I read a book about this a while ago, and I had back then printed out the original confessions from 1831 that the book was based on. Because I took today off and devoted it to pleasure reading I managed to not only finish my French novel, which I had been reading for quite some time, but also got through this (it is pretty short).
The surprising (if you don't know anything about Turner, check here, but I assume most of you will be more or less familiar with him) thing was that Styron in his fictional account had stayed very close to the actual facts as recounted by Turner. This was disappointing for me in the sense that I did not really learn anything new from the text. I again found it shocking how little attention was given to the extraordinary high amount of black people killed in retaliation (there is an introduction and some explanatory remarks by the person recording this confession) in comparison to the 55 whites killed by his followers. One also cannot help but be amazed by a plantation slave during that time who managed to stir an uprising with over 70 participants, and even if their acts evidently were despicable and they put up no serious fight as soon as armed militias began opposing them, a certain heroism cannot be denied. These were people after all whose life had no meaning or value, who were constatly living under the threat of being raped or whipped, killed or sold and seperated from their loved ones.
Nat Turner himself clearly was a religous fanatic, a man who thought Spirits were talking to him in guidance, who saw himself as some kind of a prophet, but what I wonder about in his case is whether he was just another one of these religous murderous nutcases (see Bin Laden for example I guess) or whether he was a highly intelligent human being (who after all was considered somekind of a miracle by his fellow slaves and some poor whites because he could read and write) who completely cracked living under circumstances so dire that no escape seemed possible. Is Nat Turner, thus, the product of a slave-planter society, a true son of the American South if you so will, or was he just one of those disgusting historic nutcases? I tend to believe he was the former, which is really just a feeling based on reading is confessions though. He did not drink alcohol, basically taught himself how to read and write, and (ironically) only killed one of the murdered whites himself (and only after having been pressured to do so), I have too much respect for the man in the end to believe that he was just a crazy person.
This to some extent is a radical position to take, I realize that, I am basically defending the ideological propagator of mass murder here (and if anyone tried to do the same with, say, the Nazis I would kill him (argumentatively of course)). I just feel like institutions to a large extent determine people and the slave system of the pre-civil war American South would have a massive impact on anyone growing up in it.
If you want to read the confessions, check here.
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