I honestly don’t think I could have chosen a better novel (with maybe the exception of House Made of Dawn or To Kill a Mockingbird) to read to put the finishing touch on America’s most turbulent and divisive decade than William Styron’s 1968 Pulitzer-winner, The Confessions of Nat Turner.
One year before 1969, when the 1960’s came to a screeching halt and the hopes and dreams of peace, love, and civil rights all but burned out, the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded America’s top literary prize to a novel about a slave revolt in Virginia in the early 1800’s. A real historical event, William Styron wrote the novel from the perspective of Nat Turner, the person responsible for organizing the revolt, based on his research into the event, historical documents, and Turner’s actual confessions.
The result is a novel that is gruesome, horrific, visceral, pornographic, rapturous, and utterly beautiful.
William Styron is a masterful storyteller and an extremely gifted writer. As such, this novel is filled to the brim with absolutely gorgeous prose. No word is taken for granted and it’s obvious that Styron’s heart and soul permeate every single page. There were moments in this novel that were nothing short of breathtaking.
Having said that, however, this is an extremely difficult book to get through. As beautiful as Styron’s prose is, it couldn’t take the sharp edge off the novel’s most cutting moments; in fact, the beauty of the writing may have even made the content of the book all the more horrifying. A perverted interpretation of Christianity (Turner is thought to be an upright, moral, holy man of the cloth but is really nothing short of a religious fanatic/lunatic), numerous rape scenes, twisted sexual fantasies, sexual deviance, horrifying violence, human slaughter… Nat Turner, the slave turned pseudo-Christian intellectual, reveals his deepest, darkest, most twisted fantasies throughout the novel and spares no gory detail (from self-pleasure, to homoeroticism, to mutilation, to raping a white woman in a ditch on the side of the road and smashing her teeth with his own, to beheading an entire family, to slaughtering a schoolhouse full of children).
This is not an easy book; it is a very hard, very difficult, very troubling book. But I have to hand it to Styron—it took an incredible amount of skill to write such an ugly story so beautifully; a story that, for better or worse, will never leave me.
I can’t stress enough how deeply troubling this novel was.
When I wasn’t reading it, it weighed heavily on me and when I was reading it, I couldn’t hardly put it down. It was like a car wreck on the side of a highway—as much as I want to get to where I’m going quickly, I almost have to take a gapers pause. As much as I want to focus on the road ahead of me, I can take my eyes off the smashed cars, the twisted metal, the shards of glass on the pavement.
We’ve encountered a couple books along this Pulitzer journey that dealt with some tough subject matter or had scenes that were graphic, but nothing like The Confessions of Nat Turner; nothing that even compares to it.
Half of me absolutely adored this book; really and truly admired the magnificence of Styron’s beautiful writing. The other half despised the book; hated the entire reading experience and resented Styron for pushing me down and dragging me through the dirt until I was bloodied and exhausted then left me for dead. This book offered no hope, no redemption, and for that I hate it.
This is, by far, the single most divisive novel to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.
Andrew is a husband, father, dog lover, craft beverage enthusiast, content creator, and niche market Internet celebrity. Formerly of A Table in the Corner of the Cafe and The Pulitzer Project and contributor to Barista Magazine and Mental Floss, he’s been writing on the Internet for years.