top of page

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

1966, Random House

This brilliantly written fictionalized version of the 1831 massacre of more than 50 whites by a group of slaves in Virginia is narrated by the leader of the insurrection, Nat Turner.

I read in fascination and horror, unable to stop to Post-it any passages except one, the turning point of the book. The novel's young Nat Turner has just realized that in spite of his kind master’s promises, as a slave, his life is worth nothing.

No spoiler alert is necessary as events are revealed at the book's beginning. I lay slumped in the crowded, noisy pen with fifty strange Negroes, I experienced a kind of disbelief which verged close upon madness, then a sense of betrayal, then fury such as I had never known before, then finally, to my dismay, hatred so bitter that I grew dizzy and thought I might get sick on the floor. Nor was it hatred for the Reverend Eppes – who was really nothing but a simple old fool – but for Marse Samuel, and the rage rose and rose in my breast until I earnestly wished him dead, and in my mind’s eye I saw him strangled by my own hands. (246)

Styron’s book was criticized by black intellectuals due mainly to the fantasized sexual desire for violence against a white girl attributed to the main character. This theme, even taking into account an author's freedom of expression, was condemned as too explosive and harmful at an important juncture in US history, when blacks were trying to establish once and for all their full rights as equals.


The controversy

Read or listen here.

Freedom of expression vs ethical duty

Listen to a conversation between Styron and Ossie Davis, Jr. mediated by Styron’s friend and fellow author, James Baldwin here.

The film (2016)

Read a review of Birth of a Nation here.

17 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Mar 18, 2021

I really enjoyed the interview and the articles. I am now wondering about what those oral histories about Nat Turner said.

I remember wanting to see Birth of a Nation, but then the scandal came out.

Mar 18, 2021
Replying to

I'd still like to see it. I've seen some excerpts which seem horrifyingly ridiculous. But it was meant to criticize. Thanks for mentioning the interview and articles, I need to go back and take a closer look.

bottom of page