BkFt: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

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The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

The Confessions of Nat Turner was published in 1967 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  The novel is viewed as having cemented Styron’s reputation as a highly acclaimed writer.  Confessions is loosely based on the confession document of real historical figure, Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 which resulted in The Confessions of Nat Turner55 white deaths.  Whites responded to the rebellion with 200 Black deaths.  This novel is written with Turner as the first person narrator who makes his ‘confessions’ while in jail awaiting execution to a white lawyer, Thomas Gray.  Just how accurate the novel is in terms of Turner’s character and the contents of the document is debated.

“The novel is based on an extant document, the “confession” of Turner to the white lawyer Thomas Gray. In the historical confessions, Turner claims to have been divinely inspired, charged with a mission from God to lead a slave uprising and destroy the white race.  Styron’s ambitious novel attempts to imagine the character of Nat Turner; it does not purport to describe accurately or authoritatively the events as they occurred. Some historians consider Gray’s account of Turner’s “confessions” to be told with prejudice, and recently one writer has alleged that Gray’s account is itself a fabrication.[3Styron takes liberties with the historical Nat Turner, whose life is otherwise undocumented. The “Confessions” is largely sympathetic to Turner, if not to his thoughts.” (wikipedia)

Despite initial acclaim and acceptance, having won the Pulitzer, receiving great reviews, and appearing on the best sellers list, the novel was condemned by some of the African American audience though not by all.  This also in spite of Styron’s good friend James Baldwin’s praise of the novel.

“But in the broader African-American intellectual world, the novel was widely condemned. “Ten Black Writers Respond” has to be read in light of this history: as a polemic and corrective that introduced a spectrum of opinion mostly ignored in the mainstream press. “For all its prose power and somber earnestness,” Loyle Hairston wrote, “Styron’s novel utterly fails the simple test of honesty.” “This is meditation mired in misinterpretation,” Charles V. Hamilton wrote, “and this is history many . . . black people reject.” John Oliver Killens: “In terms of getting into the slave’s psyche and his idiom, it is a monumental failure.”(Styron’s Choice by Jess Row)

Some found the book to be worthy of the acclaim it received while others didn’t.  Bill Clinton is said to have cited this as one of his favourite books.  It does seem an interesting book and I think it was quite a task to take on to reinterpret those particular historical events.  Without having read this novel I will say that the books that deal with important issues like race and slavery are almost always met with a huge range of feelings.  Good or bad, I’m all for anything that provokes dialogue.  If you’ve read this novel I’d love to hear what you thought about it.

Here is the link to the 1968 NYT review of the novel; The Nat Turner Case by Eugene D Genovese

All TIME 100 Novels – The Confessions of Nat Turner  


2 thoughts on “BkFt: The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

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  1. I’ve had the original publication of this book since it slapped us across the face in the 1960s. It was a very controversial read. The subject matter still bled a bright red for some. I didn’t like it then and even less now. Styron, in my opinion, pieced together a very one sided (sympathetic) view.


    1. I read in one of the articles that his characterisation of the white people was biased and romanticised (my words). Particularly the slave owner’s daughter and her relationship with nat turner. I admit, I’m put off. Loved your comment ‘it slapped us across the face’! Thanks for the comment, always enjoy hearing your opinion!


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