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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
These are two of those undecipherable facts so consequential that they can’t be sidestepped; indeed, for me they acquired such importance that my need to fathom their meaning became a dominant concern. And here it may be interesting to comment on the roles of the historian and the novelist, each of whom would be presented with different but overlapping opportunities to make sense of this terrible moment. Hewing more or less to the written record, both the historian and the novelist would be able to set the same scene, although the novelist would probably allow himself more descriptive breadth: the tranquility of a hot August day in the still countryside; the band of black marauders bursting out of the pinewoods and engulfing the simple whitewashed frame house where the sun-bonneted mother is swiftly decapitated by a muscular, screaming black man; the pretty young girl fleeing across the field, falteringly pursued by the Negro—irresolute at first, then determined—who, when she stumbles down in a heap, stabs her with his sword, then batters her head with a fence rail until she moves no more. Who was this Margaret Whitehead and what brought her together with Nat Turner? The facts tell us nothing else.
In the splenetic tone of the sixties, I was labeled “psychologically sick” and was accused of possessing “a vile racist imagination.”
For this reason the historian’s concern with Margaret Whitehead would most likely end here, and he would pass on to other matters. Let us pause for a moment. The killing of Margaret is near the climax of Nat Turner’s chronicle, and it might be a convenient place to reflect on the immense effect the uprising had on American history and how its violence may have helped churn up a larger violence undreamed of by even the most obdurate slaveholder in 1831. Throughout that year the Virginia legislature had been engaged in a debate concerning the abolition of slavery; because of strong antislavery feeling in the Piedmont region and the western counties, where slaves were few, it appeared likely that abolition would become a reality, if not immediately, then in the near-future. The Turner cataclysm caused a wave of fear to sweep through the state, as well as much of the rest of the South, and may have been the most important factor in assuring the continuation of slavery in the Old Dominion. A legislator is reported to have said in public, “We’re going to lock the niggers in a cellar and throw away the key.” Had Virginia, with its great prestige among the states, abolished slavery during that critical time, the impact on the future (especially in terms of the possible avoidance of events leading to the Civil War) is awesome to contemplate.
But as a novelist I couldn’t abandon the relationship of Nat Turner and Margaret Whitehead to the vacuum into which it had been cast in the Confessions. It was nearly inconceivable that in the tiny bucolic cosmos of Southampton the two had not known each other, or had not been acquainted in some way. And if they had known each other, what was the nature of their affinity? Had she been cruel to him, slighted him, snubbed him, subjected him to some insult? Since she was his sole victim, could the entire rebellion have been conceived as his retribution against her? Farfetched perhaps, but history is full of catastrophes in which many have been sacrificed because of one person’s lethal wrath against another. Or was it something else entirely that bound them, something absurdly obvious, the very antithesis of hatred? Had they been lovers? This seemed unlikely, given one’s conviction about his basic asceticism. Perhaps, however, she had tempted him sexually, goaded him in some unknown way, and out of this situation had flowed his rage.
Perhaps nothing at all had occurred between them, and her death came merely as a needful act on the part of a man who, having been unable to kill, having failed to prove his manhood in front of his followers, desperately sought to destroy the nearest living body at hand. This I very much doubted, and rejected, though no one, of course, could ever know the truth. But it was my task—and my right—to allow my imagination to range over these questions and determine the nature of the mysterious bond between the black man and the young white woman. In The Confessions of Nat Turner I strove to present a complex view of slavery, and Nat and Margaret’s story would occupy a relatively small place in the larger scheme. But from the first page I was drawn irresistibly to that final scene of horror in the August heat, knowing that, to my own satisfaction at least, I had discovered a dramatic image for slavery’s annihilating power, which crushed black and white alike, and in the end a whole society.