"The Confessions of Nat Turner" is a beautiful and ugly work of literature. In his fictionalized retelling of the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion, William Styron forces us to confront the the violent and paradoxical nature of American slavery and Christianity.
Through the eyes of Nat Turner - leader of the slave rebellion - we see the arbitrary and often absurd situations that characterize the life of an American slave. His internal narrative is fascinating. As a slave who is much smarter than his masters, Nat Turner often makes us laugh with his witty observations of the often dysfunctional interpersonal relationships of plantation life. But his nimble intellect also reflects on the contradictions and philosophical absurdities of a main stuck in Kafka-esque situations in which he has almost no control. Turner also shocks us with his juxtaposition of everyday observations and plans for extreme and bloody retribution.
Turner's constant meditations on religion and sexuality - and the tension between them - provides another deep intellectual current within the novel. I'll likely need to read the book again to come to a firm conclusion about what I think Styron is trying to say. On a first reading, I got vibes of both profound hopefulness and deep cynicism. The afterword also has some interesting thoughts on Styron's literary choice to portray Turner with "stern piety" as opposed to "demonic fanaticism."
The book is also noteworthy for being "one of the first politically incorrect texts of our time." I hadn't had any idea of the furor Styron stirred up with this book. After its initial positive (and Pulitzer-prize-winning) reception, it was attacked by many in the African American academic community. Styron's take on all this was that "my problem was less that of my work than that of my color". In any case - it was a fascinating topic of conversation during book club.
In August, 1831, in a remote region of southeastern Virginia, there took place the only effective, sustained revolt in the annals of American Negro slavery. The initial passage of this book, entitled “To the Public,” is the preface to the single significant contemporary document concerning this insurrection — a brief pamphlet of some twenty pages called “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” published in Richmond early in the next year, parts of which have been incorporated in this book.
Part I - JUDGMENT DAY
There is no doubt about it. White people often undo themselves by such running off at the mouth, and only God knows how many nigger triumphs have been won in total silence.
Scripture leaped to my mind like a banner: He multiplieth words without knowledge, whoso keepeth his tongue keepeth his soul.
Dad-burned mealy-mouthed abolitionists say we don’t show justice. Well, we do. Justice! That’s how come nigger slavery’s going to last a thousand years.”
I recall one of my former owners, Mr. Thomas Moore, once saying that Negroes never committed suicide.
Hark always declared that he could distinguish between good white people and bad white people — and even white people who lay between good and bad — by their smell alone. He was very solemn about all this; over the years he had worked out many subtleties and refinements upon his original philosophy, and he could talk endlessly as we worked alongside each other — advising me at the top of his voice, assigning exact, marvelous odors to white people like Moses handing down the law.
I was the property of Mr. Moore, who was a small farmer, for nine years until his death (another bizarre misadventure: Moore broke his skull while presiding at the birth of a calf. It had been a balky delivery, and he had wrapped a cord around the calf’s protruding hooves in order to yank it out; as he sweated and tugged and as the calf mused at him soulfully from the damp membranes of its afterbirth, the cord snapped, catapulting him backward and fatally against a gatepost. I had very little use for Moore, and my grief was meager, yet at the time I could not but help begin to wonder if ownership of me did not presage a diminution of fortune, as does the possession, I am told, of a certain kind of elephant in India),
Above all, I had quite a bit of time on my hands. I could fish and trap and do considerable Scriptural reading. I had for going on to several years now considered the necessity of exterminating all the white people in Southampton County and as far beyond as destiny carried me, and there was thus available to me more time than I had ever had before to ponder the Bible and its exhortations, and to think over the complexities of the bloody mission that was set out before me.
It was comical to watch — a white man’s discomfiture, observed on the sly, has always been a Negro’s richest delight
nor did it matter to me that Travis sold most of the rabbits in Jerusalem and retained the money, which was clear profit, since if he was to earn interest on the capital which, body and brain, I represented anyway, I was glad to be capitalized upon in one small way which I myself took pleasure in.
Of all the Prophets it was Ezekiel with his divine fury to whom I felt closest by kinship
It is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which white people dominate the conversation of Negroes,
Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools.
Though it is a painful fact that most Negroes are hopelessly docile, many of them are filled with fury, and the unctuous coating of flattery which surrounds and encases that fury is but a form of self-preservation.
A Negro’s most cherished possession is the drab, neutral cloak of anonymity he can manage to gather around himself, allowing him to merge faceless and nameless with the common swarm: impudence and misbehavior are, for obvious reasons, unwise, but equally so is the display of an uncommon distinction, for if the former attributes can get you starved, whipped, chained, the latter may subject you to such curiosity and hostile suspicion as to ruinously impair the minute amount of freedom you possess.
Rumor almost impossible to entertain! For to believe that from this downtrodden race, the very laws governing which bind it to an ignorance more benighted and final than death, there could arise one single specimen capable of spelling cat is asking rational intelligence to believe that balmy King George the Third was not a dastardly tyrant or that the moon is made of clabber cheese!”
The fairest state of them all, this tranquil and beloved domain—what has it now become? A nursery for Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas. A monstrous breeding farm to supply the sinew to gratify the maw of Eli Whitney’s infernal machine, cursed be that blackguard’s name! In such a way is our human decency brought down, when we pander all that is in us noble and just to the false god which goes by the vile name of Capital! Oh, Virginia, woe betide thee!
Yet I will say this, without which you cannot understand the central madness of nigger existence: beat a nigger, starve him leave him wallowing in his own shit, and he will be yours for life. Awe him by some unforeseen hint of philanthropy, tickle him with the idea of hope, and he will want to slice your throat.
“Now,” I heard Cobb murmur, “now we are about to witness a ritual diversion indigenous to this Southern clime. We are about to witness two human beings whipping another.”
I have battered down Hark’s defenses, playing incessantly, almost daily, upon his sorrow and loss, coaxing and wheedling him into a position where he too must grasp, firmly and without qualm, one of the alternatives of freedom or death-in-life, until at last — revealing my plans for a bloody sweep through the countryside, the capture of Jerusalem, and a safe flight into the bosom of the Dismal Swamp where no white man can follow us
Thus Hark becomes the first to join me in this conspiracy. Hark, then Henry and Nelson and Sam: trustworthy, silent, without fear, all men of God and messengers of His vengeance, these have shared already in the knowledge of my great design.
I know from hearsay that he broods constantly upon rape, the despoliation of white women masters his dreams night and day. And already — and Hark and Nelson and the others have sworn to obey — I have forbidden this kind of violation. It is God’s will, and I know it, that I omit such a vengeance: Do not unto their women what they have done to thine.
“Hogwash!” he exclaimed. “Christianity is finished and done with. Don’t you know that, Reverend? And don’t you realize further that it was the message contained in Holy Scripture that was the cause, the prime mover, of this entire miserable catastrophe? Don’t you see the plain ordinary evil of your dad-burned Bible?”
His voice had risen to a mocking, insistent monotone. “Christianity! Rapine, plunder, butchery! Death and destruction! And misery and suffering for untold generations. That was the accomplishment of your Christianity, Reverend. That was the fruits of your mission. And that was the joyous message of your faith. Nineteen hundred years of Christian teaching plus a black preacher is all it takes — Is all it takes to prove that God is a God durned lie!”
Part II - OLD TIMES PAST: Voices, Dreams, Recollections
The most futile thing a man can do is to ponder the alternatives, to stew and fret over the life that might have been lived if circumstances had not pointed his future in a certain direction.
For the Preacher was right: He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. And Samuel Turner (whom I shall call Marse Samuel from now on, for that is how he was known to me) could not have realized, in his innocence and decency, in his awesome goodness and softness of heart, what sorrow he was guilty of creating by feeding me that half-loaf of learning: far more bearable no loaf at all.
I alone could stir and turn and sleep another hour, until the full light of sunup roused me to my kitchen chores long after the other Negroes had vanished to mill and woods and fields. Not for my soft pink palms — accustomed to the touch of silver and crystal, of pewter and glossy oiled oak — was the grimy feel of the hoe handle and the sickle and the ax. Not for me was the summer heat of the blacksmith shop or the steaming, gnat-mad fields of corn or the bone-cracking labor of the woods, rump deep in decaying slime, or the racket and toil of the mill where the weight of grain and timber ruptured the gut and twisted shoulders and spine into a stooped attitude of toil as immutable as statues carved in black marble.
And I think it was a great Frenchman, Voltaire, who said that the beginning of wisdom is the moment when one understands how little concerned with one’s own life are other men, they who are so desperately preoccupied with their own.
Like animals they relinquished the past with as much dumb composure as they accepted the present, and were unaware of any future at all. Such creatures deserved to be sold, I thought bitterly, and I was torn between detestation for them and regret that it was too late for me to save them through the power of the Word.
Part III - STUDY WAR
The recently acquired fiancée of Major Thomas Ridley—one of the wealthiest landowners in Southampton, still rich enough to hold onto fifteen Negroes — the woman was from the North, resident of a place called New Haven, and it was bruited that the fortune to which she was heir was in itself of a size that would dwarf the riches of all the estates in Southampton put together.
Surely even the poor lepers of Galilee, and all the outcasts to whom Jesus ministered in those awful times, lived no worse than such a free Negro in Virginia during the years of which I think and speak.
Nonetheless, it was loathsome, unrewarding toil and I do not know how I would have survived those days and months and years without the ability to fall into meditation upon spiritual matters even when enduring the most onerous and gut-wrenching labor. This habit, which I had developed a long time before even as a boy, proved to be my salvation. It would be hard to describe the serenity I was able to attain — the rapt and mysterious quality of peace I knew — when amid the stinging flies and the chiggers and the fierce September heat.
(Once I overheard Marse Samuel lament to a gentleman visitor: “I do not know why my Negroes make such wretched husbandmen of horses and cattle.” But I knew why: what else but a poor dumb beast could a Negro mistreat and by mistreating feel superior to?)
Yet I had seen Moore’s terror and his startled insect-twitch, a pockmarked white runt flayed into panic by a famished Negro so drained of life’s juices that he lacked even the spittle to spit.
I heard Nelson say, “You done spoke de truth,” and he too drew near, and I felt their warmth and their brotherhood and hope and knew then what Jesus must have known when upon the shores of Galilee he said: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
For what they did not know was that behind all my talk of simple flight was a grander design involving the necessity of death, cataclysm, annihilation.
Does it seem a hopeless paradox that the less toilsome became the circumstances of my life the more I ached to escape it? That the more tolerable and human white people became in their dealings with me the keener was my passion to destroy them?
Lord, after this mission is done I will have to get me a wife.
For although it ravaged my heart to accept it, I knew that Gray was not wrong: the black men had caused my defeat just as surely as the white.
AFTERWORD: NAT TURNER REVISITED
It would have been inconceivable to me that within a short time I would experience almost total alienation from black people, be stung by their rage, and, finally, be cast as an archenemy of the race, having unwittingly created one of the first politically incorrect texts of our time.
A bad historical novel leaves the impression of a hopelessly over-furnished house, cluttered with facts the author wishes to show off as fruits of his diligent research. Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist critic whose monumental The Historical Novel should be read by all who attempt to write in the genre, views the disregard of facts as a state of grace: the creator of historical fiction, he argues convincingly, should have a thorough—perhaps even a magisterial — command of the period with which he is dealing, but he should not permit his work to be governed by particular historical facts. Rather, his concern “is to reproduce the much more complex and ramifying totality with historical faithfulness.”
there was no shaking the fact that on the record Nat Turner was a dangerous religious lunatic.
When stern piety replaced demonic fanaticism, the man could be better understood.
It was at least partly true: my problem was less that of my work than that of my color.
A Biography of William Styron
Styron was called up into the marines after just four terms at Duke, but World War II ended while he was in San Francisco awaiting deployment to the Pacific, just before the planned invasion of Japan.
His experience at a training camp in North Carolina later became the source material for his anti-war novella The Long March (1953), which Norman Mailer proclaimed “as good an eighty pages as any American has written since the war, and I really think it’s much more than that.”
Starting in 1952, after his service in the reserves, Styron lived in Europe for two years, where he was a founding member, with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen, of The Paris Review.