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THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT
The Confessions of Nat Turner
The Confessions of Nat Turner
Copyright © by William Styron
Cover art and eForeword to the electronic edition copyright
© 2000 by RosettaBooks LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
For information address Editor@RosettaBooks.com First electronic edition published 2000 by RosettaBooks LLC, New York.
The Confessions of Nat Turner
Part I Judgment Day
Part II Old Times Past: Voices, Dreams, Recollections
Part III Study War
Part IV “It is Done…”
The Confessions of Nat Turner
A novel of shocking power and magnificent rage, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner remains one of the boldest and most moving explorations in American fiction of the horror of slavery. Styron puts himself inside the mind of Nat Turner, a real historical figure who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, to understand the anguish and bitterness that are bred into a people by such inhuman treatment. The author’s premise is so audacious that it drew bitter criticism in the midst of remarkable acclaim -- a sure sign that a literary work has made its point. The African-American novelist James Baldwin said of Styron’s achievement, “He has begun the common history --
Virginia-born novelist William Styron (b. 1922) is one of the finest American novelists of his time, a Southern writer who has made surprising and immensely rewarding choices in the subjects about which he has chosen to write. Though Styron has not been prolific -- four novels and various other writings -- his work has had a powerful impact on readers for some 50 years, beginning with the novel Lie Down in Darkness, published in 1951. He won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1967 for his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, a powerful historical novel that was so successful and acclaimed that it drew a backlash of criticism. Much the same thing happened when Sophie’s Choice was published in 1979. A National Book Award winner in 1980, Sophie’s Choice was recently named one of the 100 greatest novels of the century written in English by both the Modern Library and the Radcliffe Publishing Course.
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The Confessions of Nat Turner
Above the barren, sandy cape where the river joins the sea, there is a promontory or cliff rising straight up hundreds of feet to form the last outpost of land. One must try to visualize a river estuary below this cliff, wide and muddy and shallow, and a confusion of choppy waves where the river merges with the sea and the current meets the ocean tide. It is afternoon. The day is clear, sparkling, and the sun seems to cast no shadow anywhere. It may be the commencement of spring or perhaps the end of summer; it matters less what the season is than that the air is almost seasonless—benign and neutral, windless, devoid of heat or cold. As always, I seem to be approaching this place alone in some sort of boat (it is a small boat, a skiff or maybe a canoe, and I am reclining in it comfortably; at least I have no sense of discomfort nor even of exertion, for I do not row—the boat is moving obediently to the river’s sluggish seaward wallow), floating calmly toward the cape past which, beyond and far, deep blue, stretches the boundless sea. The shores of the river are unpeopled, silent; no deer run through the forests, nor do any gulls rise up from the deserted, sandy beaches. There is an effect of great silence and of an even greater solitude, as if life here had not so much perished as simply disappeared, leaving all—river shore and estuary and rolling sea—to exist forever unchanged like this beneath the light of a motionless afternoon sun.
Now as I drift near the cape I raise my eyes to the promontory facing out upon the sea. There again I see what I know I will see, as always. In the sunlight the building stands white—stark white and serene against a blue and cloudless sky. It is square and formed of marble, like a temple, and is simply designed, possessing no columns or windows but rather, in place of them, recesses whose purpose I cannot imagine, flowing in a series of arches around its two visible sides. The building has no door, at The Confessions of Nat Turner
least there is no door that I can see. Likewise, just as this building possesses neither doors nor windows, it seems to have no purpose, resembling, as I say, a temple—yet a temple in which no one worships, or a sarcophagus in which no one lies buried, or a monument to something mysterious, ineffable, and without name. But as is my custom whenever I have this dream or vision, I don’t dwell upon the meaning of the strange building standing so lonely and remote upon its ocean promontory, for it seems by its very purposelessness to be endowed with a profound mystery which to explore would yield only a profusion of darker and perhaps more troubling mysteries, as in a maze.
And so again it comes to me, this vision, in the same haunting and recurrent way it has for many years. Again I am in the little boat, floating in the estuary of a silent river toward the sea. And again beyond and ahead of me, faintly booming and imminent yet without menace, is the sweep of sunlit ocean. Then the cape, then the lofty promontory, and finally the stark white temple high and serene above all, inspiring in me neither fear nor peace nor awe, but only the contemplation of a great mystery, as I move out toward the sea. . . .
Never, from the time I was a child until the present—and I am just past thirty—was I able to discover the meaning behind this dream (or vision; for though it occurred mainly as I awoke from sleep, there would be random waking moments when, working in the fields or out trapping rabbits in the woods, or while I was at some odd task or other, the whole scene would flash against my mind with the silence and clearness and fixity of absolute reality, like a picture in the Bible, and in an instant’s dumb daydream all would be re-created before my eyes, river and temple and promontory and sea, to dissolve almost as swiftly as it had come), nor was I ever able to understand the emotion it caused me—this emotion of a tranquil and abiding mystery. I have no doubt, however, that it was all connected with my childhood, when I would hear white people talk of Norfolk and of “going to the seaside.” For Norfolk was only forty miles eastward from Southampton and the ocean only a few miles past Norfolk, where some of the white people would go to trade. Indeed, I had even known a few Negroes from Southampton who had gone to Norfolk with their masters and then seen the ocean, and the picture they recalled—that of an infinite vastness of blue water stretching out to the limit of the eye, and past that, as if to the uttermost boundaries of the earth—inflamed my imaginat
fierce, inward, almost physical hunger, and there were days when my mind seemed filled with nothing but fantasies of the waves and the distant horizon and the groaning seas, the free blue air like an empire above arching eastward to Africa—as if by one single glimpse of this scene I might comprehend all the earth’s ancient, oceanic, preposterous splendor. But since luck was against me in this regard, and I was never allowed the opportunity of a trip to Norfolk and the ocean, I had to content myself with the vision which existed in my imagination; hence the recurring phantasm I have already described, even though the temple on the promontory still remained a mystery—and more mysterious this morning than ever before in all the years I could reckon. It lingered for a while, half dream, half waking vision as my eyes came open in the gray dawn, and I shut them again, watching the white temple dwindle in the serene and secret light, fade out, removed from recollection.
I rose up from the cedar plank I’d been sleeping on and sathalfway erect, in the same somnolent motion duplicating the instinctive mistake I’d made four times in as many mornings: swinging my legs sideways off the plank as if to plant them on the floor, only to feel metal bite into my ankles as the chain of the leg irons reached the limit of its slack, holding my feet suspended slantwise in midair. I drew my feet back and let them fall on the plank, then I sat upright and reached down and rubbed my ankles underneath the irons, aware of the flow of blood returning warm beneath my fingers. There was for the first time this year a wintry touch about the morning, damp and cold, and I could see a line of pale frost where the hard clay of the floor met the bottom plank of the jail wall. I sat there for several minutes, rubbing my ankles and shivering some. Suddenly I was very hungry, and I felt my stomach churn and heave. For a while all was still. They had put Hark in the cell next to me the evening before, and now through the planks I could hear his heavy breathing—a choked, clotted sound as if air were escaping through his very wounds. For an instant I was on the verge of waking him with a whisper, for we had had no chance to speak, but the sound of his breathing was slow and heavy with exhaustion. I thought, Let him sleep, and the words I had already formed on my lips went unspoken. I sat still on the board, watching the dawn light grow and fill the cell like a cup, stealthily, blossoming with the color of pearl. Far off in the distance now I heard a rooster crow, a faint call like a remote hurrah, echoing, fading into silence. Then another rooster crowed, nearer now.
The Confessions of Nat Turner
For a long while I sat there, listening and waiting. Save for Harks breathing there was no sound at all for many minutes, until at last I heard a distant horn blow, mournful and familiar-sounding, a hollow soft diminishing cry in the fields beyond Jerusalem, rousing up the Negroes on some farm or other.
After a bit I manipulated the chain so that I could slide my legs off the board and stand up. The chain allowed my feet a yard or so of movement, and by shuffling to the length of the chain and then stretching myself forward I could see out the open barred window into the dawn. Jerusalem was waking. From where I was standing I could see two houses nearby, perched at the edge of the riverbank where the cypress bridge began. Through one house someone moved with a candle, a flickering light which passed from bedroom to living room to hallway to kitchen, where it finally came to rest on some table and stood still, yellow and wavering. Behind the other house, closer to the bridge, an old woman covered with a greatcoat came out with a chamber pot; holding the steaming pot before her like a crucible, she hobbled across the frozen yard toward a whitewashed wooden privy, the breath coming from her mouth in puffs of smoke. She opened the door of the privy, went in, and the sound of the hinges grated with a small shriek on the frosty air until abruptly and with a crack like that of a gun the door slammed shut behind her. Suddenly, more from hunger than anything else, I felt dizzy and closed my eyes. Tiny freckles of light danced across my vision and I thought for an instant I was going to fall but I caught myself against the sill of the window; when I opened my eyes again, I saw that the candle in the first house had gone out, and gray smoke was pluming upward from the chimney.
Just then from afar I heard a distant drumming noise, a plunging of hoofbeats in erratic muffled tattoo which grew louder and louder as it approached from the west across the river. I raised my eyes to the far riverbank fifty yards away, where the tangled forest wall of cypress and gum trees loomed high over waters flowing muddy and cold and sluggish in the dawn. A rent in the wall marked the passage of the county road, and now through this rent a horse at an easy gallop appeared, carrying a cavalryman, followed closely by another, then still another, three soldiers in all: like a collision of barrels they struck the cypress bridge in a thunderous uproar of hooves and squealing timber, passed swiftly across the river into Jerusalem, guns glinting in the pale light. I watched until they had galloped out of sight and until the noise of hoofbeats faded into a soft dim drumming The Confessions of Nat Turner
behind me in the town. Then it was still again. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the window sill. The darkness was comforting to my eyes. It had for many years been my custom to pray at this hour of the day, or to read from the Bible; but during the five days that I had been made prisoner I had been refused the Bible, and as for prayer—well, it was no surprise to me any longer that I was totally unable to force a prayer from my lips. I still had this craving to perform a daily act which for the years of my grown-up life had become as simple and as natural as a bodily function, but which now seemed so incapable of accomplishment as to resemble a problem in geometry or some other mysterious science beyond my understanding. I now could not even recall when the ability to pray had left me—one month, two months, perhaps even more.
It might have been some consolation, at least, had I known the reason why this power had deserted me; but I was denied even this knowledge and there seemed no way at all to bridge the gulf between myself and God. So for a moment, as I stood with my eyes closed and with my head pressed against the cold wood sill, I felt a terrible emptiness. Again I tried to pray but my mind was a void, and all that filled my consciousness was the still fading echo of plunging hoofbeats and roosters crowing far off in the fields beyond Jerusalem.
Suddenly I heard a rattling at the bars behind me and I opened my eyes, turning to see Kitchen’s face in the lantern light. It was a young face, eighteen perhaps nineteen, pimpled and pockmarked and slack-jawed, quite stupid and so pitifully scared as to make me feel that I had perhaps wreaked upon him some irreversible mental change. For what had begun five days ago as apprehension had changed to constant fright, and this finally, it was plain to see, to a hopeless and demoralizing terror as each day passed and I slept and ate and breathed, still unclaimed by death. I heard his voice behind the bars, aquiver with dread.
“Nat,” he said. Then, “Hey, old Nat,” in a skittish hesitant voice.
“Nat, wake up!”
For a moment I wanted to shout out, yell “Scat!” and watch him fly out of his britches, but I said only: “I’m awake now.”
He was obviously confounded to find me at the window. “Nat,” he said quickly. “The lawyer’s coming. Remember? He wants to see you. You awake?” He stammered a bit as he spoke, and by the lantern’s glow I could see his white drawn young face with bulging eyes and a bloodless area of fright around the mouth.
Just then I again felt a great empty aching in my stomach.
The Confessions of Nat Turner
“Marse Kitchen,” I said, “I’m hungry. Please. I wonder if you could fetch me a little bite to eat. Kindly please, young mastah.”
“Breakfast ain’t until eight,” he replied in a croak.
I said nothing for a moment, watching him. Maybe it was hunger alone which stirred up a last breath, the ultimate gasp of a fury I thought I had safely laid to rest six weeks before. I lo
. . And for no reason at all a vision of mad Will came back, and I thought in spite of myself, the moment’s rage persisting: Will, Will. How that mad black man would have relished this simpleton’s flesh . . . The rage shriveled, died within me, leaving me with a momentary sense of waste and shame and exhaustion. “Maybe you could fetch me just a little piece of pone,” I said, pleading, thinking: Big talk will fetch you nothing but nigger talk might work. Certainly I had nothing to lose, least of all my pride. “Just a little bitty piece of pone,” I coaxed, coarse and wheedling. “Please, young mastah. I’m most dreadful hungry.”
“Breakfast ain’t until eight!” he blurted in a voice too loud, a shout, his breath making the lantern flame tremble and flicker.
Then he darted off and I was standing in the dawn, shivering, listening to the growling in my guts. After a moment I shuffled back over to the plank and sat down and thrust my head into my hands and closed my eyes. Prayer again hovered at the margin of my consciousness, prowling there restlessly like some great gray cat yearning for entry into my mind. Yet once again prayer remained outside and apart from me, banned, excluded, unattainable, shut out as decisively as if walls as high as the sun had been interposed between myself and God. So instead of prayer I began to whisper aloud: “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High.
To show forth thy lovingkindness in the morning . . .” But even these harmless words came out wrong, and as quickly as I had begun I ceased, the familiar diurnal Psalm foul and sour in my mouth and as meaningless and empty as all my blighted attempts at prayer. Beyond my maddest imaginings I had never known it possible to feel so removed from God—a separation which had nothing to do with faith or desire, for both of these I still possessed, but with a forsaken solitary apartness so beyond hope that I could not have felt more sundered from the divine spirit had I been cast alive like some wriggling insect beneath the largest rock on earth, there to live in hideous, perpetual dark.
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