Nat Turner before the Bar of Judgment: Fictional Treatments of the Southampton Slave Insurrection

By Leonard, Angela M. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2000 | Go to article overview

Nat Turner before the Bar of Judgment: Fictional Treatments of the Southampton Slave Insurrection


Leonard, Angela M., The Journal of Southern History


Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment: Fictional Treatments of the Southampton Slave Insurrection. By Mary Kemp Davis. Southern Literary Studies. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi, 298. $30.00, ISBN 0-8071-2249-1.)

Not since Albert Stone's study, The Return of Nat Turner (Athens, Ga., 1992), has any scholar closely analyzed multiple treatments of Nat Turner histories. Mary Kemp Davis breaks the silence and covers four nineteenth-century novels and two from the twentieth century. Her methodology attends to successful narrative strategies and literary conventions in each novel to make the case that the ghost of Turner is indicted and retried "before the bar" each time his history is retold.

Thomas Ruffin Gray's The Confessions of Nat Turner (Baltimore, 1831) serves as Davis's "Ur-text" (p. 4), because Gray's account is purportedly firsthand and because it spawned other related texts, though each writer since Gray recreated Turner "in his or her own image" (p. 5). Because Gray's work serves as the starting point for her study, Davis details the authorial tricks that Gray employs: presenting Turner's confession as an inverted conversion narrative, constructing a "hidden polemic against abolitionists" (p. 63); portraying the innocence of the Virginia slaveocracy; deflating "the widespread conspiracy theory" (p. 64); attaching several "`legal' documents" (p. 67) to authenticate his version or validate his status "as amanuensis" (p. 66); and parodizing Turner's confession and muting his voice. Davis concludes that Gray's version "conceals" more than it reveals. Gray hides from a "blood-thirsty" Turner "the fact that he is writing down his oral confessions, [and] he tries to obscure the limitations of his own text from the reader" (p. 76).

After Gray, Davis turns her focus to tour nineteenth-century novels. G. P. R. James's The Old Dominion; or, The Southampton Massacre (New York, 1856) remains indifferent to the historical record. Yet unlike Gray, James transforms Turner into "a chivalrous knight," (p. 106) and is more interested in "placing both Virginia and the rebels on trial ... to explore the moral ambiguity of guilt" (p. 99). The "Great Dismal Swamp" links Harriet Beecher Stowe's Dred (Boston, 1856) to James's Old Dominion. Both texts convey that "the law is as much a source of disorder as it is an antidote to disorder" (p. …

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