Reviewed: The Confessions of Nat Turner
by William Styron
(Random House, 1967)
I was about two-thirds of the way through William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner when I stumbled upon a 2008 interview with Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review. Finding the interview was a small stroke of serendipity, as I was struggling to get a hold on the troubling novel, which would be challenging enough even without the controversy that has marked its history.
Initially released to glowing reviews, Nat Turner quickly ran afoul of the blossoming militant black consciousness of the ’70s and was tarred with charges of racism and the exploitation of its black protagonist. To pick the novel up today, then, feels like wading into a thick jungle with a dull machete; on top of the many moral difficulties presented by the book itself, there is the risk of forming an opinion that the better-read masses will snicker about behind your back. And so it was like a bolt of lightning when I read Marilynne Robinson saying, “If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves.”
At the outset of the novel, readers meet Nat Turner as he awaits a perfunctory trial for the bloody slave insurrection he has raised just outside the town of Jerusalem, Virginia. The events of Nat’s life are told in retrospective as he awaits his inevitable execution: his relatively comfortable youth as a house slave, the cruel betrayals he endures after receiving an education from a kind but naïve master, a troubled relationship with a young white girl, and ultimately, the raid that led to the deaths of fifty-five white Virginians. The drama of the story is sometimes slack through the long passages of Nat’s childhood, but the story is propelled through the doldrums by the moral conundrum presented by Samuel Turner, the benign owner who takes it upon himself to educate Nat.
After Nat steals a book in an attempt to teach himself how to read, Turner uses the young boy to test his long-held beliefs that slaves can be educated into society. Nat comes to be something of a pet to the Turners and grows fond of the family, but when the plantation falls into financial hardship, he is blithely handed over to a local reverend who Turner naively assures Nat will free him in due time.
The reverend, of course, does not free Nat and instead works him tirelessly until finally selling him to some nearby farmers. And so the novel presents a dilemma: Samuel Turner was sincere in his desire to educate and even free Turner, but his half-cocked charity and inability to safeguard Nat’s future gave the boy both the education and seething resentment that would enable his later rebellion.
To a contemporary reader, this is the sort of conflict that could be quickly glossed in the bloodless rhetoric of a politicized reading: Nat is victimized by condescending paternalism and so is driven to use the oppressor’s means against him. What drives the story, and keeps it from being so easily packaged, is Nat’s voice. He ceases being the contented house pet of the Turner family and becomes instead a tormented zealot, obsessed with scripture and prone to fasting to induce angelic visions that justify his ultimate mission.
As he makes this transition, he is by turns verbose and eloquent, prophetic and demented, as when he voices uncertainty over his followers’ dedication with an inimitable combination of trepidation and megalomania:
Nor of course did I yet intimate by the vaguest sign or word the true nature of my great plans. It was enough now, as the time grew short, that they stand in awe of me and warm to the light I knew I shed of ineluctable wisdom and power.
It is through his looping and learned cadence that the painful moral problem of the novel is dramatized: Readers are forced to parse Nat’s mortal outrage and lethal delusions to determine whether his rebellion was the inevitable outcome of the peculiar institution or the work of a singularly warped mind.
Another unsettling aspect of the book—and its chief offense in the eyes of many detractors—is Nat’s relationship with Margaret Whitehead. The young Miss Whitehead is a white schoolgirl living near Nat’s final owners, who both allures and repels him with her girlish ignorance of the boundaries between them. With a familiarity that vexes Nat’s learned deference, she recites her poetry, shares thoughts on scripture, and holds forth on racial equality.
That this familiarity comes after Nat has steeled himself to the necessity of slaughtering white people fills him with a roiling mixture of lust, tenderness, and loathing. It all culminates in the climactic raid on Jerusalem, when Nat—who, up to this point, has backed away from killing any whites himself—tracks Margaret into a field and murders her in a ghastly, intimate way. This horrifying scene soon haunts Nat as he awaits his execution and thinks of Margaret, the one person whose death he regrets, “her that showed me Him whose presence I had not fathomed or maybe never even known.”
For many, Nat’s lust for Margaret and his ultimate regret over her murder was the ultimate evidence of Styron’s racial myopia, but the pain Nat feels upon recalling Margaret’s death is where I must recall Robinson. Margaret and Nat share moments of intimacy—fraught, dangerous, inappropriate intimacy—over the Bible, which Nat believes justifies his lethal mission and Margaret believes carries hope for love between the races. Nat is particularly obsessed with the Old Testament prophets, themselves visionaries for a race of liberated slaves. By summing up the Old Testament in non-partisan terms—“Stop doing this to yourselves”—Robinson places the reader of the Old Testament in the same position she finds herself at the conclusion of Styron’s novel. “Yourselves” implicates neither Jew nor pharaoh, but rather the reader; Margaret’s murder becomes Nat’s pain at execution just as American slavery ruined owners, slaves and innocents alike. We cannot, finally, separate Nat and Margaret, but we have the Old Testament between them, and its admonishment: “Stop doing this to yourselves.” Styron has declared our national Old Testament, but we are given no second book and no revelation.