The Confessions of Nat Turner

I just finished this profound, beautiful, satisfying novel by William Styron, which won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize. In 1831 Nat Turner, a Virginia slave and preacher, led the only sustained, effective slave revolt in American history, yet few records of the event offer much detail. The only one! After years of solemn, secret planning, into which the reader is methodically and eagerly enlisted, over the course of two days Nat and some 75 followers rampaged the countryside, laying waste to 55 white souls of all ages, including women and babies, before they were caught and, of course, hanged. Fifty-five cold-blooded murders plus dozens of wounded makes Charles Manson look like Ken Lay! Styron attempts to penetrate the mind of Turner to uncover his motive and psychology and succeeds to a considerable degree, in my opinion.

The book is told in first person, most of it directly by the chained Nat awaiting execution in his cold, dank cell, the rest of it summarized in dialogue with his lawyer, a neat way to get across a lot of plot points in a hurry while maintaining scene and drama. Story begins with a vision Nat has of an inscrutable, white building high on a sea cliff -- his version of freedom and glory (he has never seen the sea). Then back to the cell, and we get what happened in dialogue with his lawyer, a befuddled white man assigned to the case. The second part of the book retraces Nat's remarkable life story in recollections, slowly, gorgeously laying the groundwork for his religious convictions that lead to his plan to plunder the countryside that has served as the backdrop for the unspeakable horrors endured by his fellow slaves. Particularly effective is Styron's use of Old Testament martyrs and prophets who rose up against the Egyptians and whose fiery rhetoric lights a blaze in Nat's mind that cannot be put out. This leads right up to the climax, which the reader has been prepared for and can't wait to read, and the scene where he storms his master's bedroom does not disappoint. The deneoument brings us back to Nat's final meeting with his lawyer on the morning of his execution and his bidding goodbye to his last living comrade, led past Nat's cell, crying out that it will be all right, that it's "nuthin'!" The hangmen's call from behind the door to "Come!" becomes in Nat's mind the voice of the Lord at last, the Lord who has, for years, abandoned him and tested his will by His silence. Nat's vision of the mysterious white building on the hill becomes a metaphor for the peace of the finally imminent Afterlife.

Interesting is how Nat's retrospective first-person prose is simply scrumptious, lavish, almost insanely wonderful, but when he speaks, his words come out in the same impoverished dialect as the other slave characters. No excuse or explanation is given for this discrepancy -- a reminder of just how much you can get away with provided you set the standard from the get-go and never look back. Styron's prose, which I had only encountered once before, in his terrific novella The Long March, is what I would call transparent. Clear, perfect, to be devoured compulsively as you think "he can't possibly keep this up" and he does. When I read Styron's natural kinsmen such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, Richard Yates, I think as I read, "Goodness gracious but this son of a bitch is freaking talented with words, and he clearly knows it," but when reading this book, I found myself thinking, "Goodness gracious but this son of a bitch is freaking talented with words, and he's sparing the reader the hint of his own swaggering ego to boot." Hence, tranparency. The lily rendered as it is, no gilding required. Hence, my excitement upon emerging from this book is partly the prospect of his other novels, waiting for me in used bookstores and eBay auctions and garage sales.

Styron took a lot of heat for his matter-of-fact treatment of Nat's character, mainly from black leaders who denounced it as perpetuating the stereotype of the sex-obsessed, violent black man. Maybe they had a point. It was 1968 after all. Then again, Nat's natural development, morally and sexually, was so warped and twisted by even the mundane practical restraints of slavery, as to supply reason enough for me. And the man presided over such unprecedented and widespread carnage -- it must be remembered that he was a mass murderer, no matter his skin color. Yet, amazingly, and probably significantly, Nat himself committed just a single murder -- that of a white girl whose beauty and sincere kindness toward him somehow overboiled his frustrated rage more than all the cruelty of his various masters and their surrogates. Finally, though, and most important to a writer, Nat is written with such humanity and compassion and courage and honesty and wit that, in the usual sense, it hardly matters what he did -- the reader is with him till the end. "Write unlikeable characters," Ethan told us. "The reader will always like them." James Baldwin had a different take on the book when it came out: "He [Styron] has begun the common history -- ours." Achieving a common history is something Jim McPherson often said should be our goal: "We must develop what Ralph Ellison called the omni-American sensibility." Jim also once said, "There should be no limits whatever to the writer's imagination." Amen!

Anyway, just wanted to sound off on yet another book from decades ago that was fresh as a new penny to me and inspiring as all get out.


Brando said...

Interesting stuff, Corbin. Did you read the Adam Gopnik review in the New Yorker of the new John Brown bio? Another guy who was labeled as a savage nutcase, but was quite a bit more complex then what we learned in school.

synthetic said...

Glad you liked it. I stopped about a third of the way through, when the humorlessness combined with the promise of ever-more-agonizing scenes started to irritate me. Then again at the time I had plenty of problems of my own and didn't need imaginary or historical people's problems.

Funny, I like Styron in small doses, but I've never been able to finish a book of his. Get annoyed every time.

kclou said...

I love your book reviews, Grendel. They're so earnest.

As an aside, have you (or has anyone, for that matter) finished _Cloud Atlas_? I'm getting there now and really interesed to hear what other people think (you and Gordo, especially).

SER said...

Kclou, I read Cloud Atlas and very much enjoyed its inventiveness and devotion to offering me a darned good time. As I've said before, though, I think it was right for the Booker judges to choose The Line of Beauty over Cloud Atlas - it's a more powerful book in the end, even though it's not as overtly creative.

Grendel said...

Brando: No, I did not. Thanks for pointing it out. I'll scrounge it up.

Synthetic: I think three things helped me overcome what I normally cannot overcome, namely humorlessness. One, that I had read The Long March and therefore knew the author was capable of much humor. Two, I began to find a kind of humor tinged with pathos in the long Part 2 of the book, in which Nat's love for and frustration with his fellows in bondage sustains a kind of tragicomedy that was enough for my purposes. Three, expectations and mind set. I mean, I didn't go into Schindler's List expecting to bust a gut.

Kclou: Thanks! I know Gordo finished it, but I haven't even started it. I'm hamstrung by my own novel's limitless precision-in-diction needs... I'm finding it harder and harder to justify reading anything that wasn't written prior to 1880 or deals with events prior to that year. I know I'd probably dig a book like Cloud Atlas, but my research time is limited, and by imposing the pre-1880 rule, I'm killing two birds (entertainment/literary fix and novel research) with one stone. Maybe that's misguided and sure to fail, but that's what I'm thinking these days. Which is why Beloved made the cut ahead of all these great recommendations, and is why Mason and Dixon may get the next green light, even though my mom bought me Augie March while she was here and I'm ITCHING, ITCHING to read the "best postwar American novel." No I have never read it either [Grendel's head sinks even lower in shame].

SER: Ditto for The Line of Beauty, which I know you demanded we read long ago. I've put these shackles on myself. Maybe I'll hurry up and finish the novel so I can read all these great contemporary books!

SER said...

Grendel, you could read the first section of Cloud Atlas, which will have the diction you're looking for. The last does, too, but I recommend that you not skip ahead.

Grendel said...

I know what you're thinking. I'll get sucked in by the end of the first part! Very well, then. I'll borrow it from El Gordo.

synthetic said...

Thanks, Grendel. I'll try Long March. After Augie, of course.

El Gordo de Amore said...

I completely adored Cloud Atlas -- I read it on the plane back and forth from the conference in Tempe, and it totally sucked up all my time (to the point I was actually finishing it in the Cedar Rapids airport as I waited for Lumpy to pick me up).

I really like its inventiveness -- I know some might see the different time periods and stories as just a clever trick, but it was a clever trick I liked, and it worked for me -- I thought it created a fairly deft illustration of the cyclical nature of time and history.

Plus, with the stops and starts of the stories, it provided a bit of a mystery to pull me along in the "what's going to happen next" vein.

And I loved the corporate nature of the future -- the Sony stuff was really cool.