LITERATURE: The Confessions of Nat Turner – Style and Statement

Lord knows it didn’t look like I was ever going to keep on this book, but even though it was tough for me to enjoy reading–and I’m still not sure whether it was the story thus far or just my own overdose to reading–I hit a new pace with it today, determined to either read it or shelve it.

The story begins with the days before the trial of Nat Turner, so we are immediately made aware of what he’s accused of, what he admits to, and the ultimate and likely effect of that being his condemnation to death for the crimes. Once this happens, we are then left with Nat’s reflections on his life and this is in fact where the story became more interesting.

There’s a lot going on with this, the writing style is beautiful, the story bothers me both for its view of pre-Civil War plantation life and (for me) the concept of its being based on historical facts yet a work of fiction, and how we then view the character of Nat Turner in this work. If we trust the author, William Styron, to have kept to the basic facts, then we have a Negro child who is a slave with same privilege based on his mother’s position in the house, the luck of being in the “possession” of a kindly and sympathetic master, and having the intelligence to grasp opportunity and learn to rise above what for other blacks was a horrendous life.

First, the writing:

It was a Saturday, one of those dusty, ocherous autumnal days whose vivid weather never again seems so sweet and inviting after that youthful time of discovery: wood smoke and maple leaves blazing in the trees, an odor of apples everywhere like a winy haze, squirrels scampering for chinquapins at the edge of the woods, a constant stridor of crickets among the withering grass, and over all a ripe sunny heat edged with feathery gusts of wind smelling of charred oak and winter. ( p. 182)

There is a beauty in the description, in this, as Nat is about to hear from his owner, Marse Samuel, that he is going to eventually be freed. Yet Styron is just as precise in his imagery when Nat is sitting awaiting his own execution.

There is a natural distaste for the word “nigger” as we have come to know it, and yet it is contemporary to the time and natural in use in this book, as is true of many novels set in the time span of the American South. What I find more discomforting is the image of the human nature of man that goes deeper than color; it is instinct to want to feel superior to someone, and thus, Nat is repulsed by the black laborers who do not share the benefits that he enjoys in his place in the family.

This is also where I wonder how much of it is the truth about the man, Nat Turner, himself, and what is inspired by him but interpreted by the author.

In the same section as the excerpt above, we go into another area of both Nat and again, human nature itself, in seeking love and sexual bonding as Nat and his friend Willis explore their friendship.

Getting back to writing style, If find Styron to be expertly skilled in transitioning story as he plays within the various time spans of Nat’s story. And this, in foreshadowing, as what would seemingly be a perfect day comes to a close:

Yet as I say, whenever I reflected upon that eighteenth year of mine and that day and the events which quickly followed, it was clear to me that this promontory had been not a restful way station but an ending; beyond that place there was no gentle, continuing climb toward the great hills but a sudden astonishing abyss into which I was hurled like a willow leaf by the howling winds. (p. 204)

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