The Confessions of Nat Turner
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
In 1831, about thirty years before the Civil War, in the state of Virginia, a slave uprising resulted in the deaths of 59 white people and significant destruction of property over the course of two days. A slave named Nat Turner (he heard voices and had visions) planned the methodical attack for years, believing he was following the will of God. He saw himself as an avenging angel. He didn’t act alone in the uprising; he recruited followers from among his fellow slaves who were more than willing to wreak havoc against the establishment.
American author William Styron (1925-2006) published his historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967. It is a fictional account (historical accuracy not verified) of the only slave uprising of its kind in the Southern United States. The mastermind of the uprising, Nat Turner, narrates the story in his first-person voice. Through the character of Nat Turner, William Styron gives an articulate voice to the enslaved.
The irony of Nat Turner, according to this novel, is that he was favored among slaves. He was intelligent, he could read, he was a skilled carpenter and he possessed mechanical abilities beyond his station in life. He possessed an uncanny knowledge of the Bible, better than most preachers, as one character in the book observes. He passed through several owners, some of them cruel and callous, but, for the most part, he was with people who cared for him, valued his abilities and wanted only the best for him. Already we see the irony of this situation. Why would such a man plan and carry out a bloody and violent attack of vengeance?
Nat Turner spent years planning the bloody insurrection, working out every small detail, even drawing maps. He thought of it as a military operation. He shared his plans with his group of loyal core followers, swearing them to secrecy. They were all willing to give up everything to make the undertaking a success. They hoped that, as they made their bloody way across the landscape, hundreds of other slaves would join them and their numbers would grow into an invincible army. Their plan was to kill every white person in their reach (eventually numbering in the hundreds or thousands), and when they were finished with their march of death and destruction, they would escape into the swamp and never be seen or heard from again.
The operation fell far short of Nat Turner’s expectations. The group of renegade slaves killed 59 white people, including at least one small child, and attracted about two dozen additional slaves to their ranks. The problem with most of these “recruits” was that they were undisciplined and wanted only to drink whiskey and run wild. Ironically, Nat Turner killed only one victim, a young white woman named Margaret Whitehead. She had shared her views of the Bible with him and had only ever been kind to him; he had no reason to want to kill her except for her whiteness. Most of the white people killed were not known for their cruelty or mistreatment of slaves.
The Confessions of Nat Turner is the psychological portrait of a subjugated man and the cruel times in which he lived. It is a fascinating glimpse into a chapter of our long-ago history. It is a thoughtful, intelligent book, beautifully written, filled with bitter irony. If you read no other “serious” book this year, you will have made a wise choice.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp