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Styron’s concept that freedom was not immediately desirable by all of those

who did not possess it differed diametrically from the most traditional view of liberty. 



William Styron’s

The Confessions of Nat Turner

By Ed Krzemienski


Published in 1967, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner received equal parts praise and criticism.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel presented a fictionalized character study of the real-life preacher who led an 1831 slave insurrection in Southampton, Virginia that ended with the deaths of at least fifty-five whites. 

In the text, Styron’s Turner emerges as an apprehensive man of destiny in the mold of the great prophets of the Bible.  (In Turner’s case, divinity appears in the form of inexplicable “visions.”)

Styron referred to his story as "less an 'historic novel' in conventional terms than a meditation on history," (Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner, p. ix), and, in this meditative sense, the novel serves as a character study. 

Told almost entirely in the voice of the fictionalized Turner, with brief entries from the actual confession presented to the Virginia court that tried Turner, Styron recreates a life of the slave who led the revolt.

One of the more controversial aspects of Styron’s presentation of Turner was his protagonist’s concept of freedom.  Styron does not present a primary character who yearns for freedom, but offers a Turner who must first learn to want to be free.  Turner's first reaction to his impending manumission illustrates this view:

"You will then at the age of twenty-five be a free man." . . . my first reaction to this awesome magnanimity was one of ingratitude, panic, and self-concern.  And the reasons were as simple and as natural as a heartbeat.  "But I don't want to go to any Richmond!" I heard myself howling at Marse Samuel . . . "I want to stay right here!"

"Hey, Tom! [Samuel's horse] Old Nat won't feel that way for . . . long.. . . will . . .  he . . . boy!" (Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 194-95)

Styron’s concept that freedom was not immediately desirable by all of those who did not possess it differed diametrically from the most traditional view of liberty.  Most of Styron’s critics held—and hold—to the standard Enlightened definition of liberty as first presented by the political philosopher John Locke in his Two Treatises on Government (1690) and reprised by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence (1776). 

Simply put, for Locke and his fellow philosophes, liberty stood alongside life and property as an unalienable natural right with which one was born.  That a contradiction between innate liberty and the ongoing practice of slavery received eloquent indication at the outset of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762), with the famous words, “[m]an is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

Unlike his philosophical forefathers, though, Stryon presents freedom as something that men acquired only through knowledge—as a condition nurtured by experience and intelligence.  What Styron argues, in turn, was that anyone of reasonable intelligence who was bound by the constraints of slavery attempted to escape those constraints. 

In the novel, for example, Nat’s father is shown as an intelligent man.  Stryon describes him as being "too good fo' dat low kind of work" (Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 133), and indicates that, because of this intellectual capacity, he escapes his bondage.

Those of extreme intelligence, like Nat, are destined to provide freedom beyond themselves in leading mass movements.  On this point Styron went to great lengths to show the evolution of Turner from an unenlightened and, thus, faithful house-slave to an immensely intelligent radical revolutionary.

Controversial for any modern audience, Styron’s brand of reluctant freedom struck an even more acute chord with his late-sixties readership.  Most contentious was that his portrayal of freedom as something to be learned implied that those slaves who did not try to escape slavery (the vast majority) did not do so because they lacked the intelligence necessary to want to be free. 

For readers in the midst of a proactive integration movement that viewed all participants as uniformly worthy of equality, the novel smacked a bit too much of the old-style paternalism of generations past.

Works Cited

Jefferson, Thomas.  The Declaration of Independence.

Locke, John.  Two Treatises of Government.  Eds. Mark Goldie and John Yolton.  New York: Everyman Paperback Classics, 19

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques.  The Social Contract.  Trans. Maurice Cranston.  New York:  Penguin USA.  Reprint edition, 1968.

Styron, William.  The Confessions of Nat Turner.  New York:  Random House, Inc., 1967.

Ed Krzemienski is a professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.  He is currently working on a book about race and college football in the American south in the 1960s.

 posted May 29, 2005

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update 11 December 2011




Home   Nathaniel Turner  Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

Related files: The Social World of Cross Keys  Styron Turner and Dred  The Social World of Cross Keys