I'm preparing for a CLE lecture I'm giving tomorrow afternoon on the trials in the wake of the Nat Turner rebellion. Because I frame the lectures between two North Carolina cases -- State v. Mann in 1830 and State v. Will in 1834, I'm calling the lecture "Slave Trials in Virginia and North Carolina, 1830-1834." But this is mostly about the trials in Southampton County in the wake of the rebellion. There's some surprising stuff in those trials. For instance, some people were actually acquitted. But that's a story for later.
Right now I want to talk about a two volume novel by my Durham neighbor Sharon Ewell Foster: The Resurrection of Nat Turner. Foster's books are really interesting to me because she is grounded in many ways in the history of the rebellion and antebellum America. The novel is framed by the efforts of Harriet Beecher Stowe to write about the rebellion in her novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. And so Stowe and some other abolitionists -- including Fredrick Douglass -- are in the book. Thus, Foster populates her book with actual historical actors -- and very exciting for me -- she bases a lot of this on data of how those people actually behaved. Thus, a lot of the characters from the Turner rebellion are in the novel -- from the rebels to the white people of Southampton. There are some of the key witnesses to the rebellion, who testified at the trials, and even some of the lawyers and judges. As I historian I'm excited that the people I've come to know through the trial records are also people that Foster has come to know. Of course as a novelist she has license to move well beyond what the historical record shows and to fill in gaps. Even to extend into the world of what might have happened -- or how she thinks things should have happened.
Foster portrays Nat Turner as the son of a slaveowner who had promised Nat his freedom. Nat's father even -- Foster supposes -- made him a trustee of the Turner Baptist Church. But Nat's family members refused to honor his father's wishes and kept him in slavery. Nat, though, who has heard about the cities of Ethiopia where his mother came from, plans to lead slaves out of Southampton County, to freedom. Foster then turns to the trials afterwards and portrays the white slaveowners as claiming that more slaves were involved in the rebellion than actually were -- and they did this so that they would receive compensation from the state when their slaves were executed. Thus, one of the key witnesses -- Levi Waller -- whose family suffered the worst losses of anyone in the rebellion, appears in Foster's novel as a person who lied on the witness stand in order to convict slaves, so that he could receive money for them. Turner's lawyer, William Parker, as well as the lawyer Thomas Gray (who published the Confessions of Nat Turner) appear in the novel, as does the prosecutor William Brodnax and defense attorney William French.
As I say, Foster bases her characters on historical figures, but she also departs from the historical record -- some of this I've already discussed, as in Turner was promised his freedom by his father. That may have happened, but there's not evidence of this. Another example of this is Foster's treatment of Will ("the executioner"), one of the rebels who Foster supposes survived the rebellion and fled north. As part of the process of investigating the rebellion, Stowe meets with Will. I'm thinking that Will died during the rebellion, probably at the first clash with the local militia at Parker's field. And Foster turns Thomas Gray, who published the "Confessions of Nat Turner" into someone who was in on the conspiracy to make Turner into more of a rebel than he was.
I think Foster's novel is important not just for her reconstruction of the lives of the actors in the Turner rebellion, but for how she interprets the motives behind the rebellion and the trials afterwards. There was violence aplenty during and in the wake of the Turner rebellion. Foster makes judgments about the nature of the trials -- and the motives behind them: this was not so much about restoring order through violence (how's that for a riff onRichard Slotkin's book?) as about making money from the execution of innocent slaves.
I see the world somewhat differently from her -- there are different motives (I see the trials more about control and less about economics). I struggle with trying to make sense of Turner. Was he, as an antebellum observer in Richmond asked, motivated by a desire for freedom or for vengeance? It's hard to make someone who kills indiscriminately into a hero -- even as we may seek to understand the world of violence from which he emerged. I'm deeply interested in why Turner chose the families he did to attack -- was this an issue of proximity or revenge? Both? And it's important to remember the violence in the wake of the rebellion, too. Enslaved people were indiscriminately shot and, of course, tortured. (This is part of the context for my observation that Django Unchained had less violence than I expected.) As happens so often in history, the violence of slavery led to the violence of resistance, which led to even greater violence as the rebellion was put down and vengeance was extracted on those least able to bear it.
The purposes of history and literature differ, often -- though in a lot of ways they also overlap. We can learn a lot from Foster's reconstruction of the Turner rebellion and the responses to it, especially as her re-interpretation of it challenges us to see the motives behind the system of slavery and the impulses towards freedom that clashed in Southampton from August through November 1831.