Christopher Tomlins, The Confessions of Nat Turner: A Paratextual Analysis, 1 Law & History 1 (2014)
This essay uses techniques advanced by the structuralist literary theorist Gerard Genette to examine the pamphlet, The Confessions of Nat Turner, written in the aftermath of the Turner slave rebellion (Southampton County, Virginia, August 1831). Like all documents generated in the course of master-class investigations of slave revolts - alleged or actual - The Confessions of Nat Turner raises obvious evidentiary quandaries: credibility, reliability, authenticity. Precisely what kind of historical source is this document? How should it be interrogated? What can it tell us? These questions become particularly important in light of controversies over the use of sources by historians of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy (Charleston 1822). Structuralist analysis suggests that The Confessions is a document containing at least two, and likely three, distinct texts, and that it is carefully composed to contain Nat Turner's confession within a secure, interpretive frame intended to guide the confession's reception, and to anticipate and deflect subversive readings of the Turner Rebellion.