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  • Nat Turner:Misguided, "fragmented, disjointed" Images1
  • Jean W. Cash

When William Styron published his controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967, the book reignited interest in the man who conducted the most violent attack on white slave owners before the Civil War. Nat Turner's assault on the whites of Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831 has had a strong and enduring impact on conceptions of black identity throughout the United States and on formulations of the mythic Turner. Whites in the deep South, in particular, created a "monstrous" Nat whose revolt became proof of potential danger from other like-minded slaves: "For weeks after the insurrection, reports of additional uprisings swept over the South, and scores of communities from Virginia to Mississippi convulsed in hysteria" (Oates 105). On the other hand, among the black community and to some whites in the North, Nat Turner became an immediate hero. Daniel Goddard, a former enslaved man in South Carolina, tells of the early spread of the Nat Turner story: "The Nat Turner insurrection in Virginia and the Vesey uprising in Charleston was discussed often, in my presence, by my parents and friends. … Slaves were about as well aware of what was going on as their masters were" (150). Between these two extremes lie other interpretations, none of which has been able to capture the "real" Nat Turner, but all of which have attracted considerable interest nevertheless.

During the past 187 years, writers have tried to recreate Nat Turner in various images, beginning with Thomas Rufflin Gray. Gray's "The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia," remains the most cited and controversial account of Nat Turner and his rebellion. The Nat Turner he introduces [End Page 117] seems both evil and heroic. David F. Allmendinger, Jr., who has done extensive research into Nat Turner and his rebellion, suggests that Gray's document was a collaborative effort among white enslavers, the result of Gray's interviews with Nat Turner and the information he garnered from two other sources, namely James Trezvant, a magistrate of the court in Southampton in 1831, and William C. Parker, a young Southampton lawyer ("Construction" 25–26). Gray's pamphlet may also have been—at least in part—his own invention, possibly created as a money-making venture to improve his poor financial situation during this period. Gray interviewed Nat Turner between November 1 and 3, 1831, shortly after his capture. By the end of the month, Gray had obtained a copyright for the resulting monograph and had it published in Baltimore. The pamphlet then circulated widely when some fifty thousand copies were printed and dispersed (Greenberg, Confessions 6).2

The content of Gray's monograph is clearly divided, the result of the combined contributions of the condemned insurrectionist and the three Virginia lawyers. Although Gray claims that he recorded Nat Turner's words in the "Confession," much of the language seems to be more Gray's than Turner's. Mary Kemp Davis expresses the skeptical view: "I do not believe for a moment that Nat Turner talked that way" (A Troublesome Property). In his editing, Gray added diction and phrases that would not have been characteristic of Nat Turner; for example, words and expressions such as "whilst sleeping," "procure," "our thirst for blood," and "incessantly" seem to be those of the lawyer Gray. Of Nat Turner's expertise with language, however, Allmendinger writes:

Line after line of elevated diction came forth: the prisoner atoned, divested, experienced indelible impressions, and displayed singularity in manners and a fertility of imagination. He was inquisitive, was observant, and thought in terms of practicability.

(Rising 247)

Turner's story does seem to be authentic in several parts of the narrative: his description of his boyhood uniqueness, his visions based on his [End Page 118] knowledge of the Bible, and his detailed plans for the insurrection are probably his own. It is no wonder, then, that later writers have relied heavily on Gray's work for "facts" regarding Nat Turner and his rebellion. Gray's "Confessions" presents Nat Turner as both the impassive, cold-blooded killer and the intelligent human...


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