Reading the Confessions of Nat Turner

by Rob Tiller

One of the rewarding things about travel is the flip side of downtime:   having substantial chunks of time to read.   Once I’ve made it to my gate and found a spot to stow my roll, I look forward to the part of the journey when there is nothing physical that needs to be done, no problems that immediately need to be solved, and no talking that is strictly necessary.  For lovers of books, it’s an oasis.  And reading makes the time valuable.  I really don’t know how non-readers can stand airplanes.

During our travels over the holidays, I managed to finish William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, which gave a shot in the arm to my sometimes shaky faith in the importance of the novel.  Sally read the book long ago and kept it, and it has sat on our various bookshelves as long as we’ve been together (27+ now!).  During all that time, I had no idea it was such a great book.  It turns out Sally always thought it was a great book, but we never got around to discussing it.

The book is based on an actual person (Turner), a slave who led a bloody revolt in Virginia in 1831.  Styron explains in “afterword” essay that the historical record of Turner is slim, and that he consciously made a character different in important respects from what he believed about the historical Turner.  (The real Turner was apparently a psychotic religious fanatic, whereas Styron’s is a religiously inspired poetic and practical genius.)  Styron’s aim was to illuminate slavery and race relations during that period, and his own.  He succeeded brilliantly in bringing to light multiple dimensions and paradoxes of the Peculiar Institution.

It is certainly a beautiful book in its details and its sweep, but also a deeply painful.  There is, of course, the sickening cruelty of some individual slave owners.  (The narrator Turner concedes that there was a wide range of behavior among slave owners, and some of them were thoughtful and relatively kind.)  There is the pain of Turner and millions of others who endured forced servitude.  There’s also the deep pain is that our forefathers with knowledge and intent supported and defended slavery for generations.  The anti-black racism that continues to plague us is proof that this legacy is still with us.

The book is a powerful example of how a work of fiction can bring to light certain truths that cannot be illuminated any other way.  History in its conventional form is distrustful of imagination, which means that undocumented feelings and behaviors can be completely lost.  But combining historical research with imagination and literary skill, as Styron did, opens doors to the past.

Styron’s essay recounts the strange history of the book itself, which was initially a critical and popular success.  It then became the target of fierce attack by a number of prominent black scholars.   By Styron’s account (which is obviously self-interested), most of the attacks missed the larger points of his work.  In any case, the attacks effectively marginalized the book by discouraging the attention of black readers.  It is a sad irony that this great book that could easily have been an inspiration for more great historical and imaginative work and another bridge over a racial divide became a point of division.