Wednesday, September 03, 2008

CWL---Nat Turner's Rebellion

Nat Turner, Kyle Baker, Abrams Publishing, Paperback 208 pages, June 2008, $12.95.

CWL--- This critically acclaimed graphic novel, now in one volume, is---well---okay. As a first step for anyone who is clueless about the 1831 Nat Turner Revolt, CWL recommends it. With stark black and white art, Baker approaches the core of both the historical event and the myth. At times both inspiring and cautionary Nat Turner contains the tease of fiction and the substance of history. Hopefully after the last page readers will ask at the end 'How much of this is true?'

On that evening of August 20, 1831 Nat Turner and six other men met in the woods of southeastern Virginia several dozen miles from the Dismal Swamp. At 2:00 a.m., they went to the home of Turner’s master. They killed his master's entire family. Then they went house-to-house, killing other whites. In the process, they gained the assistance of fifty to sixty slaves who helped kill at least 55 white people. The rebellion ended when the militia began pursuing Turner and the other slaves. During the pursuit, some slaves were captured and about 15 were hanged. Turner escaped and hid out for about six weeks until he was captured. He was imprisoned, and was sentenced to execution on November 5, 1831. While in prison, he dictated his confession to Thomas R. Gray, the transcriptionist who immediately published the work. On November 11, 1831, Turner was hanged and skinned.

I have used with varying degrees of success, The Confessions of Nat Turner as required reading in an HIS 101 a college level survey course. Some students 'got it' and some students 'didn't get it'. The Confessions themselves are a slight document; it is the edited transcipt of an oral interview. The Bedford St. Martins edition that I use contains documents related to the historic event. The event occurred as the Virginia debated the gradual abolition of slavery; the revolt's most immediate affect was to extinguish the debate.

Nat Turner's story has been novelized by William Styron and researched by Stephen Oates. CWL has read both; one is an outstanding work of fiction, the other is an outstanding work of historical detection. Styron won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for his novel. Oates' 1974 work established him as a meticulous researcher and a strong narrator. To a degree, Nat Turner remains an enigma to CWL. Turner is part mystic, part sociopath, part revolutionary and not unlike the abolitionist John Brown. Brown's most recent biographer, David Reynolds, has explained subject quite well in the context of his times and the limits and strenghts of his personality. Readers will have to be satisfied with Oates' Turner. Kyle Baker has brought his talents to bear on Nat Turner in a way that reaches back several generations before Turner's life. CWL suggests that readers unfamiliar with Nat Tunner read and then read again Baker's Nat Turner, then turn to Oates' Fires of Jubillee.

Kyle Baker—writer, artist, animator, director, and publisher—has written and illustrated thirteen graphic novels and won multiple Eisner and Harvey Awards. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Esquire, Spin, Rolling Stone, The Voice, EW, and Details, and he has worked for Disney, Warner Bros., HBO, Dreamworks, Cartoon Network, DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Random House, Nickelodeon, and Scholastic. He lives in New York City.

Online source of The Confessions of Nat Turner

Source of 19th Century Print: Maryland State Archives


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