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Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgement

Fictional Treatments of the Southampton Slave Insurrection

by Mary Kemp Davis

Southern Literary Studies

298 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / None

Literature - American

  Hardcover / 9780807122495 / January 1999

An icon in African American history, Nat Turner has generated almost every kind of cultural product, including the historical, imaginative, folk, scholarly, polemical, and reflective. In Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment, Mary Kemp Davis offers an original, in-depth analysis of six novels in which Turner figures prominently: The Old Dominion; or, The Southampton Massacre (1856), by the English historical novelist George Payne Rainsford James; Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Homselle (1881), by Mary Spear Tiernan; Their Shadows Before: A Story of the Southampton Insurrection (1899), by Pauline Carrington Rust BouvH; Ol’ Prophet Nat (1967), by Daniel Panger; and, best known, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), by William Styron. Discussion of Dessa Rose (1986), Sherley Anne Williams’ response to Styron’s novel, shapes her conclusion.

All of the novelists, Davis shows, derive their fundamental understanding about Turner from Thomas Gray's seminal work, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), but they recreate it in their own image. The Virginia rebel slave, Davis argues, has been rearraigned, retried, and resentenced repeatedly during the last century and a half as writers have grappled with the social and moral issues raised by his (in)famous 1831 revolt. Though lacking a literal trial, the novels Davis examines all have the theme of judgment at their center, and she ingeniously unravels the “verdict” each author extracts from his or her plot. 

Mary Kemp Davis is associate professor of English at Florida A & M University.

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