In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History. By Christopher Tomlins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press. 2020. xvii, 352. Cloth, $29.95; e-book available.

This “intellectual history” aims to recover the mindset and identity of Nat Turner, a figure who is paradoxically “unavailed by history” due to his particularly scant and vexed archival traces. Surveying these traces alongside secondary scholarship, Tomlins probes the 1831 Southampton slave rebellion with self-professed “imaginative courage.” Section one examines Turner’s jailhouse Confessions (1831), the pamphlet prepared by the lawyer Thomas Gray that remains the most important source. Tomlins finds in Turner an enslaved man whose steadfast Christian faith has long been minimized. Section two considers how this faith motivated mass violence. Section three follows the “ripples of the event” that shaped slave policy and a providential “cosmology” of economic markets starting in Virginia.

Transcendental Heresies: Harvard...

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