It’s a novel that has its sources in history — the only sustained slave revolt in American history, an 1831 uprising led by Turner, an educated slave who led a group of fellow escapees on a bloody trail through southeastern Virginia. Before they were stopped, just short of seizing an arsenal, they had killed about 60 whites. And before he was hanged, Turner dictated a final testament, a document that still exists. But Styron’s book is not that one. It’s an invented version of that text, one ringed with bitterness and fire. He plumbs the mind of a man who believed himself ordained to slaughter whites in retribution for the ordeals of slavery, but who found himself nearly incapable of putting in the blade. Turner as Styron imagines him is not a plaster saint, not a cardboard monster. He’s a man, one whose ferocious yearnings were formed in the cauldron of a hateful institution.
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