Tomlins’ In the Matter of Nat Turner is a provocative and important contribution to the growing scholarship about Turner’s revolt. In a prologue about William Styron, Tomlins lays out the theoretical foundation for the project, which is to enliven Turner by paying careful attention to the sources that both describe Turner and resonate with the present day. Inspired by the eclectic style of Walter Benjamin, Tomlins takes six different approaches to Turner, trying to illuminate the enigmatic leader of the United States’ most deadly slave insurrection.1
Tomlins’ first chapter focuses on the most important source on the revolt, Thomas R. Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (Richmond, 1832). Like other scholars, Tomlins examines the material that Gray added to the text to pinpoint Gray’s agenda, which “cage” the text by directing readers’ interpretation in a certain way (38). This observation is not new, but Tomlins follows it with one that is: Gray’s apparently accurate transcription of Turner’s account of his motives at the beginning of the revolt precedes a “relatively distinct text” in the second half of The Confessions in which Gray plays a more active role in composing the text (43).
Tomlins’ next two chapters examine what The Confessions reveals about Turner’s intellectual world. Unlike most scholars who have placed Turner within an Old Testament framework, Tomlins focuses on Turner’s attention to the Gospel of Luke. He suggests that Turner’s New Testament readings may have had roots in seventeenth-century Pietist views of suffering. Tomlins even notes the points where Turner may have drawn from Jonathan Edwards’ History of the Works of Redemption (Edinburgh, 1774), which may have informed Turner’s own messianic self-understanding and his postmillennialist worldview. In his third chapter, Tomlins portrays Turner as a Kierkegaardian “knight of faith,” whose religious sensibility transcends ethical obligations.2
In the fourth chapter, Tomlins turns his attention from texts to actions, focusing on the killings. He suggests that the “Southampton massacre” was a work of Hegelian self-transformation by people who had no other reasonable way to resist their oppressors. But the revolt failed as whites re-established control of the countryside and re-established the law on the bodies of the black people tried for their involvement in the revolt.
In the final two chapters, Tomlins examines the debate about slavery that followed the revolt. Some whites, including Gray, saw the revolt as a simple melodrama in which black rebels were “remorseless murderers” (130). Other whites grappled with guilt, knowing that the slave system was wrong. Some pushed for the gradual emancipation of Virginia’s slaves, but that proposal was defeated in the Virginia legislature, in part by politicians who redefined the system of slavery as a “positive good.” Tomlins’ quarry is bigger than the rise of the “positive good” argument; he uses an assessment of Thomas R. Dew, author of Review of the Debates of the Virginia Legislature of 1831 and 1832 (Richmond, 1832), to illustrate the failings of a political economy that conferred credits on slavery for its profitability but no debits for its moral horrors.
The result of this ambitious and wide-ranging study is uneven. Tomlins’ review of the 1831/2 Virginia legislative debate about slavery is excellent; his description of the revolt itself is not. The discussion of Turner’s reading of the Gospel of St. Luke is first-rate; the efforts to portray Turner as Kierkegaard’s knight of faith does not fit the evidence of Turner as a figure beset with doubts. Tomlins has written the best portrait of Turner’s own religiosity, even if it includes thinly sourced, speculative work about Edwards’ influence (77). The clearest measure of the value of Tomlins’ “speculative history,” however, is its ability to withstand doubts about particular claims. For example, contra Tomlins, Gray’s use of parenthetical insertions to correct Turner in the second half of the Confessions strongly suggests that Gray wrote down Turner’s words as accurately as he could, whether he thought them to be right or wrong.3 Yet, even though Tomlins may well be mistaken in his view of The Confessions’ second half as Gray’s invention, not Turner’s own words, he is right that scholars have not paid enough attention to its differences from the first half. For anyone thinking deeply about Nat Turner, slavery, or the production of history, Tomlins’ smart, “speculative history” merits a careful read.
See, for example, Walter Benjamin (ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings), Selected Writings, I: 1913–1926 (Cambridge, Mass., 2004); idem (ed. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith), Selected Writings, II, Part 1: 1927–1930 (Cambridge, Mass., 2005); idem (ed. Jennings, Eiland, and Smith), Selected Writings, II, Part 2: 1931–1934 (Cambridge, Mass., 2005); idem (ed. Eiland and Jennings), Selected Writings, III: 1935–1938 (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).
See Søren Kierkegaard (trans. Alastair Hannay), Fear and Trembling (New York, 1985; orig. pub. in Danish 1843).
Breen, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (New York, 2016), 169–179.