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.

Failed at Faulkner

Freda Spell, my junior high English teacher from Mississippi, and Merilee Allen, my cousin who once volunteered at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi, will likely disavow, disinherit, disenfranchise, and just generally "dis" me for the heresy I am about to proclaim.

I can't appreciate William Faulkner.

In junior high, Miss Spell assigned me some of Faulkner's works to read. All I remember was how Faulkner could stretch a single compound sentence, making judicious use of semicolons, across entire pages. Like reading German, where many times the reader doesn't know the verb of a sentence till she reaches the end of the sentence, I would find that by the time I got to the end of one of Faulkner's sentences I couldn't remember what the first part of the sentence was about.

Nevertheless, over 45 years later, I thought I'd give St. William another go. I picked up a small copy of Sanctuary. I went down to the beach, opened up my chair, applied some sun block, and began to read.

And shortly thereafter, I gave up.

Extremely long sentences? No, not this time. Instead, within the first couple of pages, I got lost with which character was saying what. Faulkner's speaker attributions were alternately confusing or missing. Personal pronouns thrown around willy-nilly. Okay, I thought, if I persevere it will become more obvious. But before I could really and truly absorb this prose, I encountered consecutive sentences beginning with "Then [the woman did this]." Several characters were quickly inserted into the story without sufficient introduction for me to know whether they were sufficiently important to keep track of. And soon I had no idea what was going on at all.

And I quit.  

I know all too well the experience of prolonged deferral of gratification. Graduate school and student loans will do that to you. So will planning for retirement. But I have reached that point in my life, in my reading, where I no longer feel like trudging through "great literature" with the hope that I will feel gratified when I reach the last page.

Or maybe my attention span is growing shorter as I approach -- still from a distance, mind you! -- my second childhood.

I am not arguing against Mr. Faulkner's status in American literature. That truly would be heresy. Instead, I am simply saying, with apologies to Freda and Merilee, that I have failed at appreciating Faulkner's work.