The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. Vintage. 480 pages.
Eventually I realized that William Styron’s poetic descriptions of weather and landscapes in The Confessions of Nat Turner aren’t supposed to represent the world as we know it—or even as the characters know it, save perhaps for the narrator, Nat Turner—but to create a feeling in the reader of tragic grandeur, of a doomed place saturated with significance and emotion. There’s an element of the fantastical at play in the novel’s dreamy mise en scene:
“Behind us in the cart the three boys had gone to sleep, sprawled against each other lifeless and limp in the moonlight. The night was clamorous with frogs and katydids, warm, fragrant with cedar, clear like day, the moon powdering the trees in light as starkly white as the dust of bone. The lop-eared mules, plodding along with a crushed rasping sound against the dewy weeds, found their way ahead as if they knew the road by heart, and I let the reins go slack in my hand, drowsing too, and fitfully slept until the end of the trace, roused only once and then dimly by the high wail of a bobcat miles off in the swamp, its distant scream echoing through some perplexed strange dream like the sound of claws scraped in anguish against the bare face of the heavens.”
I’ve never read two words lashed together quite like “crushed rasping.” Styron loved language—metaphor, adjectives, orotund phrases—especially its rhythm and sound. His prose is tuned to the ear. In the passage above, the long “o” sounds evoke the slumberous nighttime excursion. Why did he write “dust of bone” instead of the equally arresting, and shorter, “bone dust”? I think because of sound: dUHst UHv bOHn. His language in The Confessions of Nat Turner lends itself to theatrical reading.
The novel is divided into three major sections, and the first third, with Turner in jail awaiting execution moves the slowest. The next, which recreates his life from boyhood to young manhood, is compelling in its depiction of his growing up in unusually lucky circumstances amidst the quotidian rhythms of plantation life. When the thin coastal soil fails under the burden of continuous tobacco crops and the bankrupt farm’s chattel is dispersed, Nat is thrust into increasingly brutal hands. The section ends with the blossoming of his hatred—not for his crude new owners but for his kindly and enlightened first master, who taught him to read and gave him hope. The man’s naivete about people and his essential ignorance of slavery’s hopelessly degrading and depraved nature thrust the institution’s cruelties upon Nat at last.
In the novel’s final third, Turner’s hatred grows to encompass all whites, the guilty and innocent both; and it portrays his relationship with the sweet and spiritual eighteen-year-old girl he would kill. The insurrection is a powerful dramatic culmination that depicts shocking attacks. Most significant in the violent maelstrom are Turner’s murder of the innocent girl and his sparing of another (who then spreads the alarm). A brief fourth section returns to Turner in his cell, on the eve of execution.
I wondered why Styron structured the book as a long flashback instead of chronologically. The opening does introduce an obvious mystery: How did Turner end up there? And more specifically: Why did Turner himself murder only one person, the belle of the county? This is a hook, but still the opening is challengingly slow by comparison with the rest of the book, with dense passages lacking much paragraphing or line breaks. I found Styron’s answer in an interview he gave to Humanities in which he explained the enormous influence Albert Camus had on him:
“In fact, the architecture of The Confessions of Nat Turner was largely determined by the architecture of his book The Stranger. I began to see just how the plight of a man condemned to death reflecting on his life from a prison cell, which is true for The Stranger, I might use as a similar structure for The Confessions of Nat Turner, which indeed is what I did.”
Styron’s close friend James Baldwin urged him to try entering the psyche of the slave. In an interview for the book Conversations with William Styron, Styron said the structure and point of view also allowed him to introduce Turner’s lawyer, who interviewed the slave and published the original Confessions, and to show in ironic counterpoint what Turner might really have said and thought, in contrast to what the confessional documents—with “a lot of white man’s hokum” in them—purport he said. And Styron wanted to explore in the opening Turner’s questioning of his relationship with God and to depict his despair. Scenes in the first section show, as well, Turner’s attraction to the girl and his fraught encounter with the judge who would decide his fate a year later.
After widespread acclaim, a handful of black intellectuals, amidst the upheavals of 1968, launched a sustained attack on the novel for various political reasons, including over the issue of whether a white man should write in a black man’s voice, telling his story. (Similar outrage occurred years later over Styron, a gentile, writing a Holocaust story, Sophie’s Choice.) Plans for a major movie were scrapped (there are now rumors that Spike Lee may be considering filming Confessions). Styron knew he’d written a book for the ages, but was grieved over most of the fuss. Even today, more than forty years after its publication, anyone who writes about this book is bound to call it “controversial.” An essay last year in The New York Times Book Review claimed it “became the center of a debate that has helped shape American literature ever since” but added fatuously that there are now novels that tell “a messier, trickier, less comforting story.”
This harrowing story, beautifully expressed and plotted, a work of art, deserves better. The Confessions of Nat Turner must be read without agenda, slowly and receptively, to appreciate Styron’s feat in bringing to life an America we cannot remember and can scarcely imagine—and to honor his sheer courage in doing so. Its unrestrained imaginative depth achieves the definition Styron himself once gave of greatness: “Most books, like their authors, are born to die; of only a few books can it be said that death has no dominion over them; they live, and their influence lives forever.”