“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, “Losing Battles” (1970)

Losing Battles works as a mirror image of Delta Wedding in some fascinating ways.  Eudora Welty is still working within the tradition of Southern literature’s family drama.  In both novels, a private family gathering becomes a introduce the complex relations within a community of related people as well as their family culture, traditions, values, and idiosyncratic tendencies.  The family here, the Beecham and Renfro clans, is economically marginalized in contrast the Delta Wedding‘s Fairchilds, who were members of the Southern aristocracy.  Welty shows that it does not matter what side of the class line you sit on.  Family can always be an oppressive force in your life, stamping out individualism.  In both tales, the inward perspective of the family has a purpose to protect the family.  Being at the top of the social hierarchy, the family in Delta Wedding‘s obsession with purity and maintaining the integrity of the unit seems odd.  The Beecham’s, a family under real threat, carefully protects itself, creating a political narrative of their victimization.  They go so far as to defend incest within the family from the attack of powerful outsiders.  On the surface, the Beecham’s are more sympathetic than the Fairchilds, but nevertheless, we are reminded by Welty that family is the source of our identity and one of the hardest shackles to free ourselves from in our search for freedom.

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The situation is a family reunion concocted to celebrate the 90th birthday of the family matriarch Elvira Jordan Vaughn.  Almost immediately we know we are in the realm of poor whites.  We hear about the installation of new tin roofs, we see girls wearing homemade clothing that is passed down from older sister to younger sister (identified by the fading colors), and women working at home maintenance.  In Delta Wedding all the real work was done by the background characters identified only as “the Negroes.”  It is a more delightful and alive setting.   “Now there was family everywhere, front gallery and back, tracking in and out of the company room, filling the bedrooms and kitchen, breasting the passage.  The passageway itself was creaking; sometimes it swayed under the step and sometimes it seemed to trembled of itself, as the suspension bridge over the river at Banner had the reputation of doing.  With chairs, beds, windowsills, steps, boxes, kegs, and buckets all taken up and little room left on the floor, they overflowed into the yard, and the men squatted down in the shade.  Over in the pasture a baseball game had started up.  The girls had the swing.” (444)

The central couple in this tale is Jack Renfro, Gloria Renfro, and their 2 year old daughter Lady May.  Jack is scheduled to get out of jail the day after the birthday party, an unacceptable proposition, so he flees his confinement and returns home a day early, again breaking the law.  Jack feels he was unjustly punished by the Judge Oscar Moody.  Gloria turns out to be Jack’s cousin.  Their daughter, who Jack had not seen until this day, shows none of the signs of genetic defects that encouraged the state to ban such marriages.  The clan is much bigger, with many stories to tell, but the Renfro couple provides enough for us to see that this is a family that is in opposition to the law.  They have their own way of working in the world.  In a sense, they function like the intentional communities that were so popular in U.S. history (something I have not yet had much reason to write about).  The worrying thing is that although transgressive in respect to the external legal authorities, such organizations tend to be internally quite oppressive.

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Jack returns in triumph in time for the reunion and tells a story of how he helped a man free his car from a ditch.  Jack learns that this man was Judge Oscar Moody.  Jack returns to the road to undo this act or take back the good act.  The plan goes awry and with some comic splendor, Welty describes how Moody’s car ends up stuck on a roadside sign.  They are unable to get the car down of receive any help.  Jack eventually invites the Judge over to the home.  This sets up the main tension in the novel, which is the encounter between the legal realm of the state government and the moral economic realm of the Beecham/Renfro clan.  While the rest of the family is not happy about the invitation, they can use Judge Moody and his wife’s arrival to complain about how their family has been mistreated by the powers that be.

As we learn in Lexie Renfro’s story about Julia Mortimer, the clan can be very oppressive to individual expression and even cruel when faced with the suffering of an outsiders.  It is in this sense that they are not so unlike the Farchilds, aloof to anyone outside of their community.  Lexie was taking care of Julia in her final days but abandoned her to attend the reunion (Julia’s funeral is the event that brought the judge to the town).  Before this, Lexie physically and psychological abused her patient.   More troubling is the acceptance and even tacit approval given by everyone else for Lexie’s abusive actions.

In the final sections of the novel we hear more stories from different members of the family, but we also see the voice of the state (Judge Moody) express himself.  While embracing the strict objectivity and legalism we would expect from a servant of the court, we also learn that his position allows him to empathize with outsiders to the clan (such as the scorned and abused Julia Mortimer).  While the family insists that Jack was wrongfully convinced and that they had the correct narrative of the trial, we have real reason to doubt their objectivity.  Their approach is subjective, as we suspect are the internal logic, history, and policies of all large families.  The Judge, in a sense, is less a voice of the state than a possible perspective on a universal morality.  In the last section of the long novel, when asked about her religion, Judge Moody’s wife says: “I’m neither one [Methodist or Baptist], and gladder of it every minute.” (847)

I am not sure this is an easily resolved tension.  I do think it is likely that without some form of legal apparatus, we are likely to descend into clannish or tribal mentalities.  This is not a defense of the state, as much as it is a criticism of whatever it is that leads us to create oppressive or Byzantine systems at the local level.  I, for one, find the logic at work in families like the Beechams, Renfros and Fairchilds horrifying.

Philip K. Dick, “Martain Time-Slip” (1964): The State, Capital, Racism and the Frontier

Martian Time-Slip is maybe Philip K. Dick’s most focused examination of his malaise about the status of the American frontier. In other novels, the frontier was one of many settings, or a backdrop them. The typical frontier situation in a Philip K. Dick novel is set on a world in the solar system, often populated by conscripts or economic refugees (Zygmunt Bauman’s “Wasted Lives”). The frontier tended to resemble the California suburbs where Dick spent the greater part of his life. I am convinced that Dick often looked around his neighborhoods and pondered the fate of the great American frontier. It is unlikely that he would have been immune from the stories of the frontier so popular as part of America’s “victory culture.” Westerns and Davy Crockett programs flooded the televisions in the 1950s and they all proclaimed the greatness of the American frontier. The reality of conspicuous consumption, devastated landscapes, and cookie-cutter homes stood in stark contrast to the myth of the frontier that was so powerful for Americans. With no small degree of sadness, Dick could never fail to see a future frontier in space as a crude continuation of this. Dick comes the closest as he ever will in explaining the reason the frontier will inevitably suck.

 

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The plot of Martian Time-Slip concerns a land speculation scheme, tensions over water-use between the settlers and the native population (another thing reflective of America’s over-developed frontier), an autistic child who can time-shift and learns to manipulate these shifts, and a whole host of marital infidelities. Not atypical of Dick’s work from the mid-sixties, marital infidelity and commitment are major themes. One interesting theory put forth is that mental illness is actually a different conception of time. This does not in itself undermine Dick’s broader point that we are all on a path toward mental illness. In a liquid world, time itself is more fluid. Perhaps it is our inability to synchronize our various clocks that make everyone look insane to us. But for now, I am concerned with the nature of the frontier and the reason for its sorrows.

The story opens with a housewife taking drugs to get through boring days with an absent husband. By the end of the novel, adultery will help waste the time, but for now the character mopes. “Feeling more and more guilty, she filled a glass with water in order to take her morning pill. If only Jack were home more, she said to herself; it’s so empty around here. It’s a form of barbarism, this pettiness we’re reduced to. What’s the point of all this bickering and tension, this terrible concern over each drop of water, that dominates our lives? There should be something more. . . We were promised so much, in the beginning.” It is likely that settlement was a bad idea to begin with. There is little evidence that Mars is suitable for habitation (at least in the novel’s universe). Like the residents of Chicken Pox Prospect in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, most of the time is spent keeping equipment working, growing crops, and maintaining sanity through whatever external pleasure they can find.

Dick blames three sources for the poor conditions on Mars. The people themselves are not horrible. Again, as in Chicken Pox Prospect, there is a real effort at community. Solidarity indeed exists. The main character, Jack Bohlen, continually shows his capacity for self-sacrifice by sharing his skills with neighbors and even the native “Bleekmen.” Instead, it is capitalist speculation, the machinations of the state, and racism toward the native people that degraded conditions on Mars. In the vast majority of Dick’s work, even if the nature of reality is flexible, changing, or uncertain, the enemy is usually clearly identified. The ones sustaining the empire of lies always come from the powerful. In this novel, it is not lies they are after, but rather a brutal exploitation of a vulnerable settler population.

Starting with racism, we wonder if Dick modeled the Martian racial policy on South Africa or the Australian outback. As one character complains, the U.N. attempted to impose some more benevolent policies, energizing settler resistance. “However, we have this problem that we can’t pay any minimum wage to the Bleekmen niggers because their work is so inconsistent that we’d go broke, and we have to use them in mining operations because they’re the only ones who can breather down there.” This settler hostility to the native population seems to be a byproduct of the exploitation of the massive landowners and the Earth government, which would like to see the colony turn a profit. The U.N. is able to sustain its control through the supply of water to the colonies. This is actually quite tragic because the natives understand well how to make use of the local environment. As a servant of a major character shows more than once, his knowledge of the land and its powers had the potential to create a more prosperous colony. However, the Bleekmen were systemically destroyed or enslaved for tasks like mining, which had only an extractive purpose, benefiting no one who actually lived on Mars.

Not only is this traumatic for the Bleekmen, it destroys knowledge. As one reminded the settlers, “Formerly, when one wanted water, one pissed on the water witch, and she came to life. Now we do not do that, Mister; we have learned from you Misters that to piss is wrong. So we spit on her instead, and she hears that , too, almost as well. It wakes her, and she opens and looks around, and then she opens her mouth and calls the water to her.” The U.N. was part of a civilizing mission, but that mission seems to have undermined one of the traditional ways the native Martians acquired their water. Rather than tapping into this indigenous system, the settlers were bound to the oppressive and extractive U.N. apparatus.
It seems to me that in this world, the regimen of racial domination is largely a byproduct of other external forces. The end of the novel suggests hope for a new relationship with the Bleekmen, thanks to the autistic time-slipper. However, the overall power structure that seems to inadvertently caused the near genocide of the native people remains in place. From Dick’s perspective, it seems that the Bleekmen and settlers have much in common and would benefit from rethinking their relationship.

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A real plan for Martian suburbs.  "Mars One"

A real plan for Martian suburbs. “Mars One”