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BOOK REVIEWS The Confessions of Nat Turner. By William Styron. (New York: Random House, 1967. Pp. xvi, 430. $6.95.) William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner is the most widely read and discussed representation of American Negro slavery since Uncle Tom's Cabin. Like the classic by Mrs. Stowe, it gains favorable publicity even when it is attacked, and is now being seriously recommended to students of history as a generally valid description of slavery as it was in the southern United States. Much of the debate over the novel has turned on the character of Nat Turner himself. Partisans of the revolutionary tradition and especially black militants see Turner as a folk hero, and are understandably offended that Styron portrays him as aloof and contemptuous toward most blacks, and affectionate only toward selected black boys and white girls. On the matter of his superior attitude toward fellow slaves, the best historical evidence that exists supports Styron, but aloofness is not always an expression of contempt, and the real Nat Turner may very well have felt more identification with and compassion for his fellow slaves than Styron allows. Most of the reasoning about Turner's personality must be inferential, and so must the reconstruction of his full intentions about his rebellion. It was surely something more than a rational stroke for political freedom. The slaughtering of even die most harmless and helpless whites is outstanding evidence that Turner and his followers had an apocalyptic vision of vengeance guiding them. But the real Confessions of 1831 and die other known facts of the rebellion suggest that Turner and his followers hoped for their rising to spread throughout the whole country. Styron's Turner, hoping only to cut a padi to the Dismal Swamp and set up a permanent fortress there, is both less bloodthirsty and less dedicated to freeing his people than the record warrants . In an introductory note, Styron says: "During the narrative that follows I have rarely departed from the known facts about Nat Turner and the revolt of which he was the leader." So far as the actual events of the revolt are concerned, that is true. But Styron by no means builds on the meager information supplied in the original Confessions; much of it he ignores. In the novel Turner's grandmother is brought from Africa to Virginia by a Yankee slaver in 1782. Distraught by her capture and passage, she dies shortly after giving birth to the girl who will eventually be Turner's mother. This is a good way to get the horrors of the slave trade into the story, but in fact most slaves were brought in by Englishmen, and Virginia firmly out346 lawed the trade in 1778. Worst of all, the real Nat Turner spoke of his grandmother "who was very religious, and to whom I was much attached." {Herbert Aptheker, Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion (New York, 1968), p. 133.) The white Turners were also very religious, and often held prayer meetings in their home. They were clearly caught up in that evangelical religion which thrived quite as well in eastern rural America as on the frontier. Such people were often criticized in Jeffersonian Virginia for teaching their slaves to read and write, and for treating them in many ways as equal beings. Styron, however, has a large aristocratic household of white Turners, managed successively by the brothers Benjamin and Samuel. These characters are very like the good-natured but corrupted Messrs. Shelby and St. Clair in Uncle Tom's Cabin, being the descendants of fine and cultured families running rapidly downhill. Only two of the women of the household are truly religious, and they instruct Nat in a private and intimate way, not by taking him to prayer meetings. Styron has Nat Turner influenced by his mother, a cook, to hold in contempt those blacks who labor in the fields, an attitude which grows stronger as he himself is selected for household chores, and acquires polished manners and literacy. His ability to read and to commit large sections of the Bible to memory make him a sort of pet of his owners, and cause him to be regarded as a...


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pp. 346-348
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