The Confessions of Nat Turner. William Styron.

Styron, William. The Confessions of Nat Turner. Random House, New York 1967. Electronic version downloaded for Kindle. F; 11/15.

Judge not, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7: 1-2)

A young ecstatically religious black slave in a 1830s Virginia jail awaiting trial which will without question have him executed has murdered a 16-year-old girl, object of his own sexual desre and repugnance, and caused the violent death of dozens of other white people. He must be a bad man.

Or is he?

This is a powerful story. It’s historic but with the advantage that the historic record is just one document and is vague, so it’s much more fiction than history. The emotions and human conflicts described in this imagining of the life of black slave Nat Turner reaches into apparently irreconcilable extreme corners of human experience: love, hate, satisfaction, fear, money and greed, rage, sex, murder, religion. It’s masterful enough that a reader can’t (I couldn’t anyway) avoid feeling the arc of Turner’s experience and inner struggle personally. If this had been me…

Independent of Styron’s story is the instructive history of its criticism. The Pulitzer Prize was followed quickly by decades (it still persists) of anti-racist calumny. How could anyone – a white man – create such a demeaning black slave character? Many thoughts must enter the mind of an artist like this one: what was he thinking about? But the experience of his work is for me in a completely different world than an ideologic or political reaction to the work’s content. That and how it feels to read this book are contradictory in the extreme. Whether it represents racism, pedophelia, psychopathy, or anything else anyone finds a cause celebre is for me trivial compared to its dramatic impact

Unusually intelligent young black Nat falls by luck into a sympathetic slave-master’s family, and is taken into the wealthy household and educated. The family’s fortunes collapse, Nat is sold into more usual (and horrible) slavery, develops ecstatic religious experience and preaches to his fellow slaves, and at the same time conceives a plan to rebel murderously against white masters and set black slaves free. We know from the outset that the rebellion fails. Most of the story is a flashback to Nat’s life and the rebellion.

Styron was depressed and wrote nonfiction about that experience. So he is in the company of David Foster Wallace, although for me not the same kind of fiction genius (and nowhere near as funny). Huge literary talent feeling existentially awful can, it seems frighteningly, produce some wonderful things.

Ambivalence is everywhere. Nat is hired out to a wealthy aristocratic family, and regularly takes the teenage daughter Margaret Whitehead back and forth to church and visits. She in her simplistic innocence idolizes religious Nat (who although a mature man is a virgin) and he is driven almost insane by her sitting right next to him on the wagon. There is a near-intolerably intense scene where she feels faint riding with him, they cross a meadow to a stream, and he comes within moments and inches of raping her. Eventually she is the only human he personally murders in the rebellion.

His early slavery experience is uniquely easy, but also helps us start to appreciate how he feels about himself:

I became in short a pet, a darling, a little black jewel of Turner’s Mill. Pampered, fondled, nudged, pinched, I was the household’s spoiled child, a grinning elf in a starched jumper who gazed at himself in mirrors, witlessly preoccupied with his own ability to charm.

Pampered and spoiled like Margaret, but a man, and a slave.

So confronted with his own and others’ mistreatment:

… I felt such rage, intolerable rage, rage that echoed a memory of (a fellow slave’s fury as he shouted at his hideously mistreating master), rage that was a culmination of all the raw barriers to anguish and frustration growing inside me since the four-week dusk of childhood, on a murmuring veranda, when I first understood that I was a slave and a slave forever. My heart… shrunk inside me, disappeared, and rage like a newborn child exploded to fill the void.

At the same time as he feels outrage at the treatment of black people, he says:

There existed other Negroes, and many of them, who to gain no more than a plug of tobacco or a couple of fishhooks or half a pound of stew beef with tattle away their own mother’s life.

Eventually this complicated toweringly emotional man can’t carry out the violent deaths he has planned in the rebellion (except for murdering his own impossible-to-reconcile ambivalence by beating young Margaret to death). He lets a 14-year-old girl, who raises the alarm resulting in the rebellion’s failure, escape while others are busy killing her family in the house. He is captured, imprisoned, tried, and hanged.

In the course of his imprisonment he gives his confession to another emblem of ambivalence, a sleazy but ultimately sympathetic lawyer. To Nat the lawyer’s words are:

…the quintesessence of white folks’ talk I had heard incessantly all my life and which I could only compare to talk in one of my nightmares, totally implausible yet somehow wholly and fearfully real, where owls in the woods are quoting pricelists like a storekeeper, or a wild hog comes prancing on its hind legs out of a summer cornfield, intoning verses from Deuteronomy.

In prison waiting to be hung he knows he has lost his religion:

The sense of (God’s) absence was like a profound awful silence in my brain. Nor was it His absence alone which caused me this renewed feeling of despair, absence itself might have been endurable: instead it was a sense of repudiation I felt, of denial, as if He had turned His back on me once and for all…

This created character, thrown into an extreme situation by slavery, his religion, his male humanity, and his moral sense, although (or maybe because) vastly ambivalent, is completely credible. To produce this, Styron must have encompassed it himself. And his gift is to let us do the same. A pretty fair proof and description of great writing.

And impossible for me to experience without reflecting on my own moral judgements and what I’m doing in making them. 9.3/9.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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