Nat Turner Revisited

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Nat Turner entered my consciousness through brief references to his revolt in my text on Virginia history. But most memorably he appeared in the form of a historical highway marker adjoining a peanut field in Southampton County, where I traveled with our high school football team in the fall. This was a remote, down-and-out farm region, whose population was 60 percent black. I was transfixed by the information conveyed by that marker, paraphrased thus: Nearby, in August of 1831, a fanatical slave named Nat Turner led a bloody insurrection that caused the death of fifty-five white people. Captured after two months in hiding, Nat was brought to trial in the county seat of Jerusalem (now Courtland) and he and seventeen of his followers were hanged. I recall how this sign set off in my mind extraordinary resonances, which were clearly in conflict with my grandmother’s story: What was the connection, if any, between her loving memories and this cryptic notation of terror and mayhem? Perhaps more important, I remember wondering whether that bygone moment of sudden disaster didn’t reflect something sinister in the divided white and black world in which I lived, so outwardly peaceable yet, except to the blind, troubled and jumpy with signs of resentment, sullenness, covert hostility and anger. The Virginia of my boyhood, like virtually all the South, was a place where the amiable, if often edgy, relations between the races rose from an impulse that was mutually self-protective, keeping in abeyance much white fear and much black rage.

Daily life produced an unstated precariousness. There were strong, even passionate bonds of affection between individuals, black and white, but the social arrangement was a different matter; in the vast rural areas a form of pseudoslavery prevailed, and the white man’s whim was law. Urban existence, not much better, gave rise to ghettos where crimes by black against blacks went ignored and unrecorded. At its worst, the South was filled with intimidation and brutality on a terrifying scale; in the Deep South lynchings were still more than occasional. At its best, kindheartedness and decency, along with genuine love spontaneously reciprocated, were the rule, but even so, the South suffered, in its Jim Crow shackles, from the sickness of alienation. It was a bizarre, culturally schizoid world with falsity at its core, not to speak of a glaring inhumanity. I’m sure that my early fascination with Nat Turner came from pondering the parallels between his time and my own society, whose genteel accommodations and endemic cruelties, large and small, were not really so different from the days of slavery. I think I must have wondered whether this tautly strained calmness might not someday be just as susceptible to violent retribution.

I wrote several works of fiction before I finally tackled Nat Turner. Then in the early 1960s I decided that the time was ripe; certainly I was never anything but intensely aware of the way in which the theme of slave rebellion was finding echoes in the gathering tensions of the civil rights movement. Although it didn’t dawn on me at the time, I later realized that one of the benefits for me in Nat Turner’s story was not an abundance of historical material but, if anything, a scantiness. This was a drama that took place in a faraway backwater when information gathering was primitive. While it may be satisfying and advantageous for historians to feast on rich archival material, the writer of historical fiction is better off when past events have left him with short rations. A good example might be the abolitionist John Brown, who made his prodigious mark on history only thirty years after Nat Turner but whose every word and move were recorded by enterprising journalists, producing documents enough to fill a boxcar.

I wished to demonstrate subtler motives that could drive a young man to his fearsome errand of revenge.
 

The novelist attempting John Brown’s story is in conflict with the myriad known details of the chronicle, and his imagination cannot simply run off in a certain direction—which is what fiction writers need their imaginations to do—because he is fettered by already established circumstances. He is in danger of being overwhelmed by an avalanche of data. That is why the writing of novels about plentifully documented figures—Lincoln, say, or John F. Kennedy—is a risky matter, constricting for the writer himself who, while quite free to take liberties with the known facts (the shopworn but sound concept of artistic license), must still take care not to violate the larger historical record. (Although even here the convention has often been broken; history has taught us, for example, that Richard III was not an unmitigated villain, nor a hunchback, but only pedants carp at Shakespeare’s nasty portrayal.)