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The Confessions of Nat Turner ()


Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) (1968)

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel, which recounts the fact based tale of one of the few slave uprisings in the Ante-bellum South, raises three basic questions--one inane, one unanswerable and one that's really interesting.  We'll take them in that order.

First off, there is the really insulting, but more importantly just plain stupid, question of whether a white southerner should be allowed to write a novel about slavery and tell it from the slave's point of view.  When the novel was published, black critics actually argued that it was a story that only a black person could tell and that Styron had committed some kind of thought crime in adopting a black persona for his narrator.   This criticism barely even warrants a serious response.  Writers of fiction imagine things and then write them down.  If we restricted them only to what they know at first hand, we'd have nothing but autobiographies.  Obviously, this argument pretty quickly collapses under its own weight.

Perversely enough, in the unintentionally hilarious introduction to ex-con Edward Bunker's book Dog Eat Dog, Styron himself, who has also written novels from the perspective of a woman and a Holocaust victim (Sophie's Choice--see Orrin's review), as well as a slave, argues that the only story that authors can not wholly imagine is that of a criminal in modern America.  (Apparently we can take that to mean that he's not planning a crime novel.)  Styron, arguing that only crooks can write about crooks, should have known better, especially in light of his personal experience.  The writing of fiction requires author's to portray characters who are significantly different than themselves--different life experiences, different gender, different race, different sexual orientation, etc.--get over it.

At any rate, he did have the temerity to write this book.  It is told in the form of a confession (a real one actually exists) by Nat Turner, a slave in Southeastern Virginia who in 1831 led a band of escaped slaves on a rampage, slaughtering around 60 whites before being stopped on their way to seize the arsenal in nearby Jerusalem.  Turner who managed to evade capture for an additional six weeks, was finally caught, tried and hung; but not before dictating a confession to Mr. T.R. Gray.

Turner and Gray are plagued by two very different issues.  Gray and his fellow whites ask what could possibly have driven the blacks to such drastic action against their benevolent masters.  Turner wonders why more blacks did not join him and why so many in fact opposed him.  The answer to the first question is obvious.  The second poses a more interesting dilemma.  Why were such rebellions not more prevalent and this one having broken out, why did it not attract more participants?  This question, like that of why Holocaust victims did not put up more resistance, seems to me ultimately insoluble and Styron offers us little guidance.

The final question implicated here is what could have possibly impelled Turner and his cohort to squander their hard won liberty on senseless revenge killings, rather than fleeing North to Freedom.  In a broader sense this brings us to the question of what should be the goal of liberation movements generally and it is this issue that is most interesting, has clear answers and had obvious implications for the subsequent course of race relations in America.  Despite achieving some viscerally satisfying retribution on local whites, Turner and his band are ultimately destroyed by their dubious decision to hang around and try to slaughter every white they can find, instead of getting the heck out of Dodge.  Why didn't they flee?  Certainly, they could not have met a worse fate that way and they might even have made it to Freedom.  But this is the fundamental choice that faces all men at all times.  The retributive slaughter that Turner chose is simply Liberal politics writ large.  It is premised on the ideals of equality and leveling, pulling down those who are above and reducing them to the level of the lowest common denominator.  The alternative choice, of flight and uncertain freedom, is the Conservative option and requires confidence enough to face the prospect that one will fail in the attempt to rise up by dint of ability and hard work.

Nat Turner's counterproductive choice, of equality over freedom, has become the favored course of today's racial politicians.  Affirmative action, reparations, etc. are all merely attempts to punish whites and use government restraints to cripple their capacity to succeed.  In the same way that Turner could not rally himself and his troops to head for the North, the black political establishment and their white Democrat allies have decided that Freedom is too uncertain a proposition; better the guarantee of quotas than the risk of competition.

In this sense, The Confessions presents an eternal human dilemma and Styron's Turner correctly presages the choice that would be made by future generations of American blacks.  Sadly, the results have been similar.  I suppose that it is possible that blacks could not possibly compete with whites in a free market, but the implications of this would be dire indeed for our species.  To believe blacks incapable of success in the marketplace is to believe them inferior; a belief which ironically enough conservatives reject and liberals embrace.

Moreover, latching on to artificial social engineering devices like affirmative action has clearly not benefited most blacks much; it is even questionable whether the direct beneficiaries have been helped more than they have been degraded.  The assumptions of inferiority and disability which underlie these programs has certainly resulted in enormous resentments on the part of both those aided by the quotas (see authors like Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele & Clarence Thomas for excellent discussion of the social and personal stigma that attaches to those who are theoretically supposed to be aided by quotas) and those whites who are denied opportunities because of them.

At the end of Nat Turner's rebellion all you had left were one heck of a lot of dead people and a newly imposed skein of repressive state restrictions to try to prevent a recurrence.  One hardly expects the era of Affirmative Action to leave the field littered with corpses, but we've certainly been saddled with the authoritarian regulations and it seems entirely possible that it will prove just as unproductive as Nat Turner's Rebellion.  Government coerced "equality" is no substitute for ability, expectation and effort.

You see, the final irony of this episode is that Nat Turner succeeded.  At the end of the day he had wrought a brutal and destructive equality upon his society.  He, his compatriots and their white oppressors all ended up at the same level--six feet underground.  One assumes that we can all recognize the pyrhic nature of such a victory.  The tragedy of Nat Turner's rebellion is not that it ended in so many death's, that was his aim.  The tragedy is that he saw this as a desirable outcome.  When you sow the wind of equality, you reap the whirlwind of destruction.  At this late date in human affairs, one would hope that uncertain even chaotic as it can be, freedom offers mankind the better option, just as it would have been the wiser choice for Nat and company.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: A Conversation with William Styron (NEH)
    -CYBERCAST: Discussion with Novelist William Styron (Library of Congress)
    -PROFILE: WILLIAM STYRON ON HIS LIFE AND WORK (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOKLIST: Strictly Southern: THE AUTHOR OF "SOPHIE'S CHOICE" PICKS FIVE GREAT CONTEMPORARY SOUTHERN NOVELS (William Styron, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of  FORTUNATE SON By Lewis B. Puller Jr. (William Styron, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Dear Dirty Dublin: My Joycean Trek With Philip Roth (William Styron, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: THE LITERARY EYE; Death Row  (William Styron, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY:  William Styron: In the Jungle, NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY: William Styron: NAT TURNER AND "DRED", NY Review of Books
    -ESSAY:  William Styron: Hell Reconsidered, NY Review of Books
    -REVIEW: William Styron: A Farewell to Arms, NY Review of Books
        A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo
    -REVIEW: William Styron: In the Southern Camp, NY Review of Books
        Mary Chesnut's Civil War edited by C. Vann Woodward
    -REVIEW: William Styron: MacArthur, NY Review of Books
        Reminiscences by Douglas MacArthur
    -REVIEW: William Styron: Tootsie Rolls, NY Review of Books
        Candy by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg
    -REVIEW: William Styron: A Southern Conscience, NY Review of Books
        A Southern Prophecy by Lewis H. Blair and Introduction by C. Vann Woodward
    -REVIEW:  William Styron: The Habit, NY Review of Books
        The Consumers Union Report on Smoking and the Public Interest
    -REVIEW: William Styron: An Elegy for F. Scott Fitzgerald, NY Review of Books
        The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Andrew Turnbull
    -REVIEW: William Styron: Overcome, NY Review of Books
        American Negro Slave Revolts by Herbert Aptheker
    -REVIEW: William Styron: New Editions, NY Review of Books
        Slave and Citizen: The Negro in the Americas by Frank Tannenbaum
    -REVIEW: Philip Rahv: Through the Midst of Jerusalem, NY Review of Books
        The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron
    -REVIEW: Eugene D. Genovese: The Nat Turner Case, NY Review of Books
        William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond
    -REVIEW: Robert Towers: Stingo's Story, NY Review of Books
        Sophie's Choice by William Styron
    -ESSAY: A VISIT TO THE BROOKLYN OF 'SOPHIE'S CHOICE'  (LESLIE BENNETTS, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: A Sojourn in Dante's Wood, and the Path Back (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: A Howling Tempest in the Brain (VICTORIA GLENDINNING, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Tidewater Morning Three Tales From Youth By William Styron (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A TIDEWATER MORNING Three Tales From Youth. By William Styron (Richard Bausch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THIS QUIET DUST And Other Writings. By William Styron (Thomas R. Edwards, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THIS QUIET DUST By William Styron (Anatole Broyard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of DOG EAT DOG By Edward Bunker Introduction by William Styron (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: 'Authenticity,' or the Lesson of Little Tree (Henry Louis Gates Jr, NY Times Book Review)
    -'GREAT BOOKS' WE NEVER FINISHED READING (NY Times Book Review)
    -PROFILE:  JAMES BALDWIN-REFLECTIONS OF A MAVERICK (Julius Lester, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: BRINGING 'SOPHIE'S CHOICE' TO THE SCREEN (JANET MASLIN, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: MODERN NOVELS; THE 99 BEST (Anthony Burgess, NY times Book Review)

NAT TURNER & SLAVE REVOLT:
    -Encyclopaedia Britannica: Your search: "nat turner"
         Turner, Nat
            b. Oct. 2, 1800, Southampton county, Va., U.S.
            d. Nov. 11, 1831, Jerusalem, Va.
    -ETEXT: The Confessions (from Africans in America PBS Website)
    -ETEXT: The Confessions of Nat Turner (original Document, 1831)(Arts Faculty of the University of Groningen, Netherlands)
    -REVIEW: of Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents (Neil Sapper, Amarillo College)
    -ARTICLE: Denmark Vesey: An account of the "Denmark Vesey conspiracy" of 1822, a planned insurrection that, had it not been betrayed, would have been the most extensive uprising of slaves in American history (Thomas Wentworth Higginson (June, 1861) The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW:  of  Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction by Scott Reynolds Nelson Slaves Wages: A work of history puts a price on slave labor --  and could be used to determine modern-day reparations (Jack Beatty, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of Runaway Slaves: Rebels of the Plantation by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger  "As much as any of the Revolutionary patriots and Founding Fathers," writes our reviewer, a historian of slavery, "we need to recall these plantation rebels and outlaws."  (Leon F. Litwack, The Atlantic)
    -Web Citation: "Revisions of  Slavery," by Wen  Stephenson  (October 28, 1998)  What the Web accomplishes that neither Hollywood filmmakers nor PBS documentarists can (The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: John Brown Redux (Dennis Teti, First Things)

GENERAL:
    -ESSAY:  40 YEARS AFTER, ARTISTS STILL STRUGGLE WITH THE HOLOCAUST (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: INVENTING OUR PROBABLE PAST (Thomas Fleming, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  A CHAIN OF VOICES By Andre Brink (Julian Moynahan, NY Times Book Review)

Comments:

I don't think that this review was entirely fair. There are things that you criticize on that don't even make any sense. Like when you said Styron offers us little guidance as to why other slaves didn't join Nat in the rebellion. Of course he wouldn't guide us in that, he wrote the book from the POV of Nat and Styron writes that Nat asks himself the same question. I know that Styron was simply writing there and we don't know if Nat actually thought about that, but if he had he wouldn't know the answere would he? No. So why would Styron write it like Nat knew the answer. Then you go ahead and make your own interpretations of the story and then criticize Styron further for not showing those different dillemas you created. I actually recall Styron saying at the start of the book that you can make your own way with the book but he did not write it with any moral intentions. So saying that i don't see how one could criticize him for things like that.

- Charles Mersereau

- Mar-29-2007, 23:28

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I feel that this argument is completely biased. You say that liberals support the idea that blacks couldn't succeed in the free market, and that conservatives believe the opposite. I reallly hope you're kidding with that one... what would make anyone think that a gang of escaped slaves from the south are 1.) literate 2.) know how to conduct business, and 3.) have consumers...??? I'm sorry, maybe I was misunderstood, but if that's what you meant then you're point has major holes.

- Lauren O'Brien

- Oct-05-2006, 23:22

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I find this told from a partisan who speaks of what he or she does not know. As a writer, to tell a truly honest story one cannot put on a persona with which they are unfamiliar. It causes problems of perspective. While you clearly have some faith in William Styron's honesty, I do not. Also, while some would like to embrace the "Confession's" document wholesale, I cannot fathom why in that context one would think that a slave of Nat Turner's caliber would divulge the turth to a man like Thomas Gray, someone who just wanted to get rich and someone who was a slave owner. Sometimes, context is everything.

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- Dec-18-2005, 11:14

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Sophie's Choice isn't told from the perspective of a female holocaust survivor, but rather from the perspective of Stingo, a Southern writer.

- JP

- Jun-01-2003, 18:00

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