Looking for Law in 'The Confessions of Nat Turner'
Forthcoming in Marianne Constable, Leti Volpp, and Bryan Wagner (editors) Looking for Law in All the Wrong Places
20 Pages Posted: 9 Apr 2016 Last revised: 24 Aug 2017
Date Written: April 2, 2016
From Harriet Beecher Stowe to William Styron and Sharon Ewell Foster, from Kyle Baker to Nate Parker, and others, American popular culture has found Nat Turner's "Confessions" endlessly fascinating. The fascination of course extends to historians. Particularly in recent years, scholars have dug deeply into the local history of what came to be called The Turner Rebellion. The result is a greatly enriched archive. Still, much of what is known of the event and particularly of its eponymous leader – and hence the manner of their portrayal – remains dependent on Thomas Ruffin Gray's pamphlet "Confessions." Naturally one must ask whether a hastily-written twenty page pamphlet rushed into print by an opportunistic white lawyer, down on his luck and hoping to cash in on Turner's notoriety, actually deserves to be treated as empirically reliable access to the mentalités of those engaged in planning and executing an "insurrectory movement." Should the pamphlet survive that test, a second question immediately surfaces: precisely what is it that the pamphlet evidences? This essay seeks an answer through consideration of a number of recent literary analyses of Gray's pamphlet.
Keywords: Turner Rebellion, Confessions, Law & Literature, Genre
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