Masur’s 1831

1831 We are finished with Ellis’s Founding Brothers and have moved on to Louis Masur’s 1831: The Year of Eclipse.  The first chapter covers Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Abolitionist Movement and the debate in Virginia following Turner’s insurrection.  Other chapters explore various themes of Jacksonian Democracy, including voting, religion, and politics.  We will read various sections of the book given our time constraints. 

This is a highly readable book that does a great job of presenting various subjects from multiple perspectives.  Masur’s narrative is weighed heavily with the words of the participants themselves.  Masur’s coverage of Turner and the response of white Virginians utilizes these multiple perspectives quite effectively.  In our discussion of how white Virginians explained the violence to themselves and one another a few of the students admitted to being overwhelmed by so many voices.  I asked the class why Masur would present the story in this way and immediately one of the students responded by suggesting that the author wants his reader to understand that the participants themselves did not know how to explain it.  In a related note we touched on the difficulty involved in explaining Turner’s insurrection given the assumptions that white Virginians held to regarding their slave communities and their own paternalism.  For example, Masur presents to strands of thought surrounding the origin of the insurrection.  Some people pointed to their own slaves as the source of the problem, but just as many argued that the instigators must have been from outside Southampton County.  They understood that if the source of the problem was from outside they could maintain their beliefs about the loyalty of their own slaves.

Today we read a few pages from Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and explored the difficulty of distinguishing between the interviewer and interviewee. 

2 comments… add one
  • John Maass Nov 9, 2007

    One of the criticisms I have seen in print and heard in grad school is that Masur’s book (while readable and interesting) has no identifiable thesis, just a unifying theme–1831. What do you make of that?

  • Kevin Levin Nov 9, 2007

    John, — I think that’s a fair criticism if we are going to judge this along standard academic lines, but I am using it as a case study on how to deal with multiple perspectives. There is a strong sense of contingency that Masur builds into his narrative, which makes for interesting reading for high school students.

    In the end, it’s an informative and enjoyable read.

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