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Nat Turner Revisited
On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the most controversial historical novel in memory, the author of The Confessions of Nat Turner speaks of a novelist’s duty to history and fiction’s strange power not only to astonish but to enrage
October 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 6
The single meaningful document having to do with the Turner revolt was a short (seven-thousand-word) transcript that gave the title to my own work. The original Confessions of Nat Turner, which comprised both Nat’s account of his upbringing and a description of the events leading up to the revolt, as well as the details of the revolt itself, was put in writing by a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas R. Gray, who took down the words from Nat’s lips as he sat chained in his jail cell during the October days before his execution. From the first word this discourse poses serious questions of veracity. At a time when justice for slaves was at best a sham, and in the aftermath of a sensational trial where the state’s absolute authority must have prevailed, how reliable or authentic was anything Nat said, when filtered through the mind of this minion of the state? Still, despite this problem, the bulk of the document appeared genuine—Nat himself had nothing to lose at this point by telling the truth, and while some of Gray’s interpretation is doubtless suspect, he had little to gain by substantially altering Nat’s statement—and so I was generally disposed to use it as a guideline, a loose guideline, for my own narrative.
Aside from Nat’s own Confessions and a number of contemporary newspaper articles, most of which added little to Gray’s account (except to emphasize the immediately devastating psychological effect the event had on Southern society), there was virtually no material of that period that was useful in shedding further light on Nat Turner as a person or on the uprising. Such a near-vacuum, as I say, seemed to me to be an advantage, placing me in the ideal position of knowing neither too much nor too little. A bad historical novel often leaves the impression of a hopelessly over-furnished house, cluttered with facts the author wishes to show off as fruits of his diligent research. Georg Lukács, the Hungarian Marxist critic whose monumental The Historical Novel should be read by all who attempt to write in the genre, views the disregard of facts as a state of grace; the creator of historical fiction, he argues convincingly, should have a thorough—perhaps even magisterial—command of the period with which he is dealing, but he should not permit his work to be governed by particular historical facts. Rather, his concern “is to reproduce the much more complex and ramifying totality with historical faithfulness.” At the time of writing Nat Turner, I felt that as an amateur historian I had absorbed a vast amount of reading on slavery in general, not only by way of a great number of antebellum books and essays but through much recent scholarship in the exploding field of the historiography of the slave period; thus, while my command may scarcely have been magisterial, I felt I reasonably fulfilled the first of Lukács’s conditions. It was perhaps serendipitous that Lukács’s other condition, regarding the relative unimportance of facts, made my task easier since I had chosen a man about whom so little was known.
Yet the facts can never be simply ignored, and the principal item I had to deal with, and freely reject, was that which involved the character of Nat Turner himself. The fact; He was a person of conspicuous ghastliness. I eventually read the original Confessions countless times, trying to pick up useful clues about the man and his background, but early on I was struck by the impression that our hero was a madman. A singularly gifted and intelligent madman, but mad nonetheless. No attempts on my part of sympathetic reinterpretation could alter this conclusion: his apocalyptic and deranged visions, his heavenly signs and signals, his belief in his own divinely ordained retributive mission, his obsessive fasting and prayer, his bloodthirsty megalomania and self-identification with the Deity (to a provocative question about himself by Gray, he replied, “Was not Christ crucified”)—there was no shaking the fact that on the record Nat Turner was a dangerous religious lunatic. I didn’t want to write about a psychopathic monster. While the institution of slavery was so horrible that it could readily produce psychopathology, and often did, I wished to demonstrate subtler motives, springing from social and behavioral roots, that could drive a young man of thirty-one to embark on his fearsome errand of revenge. So, without sacrificing the essence of Old Testament vengeance that plainly animated Nat, I attempted to moderate this aspect of his character and in doing so give him dimensions of humanity that were almost totally absent in the documentary evidence. When stern piety replaced demonic fanaticism, the man could be better understood.