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Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

The controversial winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize

Here we are, 34 years later and The Confessions of Nat Turner is still in the news. Most recently, Henry Louis Gates, Jr made comments (positive ones, now. Originally negative impressions, years ago) about the book. The primary controversy is quite simple - how can a white man, a southerner, and the descendent of slave owners write a novel about one of the few slaves who actually stood up and demanded his freedom by leading a rebellion? Some have even asserted that he did not even have the right to write the book in the first place - after all, it is not HIS history.

But, is Nat Turner to be forever held apart? Is African-American history to be held apart? Can an African-American write about the Japanese Shogunate? Can an Asian-American write about the Alamo? Of course and of course. Gates makes this point in his comments (correctly). History is human history.


Nat Turner (1800-1831)
Styron's fictionalized Turner is based on research and a book written by Nat Turner's defense attorney, Thomas Ruffin Gray called The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia.

The controversy over Styron's portrayal of Nat Turner and his failed slave rebellion in 1831 Virginia would not be nearly as furious if not for the sheer power of Styron's writing. He drags you into Turner's tortured mind and you can feel Turner's rage, religious fervor and lust. In my case, it pulled me in so tightly during some scenes that the rest of the world was lost to me. All was a breathless rush until that little piece of this tragedy was over and I was able to breathe again.

William Styron (1925-2006)
 I am not entirely pleased with some of the liberties that were taken with Nat Turner. As a general rule, I am more a fan of historical fiction that makes characters out of people who are witnessing the history rather than making it. I am especially doubtful about books that take known historical figures and purport to get into their minds and figure out what drove them.

However,the writing displayed in this book is really quite exceptional and it merits 5 stars. It takes the information we have about Turner, throws in a healthy bit of supposition and mixes in a plausible way to come up with one of the more profound books about American history, religion and race to have been written in the last 50 years.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Originally reviewed on October 27, 2005. Updated on March 6, 2011.

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