Modern Medea A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South

Steven Weisenburger

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

368 Pages



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On a frigid Sunday night in January 1856, a twenty-two-year-old Kentucky slave named Margaret Garner gathered up her family and raced north, toward freedom. When capture was at hand, Margaret turned on her children with a knife rather than see them returned to a life of slavery. Her child-murder electrified American society, and it led to the country's longest, most spectacular fugitive-slave trial. Garner's story inspired numerous fictional treatments (including Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved ), but Weisenburger is the first nonfiction writer to tackle this astonishing story. His dramatic tale also provides a nuanced portrait of the not-so-genteel Southern culture of slavery and its destructive effect on all who lived with it and in it.


Praise for Modern Medea

"Steven Weisenburger was led to the case of Margaret Garner by Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved, which used fiction to supplement the historical record. Now, a decade later, Weisenburger has used historical facts to complement the fictions of literature. Painstakingly researched and passionately written, Modern Medea sheds welcome new light not only on the trials and tribulations of Margaret Garner but on the 'Peculiar Institution' itself."—Ann duCille, Professor of African American Literature, University of California, San Diego

"Impressively researched, imaginatively structured, and dramatically written, Modern Medea tells the awful truth about the terrifying impact of slavery on the human spirit and a mother's love. This tragic and moving story broadens and challenges our understanding of slavery and the law, and our fear of death and love of freedom. Steven Weisenburger has written an important and haunting book that readers will not soon forget."—James Oliver Horton, Benjamin Bannekar Professor of American Studies and History, George Washington University

"In this gracefully written, dramatic account of the Garner family's journey through slavery, Steven Weisenburger unlocks the historical reality behind Toni Morrison's masterpiece, Beloved. He not only uncovers a pivotal fugitive slave case in the sectional crisis of the 1850s, but illuminates how such an important story, involving slavery's deepest meanings, could vanish and reemerge in American memory."—David W. Blight, Professor of History and Black Studies, Amherst College

"Extraordinarily fine—a powerful confrontation with a nation's history that finds its awful and indisputable coherence in slavery. Modern Medea is poignant and perceptive—an eloquent telling of an enthralling story. With startling revelations of kinship and color, Weisenburger properly restores this grand narrative to its necessary and critical space in our national history."—Karla Holloway, William R. Kenan Professor of English, Duke University

"Modern Medea is the historical key to Toni Morrison's unforgettable novel, Beloved. Here Steven Weisenburger restores Margaret Garner, finally and irrevocably, to our national memory. Part historical revision, part detective story, part biography, and part cultural meditation, Modern Medea is altogether gripping and illuminating."—William Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, University of North Carolina and Chapel Hill

"Weisenburger unfolds a complicated tale with a fullness that incorporates many social and political aspects. His descriptive chronicle extends the bare specifics of the case into a dramatic narrative that covers issues ranging from Southern antebellum culture and morality to the mythical portrayal of Margaret in poems, paintings, and novels."—Kirkus Reviews

"One cannot but realize, after reading Modern Medea, that the case of Margaret Garner forced Americans in the North and the South to recognize slavery as an institution that would drive the nation to war. [Weisenburger] brilliantly unfolds the ways in which Margaret Garner's act . . . transformed her life into a legend . . . engaging."—Marilyn Mobley McKenzie, The Women's Review of Books

"Modern Medea is full of stirring details . . . Weisenburger's narrative is always compelling."
Susie Linfield, Los Angeles Times

"The definitive historical account of the Margaret Garner episode."—Art Jester, Lexington Herald-Leader

"A fascinating account of the institution of slavery and one slave's dramatic rebellion against it."—Sharon Shahid, USA Today

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Steven Weisenburger, professor of English and co-director of the Program in American Culture at the University of Kentucky, is the author of Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel and A "Gravity's Rainbow" Companion.
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  • Steven Weisenburger

  • Steven Weisenburger, professor of English and co-director of the Program in American Culture at the University of Kentucky, is the author of Fables of Subversion: Satire and the American Novel and A "Gravity's Rainbow" Companion.