On the Voice of Nat Turner

Published:May 7, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

The Discovery of Nat Turner First published in William Cullen Bryant and Sydney Howard Gay, A Popular History of the United States, From the First Discovery of the Western Hemisphere by the Northmen, to the End of the Civil War, Volume 4 (New York: 1881). Lithographer unknown.

Encyclopedia Virginia is getting its Civil War list up and running and, consequently, I am trying to get started on a whole list of my own Civil War reading. At the moment, that includes James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (whew, this is going to take me all summer!) and William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Turner led a slave rebellion in Southampton County in August 1831, brutally murdering several dozen white men, women, and children before he himself was captured and hanged. Styron’s book, which is a fictionalized treatment of Turner’s actual confession, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968. But over the years, it has generated almost as much controversy as praise. (The author, who died in 2006, was once nearly reduced to tears over the subject.) When friends learn that I am reading the book, they ask not whether I like it but whether I think it’s racist.

No way am I going to try to answer that—a fool’s errand if ever there was one—but I was struck by something I read in the New York Times’ original review of the novel (which ran in two parts, October 3–4, 1967). The “burden” of Styron’s book, the reviewer wrote, “was not a matter simply of slavery, monstrous as that was, but [of] white Americans’ inability to acknowledge the presence of Negroes as people, or to project themselves into any individual Negro’s mind.”

And this is precisely what Styron attempts to do in the book: project himself into the mind of a notorious black preacher and murderer, a complicated man surely, but someone about whom we know very little. For instance, it’s always been up for debate among historians whether the confessions actually contain Turner’s own words. As a result, perhaps, the question of voice and identity is alive throughout Styron’s novel.

Echoing those historians who cocked an eyebrow at the sometimes elevated language of the historical confessions, the Times’ reviewer questions “the authenticity of Turner’s inner voice” in the novel, which is told in the first person from Turner’s point of view. “Turner speaks in dialect,” the Times points out. “But he thinks, recalls, recounts in a voice that many readers will think can only be Mr. Styron’s, it is so cultivated, literate, sensitive, and modern.”

But I wonder if that wasn’t Styron’s whole point. Styron’s Turner, after all, is literate and intelligent, and to the complications of communication he is extraordinarily sensitive. He notices how his interlocutor speaks to him in jail in “sloppy patronizing half-literate white-man-to-a-n– tones” but subsequently addresses the court with “eloquence and authority.” He notices that “when a strange white man adopts this florid, familiar manner, and when his listener is black,” trouble is bound to follow. And he notices that for a slave addressing a white man a middle ground is possible between demeaning servility and dangerous backtalk. (“You just got to learn, man,” he scolds his friend. “You got to learn the difference.”)

Of course, these issues are fraught today as they were in 1967 as they were in 1831. Was it a fool’s errand for Styron to take them on? I’m only a quarter the way through, but I don’t think so.

IMAGE: “Discovery of Nat Turner” from 1881. The author of this article points out that, “in stark contrast to descriptions of Turner’s capture in the southern media, here Turner is portrayed in a heroic light: upright, armed, prepared to meet his fate. The dueling images of Turner—as cowardly fanatic or heroic rebel—both drew on cultural assumptions that equated virtue with worthiness to be free.”

For a taste of how the southern media treated Turner’s capture, read this contemporary account from the Richmond Enquirer.