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The Confessions of Nat Turner
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Group Reads: Pre-1980 > The Confessions of Nat Turner, Initial Impressions, November 2014

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message 1: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Here's the place to begin discussion of The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. No spoilers, please, unless you hide them with the appropriate html code.


Jane | 738 comments I was tempted to do some research and reading around the novel and all the 60s controversy before starting it but have decided against it but I did go back and look at the "Confessions".


message 3: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Jane wrote: "I was tempted to do some research and reading around the novel and all the 60s controversy before starting it but have decided against it but I did go back and look at the "Confessions"."

Yes, indeed. There was tremendous controversy surrounding Styron's novel. I'll be posting regarding that. I've already pulled several articles. In a nutshell, Styron was praised and blasted for this novel. Was Styron any different than Lawyer Grey? Did Styron have the "right" to tell Turner's story? Of course, Styron also had his detractors along the same lines when he wrote Sophie's Choice by making Sophie, a Gentile, a victim of the Holocaust. Jane, I think you've set the bar for initial discussion.


message 4: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Here is the complete original document The Confessions of Nat Turner. This is excellent companion reading for Styron's novel.

 photo turnertp_zps993c1f21.jpg

Title Page to the original Confessions of Nat Turner


Jane | 738 comments I feel this is a good starting point/ introduction to the novel.


Larry Bassett | 0 comments It took me a while to actually get into the flow of the book. I was distracted by the fact that the book was so controversial when it was first published. I wanted to put myself back in that time of the 1960s and into the controversy. Was it only Black Power advocates who were upset about a privileged white man putting himself into the mind of a black slave?


Jane | 738 comments Yes, same here , that s why I stopped all the 60s research and decided to enjoy the text away from all that and those criticism were decades away now.
I feel the reader of this decade may well have other things to say about it -especially after other books and movies have recently been reviewed .


Larry Bassett | 0 comments There is a section at about the halfway point in the book that demanded that I NOT put the book down. Let me share it in my own words:

The plantation where Nat has lived for many years has failed. Nat is a teenager and holds a promise from the master of being freed by the age of 25. The plantation has been dismantled and sold off, including all the slaves. There is much emotion and tension about the changes. The past life is viewed with some sentiment and the promises of the future are nervously considered. Nat ponders his existence in a way that is hard to imagine. He is a black slave who has been promised a future that strains his imagination and his trust. The writing is powerful but is overpowered by consideration of what the situation must have been like when it was a reality and the book characters were flesh and blood. Styron gets some credit for a stunning portrayal but it is the reader who has the power of recreating the scene mentally from the mere words. The power of the controversy magnifies the reality into an Imax-like scene and it explodes from the pages.


Will I dare give this book less than four stars? I can't wait to see! Another half to go.


message 9: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Weil | 168 comments Interesting point, Larry: that the reader gets equal credit with Styron for the portrayal of Nat. I'm not far enough into the book--and know well that I will finish it later than the group does--to know if I agree. I only know that the portrait not just of Nat, but of the times, of the reality, is so strong for me that I feel somewhat as I had been away somewhere, each time I finish reading. And it's such a dark and frightening place to be. But I will finish the book, even if I have to cut it with lighter fare. The artistry is stunning. So tragic that Styron's life was what it was. He was quite simply a great writer.


message 10: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
I've already mentioned that Styron's novel is based on the document "The Confessions of Nat Turner" as documented by Lawyer Thomas Gray. Author Sharon Ewell Foster has claimed that Turner's Confessions do not appear as part of his trial record. Bottom line, Foster claims that Thomas Gray was not an attorney in Turner's case and further states that Turners Confession was NEVER read in court. Foster bases her claim on having gone to the courthouse where Turner was tried, viewing the actual court records and finding the crucial evidence absent. Her allegations, to say the least are disturbing. See: The Truth About Nat Turner, The Root, August 23, 2011, http://www.theroot.com/articles/polit... .

As an aside, Ms. Foster is the author of two novels based on the trials of Nat Turner.

 photo nat-turner-book1_zps4771e20d.jpg
The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 1: The Witnesses: A Novel won the Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction in 2012.

Ms. Foster's article in Root Magazine appeared the month of publication of the above novel.

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Ms. Foster's second novel concerning the trial of Nat Turner

I was stunned upon reading Ms. Fowler's article. I have not read her novels, nor was I familiar with them. I decided it was time to dig a little deeper.

What I came up with was The Nat Turner Trials; Brophy, Alfred L.,91 University of North Carolina Law Review 1817 (2013). See: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cf... Brophy wrote a comprehensive sixty four page article concerning all the trials arising from the Turner Revolt paying specific attention to the trial of Nat Turner. Brophy specifically addressed Thomas Gray's taking Turner's Confessions, the reading of the Confessions in Court, and Gray's representation of other slaves involved in the uprising. Gray did not represent Turner at court.

Brophy did address the credibility of Gray's Confessions of Nat Turner. Thomas Gray was in financial difficulty at the time of Nat Turner's trial. He was in such debt that his father, near death, drafted his will, leaving his estate to Gray's daughter, so Gray's creditors would not be able to drain the assets of the estate had Thomas Gray been his heir. Following Turner's guilty verdict, Thomas Gray was in Washington, D.C. the day before Nat Turner was executed seeking to publish the Confessions. Gray had only been in the practice of law for four years when he became involved in the Turner Uprising trials. A week before the Revolt, Gray was in a fight with another lawyer who had intimated that Gray was gay. Gray would be prosecuted for assault, although he would be acquitted. However, that added to the expenses Gray faced. Gray's debts allegedly arose from his attraction to gambling. Just how credible are Nat Turner's Confessions as recorded by Thomas Gray? We may never know.

However, contrary to Ms. Foster's assertions, there is little question that Thomas Gray took down Turner's Confessions or that those confessions were read at trial. How could Ms. Foster be so inaccurate in her fact-checking? Why, I have no idea. No idea at all.


message 11: by Jane (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane | 738 comments Mike Just how credible are Nat Turner's Confessions as recorded by Thomas Gray? We may never know.
What an interesting and true observation.
I feel that this is the crux of the matter as parts or all of the confessions may well have been just as fictional as Styron s novel- with some base of truth. If a lawyer at the time of Nat s trial could twist the truth about his motivations and personality then why couldn't Styron do likewise ? This in itself for me is a justification of Styron s study of what could have been - in my book Styron was a genius.


message 12: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Jane wrote: " If a lawyer at the time of Nat s trial could twist the truth about his motivations and personality then why couldn't Styron do likewise ? This in itself for me is a justification of Styron s study of what could have been - in my book Styron was a genius."

I strongly agree. And though we have avoided the controversy arising after the publication of Styron's novel, this serves as a fitting en·trée to the topic. Does the fact that a white author "appropriated" a black man's voice remain a controversial issue today? It certainly did in 1968.

William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, edited by John Henrik Clarke, Beacon Press, Boston, Ma., 1968, outright accused Styron of being "a racist, a liar, an apologist for slavery, and a man who displays 'moral cowardice' and 'moral senility.'" These angry epithets were set out in historian Edward Genovese's review of the black authors' response. See: The Nat Turner Case, Edward Genovese, The New York Review of Books, September 12, 1968, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi... .

However, Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man, and James Baldwin both praised Styron's work. Baldwin, a personal friend of Styron wrote, ""He has begun the common history--ours." See: THE 1968 EXHIBIT: The Confessions of Nat Turner, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1968, http://the1968exhibit.org/covering-19... .


Larry Bassett | 0 comments Mike wrote: "And though we have avoided the controversy arising after the publication of Styron's novel, this serves as a fitting en·trée to the topic. "

I have ordered a copy of "Ten Black Writers Respond" and look forward to reading it. Regrettably the complete NY Review of Books article referenced is not available online for free but a fascinating series of Letters to the Editor that followed the article are available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi.... The lengthy letters are very illuminating about the controversy regarding Styron's novel.

The debate about authenticity often surrounds works of historical fiction. In this case the debate was seriously impacted by the temper of the times of 1968. I think the issues from nearly five decades ago are still relevant today.


message 14: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3972 comments Mod
I've been slow getting into this one because of other obligations on my time, so have only been reading a few pages before bed every night. But last night I got to a point that, as Larry mentioned, I knew I had to finish this one, and that it was going to be a great read. I'm going to read the book first before I read about the controversy surrounding it.


message 15: by Ned (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ned | 31 comments I'm about where you are Diane and also avoiding all distractions till I can read it as the author intended.


Larry Bassett | 0 comments Since I have now finished Nat Turner (including a 1976 Afterword by Styron that is included with the Kindle edition I read), I will make some additional comments in the Final Impressions thread.

I must admit, I find the controversy almost more interesting than the novel. But I think you do have to read the fictional novel to fully appreciate the content of the debate in 1968.


message 17: by Ned (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ned | 31 comments For the record, I'm 2/3 done and am awestruck by the quality of writing and the breadth of this novel. No controversy or politics can take that away. The awareness of this novel alone makes my connection to Goodreads worthwhile - thank you friends for enriching me! Now, back to this book that I wish would not end.


message 18: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Weil | 168 comments ". . . awestruck by the quality of writing and the breadth of this novel. No controversy or politics can take that away." Well said! And my own sentiments.


message 19: by Lawyer, "Moderator Emeritus" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Patricia wrote: "". . . awestruck by the quality of writing and the breadth of this novel. No controversy or politics can take that away." Well said! And my own sentiments."

Ned wrote: "For the record, I'm 2/3 done and am awestruck by the quality of writing and the breadth of this novel. No controversy or politics can take that away. The awareness of this novel alone makes my con..."

Brava, Ma'am! Bravo, Sir! The novel is magnificent. It was when published and remains so today.


message 20: by Ron (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ron (mrkurtz2) | 40 comments To paraphrase Mark Twain when I read this book around age 26-27, I remember not thinking much about it- it was just a small rebellion in the southern state of Virginia, and it is just amazing how much I have learned about novels since that time (about 46 years). Now it is a great novel. I like to research the novel while I am reading it, but I don't read book reviews. There is plenty of controversy about "Confessions" and though I started out believing historical fiction is fiction first and history second. That is I sided with Styron but I am beginning to see some validity in the other side.


LeAnne: | 1310 comments I'm clunking along slowly, still with my tail in the starting gate..based on the praise here, I will put my head down and get after it. Nice writing, but it hasn't grabbed me yet.


message 22: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3972 comments Mod
Leanne, I didn't get really involved until Nat started relating the story of his childhood on the Turner plantation, then couldn't read fast enough.


message 23: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Weil | 168 comments I got involved from the first line, but I think it may have been in a different way than what you two are thinking of. I have this "thing"--which I know is the worst sentimentality--about the past. The opening chapters of this novel put me completely back into its world, frightening and dark though it was. I have to think that it was Styron's intention to plunge the reader backwards in time. For this reader, that truly happened. Also, I just loved the beauty of the writing. I'm beginning to realize that I need to keep such a book at hand all the time (Flags is doing it for me right now), so that if I'm reading a book with much merit but without the particular quality of beauty in the writing, I can have something else to switch to.


LeAnne: | 1310 comments Diane wrote: "Leanne, I didn't get really involved until Nat started relating the story of his childhood on the Turner plantation, then couldn't read fast enough."

Thanks, Diane. Swamped with holiday stuff all last week, so I'm just now getting into the trial. UGH. So far, it is hard to hear about the people that were killed. I'm usually a fast reader, but this has failed to pull me in.


message 25: by Ron (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ron (mrkurtz2) | 40 comments Leanne wrote: "hard to hear about the people that were killed."

I assume you are talking about the way some ofr the white people were killed and that is natural because there are no descriptions of how the slaves were killed until the very ending. I have also read reviews that say the rebellion was a complete failure, but I don't see how anyone could say the killing of 45 to 60 people including the women and children could be considered a "complete failure,"


message 26: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3972 comments Mod
I was in the biography section of the bookstore today helping a lady find the McCullough biography of Truman. There was a graphic novel biography of Nat Turner a few books down. I pulled if off the shelf just to see what it was, and a lot of the graphics were very disturbing. I didn't have time to do more than give it a cursory glance, but I'll take another look tomorrow and let y'all know.


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