Kenneth S. Greenberg, ed. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xix + 289 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-513404-9; $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-517756-5.
Reviewed by Alexander O. Boulton (Department of History, Villa Julie College)
Published on H-South (May, 2004)
Still Fighting Nat Turner
About three o'clock in the morning of August 22, 1831, in Southampton, Virginia, Nat Turner, a slave of Joseph Travis, climbed up a ladder into Travis's bedroom. Within minutes Turner and his fellow slave, Will Francis, had decapitated Travis and three other members of the Travis household. Over the course of the next few days, Turner and his followers killed nearly sixty white people, most of them women and children, before his rebellion was finally crushed.
The story of Nat Turner's rebellion raises important questions about the nature and uses of history. It is difficult to place this story within a traditional narrative of American history as a progress from rude beginnings to an increasing level of material comforts and moral enlightenment. The story resists any clear moral or any categorization of participants into virtuous heroes and malign "evil doers." Were Nat Turner and his fellow slaves deranged murderers, or great heroes in a struggle for freedom? Who can, or should, tell this story, and for what purposes?
These are some of the questions raised by the articles collected by Kenneth S. Greenberg in Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. Greenberg gathered this material while doing research for a documentary film that appeared on PBS, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property. The book contains thirteen essays and articles, many of which are quite good, and all of which inevitably repeat much of the same information. Greenberg's introduction and first chapter give a concise overview of the subject. Herbert Aptheker's master's thesis on slave revolts is excerpted in one chapter. David Allmendinger and Thomas C. Parramore in separate articles imaginatively reconstruct the relationship between Nat Turner and the white man Thomas Gray, who recorded Turner's jailhouse confessions before his execution. Vincent Harding discusses the 1831 rebellion in relation to David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), which called for slaves to resist their oppression. Patrick Breen agues that Nat Turner's mysticism put him out of touch with many of his supporters in the rebellion. James Sidbury discusses the similarities and differences of slaves' use of the Bible in interpreting their condition. Douglas R. Egerton sees Turner's rebellion sharing similarities with other slave rebellions in the Americas. Louis P. Masur argues that Turner's rebellion contributed to the sectional conflicts leading up to the Civil War. Mary Kemp Davis looks at the role of female slaves in the rebellion. Obviously, these brief summaries do not do justice to the complexity of the arguments in the volume.
The last section of the book focuses on William Styron's 1967 best selling novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Here Charles Joyner gives an excellent summary of the book's writing and the heated reception it received. This is followed by interviews, conducted for the documentary film, with William Styron and one of his critics, Dr. Alvin Poussaint.
Styron's novel was a dramatic retelling of Nat Turner's rebellion and helped shape a popular reinterpretation of Southern history and American race relations. Styron's novel helped bring an end to the myth of the happy slave, popularized in movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Styron's critical decision to look at slavery through the eyes of a black man reflected the optimism of the later years of the Civil Rights movement in America, when many liberals believed that blacks and whites might finally be able to come together through mutual understanding and put behind them the divisions and rancor that had long separated them.
Styron's novel, however, quickly generated an intense reaction from many blacks, some of whom put their criticisms into a book, William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. Writing near the beginning of the Black Power movement, the writers, including Dr. Poussaint, argued that Styron's Nat Turner was not the historical Nat Turner. Styron, they argued, had ignored Turner's relationships within the black community, and especially ignored Turner's wife. For Styron's critics, Nat Turner was a heroic figure who acted rationally to protect his family and to fight against the injustice of American slavery. The Nat Turner of William Styron's creation, on the other hand, they argued, was an indecisive, sexually tormented, pathological creature, who irrationally struck out at the white people who dominated his life. He was a figment of Styron's own psychological conflicts rather than an accurate representation of an important historic figure.
In this argument, neither Styron nor his critics can be credited with a mastery of objective historical scholarship. Styron and his critics, however, would probably agree that history should be useful, and should address contemporary issues. The two groups, however, had starkly contrasting perspectives on the uses of history. For Styron and his defenders, his book was first of all a novel. It was an exercise in the creative imagination, and it was also a mostly virtuous attempt at understanding and healing racial wounds. To Styron's detractors, Nat Turner was not only a historic figure but a role model in the struggle for black freedom. Styron's Turner, they argued, merely reinforced white racist stereotypes of black men as irrational, hyper-sexual, and aggressive.
In the concluding epilogue of this book, Kenneth Greenberg describes the effort to turn Styron's book into a movie. Producer David Wolper and Twentieth Century Fox paid $600,000 for the rights to the film version and hired Norman Jewison to direct and James Earl Jones to play the title role. Very quickly a group of blacks in Hollywood, led by novelist Louise Meriwether and actor Ossie Davis, organized an opposition to the movie. In negotiations with Wolper they were able to get him to agree to a "more positive image of Nat Turner as a black revolutionary," and to use a title for the movie other than "The Confessions of Nat Turner" (the title of Styron's book). At the same time Wolper, through an agent, was negotiating with the white community in Southampton, Virginia, where the filming was to be done. Some of the white community were descendents of individuals who had died during the attack, and they were able to get the film company to agree that the movie would portray their ancestors in a favorable light. Styron, by this time, had left the project, and shortly thereafter Twentieth Century Fox canceled the project citing financial reasons.
When the novel first came out, the black novelist, James Baldwin, a friend of William Styron's, praised it. Styron, he said, "has begun the common history--ours." Perhaps Baldwin was right, but the task of writing a common history that we can all agree on is still a long way from completion.
. William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner (New York: Random House, 1966).
. John Henrik Clarke, ed., William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).
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Alexander O. Boulton. Review of Greenberg, Kenneth S., ed., Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory.
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