The Confessions of Nat Turner [Secure eReader]
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eBook by William Styron
eBook Category: General Nonfiction/History
eBook Description: Few modern American novelists have dared as much as William Styron in writing The Confessions of Nat Turner. A white man and a Tidewater Virginian by birth, Styron put himself inside the life and mind of Nat Turner, the black man who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. It is a true story told as a novel, though the author prefers to call it "a meditation on history" rather than a historical novel. Many black critics scorned it when it was published, refusing to accept Styron's bold conceit, though the novel won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize in fiction and was one of the most acclaimed American novels of its time. The Confessions of Nat Turner speaks in the first-person voice of Nat Turner himself. Styron based the novel on details of Turner's life and a pamphlet with the same title that was presented as evidence in Turner's trial. It is a shattering story that renders the horror of slavery--so easily viewed as a faceless historical tragedy--into unique human terms. Turner had been promised freedom by his first master but it was never granted, a taste of liberty that is unbearable in its cruelty. As a man, he can find no solace in the life that is given to him. Turner is a powerful, compelling figure, and with visions tormenting him, he inspires a small band of slaves to rise up against their masters. The rebellion is violent, resulting in the deaths of white men and women, but it is put down surely and bloodily, with an even higher casualty of black people. The fate of the rebels is inevitable, and it is from this perspective that Nat Turner seeks to understand his life. The concentrated but extravagant richness of Styron's writing, with its high rhetorical grace, is another bold choice he made in writing The Confessions of Nat Turner, at a time when writers were embracing the idea of less being more. As in his later novel Sophie's Choice, he does not tell a story that exists only in the past. Written in the mid-1960s, this novel addresses the horrible inequities that still existed then in the lives of African-Americans, and what those inequities do to the human equation.
eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks, Published: 2001
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2002
1 Reader Ratings:
"William Styron has written the true American tragedy ... there can be no doubt, now, that he is the foremost writer of his generation."--Wall Street Journal
"William Stryon has begun the common history--ours,"--James Baldwin
"A Triumph."--New York Times
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 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 imagination in such a way that my desire to see this sight became a kind of 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 sat halfway 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. 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 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.
"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 looked back into the infantine slack-jawed face, thinking: Mooncalf, you are just a lucky child. You are the kind of sweet meat Will was after ... 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 loving kindness 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. The chill and damp of the morning began to spread out like ooze through my bones. Hark's breathing came through the wall like the sound of an old dog dying, all gurgles and shudders and unholy vibrations, stitched together by a sickly thread of air.
A person who has lived as I have for many years -- close to the ground, so to speak, in the woods and the swamp, where no animal sense is superior to another -- eventually comes to own a supremely good nose; thus I smelled Gray almost before I saw him. Not that the odor that Gray put out demanded great sensiblity: suddenly the cold dawn was a May morning, rank with the odor of apple blossoms, his sweet fragrance preceding him as he approached the cell. Kitchen was carrying two lanterns this time. He put one down on the floor and unlocked the door. Then he came in, holding both lanterns high, followed by Gray. The slop bucket was inside by the door and Kitchen jarred it with one of his uncertain, nervous feet, setting the whole bucket to gulping and sloshing. Gray caught a hint of Kitchen's terror, because at that instant I heard him say: "Calm yourself, boy, for pity's sake! What on earth do you think he can do to you?" It was a round, hearty voice, jovial even, booming with voracious good will. At this hour I was unable to tell which I resented more, that doughty voice or the honeyed, overpowering perfume. "Lawd amercy, you'd think he was going to eat you alive!" Kitchen made no reply, set a lamp down on the other plank which stuck out, like the one I was sitting on, at right angles from the opposite wall, then picked up the slop bucket and fled, banging the door behind him and throwing the bolt home with a slippery chunking noise. For a moment, after Kitchen was gone, Gray said nothing, standing near the door and blinking slow, tentative blinks past me -- I had already noticed he was a bit near-sighted -- then he eased himself down on the board beside the lantern. We would not need the lantern long: even as he seated himself morning was pouring with a cool white glow through the window, and I had begun to hear outside beyond the jail a slow-moving fuss and clatter of creaking pumps and banging windows and yapping dogs as the town came awake. Gray was a fleshy, red-faced man -- he must have been fifty or a little more -- and his eyes were hollow and bloodshot as if he needed sleep. He stirred about to find a comfortable resting place on the plank, then threw open his greatcoat abruptly, revealing beneath a fancy brocaded waistcoat, now more grease-stained than ever and with the lower button unloosened to accommodate his paunch. Again he gazed toward me, blinking past me as if still unable to see or find his focus; then he yawned and removed, finger by delicate pudgy finger, his gloves, which must once have been pink but now were seedy and begrimed.
"Mornin', Reverend," he said finally. When I made no reply, he reached inside his waistcoat and took out a sheaf of papers, unfolding and flattening them against his lap. He said nothing more for a bit as he held the papers close to the lantern, shuffling them in and out, humming to himself, pausing from time to time to stroke his mustache, which was gray and indecisive, a faint shadow. His jaw was in need of a shave. With such an empty feeling in my stomach the over sweet smell of him almost made me puke as I sat there watching him, saying nothing. I was worn out from talking to him and seeing him, and for the first time -- perhaps it was my hunger or the cold or a combination of both, or my general frustration about prayer -- I felt my dislike of him begin to dominate my better nature, my equanimity. For although I had disliked him at the very beginning five full days before, disliked the mode and method of the trickery behind his very presence, despised his person and the mellifluous sugarplum stench of him, I quickly understood how foolish it would be not to yield, not to be acquiescent and blab everything now that it all was over -- fully aside from his bribery and threat, what else had I to lose? Thus even at the outset I figured that hostility would avail me nothing and I managed if not completely to stifle my dislike (and dislike it was, not hatred, which I have only once felt for any single man) then to mask it, to submerge it beneath the general polite compliance which the situation demanded.
Copyright © 1967 by William Styron