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

By Breen, Patrick H. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Breen, Patrick H., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment: Fictional Treatment of the Southampton Slave Insurrection. By MARY KEMP DAVIS. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. xvi, 298 pp. $30.00.

AFTER the explosion of controversy that surrounded the publication of William Styron's Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967, arguments about Nat Turner entered a period of quiescence, burnt out by an unruly debate that had not changed many minds. In the last decade, new studies by Albert Stone, Eric Sundquist, John Inscoe, and others have brought attention back to Nat Turner, mainly by examining the literary treatment of Turner. In Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment, Mary Kemp Davis adds her voice to this discussion.

Davis begins the book by discussing first Governor John Floyd's address to Virginia's General Assembly four months after Nat Turner's rebellion and then Thomas Gray's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831). These two chapters are, at turns, fascinating and maddening. Insights, such as the revealing point that Floyd did not speak Nat Turner's name, are paired with theory-driven literary criticism. Davis suggests that "Floyd labors so mightily to suppress" an " `unexpressed speech act.'" (p. 23). Without any evidence, she guesses that Floyd had David Walker in mind and examines Floyd's speech as a response to him. Surely Floyd wanted to suppress all voices that advocated abolition, as Davis suggests, but that does not imply that Floyd's address is best understood as "a silent revision of David Walker's Appeal" (p. 40).

After these two chapters, Davis turns her attention to six novels. George Payne Rainsford James's The Old Dominion; or, The Southampton Massacre (1856) is an overlooked example of Nat Turner in literature. James, a British consul stationed in Norfolk in the 1850s who churned out more than ninety books over three decades, introduced Nat Turner into a conventional romance. To James, Nat Turner remained an enigma. He was the one black man in The Old Dominion who could testify to the injustice of slavery. At the end of the book, James did not condemn Turner: James's Nat Turner remained free, escaping the hangman's noose that killed his historical namesake. …

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