Dead Man Walking: Nat Turner, William Styron, Bruce Springsteen, and the Death Penalty

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Author: Gavin Cologne-Brookes
Date: Winter 2016
From: The Mississippi Quarterly(Vol. 69, Issue 1)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,610 words

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In a 1968 interview, William Styron discussed the possibility that <i>The Confessions of Nat Turner</i> might be read in ways other than "as a strict rendition of the history of slavery" in America. "In every time, every era we live in, people seek intellectually in books for different things," he continued. "Obviously, the thing that is closest to us at this moment is the agony of the race problem. So therefore, quite clearly, the book has seized on people's imaginations for that reason" (Barzelay and Sussman 96). The book may never be viewed without race at the forefront. Whether or not Nat Turner's "problems," "residual Puritanism," "idiom," and "peculiarly frontier sort of experience" are "truly American" (97), as Styron went on to say of his fictional recreation, his character and circumstances are inextricable from the fact that he is a black slave in a racist society. Moreover, in Michelle Alexander's view, it's not just an "uncomfortable truth" that "racial differences will<i>always exist</i> among us" (243). It's also that "the basic structure" of American society has changed less, despite the evolution from slavery through segregation and the Civil Rights movement to the Obama presidency, than the language used "to justify it" (2). Looking back on the novel decades after I first read it, for instance, I am struck by a fact that I gave little thought to on previous readings: Nat Turner is on death row. We witness his final thoughts as he reflects on his short life before being killed by the state. He views his actions as war crimes. If he also sees them as sins, then that is a personal matter. After rebelling against oppression, he has been hunted down, captured, and convicted, so far as the state of Virginia in 1831 is concerned, of an act of terrorism that has led to the murder of fifty-five people. To focus on this is to open up an area of discussion about <i>The Confessions that</i>, half a century on from its publication, feels all the more relevant, and yet for decades has been largely ignored. To do this, I will consider the novel with reference to some of Styron's key European influences, namely Stendhal, Fydor Dostoevsky, George Orwell, Albert Camus, and Arthur Koestler, as well as to Richard Wright as a twentieth-century American novelist concerned with oppression and punishment, and to a contemporary artistic commentator on the social justice system, Bruce Springsteen.

In the novel, Styron underlines that the execution of Nat Turner was not about justice but a predetermined act of vengeance, and an attempted consolidation of the logic of slavery as a crude commercial enterprise. As what Styron's fictional version of Thomas Gray, author of <i>The Confessions of Nat Turner</i>, relishes calling "<i>an-i-mate</i> chattel," Turner is capital and receives capital punishment (20). One way Styron illustrates the corruptness of the legal procedures is by having Gray, as Turner's supposed representative, treat the law as a mechanism serving the white perspective on "the killing spree" rather than as...

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Source Citation
Cologne-Brookes, Gavin. "Dead Man Walking: Nat Turner, William Styron, Bruce Springsteen, and the Death Penalty." The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 69, no. 1, winter 2016, pp. 9+. Accessed 18 Oct. 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A536091627