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The Confessions of Nat Turner Paperback – November 10, 1992
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From the Inside Flap
"In the late summer of 1831, in a remote section of southeastern Virginia, there took place the only effective, sustained revolt in the annals of American Negro slavery...
The revolt was led by a remarkable Negro preacher named Nat Turner, an educated slave who felt himself divinely ordained to annihilate all the white people in the region.
The Confessions of Nat Turner is narrated by Nat himself as he lingers in jail through the cold autumnal days before his execution. The compelling story ranges over the whole of Nat's Life, reaching its inevitable and shattering climax that bloody day in August.
The Confessions of Nat Turner is not only a masterpiece of storytelling; is also reveals in unforgettable human terms the agonizing essence of Negro slavery. Through the mind of a slave, Willie Styron has re-created a catastrophic event, and dramatized the intermingled miseries, frustrations--and hopes--which caused this extraordinary black man to rise up out of the early mists of our history and strike down those who held his people in bondage.
"From the Hardcover edition.
From the Back Cover
Set in 1831, The Confessions Of Nat Turner tells--in his own words--of a black man who awaits death in a Virginia jail cell. His name is Nat Turner and he is a slave, a preacher, and the leader of the only effective slave revolt in the history of that 'peculiar institution.'
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William Styron is a fraud, the likes of Alex Haley, for presenting a woefully fictionalized account of Turner's life and the events up to the massacre, in order to take emphasis from the power of the true story of Nat Turner. It seems revisionist history is the History written by someone with something to lose if the truth is told.
Good job William Styron, and James Baldwin who encouraged your fraud.
Ultimately though, one has to judge the book on its own merits, right? Without question, Styron writes well. His prose is enjoyable to read in this as well as his other books. In historical fiction, though, characterization and authenticity are important. And the choices he makes for his (version of the) protagonist are questionable. Perhaps predictably, my big questions center on those choices that invited the most controversy in the book's early days. Namely, is there any reason to throw in a homosexual incident? It doesn't seem to fit the character we're watching. Would an educated Nat really have had rape fantasies about a white woman? Is the implication that it's in his nature?
You see? One is immediately drawn into the socio-political issues. They're hard not to think about. But here's an even more challenging question. Would I (or anyone else) object to the choices made had Styron's friend James Baldwin made them? I feel like I end up projecting my own take on slavery and race relations onto the book, including all the baggage that comes with that. Unfortunately, that makes this review so subjective as to be not very valuable. As a sidebar, I wonder if this book has come to be seen as ground zero for the intellectual movement against so-called cultural appropriation?
For what it's worth, I'd recommend reading the book.
Unlike his depiction in Styron's book, Nat Turner was married. Styron's invention of Turner's pivotal and conflicted relationship with a white woman, Margaret Whitehead, is entirely fictional. So is any self-doubt that Turner did the right thing by leading the revolt. In Gray's account, Turner did not express regret. There is so much more depth to Turner's life that is either fictionalized beyond recognition or left unexplored in this book.
Do those facts make a difference in a work of fiction? Yes. The parts Styron has unnecessarily fictionalized are key to the story he invented. Turner's fictional relationship with Margaret is saturated in the southern myth that black men are obsessed with white women -- lusting for the forbidden fruit, for which they must die. That Styron crawls into Nat Turner's skin in order to infect him with self-doubt about his mission emasculates Turner and diminishes his cause. What offends me most is that Nat Turner's life deserves to be explored by a modern author who does not condescend or patronize this African-American hero. Instead, we have William Styron's version of Turner's life, taken by many readers as fact.
If one prefers racist fiction posing as a legitimate account of a life, then one might enjoy wallowing in this version of "Confessions." But if one prefers reality, I recommend Gray's book as well as other accounts available about the slave revolt at Southampton, Virginia. Styron's book does not provide significant insights into Nat Turner, slave revolt or slavery itself. His book clouds the truth with the same kind of Reconstruction era distortions that spawned the hideous phenomenon of lynching.