The Confessions of Nat Turner
The Confessions of Nat Turner
THE LITERARY WORK
A historical novel set in Southampton County, Virginia, during the years 1800 to 1831; published in 1966.
Nat Turner recounts his life as a slave and his revolt against Virginia slaveowners.
William Styron, a white writer and novelist, was born in 1925 in Newport News, Virginia, the same tidewater region where the real Nat Turner lived one hundred years earlier. Styron’s grandmother grew up on a North Carolina plantation, where she owned two slave girls. The hours spent listening to his grandmother’s stories about owning slaves haunted the young Styron for years. It troubled him deeply that by his own time racial inequalities still had not been set right. In 1966, during the midst of the growing black civil rights movement, Styron published The Confessions of Nat Turner, one of his most controversial novels. The book, which focused on the life and rebellion of a black slave in nineteenth-century Virginia, helped shed light on the racial unrest that persisted into the twentieth century.
Early American slavery
Probably as early as 1619, speculators and slave traders brought Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the newly established colonial regions. Unlike white indentured servants, who worked for about seven years, blacks became subject to colonial laws passed in 1660 dictating that slaves would serve white owners for life.
The growing plantation-based economy in the South meant that the number of slaves brought from Africa rose dramatically. By the early 1700s, for instance, slaves outnumbered whites by almost five to one in South Carolina. As the proportion of blacks increased, white anxiety about possible uprisings grew and more systematic control over slaves became commonplace. Laws were enacted that prohibited slaves from carrying weapons and forbade them from learning to read or write. Some slaves managed to learn these skills anyway, and a few managed to secure weapons.
Although slavery was firmly entrenched in the South, not all blacks were slaves. By the year 1860, the number of free blacks in the South amounted to nearly 500,000. While some blacks were born into freedom, others fled from slave states or bought their liberty after years of saving meager earnings from such menial labor as washing clothes or performing carpentry work. Some masters emancipated their slaves, but this was an unusual occurrence. More common were broken promises of freedom.
Nat Turner, for instance, was a Virginia slave who received assurances from his benevolent owner that he would one day be set free. Circumstances changed, however, and the owner sold Nat. Subsequent and more cruel owners failed to keep the long-ago promise of freedom, a betrayal that only added to Nat’s fury and frustration toward all white people.
Free blacks enjoyed relative autonomy compared to slaves, yet they still faced many restrictions designed to keep them subordinate to white people. Free blacks could not vote, serve on juries, or use the same public facilities as white people. In most states, free blacks were prohibited from testifying against whites in court and from marrying or engaging in sexual relations with whites. Despite all these constraints, a number of free blacks managed to save money, accumulate property, and enjoy respectable positions within their communities. In some cases, these “achievements” did little to stem the growing urge to violently resist white society in the South. The slave Gabriel Presser, the free black Denmark Vesey, and the slave Nat Turner all led slave revolts in the nineteenth century.
On August 30, 1800, under the leadership of Gabriel Prosser, a group of slaves made plans to attack their owners and invade Richmond, Virginia. Meeting secretly with his followers under the guise of funerals and other religious gatherings, Prosser planned for several hundred men to make a surprise attack at midnight. Carrying a flag with the motto “Death or Liberty,” the rebels planned to capture arms, burn warehouses, and perhaps even take Virginia’s governor as hostage.
On the day of the attack, a horrible storm broke out across the region. As creeks and rivers swelled from the rain, Prosser realized that it would be impossible to cross the waterways into Richmond, and so the attack was called off. By the time the rain stopped, informers had betrayed the mission. White scouting parties searched relentlessly for the rebels, capturing Gabriel Prosser at the end of September in nearby Norfolk, Virginia. Although he would not confess to having committed any crime, Prosser was sentenced to death in October 1800.
Denmark Vesey (1767-1822), a freed black slave, purchased his freedom for $600 using money he had won from a lottery. Soon after buying his freedom, Vesey recruited plantation slaves and free urban blacks to help him carry out his plan to capture the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The revolt was arranged to take place on the second Sunday of July in 1822. Vesey, a carpenter, used a church as a base to meet with his followers.
Among them were a group called the Blacksmiths, who fashioned spikes into bayonets for weapons, while others procured daggers, swords, and ammunition. Before the insurrection took place, though, a slave revealed the plot to white authorities in Charleston. More than a hundred of Vesey’s collaborators were captured. Vesey was convicted for planning to overthrow the city and hung along with about thirty-five others.
Nat Turner’s Revolt and its aftermath
Nat Turner’s Revolt, upon which William Styron’s novel is based, is probably the most widely known slave uprising. Like the fictionalized character in William Styron’s novel, the real-life Nat Turner, a slave and preacher, heard voices instructing him to rise up against white slaveowners in the South. Nat and his followers carried out these plans, staging a bloody revolt in 1831.
Just prior to Nat Turner’s Revolt, the Virginia state legislature had argued extensively about the issue of slavery. Strong antislavery sentiments were expressed in the western counties of Virginia, and it appeared possible that abolition would become a reality. After Nat Turner carried out his plan, however, abolition became an impossibility in Virginia. In fact, life for its slaves grew even worse than it had been.
Like other states across the South, Virginia tightened those laws that regulated the lives of slaves and free blacks. Militias and slave patrols increased, slave churches were prohibited, and black preachers were forbidden to teach. The South began to censor abolitionist literature and even screened the mail. Charity Bowery, a freed black slave, recalled the years after Nat Turner’s Revolt:
On Sundays, I have seen the negroes up in the country going away under large oaks, and in secret places, sitting in the woods with spelling books. The brightest and best men were killed in Nat’s time. Such ones are always suspected. All the colored folks were afraid to pray in the time of the old prophet Nat. There was no law about it; but the whites reported it round among themselves, that if a note [of prayer] was heard, we should have some dreadful punishment; and after that, the low whites would fall upon any slaves they heard praying or singing a hymn, and often killed them before their masters or mistress could get to them.
(Blassingame, Slave Testimony, p. 267)
Styron’s novel is a fictionalized recreation of Nat Turner’s life and rebellion against white slave masters in Southampton County, Virginia. It is told in the first person by Nat as he sits shackled in his jail cell, where he waits to be hanged for instigating the slave revolt.
Nat Turner is born into slavery in 1800 on the Virginia plantation owned by Benjamin Turner. Nat’s father has become a runaway slave; his mother works in the main house as a cook. Raised as a house slave alongside his mother, Nat escapes the grueling work required of the field slaves, and over time comes to feel superior to slaves outside the “big house.” His mother reinforces these feelings of superiority, instilling in her son the belief that he possesses special talents and will some day rise to God’s great calling.
Upon Benjamin Turner’s abrupt death, Nat passes into the hands of Benjamin’s brother, Samuel. Impressed by Nat’s intelligence and his desire to learn, Samuel encourages Nat to study and teaches him reading, math, and carpentry, promising that he will be freed upon turning twenty-five. Prompted by his master, Nat spends many hours studying from white children’s schoolbooks and becomes well versed in Scripture.
As long as Nat lives on Samuel Turner’s plantation he enjoys the respect of the Turner family and the privileges of a house slave. Drought and hard times, however, force Samuel Turner to sell his slaves. Nat’s next owner, the Reverend Eppes, betrays Samuel Turner’s promise of freedom, selling Nat to a cruel fourth master, Thomas Moore.
During the nearly ten years that Nat is owned by Moore, Nat’s feelings of frustration and betrayal grow ever stronger and thoughts of revolt are never far from his mind. Nat spends days at a time fasting and praying in a brush arbor built in the nearby woods. Several times he hears voices calling him to God and commanding him to rise up against the white slave master. Inspired by a religious vision, Nat believes he is chosen by God to lead a bloody revolt that will free all slaves.
After the death of Thomas Moore and the marriage of Moore’s sister to Joseph Travis, Nat becomes the property of the Travis family. Although Joseph Travis is a kind owner, Nat is not deterred from his plans for rebellion.
In February 1831, Nat begins planning his insurrection. He recruits men from his congregation and together they steal horses, guns, and axes. After fasting and praying in the woods, Nat receives a sign from God in the form of a solar eclipse, and he knows the time for revolt has come. On August 22 Nat’s fury is unleashed, with the slaves vowing to kill every white person encountered on their rampage.
The Travis family receives the first blows of the attack. In the midst of the revolt, however, Nat finds that he is unable to murder. His followers begin to lose respect for Nat as a leader as a result. Fearful that he may lose control of his forces, Nat proceeds to murder Margaret Whitehead, a kind young woman who had befriended Nat. Within twenty-four hours at least fifty-five more whites are killed. Local forces soon overcome the insurrection, murdering several of Nat’s compatriots on the spot. Nat hides for two months until October 30, when he is captured and brought to jail.
Nat refuses to confess to any crime, saying that he does not feel guilty. Judge Jeremiah Cobb nevertheless convicts Nat and sentences him to be hanged. Lacking any remorse for the revolt, Nat prepares to face his death, still filled with rage toward all white people responsible for slavery and toward slaves who acquiesce to their white masters. Given the choice between freedom and slavery, Nat staunchly claims he would again choose liberty, even if it required him to kill.
The only regret Nat feels is for the death of Margaret Whitehead. Leaning against the cold bars of his jail cell during the final hours before his execution, Nat thinks to himself, “I have no remorse for anything. I would do it all again.... I would destroy them all again, all—But for one…” (Styron, Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 403).
Parallels with real-life events
Styron’s fictionalized account of Nat Turner’s rebellion parallels historical fact in several respects. The novel reflects facts actually known about Nat Turner in regard to his five owners, key events of the rebellion, and his followers. In other respects, however, Styron’s novel departs from historical accuracy. Missing from the novel are several key family members from the real Nat Turner’s life. In Styron’s novel, Nat never lays eyes upon his grandmother. The real-life Nat, however, came from a strong family that included his grandmother. In addition, it was Nat’s parents who taught him to read, not the white family who owned him. Moreover, Styron’s fictional character is a bachelor, whereas the real-life Nat Turner was married to a woman named Cherry, and together they had a son, Redic. Critics also charged that Styron’s use of colloquial language is overdone, bordering on racism rather than accuracy. These critics objected to what they saw as Styron’s excessive use of derogatory language when other words would have sufficed.
Limited historical information about Nat Turner was available to William Styron when he wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner. Newspaper accounts of Turner’s insurrection were sketchy, and records from the Southampton courthouse where Nat Turner was tried and convicted merely list the names of those involved in the revolt.
An account of the insurrection was told to Nat’s court-appointed lawyer, Thomas R. Gray. This account, also called “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was the main historical resource Styron used in writing his novel. There is, however, doubt about the accuracy of Gray’s account. It is unclear to what extent facts were omitted or embellished by Gray.
According to Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner rarely departs from the facts that are known about Nat Turner and the revolt of which he was the leader. Historical fact served merely as a loose guideline, though. “In those areas where there is little knowledge in regard to Nat, his early life, and the motivations for the revolt (and such knowledge is lacking most of the time)” wrote Styron in the introduction to the novel, “I have allowed myself the utmost freedom of imagination in reconstructing events” (Styron, p. ii).
In a postscript to his novel, Styron remarked that the stories his paternal grandmother told him about slave ownership strongly influenced him to write The Confessions of Nat Turner. Thinking back to these stories, Styron explains, “Nothing so awed me as the fact that this frail and garrulous woman whom I beheld, and who was my own flesh and blood, had been the legal owner of two other human beings. It may have determined, more than anything else, some as-yet-to-be born resolve to write about slavery” (Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 437).
As a child growing up in the Virginia tidewater region, Styron was well aware of the racial inequities still in existence in the twentieth century. Ramshackle black schoolhouses with outside privies stood in stark contrast to the well-equipped and up-to-date facilities provided for white students. Disparities such as these were embarrassing evidence to Styron that society was firmly locked in the grip of racial laws that promoted “a separate and thoroughly unequal way of life” (Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 435).
Styron’s final inspiration for writing his novel came from reading Camus’s The Stranger, a first-person story told by a convicted murderer while awaiting his execution. Impressed by the framework, he decided that it would be a nice one for his own novel. He would tell the story in the first person and have it end on the day of Nat’s execution.
The civil rights movement
The 1950s and 1960s saw the growth of a civil rights movement in the United States in which blacks and whites took direct action to defeat segregation and other forms of inequality that persisted in America. These inequalities prompted some people to ignore or challenge rules about segregation of buses, lunch counters, and schools in an effort to gain greater civil rights for blacks.
By 1966, the year Styron’s novel was first published, the civil rights movement had achieved several victories for black Americans. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision that school segregation was illegal and that integration must occur. Pressed by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Congress passed five Civil Rights Acts between 1957 and 1968 that promised equality in education, federal programs, housing, and voting rights. Still, people chafed under continuing inequalities. Just as Nat Turner’s anger persisted even after he again became the property of a kind owner, the few civil rights victories would not stem the wave of violence about to break across the nation.
Long Hot Summer
In 1966, during what became known as the “Long Hot Summer,” bombings, fires, and assassinations made front-page news. Racial strife erupted in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and riots flared in Los Angeles, California; Newark, New Jersey; Detroit, Michigan; and Cleveland, Ohio.
Both blacks and whites participated in the violence, and the consequences were tragic. In July 1966, two people died and more than four hundred were arrested in Chicago, Illinois, after three days of racially motivated rioting. That same summer, a mob of nearly four thousand whites stoned participants in a desegregation march in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. At the head of the march was the black leader Martin Luther King Jr., a champion of nonviolent efforts to garner greater rights for blacks. Also that summer, rioting in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, left four people dead and fifty injured, and resulted in widespread property damage and 164 arrests.
The Long Hot Summer of 1966 dramatically shifted the tone of the civil rights movement. Many civil rights activists subsequently rejected tactics of multiracial cooperation and nonviolent resistance in favor of a movement called Black Power, which called for blacks to unite, to recognize their common heritage, and to build a sense of community. Whites were no longer welcome, in the eyes of many of these blacks, to join in their struggle for civil rights. The black leader Malcolm X, who had been assassinated in 1965, would have probably approved of this movement since he had complained that whites, not blacks, were in control of the struggle. More like Nat Turner than Martin Luther King had been, Malcolm at one point urged blacks to use any means necessary to gain equality, including violence. Black leaders who survived him, such as Stokely Carmichael, agreed with this advice. Carmichael urged blacks to carry weapons for self-defense. More separatist than other groups, black radicals rejected the values of white American society and the notion that whites could presume to speak on behalf of the black experience.
William Styron’s novel initially met with some glowing reviews, but controversy soon followed. The Confessions of Nat Turner rose to the top of bestseller lists, where it remained for many weeks. Styron was invited to speak at several black colleges, and in 1968 the author received the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for the novel. Meanwhile, though, other critics attacked Styron’s novel as a racist version of history. They charged that the author had created a biased version of events. Rather than depicting Nat as a strong black revolutionary, Styron, these critics contended, selectively chose to include certain facts about the real-life Nat while omitting others, thus creating the impression of a weak and ineffectual character. In Styron’s novel, for example, Nat, who is portrayed as a bachelor, has violent sexual fantasies about raping Margaret Whitehead, a young white woman. Critics charged that such an episode ignores historical accuracy, instead relying on “stereotypes of… the revolutionary black man who lusts for the white woman” (Clarke, p. 57).
Some critics objected to Styron’s perceived attempt to be a “white authority on blackness” (Clarke, p. 58), arguing that the novel was the product of a racist white man attempting to speak for a black slave. Certain sections in the novel aroused particular attention from critics: “There are occasions,” muses Nat in Styron’s novel, “when in order to buy some advantage from a white man it is better not even to say ‘please’ but to silently wrap oneself up in one’s niggerness like the blackest of shrouds” (Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 269). Such passages, in which Styron’s characters convey self-abnegating and self-demeaning traits, were singled out for condemnation. The passages rankled some civil rights activists and flew in the face of the emerging focus on Black Power and black pride.
During the late 1960s Styron received death threats, a development that forced him to stop making public appearances. Styron was shocked and dismayed by the furious response to his book. Once the recipient of thanks and praise for his novel, Styron was now repudiated and his book considered obscenely racist.
Writing The Confessions of Nat Turner had allowed Styron to address the guilt and responsibility he felt as a white man living in the South. It was inconceivable, he later recalled, “that in a short time I would experience almost total alienation from black people... having unwittingly created one of the first politically incorrect texts of our time” (Styron, p. 435).
Blassingame, John W., ed. Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.
Gilmore, Al-Tony. Revisiting Blassingame’s The Slave Community: The Scholars Respond. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.
Harding, Vincent. There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Random House, 1983.
Ruderman, Judith. William Styron. New York: Ungar, 1987.
Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. New York: Random House, 1993.