Review: The Confessions of Nat Turner

In the process of doing research for an essay touching on racism and Confederate memorials, I was reminded of the novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron. I had heard of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel but had never read it. I knew it was a fictional tale based on the life and death of a slave who had led a bloody revolt in 1830s Virginia.

Nat Turner was a religious fanatic whose faith led him to commit or facilitate many grisly murders in the name of freedom for the slaves. Styron's book makes clear the indignities and abuse suffered by slaves. The reader is led to believe some kind of action against the white populace is justified, but clearly not the rampage that Turner led. Turner gradually comes to see that a revolt is necessary, and that it is God's will that Turner lead it. I was reminded of how the religious fanaticism of John Brown led him to execute proponents of slavery, believing God was on his side, as well as how both the people of the Union and the Confederacy believing God was on their side in the Civil War.

Turner learned to read and write at an early age, but it is unlikely he was as eloquent as the first-person "confessions" in Styron's novel would suggest (and for which Styron has been criticized). Nevertheless, Styron tells a good story. While the narrative moved back and forth between the events leading up to the revolt and Turner's incarceration, I didn't get confused or lost. I don't always read a famous work and come away with a realization of why that work deserved the praise it received, but I did this book.