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

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

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
What did you think? How did Styron's novel impact you? Spoilers welcomed. Did you write a review? Please post a link to your review here.


message 2: by Jane (last edited Nov 08, 2014 10:11AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jane | 738 comments Stating the obvious Styron s novel is a study in hatred both on the part of the Black and the White characters. A slow investigation into how such a violent action could come to be perpetrated by an individual who was possibly the least likely candidate for such an action. It is disturbing but brilliantly narrated. The details of the beauty of the Virginian landscape offer a constant contradiction and remind me of the techniques of Steve McQueen s "Twelve Years a Slave" and Tarantino s "Django" in a different genre .


message 3: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Weil | 168 comments Am afraid that does it--your comment, Jane. As just about always, I'm going through a period of limited reading time. (Who isn't?) I'd told myself that I'd make a switch and do something definitely non-Southern, most likely non-fiction. But I love Styron's writing. And your particular take intrigues me. So, here we go again. I read the novel many years ago but can remember nothing of it. It's free on Kindle. Right now I'm lost as to which month Confessions is assigned to. Anyone?


message 4: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
It's our November read, Trish. I haven't gotten to it yet, but am looking forward to it.


Jo Ann (JaneStJohn) | 2 comments I think it is November 2014 read.


message 6: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Weil | 168 comments Well, I'm now well into it. And there is that wonderful writing of Styron's again! I'm not wanting to put it down. Somehow it's really grabbed me this time around.


Larry Bassett | 0 comments My review will come soon but here are some thoughts that are from the tail end of that incomplete review:

At the end of the Kindle Edition of the book there is an Afterword titled “Nat Turner Revisited” that, apparently, based on the copyright date was written in 1976. Written by Styron, it is probably described as both insightful and inciting.

I find the story of the controversy that surrounds the book almost more interesting than the book itself! If you have an interest in the dangers of historical fiction writing or in the Black Power movement of the 1960s, you should look into this controversy.

I have several failings. One is that in a debate I often lean toward whatever is the most recent thing I have read or heard. The last word often unfairly carries the heaviest weight for me. In this case, my last word at the moment is this Afterword by Styron. He makes a compelling case for several decisions he made in writing the book that tread on issues of accuracy.

However, in the Last Word contest I have yet to read the 1968 book “Wm Styron’s Nat Turner” in which ten black writers severely criticize Styron. I have that book on order and look forward to reading it.

There is also an interesting exchange of Letters to the Editor online from the NY Review of Books that is alluded to in Styron’s Afterword. You can find that at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi....

I think this controversy and my view of it today will have a bearing on how many stars I will eventually give the book. Do you think that is fair?


message 8: by Lawyer, Moderator Emeritus "Lawyer Stevens" (last edited Nov 15, 2014 08:16PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "However, in the Last Word contest I have yet to read the 1968 book “Wm Styron’s Nat Turner” in which ten black writers severely criticize Styron. I have that book on order and look forward to reading it.

There is also an interesting exchange of Letters to the Editor online from the NY Review of Books that is alluded to in Styron’s Afterword. You can find that at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archi....

I think this controversy and my view of it today will have a bearing on how many stars I will eventually give the book. Do you think that is fair?
"


Nope. Because William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond A: was written in 1968. B: There is a plethora of articles and books which have been written regarding Styron's novel and the controversy since the book you ordered. C: Basing your opinion on a work of literature on political ideology, personal opinion, philosophy does not seem to be a rationale for determining a work's literary merit.

Considering Styron's main documentary source was The Confessions Of Nat Turner - Thomas R Gray the motivations of which have been called into question, one must look at what true historical documentary sources exist. I have not fully investigated this question. I am still approximately forty percent away from the novel's conclusion as I have been doing supplemental reading as I have progressed through the novel.

But it is incontrovertible that William Styron was not a slave. Not to be flippant, neither were the ten writers who angrily responded to Styron's novel. Perhaps the most appropriate litmus test for one who is concerned about accuracy in historical fiction would be a review of Slave Narratives by James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and many others. This volume is available from the Library of America and is available as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and Kobo.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Keep on the sunny side of life.

Brother Sullivan :)


Jane | 738 comments I kept the two apart in my consideration too.
1. The controversy is fascinating but do the readers of today have the same reactions to the novel as the readers of Civil Rights America ? I don t think so but you can prove me wrong ;)

2 Nothing can take away from Styron s breathtakingly beautiful prose.For me it remains a master crafted study into evil-black and white.


Larry Bassett | 0 comments Something about my individual decision to subtract a star from my rating of Nat Turner:

Every GR reader is allowed to rate each book s/he reads. For most books, this results in a range of ratings from one to five stars. I have rated The Confessions of Nat Turner three stars and acknowledged that I have subtracted a star due to the controversial debate that ensued after the publication of the book. Author Styron’s Afterword did play a role in my decision since in that document he did allude to his decisions to focus attention on Nat’s presumed bachelorhood/homoeroticism and on a white girl who was given some sexual play in the story. These decisions seemed to me to guarantee some backlash, especially from black readers. This should not have been a surprise to Styron so his crying “foul” seems somewhat disingenuous as a result.

I found his discussion in his Afterword to be enlightening and straightforward, however. He presented his case well, giving readers a fascinating look into the mind of an excellent and thoughtful writer. I have simply decided to give some credibility to his critics subject to reevaluation once I have read their actual words and explored the matter further.

My personal experience with Black Power advocates in the 1960s on the campus of the University of Michigan plays a role here. I am sympathetic to their point of view and how their world view played into their negative reaction to the book. Allowing them some credibility to influence my rating hardly seems out of bounds in a legitimate review.

I am also allowing for a potential reconsideration as information presents itself. I acknowledge some legitimate criticism for a “rush to judgment” for coming to this conclusion before I have fully viewed all the material. I am just eager to express my point of view within the framework of the November 2014 reading by the GR group On the Southern Literary Trail and to have it be a part of the immediate discussion. Sometimes I cannot suppress my enthusiasm for discussion and debate!


Larry Bassett | 0 comments As I sort through several documents in an effort to reconstruct this debate I come back to the Afterword written by Styron that is found at the end of my Kindle eBook. In that document Styron alludes to events in 1992 a couple of times so it was obviously written after that date. This gives the words special impact since the immediate furor after publication is twenty-five (or so) years in the rear view mirror and possibly somewhat settled. Maybe someone can help nail down the date and story of that Afterword. In what edition or circumstance did it first appear? The brouhaha was evidently still simmering! As it is today?


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

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "Every GR reader is allowed to rate each book s/he reads. For most books, this results in a range of ratings ...Snip

My personal experience with Black Power advocates in the 1960s on the campus of the University of Michigan plays a role here. I am sympathetic to their point of view and how their world view played into their negative reaction to the book. Allowing them some credibility to influence my rating hardly seems out of bounds in a legitimate review.Snip

I am also allowing for a potential reconsideration as information presents itself. I acknowledge some legitimate criticism for a “rush to judgment” for coming to this conclusion before I have fully viewed all the material. I am just eager to express my point of view within the framework of the November 2014 reading by the GR group On the Southern Literary Trail and to have it be a part of the immediate discussion. Sometimes I cannot suppress my enthusiasm for discussion and debate! "


Yes, Brother Bassett, you, as every reader can rate any work any number of stars you wish.

Yes, you can consider your personal experience with Black Power advocates in the sixties.

Bless your heart if you attempt to review all the material regarding this subject. You will never have the opportunity to read anything else. That's somewhat limiting.

BUT! After you've read William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond(1968), for starters, see The Return of Nat Turner: History, Literature, and Cultural Politics in Sixties America by Albert E. Stone(1992)

Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgement: Fictional Treatments of the Southampton Slave Insurrection by Mary Kemp Davis (1999)
The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material by Henry Irving Tragle(1971)
The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion by Stephen B. Oates
Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century edited by Leon Litwack; see specifically, Nat Turner: The Unknown Slave as Visionary Leader, Peter S. Wood, (1988)

I'll say this for you. You continue to give meaning to Faulkner's classic line, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Requiem for a Nun, 1950. One of my favorite Gavin Stevens' lines.

Taking ya back to 1968...Yeah, that Summer of Love!


message 13: by Lawyer, Moderator Emeritus "Lawyer Stevens" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "As I sort through several documents in an effort to reconstruct this debate I come back to the Afterword written by Styron that is found at the end of my Kindle eBook. In that document Styron allud..."

Actually, the reference is to Nat Turner revisited. By: Styron, William, American Heritage, Oct92, Vol. 43, Issue 6.

The article commemorated the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the publication of The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Larry, see if your State has a Virtual Library. I get tons of digital reference material through that means with my public library membership. That's where I came up with this article. It may well be the afterward in the novel. I haven't gotten that far.


message 14: by Larry (last edited Nov 16, 2014 10:08AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Larry Bassett | 0 comments Well. Mike, I may have overstated in saying "all the material"! But your links give me some good leads. I just ordered "The Return of Nat Turner." Nat Turner aside, I am pretty interested in the 1960s so I am a sucker for material and issues of that era.

Another aspect of the debate is Styron saying Nat Turner was relatively unknown before his book. That got the dander of the Black History folks up!


Jo Ann (JaneStJohn) | 2 comments I first read Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner when it went live in the late Sixties, therefore, am familiar with some Black Writers view point of Styron's Nat Turner at that time.

Enjoy Styron's writing . . . Of course, rereading it in a different time made it less controversial . . . I like various points of view from other writers in 1968; as well as today.


message 16: by Lawyer, Moderator Emeritus "Lawyer Stevens" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Larry wrote: "Well. Mike, I may have overstated in saying "all the material"! But your links give me some good leads. I just ordered "The Return of Nat Turner." Nat Turner aside, I am pretty interested in the 19..."

Actually, he was relatively unknown. Culturally, he existed as a mythic hero, a creature of folklore. Nat Turner as a historical character was generally lost in the fog of history. The Tragle is the first accumulation of source documents. There is also an Aptheker history that also appeared in 1971. It is especially interesting to note that it was not known at the time that Styron wrote his novel that Nat Turner had ever been married. Of particular note, really more on a level of curiosity to me, is that no black author had written a novel regarding Nat Turner prior to Styron doing so. I find a certain degree of irony in that. The 1999 Mary Kemp Davis comes highly recommended. I've been reading more on that work since our last exchange.


message 17: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
You guys can debate this all you want, but my review of the book and # of stars given are based on the book itself and how much I liked it. The fiction category gives the author a lot of leeway in his interpretation of the facts. I enjoy supplemental material and find it fascinating in a lot of instances, but it doesn't make any difference in my opinion of the book. That's why I don't read any other things before I read the book, I don't want it to influence me.


message 18: by Lawyer, Moderator Emeritus "Lawyer Stevens" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
Diane wrote: "You guys can debate this all you want, but my review of the book and # of stars given are based on the book itself and how much I liked it. The fiction category gives the author a lot of leeway in..."

Diane, you're preaching to the choir here.


message 19: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
I just finished. My Kindle copy had an afterward by William Styron, explaining the controversy and why he chose to write it as he did. He wrote that he was lucky in not having a lot of facts about the real Nat Turner to go on, other than the original Confessions published by Thomas Gray. He could invent scenarios without having to stick to the facts, and make Nat less of a religious fanatic/madman than he appeared to be in his own confessions, and more of a sympathetic characters that readers could understand.


message 20: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Weil | 168 comments How I wish I knew to go the end and then back to a previous point in my Kindle--which is also where I'm reading Nat Turner!


message 21: by Ned (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ned | 30 comments Just finished it, my first by Styron. As a novel I found the writing exceptional and as a historiography very well researched. A novelist cannot anticipate the politics without losing creative freedom, and this novel roams wide and large in theme and scope. It informed me about slavery, Virginia, agribusiness, and (mostly) the workings of mind toward madness when all hope is extinguished. It is story of religious fervor where Nat, a true believer, extracts the old testament passages that feed his rage and exclude all others. It is a religion of hatred, a consequence of a sequence of unfortunate events. The horrors of all human bondage, and the rationalization of the oppressors (which is in all too much evidence today)is dissected with precision. In this sense it is classic tragedy, and the ending all but foretold by the circumstances. It reminded me very much of Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter, from the mind of the son of the abolitionist John Brown. But this is a stronger novel, more skillfully rendered. Starting with the end, while removing drama, created the mystery of why and how which is explained in the tragic early life of Nat. There are few caricatures here, each master, slave and family member is an individual with vagaries and proclivities. The obvious aspects of the physical life and relationships of these mostly down-on-their-luck owners and their "chattel" is told in great detail, most believable, and most tragic. But not without the little pleasures and the ordinary life experiences that one might find even under bondage. The despicable owners and their disregard of slaves as non-human is accurate to its time (as I understand it) and nearly incomprehensible that it was relatively recent in our American heritage. The gore and horror in the final chapter builds to the ultimate execution of our flawed protagonist. This is a deeply religious book, a morality play, where Nat feels himself the martyr but anguished due to his sense of being forsaken (as Christ on the cross) by his God. Styron is now on my "A" list, will be stocking my library.


Larry Bassett | 0 comments Ned, I would love to sit down with you over a cup of coffee and talk about this book! Including how Styron's research was viewed at the time. You have put together some interesting words here! Thanks for sharing them.


message 23: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Weil | 168 comments "This is a deeply religious book, a morality play. . . "

I really appreciate this idea, Ned. And I'd concur--except to change the word "religious" to "spiritual," which is most likely a matter of personal semantics.


message 24: by Larry (last edited Dec 02, 2014 10:58AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Larry Bassett | 0 comments My review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

As the month for reading Nat Turner expired, I found myself engrossed in reading two books about the controversy. I recommend both. Both have links elsewhere on this page: William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond and The Return of Nat Turner.

The first came out immediately after the novel and was called incendiary by some whites; the second came out more than two decades later and is an academic retrospective that attempts to view the 1960s in the U.S. with the novel as one focal point.

Since I lean more to the exhausted rather than the exhaustive, I will only repeat that I find the controversy a compelling part of the reading experience. Even, and maybe especially, after 47 years.


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

Ron (mrkurtz2) | 40 comments My Review of The Confessions of Nat Turner 4 stars
This is my second review of The Confessions of Nat Turner. The first was one where I got off on a tangent describing my paperback, The Confessions. This book was considered a relatively new class of book, historical fiction. The first classes of books were drama, action, fiction, non-fiction and comedy. Nat Turner, an ordinary slave with some extra ordinary talents staged a rebellion with 60 – 80 fellow slaves for 2 and one-half days in August 1831 killing 80 - 90 white men, women, and children. These people lived along a line between the Travis family where Nat was a slave and Jerusalem, the county seat of Southampton County, Virginia. Soon after publication, the book received glowing reviews from newspapers and magazines, rose to the best seller list and in 1968 received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Along with the Pulitzer, the book and its author William Styron began receiving complaints from Black authors, historians and college professors who said how can a white man presume to write a book about a black man? Styron wrote the book in the first person with Nat Turner as the protagonist. How can he write a book about a black slave when he has always been free and the history in the book was made up the way Styron had heard about it, not the way it actually was? William Styron said his novel was a mediation on history. In 1968 those opposed to the writing of The Confessions published a small book named The Confessions of Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. In the book each author states his opposition to the book with several authors making the same point but with different words or words rearranged.
The rebellion itself lasting two and one-half days was considered a failure although I see no way to call the killing of 200 people a failure. While Nat was in jail plus having chains, shackles and cuffs such that he could no t stand or lie down without being curled up, a white an introducing himself as Thomas Gray says that he has come to take down Nat’s Confession. Gray says he is one of Nat’s lawyers and later says he is a lawyer for the prosecution, also. Gray did not appear at the trial but Nat’s confession was presented as a part of the prosecutions evidence.
There are many other items that we should consider to give The Confessions a fair hearing. There are many religious statements both for Styron’s style and against Styron’s style. Styron says that he knows he was takings risks when he wrote The Confessions. A writer in a New York Times article makes a good case for: “It may be unfair To celebrate a writer for being so publicly rejected and railed against, but 40 years’ perspective should allow us to credit Styron for taking the risk of writing The Confessions of Nat Turner and to appreciate the courage of the 10 writers who dissected it in searing detail. (1)
In a more theological discussion, Joseph Drexler-Dreis looks at Turner’s rebellion as a response to institutional slavery by leading the revolt against the whites. It can be seen as a conversion and a rebellion occurring together and how this concrete action can lead to an encounter with God in the slave community even when historical action takes forms that are not sanctioned by the theology or the ethical norms.(2) God does not condone the killing of all the whites in Turner’s Path to Jerusalem and this is not the way of a normal conversion.

(1) Essay “Styron’s Choice” by Jess Row, pub. Sept. 5, 2008, New York Times
(2) “Nat Turner’s Rebellion as a Process of Conversion: Towards a Deeper Understanding of the Christian Conversion Process”, Joseph Drexler-Dreis, faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, Univ. of Leuven, Belgium, Black Theology, Vol. 12 No. 3, November, 2014, pg 230-250 p 233

One additional journal article that I would offer to the readers is one that introduces a new term for interpreting the bible and its meanings for the African-American slave and how that differs from the white gentry of 1831. M. Cooper Harris offers a very convincing narrative of the differences in the two Christianityes and the differences that conveys to the moral or immoral actions of Nat Turner and his group of men. The analysis is the document “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by Thomas Gray. Most white people read the Bible (The King James version for a point of reference) and interpret the meanings of a section of the Bible from the meanings of the words and if there are two different meanings to a word, they choose the one that appears to be the definition that would make the most sense with the others words in the sentence/section. It is a given that there are still many different interpretations of the same section of the Bible. However, the slave being mostly illiterate get their words from the Bible in an orally/aurally manner. They hear the Bible spoken in a second- or third-hand manner and assimilate the language and stories at a considerately farther distance from the canonical text. The essay explores how the enslaved Americans “wielded the inherent imprecision of biblical language to articulate coherent, if ironic, biblical worldviews.” The author making distinctions between these two modes of biblical interpretation comes up with a category (“eirobiblical rhetoric”) that is useful in engaging the instabilities that result from such rhetoric with the social and political exigencies of a religiously ordered system of chattel slavery. “How many readers- both historical readers and present day historians, critics, theologians and others – speak of and understand recourse to biblical rhetoric when narrators’ understandings of the Bible lack stability and even border on indeterminacy?” Here we jump to the ending of our article.” Through its capacious and dynamic sensibilities, routed in irony’s ability to negotiate less-than-determinate properties, the eirobiblical category brings us closer to understanding illiterate readings of the Bible, written as oral performances, yet buried by scribes who did not, could not, or wound not understand the performance they encountered.(3)

Therefore, I give the novel a solid four stars and in twenty years I can make that five stars.



(3) “On the Eirobiblical: Critical Mimesis and Ironic Resistance in The Confessions of Nat Turner “ by M. Cooper Harriss, Univ. of Pittsburgh, USA in Biblical Interpretation 21-4-5 (2013) 469-493


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