Pulitzer Book Club Inclusion Guide
"The Confessions of Nat Turner" by William Styron
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Styron was a WASP born in Virginia haunted by the reality that his grandmother owned two slaves. He created a backstory for a then-obscure historical figure based on incomplete research. Styron’s key source and inspiration for the novel was a pamphlet written in 1831 by Thomas R. Gray, a White lawyer who deposed, and is thought to have hated, Nat Turner. The content of the pamphlet’s confession has been called into question.
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First-person fictionalized account leader of uprising of enslaved people
Nat strikes first blow with hatchet, fails to draw first blood in the revolt.
In 1968 this novel went from best seller with critical acclaim to disgrace when outed for racism in “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.” Styron later admitted he had “unwittingly created one of the first politically incorrect texts of our time.”
Styron accepted James Baldwin’s dare to write his 480-page novel in the first person.
Fact Check. Verify sources like a legit journalist or scholar which, thanks to the internet, is a lot easier to do now that it was during the 1960s.
Shows the abuse of enslaved families on Virginia tobacco plantations, including violence, and emotional cruelty, including intentional separation of families.
Pork cooked over an open fire and brandy.
“A monstrous breeding farm to supply the sinew to gratify the maw of Eli Whitney’s infernal machine, cursed be that blackguard’s name! In such a way is our human decency brought down, when we pander all that is in us noble and just to the false god which goes by the vile name of Capital!”
A secluded hiding place, ideally in the woods.
What was the worst aspect of slavery?
What is Nat Turner’s place in history?
Was the voice of Nat Turner authentic? Were the characters negative stereotypes?
The real Nat Turner was married and devoted to an enslaved Black woman named Cherry. Does that change your response to this novel?
What freedom does an author have when writing about a historical figure?
What does the legal system do now to ensure an appropriate defense from a court appointed attorney?
Were conditions essentially any different on Virginia tobacco plantations than elsewhere in the South?
Slave-insurrection-history trails being developed, including a Courtland walking route. There is occasionally a bus tour from the Southampton County Virginia courthouse through the area where the rebellion took place.
Controversy halted planned adaptations of the Styron novel.
The 2016 Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation was written, produced and directed by actor Nate Parker who said Styron “annihilated Turner’s character.”
1968 “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” edited by John Henrik Clarke