“The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831)

The Confessions of Nat Turner cannot be easily separated from the legal proceedings that created it. Unlike the other slave narratives in the collection, Nat Turner’s was not produced by choice. Nat Turner’s anti-slavery work was done in action, not in the written word, but the popularity of The Confession may have had as much of an impact as the rebellion he organized and led.

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Nat Turner’s rebellion was one of only a handful of full-blown slave rebellions in 19th century North American history, alongside the 1811 New Orleans uprising and two failed conspiracies (Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey). As any first year student of American history knows, Nat Turner’s revolt is significant because it convinced the South that slavery was an institution that could no longer be debated and in the last thirty-five years of slavery in the United States, the planting class defended its cruel system with all its legal, political, and intellectual power—leading eventually to a growing sectional divide and the Civil War, which led to the greatest American slave revolt with almost 200,000 armed escaped slaves invading and occupying the lands they once worked.

The document itself is simply Nat Turner’s confessions made in jail over the course of a few days of conversation with Thomas Gray. Soon after this talk he was executed. As the trial transcripts put it: “The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the house of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” (264–265) The confession is bracketed by these official documents, Grays comments, and information on the whites killed in the uprising and the fate of the captured blacks. Some of these were free before the rebellion and for all intents and purposes were free for the duration of their insurrection.

The conspiracy

The conspiracy

There is not that much in The Confessions of Nat Turner in way of autobiography, but what he focuses on is significant for what is tells us about the nature of power in antebellum Southern slavery. Nat Turner wanted the world to know how he taught himself to read and how he was given a mission by God. In this way, he established his intellectual and moral independence from his masters. Several years before the rebellion, he escaped and apparently could have stayed away, but he returned after a month in order to fulfill this mission. Thus, he also wanted to make clear to his accusers that he from that moment on a slave by choice.

Suppression

Suppression

Most of the confession is his description of the various murders he and his group were engaged in. The description of the rebels taking axes to the skulls of children are hard to read, but Nat Turner is brutally honest about the necessity for justice and the divine nature of his mission. To blunt, Nat Turner’s actions was no less shocking than what was done to slaves throughout the nation, everyday, for decades. It was less of a tactical mission than a martyrdom. He makes comparisons to Christ. “Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heaves that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work—and until the first sign appeared, I should conceal it from the knowledge of men.” (253) Success was not promised him and apparently it was not expected. His mission was to awaken and shock the conscience of the nation. The response by whites suggests he was successful.

We can also read The Confessions of Nat Turner as yet another example of the state suppression of libertarian movements. Examples of this abound, of course, but this one is particularly clear and well-documented, particularly in the courts refusal to consider the context, their rapid application of lethal justice, and the indiscriminate killing of many of the participants in the rebellion.

Eudora Welty, “The Ponder Heart” (1954)

While Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding was set in a rather odd subculture of an elite Southern family, the Fairchilds, and seemed to function by its own absurd and sociopathic rules, the much shorter The Ponder Heart actually exists within social institutions.  The Ponders are no less wealthy than the Fairchilds, but the story exists on a larger canvas despite its smaller size.  The plot covers Daniel Ponder’s attempt to give away all of the family’s wealth and the resistance to these acts by the Ponder’s family.  In order to struggle against Daniel Ponder’s spendthrift ways, the Ponder’s rely on social institutions, most notably the asylum, marriage and the courts.  We can thus read this novel in a pretty straightforward fashion as a discourse on the use of these social institutions by those of power to maintain their wealth.  The novel is a brief comedic sketch of the various failures of these efforts, but the reality of elite use and misuse of such institutions is not at all funny.

 

The narrator is Edna Earle Ponder, who is one of the people trying to restrain Daniel’s good heart so it is not clear what motivated Daniel’s generosity.  From the perspective of the narrator, Daniel is a simpleton, insane, or simply incapable of restraint.  He is however, presented as a good person.  “Still the sweetest, most unspoiled thing in the world.  He has the nicest, politest manners — he’s good as gold.” (341)  Essentially, she sees him as a child. Only a child would make such foolish choices with the family fortune.  Daniel seems to have progressed in the opposite direction from a corporate kleptomaniac.  While the contemporary thief may start small (thieving wages from employees, sneaking money from the tip jar) before moving onto the bolder plans that involve hostile takeovers and government bailouts, Daniel started by giving away small things.  What worried his family was that he started to become interested in giving away big things, “property.”  “Grandpa was getting plenty old, and he had a funny feeling that once property started going, next might go the Ponder place itself, and the land and the crop around it, and everything right out rom under Uncle Daniel’s feet, for all you could predict, once Grandpa wasn’t there to stop him.” (343)  It is likely that his desire to give away his wealth was a product of his intense sociability.  This is Edna’s first observation about her uncle Daniel.

Daniel is, however, wealthy.  He can give away money without concerns for the consequences because he has plenty more to surrender to friends and acquaintances.  Charity, generosity, and the social power they provide for philanthropists are themselves products of income inequality.

When private means of securing wealth fail, the Ponders turned to the typical institutions of control for help.  The successive failure of these efforts is the comic material at the heart of the novel.  The asylum picks up the wrong Ponder.  The attempt to marry Daniel Ponder to a widow (who will presumably help keep an eye on the family’s wealth) fails because Daniel instead marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, “a little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.”  (352)  By putting Daniel on an allowance, the banks are able to prevent him from exercising too much generosity.  Still, this marriage finally kills off Sam Ponder (Grandpa).  The final attempt to confine Daniel’s generosity comes after the unexpected death of Bonnie Dee.  The trial ends with an acquittal and Daniel gives away all the money.

Welty clearly sees these social restraints as ineffectual as they are systematically defeated – not trough Daniel’s skill as it seems to be witless – by their own incompetence.  Daniel bumbles his way to victory because of the more epic failures of those around him.  While this is a bit too optimistic in my view.  Courts, asylums, banks, marriage and other human institutions have done a very good job of sustaining an inequality in wealth and preventing just the very thing that Welty imagines (a wealthy person of conscious and generosity).