The Rebellious Slave: The Image of Nat Turner in American Memory

Hardcover (Print)
Rent
Rent from BN.com
$8.37
(Save 68%)
Est. Return Date: 12/19/2014
Buy Used
Buy Used from BN.com
$19.50
(Save 25%)
Item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging.
Condition: Used – Good details
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $1.99
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 92%)
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (29) from $1.99   
  • New (2) from $10.98   
  • Used (27) from $1.99   
Close
Sort by
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Note: Marketplace items are not eligible for any BN.com coupons and promotions
$10.98
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(74)

Condition:

New — never opened or used in original packaging.

Like New — packaging may have been opened. A "Like New" item is suitable to give as a gift.

Very Good — may have minor signs of wear on packaging but item works perfectly and has no damage.

Good — item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Acceptable — item is in working order but may show signs of wear such as scratches or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Used — An item that has been opened and may show signs of wear. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Refurbished — A used item that has been renewed or updated and verified to be in proper working condition. Not necessarily completed by the original manufacturer.

New
Ships same day as ordered. Brand new.

Ships from: Lansing, KS

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$60.00
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(185)

Condition: New
Brand new.

Ships from: acton, MA

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Close
Sort by

Overview

How did the bloodiest slave uprising in American history—once thought to have involved hundreds of conspirators, black and white, free and enslaved—come to be known simply as "Nat Turner's Rebellion"? And why does the enigmatic figure of the rebellious slave resonate so powerfully across American history?
In this richly detailed study spanning the eras of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights, Scot French places the contested history and enduring memory of Nat Turner’s Rebellion within the broader context of the black freedom struggle. French builds his narrative around close readings of historical texts, both famous and obscure, from early American prophecies of slave rebellion to William Styron's 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about Turner. He devotes considerable attention to the interplay between quasi-official narratives, such as "The Confessions of Nat Turner" by Thomas R. Gray, and less authoritative sources, such as rumor and oral tradition. Whereas most historians accept "The Confessions" as gospel, French presents several compelling counternarratives that point to a wider conspiracy. A groundbreaking work of American history, analogous to Merrill D. Peterson’s Abraham Lincoln in American Memory and Nell Painter’s Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol, The Rebellious Slave will alter our views of both slavery and its complex, ever-changing legacy.
“Nat Turner was neither the first nor the last American slave to rise in arms against his oppressors,” French writes. “Yet he stands alone in American culture as the epitome of the rebellious slave, a black man whose words and deeds challenged the white slaveholding South and awakened a slumbering nation. A maker of history in his own day, Turner has been made to serve the most pressing needs of every generation since. In remembering Nat Turner, Americans must boldly confront—or deftly evade, at their peril—the intertwined legacies of slavery and racism in a nation founded on revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.”

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Scholarly but accessible and nicely written study of the many roles the 19th-century insurrectionist Nat Turner has played in popular culture and memory. Nat Turner and a band of slaves-some sources say no more than 40, others 100 or more-rose against their masters in Tidewater Virginia in August 1831. According to one contemporary witness, writes French (Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies/Univ. of Virginia), Turner convinced his followers that "there were only 80,000 whites in the country, who, being exterminated, the blacks might take possession." This witness, a Richmond-based journalist named John Hampden Pleasants, created an influential view of Turner as charismatic, dictatorial leader of a sheeplike bunch of followers; he called him "General Nat," imagining him to be a martinet of the barnyard, of only local interest and importance. "In establishing Turner as the mastermind," writes French, "Pleasants limited the extent of the conspiracy to the reach of his voice"-though, in fact, Turner's call to rebellion spread far, and long after his death. French examines numerous narratives, among them the challenging eyewitness account of one "Beck, a slave girl," who revealed that the insurrection had been carefully planned by many participants for more than a year; the reverberations of the Turner uprising in John Brown's abortive raid on Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which Abraham Lincoln characterized as "an attempt by white men to get up a revolt among the slaves, in which the slaves refused to participate. In fact, it was so absurd that the slaves, with all their ignorance, saw plainly enough that it could not succeed"; and, of course, William Styron'sfamed, controversial novel Confessions of Nat Turner and a subsequent film version that never saw light because, Styron claimed, "Black Power" protests killed it-later amending his claim to say that the box-office failures of Hello, Dolly! and Dr. Dolittle bled the parent studio dry, "and Nat Turner was the casualty." An illuminating exegesis on slavery and American popular culture alike, and a well-done expansion on Kenneth Greenberg's collection Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (Feb. 2003).
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618104482
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 2/10/2004
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Scot French is an assistant professor and associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

This will be a very noted day in Virginia,” Governor John Floyd wrote in his diary entry for the twenty-third day of August, 1831. “At daylight this morning the Mayor of the City put into my hands a notice to the public, written by James Trezvant of Southampton County, stating that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down.” Eyewitness reports from the scene of “massacre and devastation” defied belief. Mutilated corpses—men, women, and children, blacks and whites, slaves and masters—littered the landscape. “Like the head of Medusa,” wrote one awestruck observer, “it can scarcely be looked on without converting the spectacle into marble.” First the white people fell. “Between eighty and a hundred of the whites have already been butchered—their heads severed from their bodies,” read one hastily written dispatch from a military encampment in neighboring Greensville County. “We saw several children whose brains were knocked out,” a mounted volunteer from Norfolk reported. “Whole families, father, mother, daughters, sons, sucking babes, and school children, butchered, thrown into heaps, and left to be devoured by dogs and hogs, or to putrify on the spot,” observed a member of a Richmond cavalry troop. At one house, a military officer found the bodies of “an old lady and six others” strewn about the yard, “chopped to pieces with axes, the tree fences and house top covered with buzzards preying on the carcasses.” Horrified, he could not bring himself to visit other nearby houses, “altho’ there were several other families in sight, in the same situation.” Then the black people fell. “From the best information,” a North Carolina newspaper reported, “32 dead bodies [negroes] have been seen, besides a number are supposed to have died in the woods of their wounds.” The senior editor of the Richmond Whig, who traveled to Southampton County as a member of a cavalry troop, deplored “the slaughter of many blacks, without trial, and under circumstances of great barbarity.” He estimated the number killed in that manner—“generally by decapitation or shooting”—at forty, perhaps higher. The Lynchburg Virginian reported that “troops under the command of Gen. Broadnax, had slain upwards of 90 blacks, taken the leader in that section prisoner, shot him, cut off his head and limbs, and hung them in different sections, to inspire a salutary terror among the slaves.” The Raleigh Register reported that “two leaders were shot and their heads placed upon stakes in the public road.” White civil and military authorities, anxious to restore order, sought to minimize the extent of the rebellion and the threat of renewed attack. Geographically, they confined the trouble to a single “neighborhood” or “infected district” within Southampton County. Chronologically, they represented the uprising as a brief, spontaneous act, with little planning and no clear motive behind it. Militarily, they insisted that all but a few of the insurgents had been captured or killed. Early reports of four hundred armed insurgents gave way to revised estimates of no more than forty or fifty at best, many of them young boys coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to an even smaller cadre of ringleaders—“the celebrated Nelson, called by the blacks, ‘Gen. Nelson,’” “Will Artist, a free man of color,” and “General Nat Turner (a preacher and a slave),” chief among them.
As the other suspected ringleaders fell, the stature of Nat Turner rose. It was he, the Richmond newspapers reported, who had masterminded the whole affair.

A fanatic preacher by the name of Nat Turner (Gen. Nat Turner) who had been taught to read and write, and permitted to go about preaching in the country, was at the bottom of this infernal brigandage. He was artful, impudent and vindictive, without any cause or provocation that could be assigned. (Richmond Enquirer, August 30, 1831)

This Nat seems to be a bold fellow, of the deepest cunning, who for years has been endeavoring to acquire an influence over the minds of those deluded wretches. He reads and writes with ease, it is said, and has long been a preacher. Superstitious himself, his object has been to operate upon the superstitious hopes and fears of others; and the late singular phenomenon of the Sun, enabled him to fill their minds with the most anxious forebodings, regarding it as an omen from Heaven, that their cause would result prosperously. (Richmond Compiler, September 3, 1831)

Thus, within two weeks of the uprising, an image of the rebel leader ass a “fanatic preacher” with extraordinary powers of persuasion had already begun to take form. Turner’s ability to elude capture despite a maaaaassive manhunt only added to his mystique. “Who is this Nat Turner?” the editors of the Richmond Enquirer asked. “Where is he from?” Turner eluded capture for more than two months, finally surrendering to a poor white farmer who found him hiding in a makeshift cave. A local lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded his purported “Confessions,” and published them as a pamphlet shortly after Turner was executed. The Virginia General Assembly, responding to public outcry in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, debated plans for the gradual abolition of slavery and the removal of all free persons of color from the Commonwealth. In the end, state legislators decided by a slim majority to defer action on such sweeping reforms and instead passed measures aimed at tightening control over the slave population. Memories of “Old Nat’s War,” preserved in officially sanctioned histories and submerged oral traditions, stirred emotions and spurred debate for generations to come.
What follows is neither a traditional biography of Nat Turner nor a definitive account of Nat Turner’s Rebellion. This is a book about America’s search for transcendent meaning in its troubled past, with a focus on the larger-than-life figure of the rebellious slave. The stories told here, spanning two centuries, illuminate a multicultural discourse on race, slavery, and revolutionary violence rooted in common claims to America’s founding myths, symbols, and traditions.
Part I examines the evolving image of the rebellious slave in American thought from the period of the American Revolution through the cataclysmic events of 1831. The jeremiads of Thomas Jefferson, David Walker, and William Lloyd Garrison anticipated the appearance of a black Spartacus and warned of a coming race war should Americans fail to eradicate slavery. Part II focuses on the official inquiry into Turner’s Rebellion and the making of a master narrative designed to tranquilize an agitated public and facilitate the restoration of order throughout the region. The declarations of key participant observers—a Richmond newspaper editor, a Southampton County slave girl, the governor of Virginia—reveal the deadly uncertainties that prevailed before the publication of Nat Turner’s so- called “Confessions” put rumors of a wider conspiracy to rest. Part III charts the evolving image of Turner as an American icon—alternately revered and reviled, embraced and distanced—through the eras of slavery and emancipation, civil war and reconstruction, Jim Crow and civil rights. Slaveholders, abolitionists, advocates of black uplift, defenders of white supremacy, New Negroes, New Dealers, civil rights pacifists, Black Power militants—all enlisted Turner, at one time or another, as hero or villain. The literary-historical controversy surrounding William Styron’s 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, commands extended treatment, as it remains the single most influential work on the subject, overshadowing even the original “Confessions” in public consciousness today.
The concept of social or collective memory undergirds this study. Historical in focus, it asks: How have various individuals and social groups within American society imagined themselves and their relationship to one another by reference to the event known as “Nat Turner’s Rebellion”? How has the image of Turner, as depicted in American history, literature, and folklore, responded to the changing needs of society and shifting currents in American thought?
Scholars have long recognized that history—“the memory of things said and done”—represents society’s ongoing search for a useable past. As Carl Becker wrote more than seventy years ago, “every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.” The historian Merrill D. Peterson applied this insight to his classic study The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), which charted the postmortem career of Thomas Jefferson as a popular cultural icon. “This is not a book on the history Thomas Jefferson made,” Peterson explained in the preface, “but a book on what history made of Thomas Jefferson.” More recently, historians have employed the concept of social or collective memory “to explore how a social group, be it a family, a class, or a nation, constructs a past through a process of invention and appropriation and what it means to the relationship of power within society.” Much of this scholarly literature, Alon Confino writes in The Nation As Local Metaphor (1997), has focused on conflicts within and between dominant and subordinate groups over “who wants whom to remember what, and why.” Yet memory, he notes, can also illuminate the broad planes of consensus that hold nations and other “imagined communities” together.
My long-standing interest in conflicting perceptions of the past, piqued by the controversy over Styron’s fictionalized representation of Turner, led me first to the study of another historical figure associated with race and slavery: Thomas Jefferson. In 1992 my friend and colleague Edward L. Ayers invited me to coauthor an article for a volume of essays titled Jeffersonian Legacies, a retrospective look at the slaveholding statesman on the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth. The article surveyed changing American attitudes toward Jefferson from 1943 to 1993, picking up where Merrill Peterson left off in his classic study. Ayers and I were struck by the diminishing cultural authority of professional historians in shaping perceptions of the American past. Jefferson’s rumored sexual liaisons with his slave mistress Sally Hemings, long dismissed as a groundless slander by his biographers yet preserved as fact in black oral tradition, became the focal point of public debates over Jefferson’s character and the nation’s willingness to accept a counternarrative at odds with the official portrait. Jefferson’s biographers found their claims to scholarly objectivity increasingly challenged by popular writers who embraced black oral tradition and the emerging image of Jefferson as the all-too-human father of a mixed-race country. The “tricks” that all parties to the debate played on the past shook my faith in objectivity as an oft-stated principle of historical inquiry. I came away convinced that the lines between history, a scholarly discipline based on rules of evidence, and memory, its popular but unruly cousin, were far blurrier than commonly believed.
The Jeffersonian Legacies article revealed cracks and fissures in America’s heroic self-image, which I probe more deeply in this study of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in history and memory. Turner himself plays a critical role as the reputed leader and mastermind of the rebellion, yet the focus is less on him than on those who lay claim to his story. As Turner recedes into history, various people, both famous and obscure, assume key roles as guardians of his memory. The stories they tell—recorded and preserved in public records, private letters, books and articles, visual imagery and dramatic reenactments—reveal intense struggles for social power and cultural authority in a socially stratified, culturally diverse nation.
While my work is informed by a growing body of scholarship on the subject of Turner’s Rebellion in history and memory, it draws inspiration from sources outside the academy as well. Like Rashomon, the 1950 murder- mystery by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, my study offers no single accounting of the incident in question, but rather a series of prophecies and flashbacks in which expert witnesses with varying degrees of cultural authority imagine and reimagine the scene. It offers no clear resolution to the problem of misleading or conflicting testimony, leaving readers with a nagging sense of insecurity about what can be known with any certainty about the past. I found another muse in the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which puts the spotlight on two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In like fashion, my study of Nat Turner shifts the spotlight from the center to the periphery, from the well-established protagonist to other, relatively minor characters with varying degrees of proximity to the “main event.” It analyzes the public testimony offered by these bit players for insights into the worlds in which they lived. It follows them offstage, whenever possible, and eavesdrops on their conversations with others. Finally, The Return of Martin Guerre, a French film based on a legendary case of stolen identity, provided me with a historical analogy. A small village must decide whether a man claiming to be the long-lost Martin Guerre is who he says he is. I see the “return” of Martin Guerre as something of a metaphor for the reappearance of Nat Turner, in various literary-historical guises, over the course of two centuries. With each celebrated “return,” the public must ask: Is this the real Nat Turner—or a clever imposter?
Turner was neither the first nor the last American slave to conspire against his would-be masters, yet he stands alone in American thought as the epitome of the rebellious slave, a black messiah whose words and deeds challenged the slaveholding South and awakened a slumbering nation. A maker of history in his own day, Turner has been made to serve the most pressing needs of every generation since. In remembering Nat Turner, we are forced to confront—or deftly evade, at our peril—the intertwined legacies of slavery and racial oppression in a nation founded on revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.

Copyright © 2004 by Scot French. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments ix Introduction 1 1. Prophecy 7 2. Inquisitions 33 3. Apotheosis 65 4. Signposts 135 5. Commemorations 215 Epilogue: The Continuing Saga 278 Appendix: The Confessions of Nat Turner, as told to Thomas R. Gray 283 Notes 304 Bibliography 343 Index 353

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

INTRODUCTION

This will be a very noted day in Virginia,' Governor John Floyd wrote in his
diary entry for the twenty-third day of August, 1831. 'At daylight this morning
the Mayor of the City put into my hands a notice to the public, written by
James Trezvant of Southampton County, stating that an insurrection of the
slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been
massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them
down.' Eyewitness reports from the scene of 'massacre and devastation'
defied belief. Mutilated corpses — men, women, and children, blacks and
whites, slaves and masters — littered the landscape. 'Like the head of
Medusa,' wrote one awestruck observer, 'it can scarcely be looked on
without converting the spectacle into marble.'
First the white people fell. 'Between eighty and a hundred of the
whites have already been butchered — their heads severed from their
bodies,' read one hastily written dispatch from a military encampment in
neighboring Greensville County. 'We saw several children whose brains were
knocked out,' a mounted volunteer from Norfolk reported. 'Whole families,
father, mother, daughters, sons, sucking babes, and school children,
butchered, thrown into heaps, and left to be devoured by dogs and hogs, or to
putrify on the spot,' observed a member of a Richmond cavalry troop. At one
house, a military officer found the bodies of 'an old lady and six others'
strewn about the yard, 'chopped to pieces with axes, the tree fences and
house top covered with buzzards preying on the carcasses.' Horrified, he
couldnot bring himself to visit other nearby houses, 'altho' there were several
other families in sight, in the same situation.'
Then the black people fell. 'From the best information,' a North
Carolina newspaper reported, '32 dead bodies [negroes] have been seen,
besides a number are supposed to have died in the woods of their wounds.'
The senior editor of the Richmond Whig, who traveled to Southampton
County as a member of a cavalry troop, deplored 'the slaughter of many
blacks, without trial, and under circumstances of great barbarity.' He
estimated the number killed in that manner — 'generally by decapitation or
shooting' — at forty, perhaps higher. The Lynchburg Virginian reported
that 'troops under the command of Gen. Broadnax, had slain upwards of 90
blacks, taken the leader in that section prisoner, shot him, cut off his head
and limbs, and hung them in different sections, to inspire a salutary terror
among the slaves.' The Raleigh Register reported that 'two leaders were shot
and their heads placed upon stakes in the public road.'
White civil and military authorities, anxious to restore order,
sought to minimize the extent of the rebellion and the threat of renewed
attack. Geographically, they confined the trouble to a single 'neighborhood'
or 'infected district' within Southampton County. Chronologically, they
represented the uprising as a brief, spontaneous act, with little planning and
no clear motive behind it. Militarily, they insisted that all but a few of the
insurgents had been captured or killed. Early reports of four hundred armed
insurgents gave way to revised estimates of no more forty or fifty at
best, many of them young boys coerced into joining. The confessions of
prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to an even smaller
cadre of ringleaders — 'the celebrated Nelson, called by the blacks, 'Gen.
Nelson,'' 'Will Artist, a free man of color,' and 'General Nat Turner (a
preacher and a slave),' chief among them.
As the other suspected ringleaders fell, the stature of Nat Turner
rose. It was he, the Richmond newspapers reported, who had masterminded
the whole affair.

A fanatic preacher by the name of Nat Turner (Gen. Nat Turner) who had
been taught to read and write, and permitted to go about preaching in the
country, was at the bottom of this infernal brigandage. He was artful,
impudent and vindictive, without any cause or provocation that could be
assigned. (Richmond Enquirer, August 30, 1831)

This Nat seems to be a bold fellow, of the deepest cunning, who for years
has been endeavoring to acquire an influence over the minds of those deluded
wretches. He reads and writes with ease, it is said, and has long been a
preacher. Superstitious himself, his object has been to operate upon the
superstitious hopes and fears of others; and the late singular phenomenon of
the Sun, enabled him to fill their minds with the most anxious forebodings,
regarding it as an omen from Heaven, that their cause would result
prosperously. (Richmond Compiler, September 3, 1831)

Thus, within two weeks of the uprising, an image of the rebel
leader as a 'fanatic preacher' with extraordinary powers of persuasion had
already begun to take form. Turner's ability to elude capture despite a
massive manhunt only added to his mystique. 'Who is this Nat Turner?' the
editors of the Richmond Enquirer asked. 'Where is he from?'
Turner eluded capture for more than two months, finally
surrendering to a poor white farmer who found him hiding in a makeshift cave.
A local lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, interviewed Turner in his jail cell, recorded
his purported 'Confessions,' and published them as a pamphlet shortly after
Turner was executed. The Virginia General Assembly, responding to public
outcry in the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, debated plans for the
gradual abolition of slavery and the removal of all free persons of color from
the Commonwealth. In the end, state legislators decided by a slim majority
to defer action on such sweeping reforms and instead passed measures
aimed at tightening control over the slave population. Memories of 'Old Nat's
War,' preserved in officially sanctioned histories and submerged oral
traditions, stirred emotions and spurred debate for generations to come.
What follows is neither a traditional biography of Nat Turner nor a
definitive account of Nat Turner's Rebellion. This is a book about America's
search for transcendent meaning in its troubled past, with a focus on the
larger-than-life figure of the rebellious slave. The stories told here, spanning
two centuries, illuminate a multicultural discourse on race, slavery, and
revolutionary violence rooted in common claims to America's founding myths,
symbols, and traditions.
Part I examines the evolving image of the rebellious slave in
American thought from the period of the American Revolution through th
cataclysmic events of 1831. The jeremiads of Thomas Jefferson, David
Walker, and William Lloyd Garrison anticipated the appearance of a black
Spartacus and warned of a coming race war should Americans fail to
eradicate slavery. Part II focuses on the official inquiry into Turner's Rebellion
and the making of a master narrative designed to tranquilize an agitated
public and facilitate the restoration of order throughout the region. The
declarations of key participant observers — a Richmond newspaper editor, a
Southampton County slave girl, the governor of Virginia — reveal the deadly
uncertainties that prevailed before the publication of Nat Turner's so-
called 'Confessions' put rumors of a wider conspiracy to rest. Part III charts
the evolving image of Turner as an American icon — alternately revered and
reviled, embraced and distanced — through the eras of slavery and
emancipation, civil war and reconstruction, Jim Crow and civil rights.
Slaveholders, abolitionists, advocates of black uplift, defenders of white
supremacy, New Negroes, New Dealers, civil rights pacifists, Black Power
militants — all enlisted Turner, at one time or another, as hero or villain. The
literary-historical controversy surrounding William Styron's 1967 novel, The
Confessions of Nat Turner, commands extended treatment, as it remains the
single most influential work on the subject, overshadowing even the
original 'Confessions' in public consciousness today.
The concept of social or collective memory undergirds this study.
Historical in focus, it asks: How have various individuals and social groups
within American society imagined themselves and their relationship to one
another by reference to the event known as 'Nat Turner's Rebellion'? How
has the image of Turner, as depicted in American history, literature, and
folklore, responded to the changing needs of society and shifting currents in
American thought?
Scholars have long recognized that history — 'the memory of
things said and done' — represents society's ongoing search for a useable
past. As Carl Becker wrote more than seventy years ago, 'every generation,
our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate
the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on
the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind.' The
historian Merrill D. Peterson applied this insight to his classic study The
Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), which charted the postmortem
career of Thomas Jefferson as a popular cultural icon. 'This is not a book on
the history Thomas Jefferson made,' Peterson explained in the preface, 'but
a book on what history made of Thomas Jefferson.' More recently, historians
have employed the concept of social or collective memory 'to explore how a
social group, be it a family, a class, or a nation, constructs a past through a
process of invention and appropriation and what it means to the relationship
of power within society.' Much of this scholarly literature, Alon Confino writes
in The Nation As Local Metaphor (1997), has focused on conflicts within and
between dominant and subordinate groups over 'who wants whom to
remember what, and why.' Yet memory, notes, can also illuminate the
broad planes of consensus that hold nations and other 'imagined
communities' together.
My long-standing interest in conflicting perceptions of the past,
piqued by the controversy over Styron's fictionalized representation of Turner,
led me first to the study of another historical figure associated with race and
slavery: Thomas Jefferson. In 1992 my friend and colleague Edward L. Ayers
invited me to coauthor an article for a volume of essays titled Jeffersonian
Legacies, a retrospective look at the slaveholding statesman on the two
hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth. The article surveyed changing
American attitudes toward Jefferson from 1943 to 1993, picking up where
Merrill Peterson left off in his classic study. Ayers and I were struck by the
diminishing cultural authority of professional historians in shaping perceptions
of the American past. Jefferson's rumored sexual liaisons with his slave
mistress Sally Hemings, long dismissed as a groundless slander by his
biographers yet preserved as fact in black oral tradition, became the focal
point of public debates over Jefferson's character and the nation's willingness
to accept a counternarrative at odds with the official portrait. Jefferson's
biographers found their claims to scholarly objectivity increasingly challenged
by popular writers who embraced black oral tradition and the emerging image
of Jefferson as the all-too-human father of a mixed-race country. The 'tricks'
that all parties to the debate played on the past shook my faith in objectivity
as an oft-stated principle of historical inquiry. I came away conv that the
lines between history, a scholarly discipline based on rules of evidence, and
memory, its popular but unruly cousin, were far blurrier than commonly
believed.
The Jeffersonian Legacies article revealed cracks and fissures in
America's heroic self-image, which I probe more deeply in this study of Nat
Turner's Rebellion in history and memory. Turner himself plays a critical role
as the reputed leader and mastermind of the rebellion, yet the focus is less
on him than on those who lay claim to his story. As Turner recedes into
history, various people, both famous and obscure, assume key roles as
guardians of his memory. The stories they tell — recorded and preserved in
public records, private letters, books and articles, visual imagery and
dramatic reenactments — reveal intense struggles for social power and
cultural authority in a socially stratified, culturally diverse nation.
While my work is informed by a growing body of scholarship on
the subject of Turner's Rebellion in history and memory, it draws inspiration
from sources outside the academy as well. Like Rashomon, the 1950 murder-
mystery by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, my study offers no single
accounting of the incident in question, but rather a series of prophecies and
flashbacks in which expert witnesses with varying degrees of cultural
authority imagine and reimagine the scene. It offers no clear resolution to the
problem of misleading or conflicting testimony, leaving readers with a nagging
sense of insecurity about what can be known with any certainty about the
past. I found another muse in the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern Are Dead, which puts the spotlight on two minor characters
from Shakespeare's Hamlet. In like fashion, my study of Nat Turner shifts the
spotlight from the center to the periphery, from the well-established
protagonist to other, relatively minor characters with varying degrees of
proximity to the 'main event.' It analyzes the public testimony offered by
these bit players for insights into the worlds in which they lived. It follows
them offstage, whenever possible, and eavesdrops on their conversations with
others. Finally, The Return of Martin Guerre, a French film based on a
legendary case of stolen identity, provided me with a historical analogy. A
small village must decide whether a man claiming to be the long-lost Martin
Guerre is who he says he is. I see the 'return' of Martin Guerre as something
of a metaphor for the reappearance of Nat Turner, in various literary-historical
guises, over the course of two centuries. With each celebrated 'return,' the
public must ask: Is this the real Nat Turner — or a clever imposter?
Turner was neither the first nor the last American slave to conspire
against his would-be masters, yet he stands alone in American thought as
the epitome of the rebellious slave, a black messiah whose words and deeds
challenged the slaveholding South and awakened a slumbering nation. A
maker of history in his own day, Turner has been made to serve the most
pressing needs of every generation since. In remembering Nat Turner, we are
forced to confront — or deftly evade, at our peril — the intertwined legacies of
slavery and racial oppression in a nation founded on revolutionary ideals of
freedom and equality.

Copyright © 2004 by Scot French. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(0)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)