Author: Scot A. French

associate Professor of Digital and Public History at University of Central Florida College of Arts and Humanities and author of The Rebellious Slave: Nat Turner in American Memory (2004)
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Confessions of Nat Turner, The (1967)

The Confessions of Nat Turner, a novel by William Styron, was published in 1967 and won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1968. The title character is based on the historical Nat Turner, a slave preacher and self-styled prophet who, in August 1831, led the only successful slave revolt in Virginia’s history, which in just twelve hours left fifty-five white people in Southampton County dead. (A slave named Gabriel conspired to revolt in 1800, but his plans were discovered before he could carry them out.) The historical Nat Turner, in turn, is largely the product of “The Confessions of Nat Turner, as fully and voluntarily made to Thomas R. Gray,” a pamphlet published shortly after Turner’s trial and execution in November 1831. Although it played a crucial role in shaping perceptions of the event around the central figure of Turner, the pamphlet itself only reached a small portion of the reading public. The story awaited the Virginia-born Styron, who translated the historical record into a popular medium that commanded the full attention of the reading public and the national media. Despite its awards, however, that attention was not always positive. Published at the height of the Black Power movement and after a long summer of race riots in the United States, Styron’s novel was labeled by some civil rights activists as racist, especially because of the author’s depiction of Turner lusting after white women, one of whom he eventually kills.

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Confessions of Nat Turner, The (1831)

The Confessions of Nat Turner, the leader of the late insurrection in Southampton, Va., as fully and voluntarily made to Thomas R. Gray is a pamphlet published shortly after the trial and execution of Nat Turner in November 1831. The previous August, Turner, a slave preacher and self-styled prophet, had led the only successful slave revolt in Virginia’s history, leaving fifty-five white people in Southampton County, Virginia, dead, the slaveholding South convulsed with panic, and the myth of the contented slave in tatters. His confessions, dictated from Turner’s jail cell to a Southampton lawyer, have provided historians with a crucial perspective missing from an earlier planned uprising, by Gabriel (also sometimes known as Gabriel Prosser) in 1800, as well as fodder for debate over the veracity of Turner’s account. Meanwhile, the book arguably is one of two American literary classics to come from the revolt, the other being The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Virginia-native William Styron, published at the height of the Black Power movement in September 1967. Each of these texts has demonstrated the power of print media to shape popular perceptions of historical fact, even as each raised critical questions of accuracy, authenticity, and community control over historical interpretations of the past.

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