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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
I took an enormous liberty with historical actuality when I began to deal with Nat’s childhood and upbringing. I placed the boy in a milieu where he could not possibly have belonged. During the course of Nat’s brief life, Southampton County, where he was born and reared, had already suffered the impoverishment that had come to Virginia long before as the result of the over-cultivation of tobacco and other crops, leaving a surplus of slaves who were constantly in danger of being sold off to the thriving plantations of Alabama and Mississippi—the “Far South.” Virginia’s Southside, as the region below the James River is known, was in those days dotted with small farms and modest holdings, patches of cotton and corn for home use (peanuts had yet to come into their own), apples grown for cider and brandy, pigs in their wallows or rooting in the wild. This bore no resemblance to the romantic view of Old Dixie. The average farmer owned one or two deprived slaves. It was a forlorn, down-at-the-heel section of the Tidewater, where there never existed the celebrated plantations that gave the South its sheen and legendary glamour.
But I felt I had to create a plantation anyway. The plantation was an integral and characteristic part of Southern life in slave times; it was the very metaphor for the capitalist exploitation of human labor, and the plantation owners often represented the best and worst of those whom history had cast as masters in the peculiar institution, carrying within themselves all the moral frights and tensions that slavery engendered. I needed to dramatize this turmoil, and so I contrived to have Nat Turner grow up on a prosperous plantation that might have existed fifty years before far up the James River but that could not have flourished in poverty-racked Southampton. In this way I was able to expose young Nat Turner (from whose point of view the story is told) to the intellectual tug-of-war between the two Turner brothers, owners of the plantation and men diametrically opposed in their views on the morality of slavery. Such a strategy, while disdainful of the facts, enabled me to demonstrate certain critical philosophical attitudes I couldn’t have done otherwise, except didactically, yet still allowed me to remain, in the larger sense, historically faithful.
Two of the most carefully pondered decisions I made regarding Nat’s fictional character were ones that later provoked the greatest outrage from many of those people who became bitter enemies of the book. As is the case with disputes involving so many heroes, contemporary or departed, the bone to pick here was over the matter of sex. Why, came the bitter demand, hadn’t I linked Nat with a black woman? First, in the process of using the Confessions as a rough guide, I was struck by the fact that Nat referred to his relationship with quite a few people—grandmother, mother, father, master, disciples—but never to a woman in a romantic or conjugal sense; apparently he had neither a female companion nor a wife. This absence was quite significant, and I had to use my intuition to guess at its meaning. A wife or companion would have had important resonance, and his mention of such a woman would have forced me to create her counter-part. But since no other reliable source ever spoke of Nat’s being married (a pointless connection in the formal sense, slaves being legally forbidden to wed) or even being involved with a woman, it made it all the more plausible for me to portray a man who was a bachelor, or at least womanless, a celibate with all the frustrations that celibacy entails. Further, such a portrayal was entirely compatible with both the real Nat Turner’s revolutionary passion and his religious zeal; chastity, combined with a single-minded devotion to a cause, has been the hallmark of religious rebels and reformers throughout history, and I saw a commanding reasonableness in having Nat share their condition, in which austerity clashed with feverish sexual temptation.
But by all odds my most crucial choice, as I picked my way through the facts and factoids of the original Confessions, was the one that also gave rise to the most furious misinterpretation later—and this was to invent a relationship between Nat Turner and a teenage white girl, the daughter of a small landowner. No decision I made shows so well the pitfalls waiting for the historical novelist who, however well intentioned, creates a situation or concept repugnant to ideologues; at the same time, nothing so deftly illustrates the invincible right of the novelist to manipulate historical fact and pursue his intuition concerning that fact to its artistically logical conclusion. Here are two intertwined facts, recounted by the perpetrator and recorded by Thomas Gray with the clinical dispassion of a modern-day homicide report: During most of the course of the revolt, in which fifty-five people were slaughtered, the leader of the murderers could not kill or inflict a wound on any of the victims although he confesses that he tried more than once. This is the second fact: Toward the end of the bloody proceedings Nat is finally able to kill, and he kills—seemingly without qualm—a young woman named Margaret Whitehead, once described as “the belle of the county.” It is his only murder. And after that murder his insurrection seems to quickly run out of speed. Why?