Ever since Hayden White’s “Metahistory” was first published in 1973, it has become close to impossible to do history without considering the elements of narrative and story. Not only has White’s book called into question the neutrality of language as a medium of historical writing, it has also furthered the idea of history as a literary craft. The discussions that followed his book also opened up new perspectives on the relationship of literature and history, in general. In addition to classic archival documents literary texts have entered the canon of historical source materials. Following this track, Michael Nicholls’s and Jason Phillips’s books delve into past narratives and explore their value for historical research.
In his book Michael Nicholls focuses on the “whispers” of a slave insurrection. In historiography slave rebellions have attracted the attention of those who analyze the balance of power in the American South. For they are traces of how resistance to the oppressive system of slavery was feasible and how both slaves and their owners could use these crises of power on their own behalves. Yet historians often face the challenge that during the 19th century only few of the conspired insurrections came into being – most of the time, conspirators got caught before they could even take action. One of the most famous of these failed plots is Gabriel Prosser’s plan, in 1800, to gather slaves in and around Richmond, Virginia to violently take over the capitol of the state. Slowed down by bad weather and denounced by two fellow slaves the insurrection fell apart and the march on Richmond was stopped. The conspirators were apprehended, many sentenced to death.
End of story? Not at all! Michael L. Nicholls’s narrative offers more than just the story of a failed plan. In his concisely written book he uses the events of 1800 to fathom the social, political, and cultural environments of the insurgents to write a history of everyday resistance from a unique perspective. While others have framed Gabriel’s Rebellion as merely ideologically motivated or as a story of shifting racial identities, Nicholls distances himself from these assessments and criticizes especially Douglas Egerton’s interpretation of the event as “built more on shifting sand of suppositions than the hard rock of archival evidence” (p. 9). Instead, the author literally offers a “bottom-up” reading of the source materials, since he makes the geography of the uprising the starting point of his analysis.
This is a local history of the conspiracy, literally ‘local.’ For Nicholls highlights “the significance of the locale for understanding the center of the plot and its connections to other cells of insurgents” (p. 10). Thus, in the first chapter he dives into the neighborhood of the “Brook,” north of Richmond, where most of the alleged conspirators were based, and he establishes the social ties between slaves and their mobility within this environment as the conditions under which the plan to attack Richmond could flourish. In the following chapters Nicholls gives a chronological assessment of the events in 1800 and of the conspiracy’s aftermath. He elegantly combines classic factual descriptions with more general categories of the contemporary political and social life in Virginia. For instance, when he analyzes the initial planning of the uprising and recruiting of co-conspirators, he also covers questions of masculinity and honor (“Are You a True Man?”). He uses another chapter about denunciation and the discovery of the plot to describe measures of surveillance (e.g. slave patrols). He here also analyzes networks of trust and communication among slaves, slave owners and between them.
As the story proceeds to the failure of the plan and the official investigations conducted by Virginia courts, the author makes gathering evidence and the specific court procedures the focus of his writing. He explores what room to maneuver slave owners and justices had to influence trials and tip the odds in their favor: e.g. through witness tempering or citizens’ petitions to pardon certain accused slaves. Here, Nicholls draws a very cautious picture. He takes the trial records as material to analyze the dynamics of what happened in court and not during the conspiracy. In this account he pictures the trial(s) as a drama that served different interests of the white community. On the one hand, harsh punishment seemed necessary to put the minds of Virginians at peace and to restore the trust in public order. On the other hand, the trials were a means to conceal the extent of the insurrection plot. For the deeper officials dug the greater the range of the conspiracy appeared, thus risking a panic among the populace of Virginia.
In the concluding chapters Nicholls pays attention to the question of a possible white involvement in the plot, the role newspapers played in shaping the public image of the plot and the treatment of the primary witnesses (all of them were slaves) against Gabriel Prosser and his co-conspirators. Most of them were manumitted, some even received a life-long pension from the government. Furthermore, he explores the impact the conspiracy had on Virginia politics in the long run. Nicholls examines how politicians, especially Governor James Monroe carefully arranged evidence and reports about the conspiracy to back up their own political agenda and to take certain legislative action. At the same time, he hints at the fact that such arrangements influenced the way in which historians find these documents in the archives. In that he, finally, shows how after 1800 the image of this failed rebellion continued to have an impact on the state of Virginia. Together with the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s it became a scary sign of potential instability that increased the urge to remain vigilant and to arm the citizenry of the slave-holding states.
Overall Nicholls’s book is an excellent read about the slave-holding South in the Early Republic. With the help of contextual interpretations he paints a detailed and perceptive picture of Gabriel’s Rebellion and, when necessary, also provides plausible speculations on the motives of the acting personnel. But the author goes even beyond a mere narrative of the conspiracy. While he tells a story that is aimed at general readers, at second glance, there is even more power under the hood. For the sake of readability Nicholls has referred his elaborate body of footnotes and appendices to the last third of the book. To scholars these remarks contain a valuable source for both archival resources and research literature. The author addresses a great variety of alternative interpretations, as provided by his colleagues. Yet, I would have liked to read more about the whispers and the whisperers that lend the book its name. For several years debates have highlighted the uncertainty and the blurriness of evidence that comes from source materials mainly produced by white officials. Although throughout his analysis Nicholls emphasizes the ambiguity of sometimes contradictory source materials, in his writing he still aims for an all-enclosing narrative of ‘what really happened.’ Wouldn’t the reliance on whispers and whisperers call for a more multi-facetted approach that in itself is more ambiguous?
The volume edited by Jason Phillips focuses on multi-layered narratives of the American South. Phillips, in his introduction to this volume, explains that storytelling has always been part of the southern tradition and should be taken seriously by historians who explore “the crossroads of southern history and literature” (p. 4). Accordingly, Phillips states that scholars can reach a deeper understanding of the (hi)stories of the South from combining “history and literature, contextual and textual analysis” (p. 9). In this vein, the book’s purpose is threefold: first, to analyze southern storytelling within a postmodern context; second, to integrate postmodern methodology into the southern studies; and, thirdly, to show how interdisciplinary work can open up new perspectives for both historians and literary scholars. These common threads bind together this ambitious volume of ten scholarly articles that constantly walk and blur the line between literature and history. At the same time, they shed light on dynamics and ambiguities of southern traditions, stories, and on the search for a common southern identity.
Bertram Wyatt-Brown focuses on W.A. Percy’s autobiography “Lanterns on the Levee” (1941) and paints an ambiguous and contradictory picture of Percy. Born into a planter family he adhered to the codes of southern honor and of nobility and was a firm opponent of racial amalgamation and integration. On the other hand, Percy’s homosexuality and its social invisibility made him aware of the effects of social isolation. Farrell O’Gorman writes about southern Gothic novels that situated the South as a border region between rational New-England Protestantism and Mexican Catholicism – thus providing an alternative model of American exceptionalism based on the Cavalier myth and the values of the plantation aristocracy. In her text Anne Marshall explores the intellectual exchanges and the working relationship between historian C. Vann Woodward and novelist Robert Penn Warren. Both struggled to write about southern history and memory beyond “frustration, failure and defeat” (p. 73). On the other hand, they debated the fact that historians at the time shied away from a critical assessment of slavery, while literary pieces often offered a more nuanced take on its brutality. K. Stephen Prince focuses on writer Thomas Nelson Page and his agenda of restoring a new South to its righteous place in American history. Prince explains how Page’s often racist books are testimony to his mission to reclaim history from outsiders (i.e. northerners) who allegedly controlled historiography of the post-Reconstruction South. Jewell L. Spangler closely reads the documents of a criminal case in 1792 Virginia. She presents the testimony of the alleged poisoning of a Southern Baptist minister that was narrated as a religious story of sinners and believers, as a story of male rationality and female impulse, as a story of social turmoil with slave rebellions in the South as an immanent danger. In their essay Orvill Vernon Burton and Ian Binington connect national and local discourses of identities as they dissect the steep rise of Confederate nationalism after 1860. Building upon the work of Benedict Anderson and Alon Confino they convincingly show how authors and readers of wartime literature were complicit in Confederate nation-building. In that they created narratives of serene southern communities that epitomized southern values such as the chivalry and civilization. They were posed against the trope of Northern barbarism and functioned as the basis for a southern victimization narrative and its strong nationalistic outfall after the Civil War. Jim Downs tells stories of racial passing and makes the case that the codification of skin color(s) in the U.S. was a reaction to the epistemological crisis that followed slave emancipation, when race could not be defined along the division line of slavery. In order to be able to hold up social division in such a situation of racial uncertainty quasi-scientific categories like ‘Mulatto’ became relevant in official documents in the late 1860s as a gradation of color that also corresponded with assumptions about the individual’s intelligence – the lighter the smarter. One of the most experimental pieces of the volume is David A. Davis’s text about white trash. Taking his own biographical background Davis explains how this originally derogatory phrase was associated with cultural backwardness and poverty; yet, it was reinterpreted by those who were labeled as such. Especially in their (southern) autobiographies they started to embrace it and to own it as a positive identity. The volume concludes with Robert Jackson’s text about the trope of the ‘professional Southerner,’ a self-fashioning that arose in the post-Reconstruction South. It was a conscious performative practice of southern regional attributes (e.g. dialect) that was supposed to show the traditions, values, and pride of the “New South” as presented by individuals such as Bill Clinton in the 1990s.
The contributions to this volume cover a great variety of topics and approach southern narratives from different angles – religion, gender, race, class, violence. Although they concentrate on the element of narrative and storytelling most of these texts are deeply personal – either they focus on individual stories or on the authors themselves. In that they combine micro-perspective with macro-structures – without being heavily loaded with theoretical jargon. Rather they are experimental designs that shine a light on the productive connection of history and literature. Reading this inspiring compilation of thoughts opens up a wide field of questions about doing (southern) history that are worth to pursue. Among them, for me, one sticks out. In their deconstruction of southern peculiarities most of the texts rely on narratives of white identities – fractured, or not. But what about the African American element in the South? How can we tell a history of ‘southernness’ that also includes black stories?
As for a conclusion that brings together these two publications: both books are innovative, since they tap into archival (and narrative) resources that have often been ignored by classical historiography: rumors and gossip, literature and autobiography. But coming back to the initial question of postmodernism and history one might ask: are there alternative modes of representing historical thought and analyses that do not follow the models of narrative and storytelling?
 Hayden White, Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in 19th-century Europe, Baltimore 1973.
 Douglas Egerton, Gabriel’s Rebellion. Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia, Chapel Hill 1993.
 On this topic the debate about whether the Denmark Vesey plot of 1822 was a mere fabrication of the political elite in Charleston, South Carolina: Michael P. Johnson, “Denmark Vesey and his Co-Conspirators,” in: William and Mary Quarterly LVIII (2001), pp. 915–976 & “Forum,” in: William and Mary Quarterly LVIV (2002).