March 9, 2008 § 1 Comment
Just finished: The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Just a few idle thoughts after finishing this late yesterday:
-Funny coincidence: while I was reading this, my wife Jaime was reading a book subtitled The Confessions of Ike Turner. Synchronicity!
-I kind of dismissed the title of this book without a second thought until after I’d finished, but now it has me thinking. The significance of the title, which is also the title of the actual document written (and/or transcribed) by T.R. Gray based on the historical Nat’s statement (and the preface to which appears as the preface of Styron’s book), now looms large. I credit some of the shriller criticism of the work with pointing this out to me: there were (are?) suggestions that the book be retitled The Confessions of William Styron or, if you want to be gratuitously insulting, The Confessions of Willie Styron.
I’m taking it a different direction, though: the book is a confession, but whereas the historical confession is a legal confession, detailing what happened when and, so far as Gray can surmise, why and how, this novel is a moral and personal confession, as well. But Nat remains adamant to the end that he would carry out his insurrection again, given the chance. So what has he confessed? His lust; his disgust at the actions by some of his men during the insurrection, especially Will, and his guilt at killing Margaret Whitehead to assure the men that he was capable of killing; perhaps, just perhaps, his confusion (right up until the end) with why he was called to do this only to see it go to hell, and to see none of the effects he hoped for come to pass. (There’s an ironic twist to the double-titling, too, in that both documents are supposed monologues by a black slave taken down by a white mediator. I would think that a lot of this is coincidental, but then, from what I know Styron was quite deliberate with his titles: they were important to him. It’s an obvious title but an interesting one, too.)
-My earlier thoughts on the lack of Jesus in a book so full of the Bible and Christianity (see “The Gospel of the Flies”) recurred to me as Nat has a vision of something like heaven on his way to the gallows, and thinks, “I would have spared her that showed me Him whose presence I had not fathomed or maybe never even known.” In a moment, he thinks, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” It seems to be Styron’s final motion toward hopes of contemporary racial reconciliation, coming as it does after Gray smuggles a Bible to Nat in the jail the night before his execution.
-There are thickets of scholarship on this book, and I’ve just started poking around at the outlying shrubbery. One thing it’s got me thinking, though, is that my nonfiction reading on slavery has been too thin. (Another thing it’s gotten me to thinking is that we, as a country, are kind of in a weird time with the topic right now. I mean, it’s a topic that comes up constantly in public discourse, but so much of the discussion seems trite, facile, or assumptive. Is it exhaustion? Aversion? Or have we never been very good, as a culture, about confronting the actual mechanics of slavery? There was Roots, I guess. And, granted, like most cultures we tend to be more comfortable discussing the crimes against humanity of other people. Maybe this is just my own warped view of things.) Anyway, I’m in the market for some books on American slavery: I’m thinking detailed, well researched accounts of the trade and the day-to-day. Plus a sweeping narrative of broad trends from colonies to Civil War. I could do the legwork on my own, but maybe you’ll save me the trouble. Suggestions, please!