istorical novels fall into two broad categories: purely fictional characters in a historical setting such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, and works that examine real people and events through the use of fiction. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is an excellent example of the second type. So is Sharon Ewell Foster’s The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part Two: The Testimony, released this month by Howard Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint.
In some sense, Nat Turner was a freedom fighter, a hero in the tradition of the American Revolution, seeking life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for himself and others. Like the founding fathers, Turner led a revolt against an oppressive regime. But because the people he revolted against were America’s slaveholding leaders – not her enemies – his legacy is dismissed. In Hollywood’s decades-long history of recounting heroic rebellions — from Spartacus against Rome, to the Bielski Partisans against Nazi Germany or to Luke, Leia, Hans and rest of the rebellion against Emperor Palpatine—none of its films have celebrated Turner.
Turner struck at the very heart of the United States’economic powerhouse, slavery, leading a rebellion that killed 50 to 60. For this, white artists, journalists and historians represented him as a physically grotesque, religious half-wit with a murderous heart, who attacked women and children indiscriminately. Perhaps the most famous white portrayal of Turner came in 1967, from the southern novelist William Styron. His novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, winner of the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, polarized black readers, igniting a firestorm of opposition from some segments of the black intelligentsia. According to The New York Times: In the book “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond,” Mike Thelwell wrote that “The Confessions” “demonstrates the persistence of . . . myths, racial stereotypes and literary clichés even in the best intentioned and most enlightened minds. . . . The real ‘history’ of Nat Turner, and indeed of black people, remains to be written.”
The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2 steps directly and boldly into this literary debate. The book is the second in Foster’s Nat Turner series. Foster, a black novelist, uses her book to imagine a more sympathetic and authentic Turner. She describes Turner’s life as a 19th century slave in Southampton, Virginia. In her clear, though sometimes flowery, prose we get a sense of what Turner’s living situation would have been, the types of food he would have eaten, the types of women he would have known, the way in which he would have celebrated holidays such as Christmas.
Much of these accounts are purely fictional. We cannot know for certain if Cherry, Turner’s wife in the novel, “wrapped around him like a brown ribbon” or “entwined one leg with his and slid her fingers into the curls at the nape of his neck.” But it reads well, and more importantly, reminds us that beyond the persona buried underneath nearly two centuries of racist propaganda, there is a human being who noted the inequalities in his world and took measures to correct them.
The weakest chapters of The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2 are those told from the perspective of the famous 19th century novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. In The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2, Stowe researches Nat Turner’s rebellion for her real life 1856 novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, which features a character very similar to Nat Turner. Like a detective, Stowe searches for the truth amid all of the contradictory information given by purported eye witnesses of Nat Turner’s trial. Stowe becomes a stand-in for many unknown middle-class northern and mid-western white women abolitionist who worked around, and sometimes defied, convention in pursuit of their cause. For all of Foster’s attention to historical details, these sections do not carry the same excitement as the chapters from Nat Turner’s perspective. While comprising at least 30 percent of the novel, the Stowe chapters are often short and feel like filler. It is not hard to imagine the novel without them.
Though it is unlikely that The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part 2 will lead to his celebration in popular culture, the novel goes a long way to restoring the image of one of the United States early patriots who attempted to extend the promise of the revolutionary generation to the enslaved.