In 1831 a slave named Nat Turner gathered a small army of fellow slaves who, over a couple of days, slaughtered more than sixty white people in the county of Southampton, Virginia. It is, as far as I know, the only recorded instance of major premeditated violence by slaves toward their masters in the history of American slavery. This is a remarkable fact--millions of people were systematically oppressed over a period of hundreds of years, and only once did they fight back in any significant way? It serves as an illustration of how truly oppressive such a system was, and how completely it controlled those it subjugated, but it also invites fascination--who was Nat Turner, who stands so gruesomely alone in history?
Styron's afterword admits that, if we go by Turner's real confession and the scanty historical data we have, the answer is morally and artistically disappointing: Turner was a psychopath and a religious extremist, a statistical outlier like the rebellion he led. In Styron's hands, he becomes a good and sympathetic man, marked by the dangerous combination of indignant rage and extensive learning, convinced that God has commanded him to slaughter all the whites in Southampton.
As slave lives go, the young Nat has it easy. He is the son of a cook and a "house" slave, whose beneficent master recognizes in him a latent intelligence that he wishes to master. Ironically, it is this beginning, that might have created a "toady" out of a man with less moral compunction, that sets Nat on his path to slaughter:
Suppose in the first place I had lived out my life at Turner's Mill. Suppose then I had been considerably less avid in my thirst for knowledge, so that it would not have occurred to me to steal that book. Or suppose, even more simply, that Samuel Turner--however decent and just an owner he might have remained anyway--had been less affected with that feverish and idealistic conviction that slaves were capable of intellectual enlightenment and enrichment of the spirit and had not, in his passion to prove this to himself and to all who would bear witness, fastened upon me as an "experiment."
...For the Preacher was right: He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. And Samuel Turner (whom I shall call Marse Samuel from now on, for that is how he was known to me) could not have realized, in his innocence and decency, in his awesome goodness and softness of heart, what sorrow he was guilty of creating by feeding me that half-loaf of learning: far more bearable no loaf at all.
Styron's Turner is designed to answer the two questions I alluded to above: How is it that slave rebellions were so rare, and what made Turner so different? The answer to the first can be seen in the way that Nat often responds with the most hatred toward those who treat him most kindly, because regarding him as half-human (and deserving of only "that half-loaf of learning") only underscores the great mental treason of a system which reduces a man to a commodity. The cruelest slave masters inspire revulsion, as a senseless carrion animal might, but the initial decency of someone like Marse Samuel, who has taught Nat to read and write, only makes his eventual sale of Nat a greater moral breach.
To the second question, Styron responds by making Nat an educated and religious man. The scenes in which Turner's daughter instruct him in memorizing Bible verses are chilling when we know what Nat has done with them. The adult Nat, having become regarded as a preacher in his own right, has visions like these:
I started to cry out in terror, but at this moment the second black angel seemed to pour back into the clouds, faded, vanished, and in his place came still another angel--this angel white yet strangely faceless and resembling no living white being I had ever known. Silent, in glittering silver armor, he smote the remaining black angel with his sword, yet as in a dream I saw the sword noiselessly shatter and break in two; now the black angel raised his shield to face down his white foe, and the two spirits were locked in celestial battle high above the forest.
(I will leave it to you to work out the symbolism of a white angel fighting a black one.) Thankfully, Styron does not try to piece together whether Nat's visions are genuine or not; it's enough to know that Nat believes in them and that he is reluctant to follow what they portend, as Abraham instructed to kill Isaac. Nat's struggle to follow a path he considers horrific but morally necessary provide the novel with its most compelling conflict and keep it from being a stale account of historical pontification. More agonizing than the actual scenes of bloodshed, of which there are few, is the long first section in which Nat, already arrested for his crimes, wrestles with the value of his actions. Though he has only done what, in his mind, God has asked, in his jail cell he feels bereft of God:
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 rom 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.
Though their actions are clearly incomparable, and Styron lacks Twain's guiding sense of irony, I hear echoes of Huck Finn's insistence that he'll go to hell to protect Jim, the runaway slave. Both Huck and Nat struggle with the gulf between God and morality, both damn themselves by doing (what they see as good), and I don't think it's a coincidence that they occupy similar historical places--when inhumanity is codified into law, culture, and religion, as slavery was, the moral ambiguity forces good men into contradictions. But you don't have to ponder that to be affected when Nat is forced to wonder whether his actions have only entrenched slavery and shamed God:
"Here's what it got you, Reverend, if you'll pardon the crudity. It got you a pissy-assed record of total futility, the likes of which are hard to equal. Threescore white people slain in random butchery, yet the white people still firmly holdin' the reins. Seventeen niggers hung, including you and old Hark there, nevermore to see the light of day. A dozen or more other nigger boys shipped out of an amiable way of life to Alabama, where you can bet your bottom dollar that in five years the whole pack of 'em will b e dead of work and fever. I've seen them cotton plantations. I've seen them rice layouts too, Reverend--niggers up to their necks in shit from day clean to first dark, with a big black driver to whip 'em, and mosquitoes the size of buzzards. This is what you brung on them kids, Reverend, this is what Christianity brung on them boys. I reckon you didn't figure on that back then, did you?"
These words, spoken by Thomas Gray, the historical lawyer who took down Turners' confession, have a little too much down-home cornponiness for me and are a good example of how stilted Styron's dialogue can be at points. But they do a good job of expressing Nat's awful moral dilemma. Nat must face the contradiction that it's he that has chased the presence of God away, that, as Gray says, "Nineteen hundred years of Christian teaching plus a black preacher is all it takes--Is all it takes to prove that God is a God durned lie!"
Styron comes close, toward the end, to giving Nat a Hollywoodesque moment of recant and redemption, but fortunately has enough restraint to limit Nat's sense of regret, which would undercut our unsettling notion that Nat is not entirely unjustified. That unsettling ambiguity, after all, is what makes Nat Turner so powerful.