person, of 1831. Simultaneously, it is authentic in its feeling of immediacy, of ‘I am in a cell recounting my story’ by giving us a feeling of his quarters in a compact manner:

<pre>I rose up from the cedar plank I’d been sleeping on and sat halfway erect, in the same somnolent motion duplicating the instinctive mistake I’d made four times in as many mornings: swinging my legs sideways off the plank as if to plant them on the floor, only to feel metal bite into my ankles as the chain of the leg irons reached the limit of its slack, holding my feet suspended slantwise in midair. (10)</pre>

In one sentence we know this man is smart, he is chained uncomfortably and we wonder (initially) if this is really a slave speaking. Nat tells us many things indirectly and directly throughout the book, but the indirect method of telling (almost showing, but still indirect) is more interesting:

<pre>… I could hear his heavy breathing—a choked, clotted sound as if air were escaping through his very wounds. (10)</pre>

Is this man authentic, really a slave? How does Styron persuade us without telling us? By the next page we start to get a better feel for this man in his use of the term “Negros (11).” Two things in this single word. One, he uses the capitalization, two he uses the word. It dates this quickly as before the 1960s and yet used by a proud black man. I verified this thought process by a search on the etymology of “Negro” on, with the following result:

<pre> “Professor Booker T. Washington, being politely interrogated … as to whether negroes ought to be called ‘negroes’ or ‘members of the colored race’ has replied that it has long been his own practice to write and speak of members of his race as negroes, and when using the term ‘negro’ as a race designation to employ the capital ‘N’ [“Harper’s Weekly,” June 2, 1906]”</pre>

By page 12 we start to find out where his education is centered, where his thinking is centered, “It had for many years been my custom to pray at this hour of the day, or to read from the Bible;” telling us he has been reading for years and his world view is biblically centered. What is important here is that this information is trickled out fast enough that we start to buy into the person quickly, but it is not an information dump. Suddenly, by the end of page 12, he speaks, “Marse Kitchen,” I said, “I’m hungry. Please. I wonder if you could fetch me a little bite to eat. Kindly please, young mastah. (12)” Thus, we are first introduced to the intelligent, introspective, educated man and then we see him put on the show when speaking. The order is important. The reveal is important. It further reveals his intelligence and his way of dealing with the world. Now, the character is both three dimensional and authentic.

This three dimensional quality is then enhanced throughout the book, both in the many, many, flaws of the man and in small human qualities that makes the reader like this man. He has a subdued sense of humor, humor in observation, which is repeated a number of times, but is illustrated early on when the lawyer enters the cell area, “Not that the odor that Gray put out demanded great sensibility. (14)”

The authenticity of the setting is not just Nat Turner’s character, but the careful choice of vocabulary. Just a sample of the words used: majuscule (79) was first used in 1820s and folderol (93) was also used first in the 1820s. These two are just a sample of the many instances he uses words that would, or at least could, have been used by the educated and somewhat high society of the time and where Nat then absorbs them. As a side note, it is one of the instances where the instant touch of a dictionary within an ereader is handy, as the dictionary gives the reader not just the definition, but a tiny bit of the etymology.

So, we have the sophisticated internal musings contrasted by the external spoken language of Nat, we have the word choice, and the order of revealing internal versus external dialogue. In keeping with my theme of authenticity, what else made this ring true? What made it not just authentic in time and possible, but authentic that Nat lead the only significant revolt of slaves documented. What fired him to do what others had not and is it believable?

What may seem wrong and is indeed the question the lawyer Gray keeps asking—“you admit to good masters and yet you did this?”–is what in the end makes it believable. Compared to many slaves Nat is NOT badly mistreated. Indeed, it is the opposite that is true and that is what makes this so believable. It is related to why the suicide rate is so high in industrialized nations and so low in poverty stricken nations. Styron doesn’t just “tell us” this, he spends the entire book showing us.

Just as the first 12 pages carefully order the “reveal” of Nat as a narrator and language, the first part of the book is devoted to the same setup and fall that Nat goes through. Order is important. The reveal is important. It gets us in Nat’s mind.

The order is Nat goes from a normal slave to a special slave who receives and education. He is gifted, but he is lucky (or perhaps unlucky) in that this is noticed and appreciated by an almost enlightened master. Almost is crucial also, as he is crucially flawed. Given that this is a confession told by Nat looking backwards and not a journal as it happens, Styron could have revealed many things in any order, but he does not. Thus, it is not just the plot devices of a confession and recounting, but the order and the slow sprinkling in of the self-awareness of Nat. Nat notes that as a boy he has contempt for the field slaves, but only after he first lets us feel his own learning, his own superiority, then he self analyzes. Order of the reveal is important. Thus, it is not until page 165, halfway through the book, that we learn that Nat has been promised his freedom. This immediately opens up the questions as to why he did not get it, or did he get it and lose it. But, by waiting this long, we feel it differently than if Nat had started out the narrative, “I was promised my freedom then that was snatched away from me and that put a burning hatred in me that festered for twenty years.” The novel would have had little impact if done this way.

The authenticity of the freedom promise is well done. Get the money back for the slave, make him work a certain number of years, etc. We see the fatal flaw in letting a young man, a boy, know this years in advance of when the promise is planned to take place. We are then led through the slow decline where we guess it will fail. We are brought back with some hope, only to have those hopes dashed miserably.

This alone is probably enough to fester at least the need to escape. And we do wonder why he does not escape, but then Tyron finishes building what he has laid the scaffolding for: religious fanaticism, in a carefully understated manner.

I am reminded, once again, of the discussion we had in Kent Meyers residency class on obsession. Is there an obsession that drives the story and the character. With Nat it is his fury and rage against all whites, but it is his religious obsession. His belief that God is guiding him to free the slaves. Unlike Moby Dick, where the obsession is already in place and we see it effect all actions, in Nat Turner we see the obsession build and it is only the last quarter of the book that the obsession then drives everything.

I found the building of the obsession more important than the final drive. We already know how it is going to end, in more ways than one, but the building of the obsession, the fanaticism, works well. The first few pages we get that he wants a bible, or has read it, but we don’t know he is obsessed. We also get dribbled in repeatedly that while in jail he is no longer capable of prayer, he has lost some of the obsession, which later explains to us why the narrative does not sound like the ravings of a lunatic. He has lost some of his lunacy.

One quote, or section, that illustrates much of what I have examined is Nat’s own reflection on his fury and hatred. This is two thirds of the way through the novel, so we fundamentally understand this already and Nat is summarizing it for us—again order is important, if we read this on page two it would lose its power.

<pre>… a Negro can only pretend hatred. Such hatred is an abstraction and a delusion. For example. A poor field Negro may once in a while be struck by the whip of an overseer riding on a tall white horse, that same Negro may be forced onto short rations for a month and feel his stomach rumble daily in the tight cramps of near-starvation, again this Negro might someday be thrown into a cart and sold like a mule at auction in pouring rain; yet if this selfsame Negro—surrounded from childhood by a sea of black folk, hoeing and scraping in the fields from dawn to dusk year in and year out and knowing no white man other than that overseer whose presence is a mean distant voice and a lash and whose face is a nameless and changing white blob against the sky—finds himself trying to hate white men, he will come to understand that he is hating imperfectly, without that calm and intelligent and unrepenting purity of hatred which I have already described and which is so necessary in order to murder. Such a Negro, unacquainted with white men and their smell and their blanched and bloodless actuality and their evil, will perhaps hate but with a hatred which is all sullenness and impotent resentment, like the helpless, resigned fury one feels toward indifferent Nature throughout long days of relentless heat or after periods of unceasing rain. (214)</pre>

We begin to see that Nat can never run away. He would be running to more white men. He has moved beyond wanting simple freedom. He is obsessed. The techniques described capture the obsession, the fury and the insanity of Nat in such a way that we buy into it. It is authentic.

Leave a Reply