Danchus-1 James Danchus Sex and Violence in the Old South A Book Review of The Fires of Jubilee by Stephen

B. Oates The work entitled The Fires of Jubilee by Stephen B. Oates is an account of the Nat Turner slave rebellion that occurred in 1831 in rural Virginia. The book, as a whole, is a very loose historical account of the events that led to the bloodiest rebellion in Southern history. Oates makes statements that he has no proof of and cannot possibly confirm. He is also very vague in his stance on the event. It is hard to tell if he is attempting to play the part of a neutral bystander or the sympathetic historian. The tale of the events, the character development, and the storyline is obviously more important to Oates then the actual evidence based descriptions that historians are typically known for. That being said, the book is a good read that is based on an historical event to often ignore in today’s academic environment. The problem with that is that the book’s speculation can give people a tainted historical perspective about one of the most vicious maniacs in American history. The guesswork is very apparent throughout the book. It mostly stems form Oates’ attempt to make the book more interesting for the reader. The speculation is illustrated in the following excerpt that describes the first conference between Turner and his chief cohorts: “For Nat, the eclipse was a sign of what he had been waiting for-could there be any doubt- removing the seal from his lips he gathered around him four slaves for which he had complete trust-Hark, Nelson, Henry, and Sam” 1 (Oates 52). There is no way that he can be writing this for any other reason than for the sole purpose to entertain and

1. Stephen M. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975; reprint, HarperPerennial, 1990), 52 (page citations are to the reprint addition).

Danchus-2 entice the reader. Did he really have empirical evidence that the solar eclipse inspired Turner to go on his much deliberated rampage? He asks the reader if there “could be any doubt?”2 The obvious answer is yes, there could be a lot of doubt that a solar eclipse is a sign from God. Oates went even farther by commenting on the physical appearance of Turner during his initial success in the rebellion. He wrote, “His fierce eyes, his broad shoulders, and brisk knock kneed walk made him seem larger than he was” (Oates 1975).3 How could he have known such detail about the way Turner carried himself and how he looked without having seen him personally? Was it a second hand account? If so, where is the reference? Oates does not do a very good job of citation in this piece. As with his description of the first meeting between Turner and his lieutenants, Oates fails to cite any specific reference for a statement that he makes with such confidence. The actual stance that Oates takes on the rebellion is vague throughout the book as some parts he is objectively analyzing the event while other times he is sympathetic with the plight of Nat Turner and his band of slaves. Oates’ gory depiction of the murders of numerous whites was done with his aforementioned style and flare that it really gives the reader a sense of the terror and fright that gripped Southampton County that day. On the other hand, he seems to deify Turner. There is no other better example of this than his constant reference to Turner as “the Prophet”. The constant allusion to Turner by this name is a step away from neutrality and a step toward compassion. Oates writes the book much like a novelist writing an epic tale about mass murder with plenty of characters in a well developed setting. The setting is the naïve and complex Southampton County, whose residents believe that their kindness towards their 2. Stephen M. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975; reprint, HarperPerennial, 1990), 52 (page citations are to the reprint addition).


3. Ibid., 67.

Danchus-3 slaves would spare them from any violent occurrences like the one that Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey had planned years prior. He does a fairly decent job at painting the picture of all the characters beginning with Nat Turner, the bright and self-embattled slave who believes he was chosen by God to free his people from bondage. There are his benevolent masters, the Moores. But perhaps the most memorable character is Will the axe wielding maniac who gets his jollies from windmill swings and decapitating white people. The characters play a huge part in this book as Oates spends a large amount of time defining who they are and what they are all about. All this makes for a compelling narrative. Some parts of the book are informative, however. Oates drops in a lot of historical factoids concerning the setting, what events lead up to the rebellion, and its legacy in the opening and ending chapters. All of this is very helpful except for the fact that he fails to support some of the events that he says happened during the actual insurrection, telling it as if it were a piece of fiction than of a historical incident . Therein lies the duel nature of the book because it seems as if it is a narrative in some parts, yet a text-book in other parts. The perspective of this piece exclusively centers around Turners view of the rebellion and doesn’t take into account any other experience. Oates never really attempts to delve outside of the psyches of the rebels and doesn’t really take any other position throughout the book. Criticism of the rogue mob and their methods were few and far between in this book and much of what they do goes along unchecked by the author. “He was like a powerful angel whose wings were nailed to the floor”4 (Oates 1975) Oates 4. Stephen M. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975; reprint, HarperPerennial, 1990), 69 (page citations are to the reprint addition).

Danchus-4 wrote, speaking of Turner’s discontent with his life as a slave. It is never inferred that the reader should think critically about the rebellion. The sympathy for Nat Turner and his coconspirators overshadows the ruthless murder of innocent woman and children. Oates writes a lot about the obvious historical abominations of slavery, such as “mean masters”, families being split apart, systematic beating, among other things. But he never explores any criticism of what the conspirators did to many innocent whites that day and he never takes the victims point of view into account. Instead he explains the mindset of all the slaves and their motivations. One example is when he rationalizes the behavior of the axe wielding Will as a backlash against the slave system.5 He attempts to make the rebellion look credible in their efforts. But given the evidence (their weird route through the county, the way Turner enlisted men, the drinking) one could easily come to the conclusion that the rebellion was the work of an unorganized, maniacal demigod and his band of murderers. The bright spot about this book is that is a good read and it does hold the reader’s attention well. It is, after all, a story about race, which is something that many people feel passionate about. Oates’ account of the insurrection is done very well with great description. As said before, you can really get a great feel for the horror that gripped that day. The book focuses a lot on the action and dismay of the insurgency, which Oates brings out with crystal clarity. “With a slight wind murmuring in the darkness, the slaves set out by the light of torch, moving through the woods toward the Travis farm-the first target in their holy war against the white man”6 (Oates 1975) the author wrote about Turner’s first stop on his trail of death and destruction. That quote demonstrates Oates’ 5. Ibid., 67 5. Stephen M. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975; reprint, HarperPerennial, 1990), 41 (page citations are to the reprint addition).
5 6

Danchus-5 obvious gift for narrative story-telling. In fact, these statements are so descriptive and so vivid that it raises the idea that Oates could not have possibly known this much information. How did he know there was a “slight wind in the darkness”? He in all likelihood didn’t find that out from a first hand source (most of which died during the quelling of the uprising). But, historical reliability aside, he still tells a good story. The rarity of research on the Turner rebellion adds to the appeal of the book. The sad fact is that The Fires of Jubilee is one of the latest works on the insurrection and it was made 22 years ago (1975). Unfortunately, historians are too often intimidated by the potential public backlash about any research done on Nat Turner, who is hailed by some in the African American community as a role model for black civil rights. This may also have contributed to Oates’ apparent sympathy for the rebels. If simple attention would spark public outcry, then undoubtedly outright criticism of Nat Turner would be much worse.7 The Fires of Jubilee is a book with historical flaws but a good story. Stephen Oates does not shy away from taking liberties with the history of the actual rebellion and some of the statements he makes generally lead people to believe that he is more interested in a compelling chronicle then cold, hard facts. Exactly what Oates thinks of the events of 1831 is unclear. It is hard to tell if he is being a strict professional and calling it as he sees it or weather him is trying to understand the rebels better. His style tends to break the mold for what academic writers are known for and sometimes seems as if he would be better suited writing a novel then a historical text. He seems somewhat narrow-minded in his approach and fails to encompass the experience of all the parties involved. The book is, however, a very entertaining peace of literature and at least 6. Kenneth S. Greenburg, ed., The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin Press, 1996), 31.

Danchus-6 attempts to understand an event that goes largely unexamined today. But, while reading, one must always be mindful not to mistake speculation for fact and instead think critically about the Southampton rebellion. Perhaps then one can some to a better understanding of Nat Turner and his “fierce” uprising.

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