For the Washington Post
- John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, by David S. Reynolds. Knopf, 549 pages.
Reviewed by David W. Blight
John Brown did not make it easy for people to love him until he died on the gallows. Perhaps no other figure in American experience straddles the blurred line between myth and history, legend and reality, quite like the domineering, violent, Calvinist abolitionist who attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 and provided, in a way, the Pearl Harbor of the Civil War. With great sensitivity, thorough research, and some splendid narrative, David Reynolds, a professor of English and American Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, has ultimately decided to love John Brown. The result is a splendid, if over-wrought book.
As Henry Ward Beecher remarked of Brown: "His soul was noble; his work was miserable. But a cord and gibbet would redeem all of that…." (p. 381). Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson even more famously put it, Brown threw the slavery issue into moral relief and made "the gallows as glorious as the cross" (p. 365). The image of John Brown, a fifty-nine year old selfless hero, dying to free black people from slavery, hanging from the slaveholders’ scaffold in Virginia on a November morning, demands our attention and provides a grand pivot for the whole of American history. According to Reynolds, Brown was a home-grown "American terrorist" (p. 502), driven by religious certainty, but one who killed to create a democratic society. In our age of the "war on terror," Reynolds’s work, the first major biography of Brown in a generation, is timely indeed.
For those willing to see history itself through Reynolds’s Emersonian vision, where "institutions and eras are the lengthened shadows of a few individuals… [and] if these people had not lived, the events they set in motion would not have occurred," this book will be a moving and convincing read (p. 436). Reynolds captures with arresting prose Brown’s early life of poverty, his huge, tragic, rolling-stone family of 20 children with two wives, the business failures and bankruptcies in several states, the lasting influence of his staunchly Calvinist father, and his genuine devotion to the human rights of African Americans. He also takes us deeper into Brown’s exploits in the guerrilla war known as "Bleeding Kansas" in 1856-58 than any previous historian. And the narratives of Brown’s fascinating fund-raising tours of eastern reform communities, the Harpers Ferry raid itself, the hanging (with the whole world watching), and his epic letter writing from a jail cell awaiting execution are all beautifully executed.
Reynolds practices "cultural biography," a mode of scholarship that places the great individual within the broadest possible contexts. Hence, this book contains long, sometimes extraneous, asides on Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson and others. Above all, Reynolds is determined to demonstrate Brown’s originality in his century as a man "free of racism," as a prophet of a "multicultural" America, and as a warrior for justice whose terrible deeds of violence were "ultimately noble" and transcended his era as they defined it (p. 8, 240). Admirably, Reynolds takes a three-part stand on the meaning of John Brown. The abolitionist, he declares, was "not insane," but a "deeply religious, flawed… reformer." The murders Brown plotted and committed at Pottawatomie, Kansas in 1856 were a "war crime committed against proslavery settlers by a man who saw slavery as an unprovoked war of one race against another," and hence "explainable" if not justified. And his Harpers Ferry raid was not a "wild-eyed, erratic scheme," but a plan to establish a mountain maroon community of escaped slaves that would threaten and topple the slave system; its failure was due to Brown’s "overconfidence in whites’ ability to rise above racism and in blacks’ willingness to rise up in insurrection" (p. 8-9, 139).
But when does flawed revolution fall into folly, and when is it noble heroism? This question forever haunts all who write about John Brown. Reynolds is so determined to dig a moat of protection around Brown’s legacy, and so devoted to the Transcendentalists’ romantic defense of the old warrior as an antislavery, Christian hero, that his analysis at times mis-fires. Puzzlingly, Reynolds never employs the term "revolutionary violence" to characterize Brown’s actions. Instead, he prefers the more current and resonant "terrorism." Borrowing the term, "good terrorism," from Doris Lessing, Reynolds argues that as in the case of Brown’s own hero, Oliver Cromwell, if the "choice of victims" is appropriate and the ends serve freedom and justice, then killing in the right cause can be a net "good." Even if Brown was modeling the insurrections of slave rebels in history about whom he had read, this defense of a Kansas massacre seems tortured.
Other matters of language will puzzle some readers. While Reynolds writes movingly about how Brown raised an entire family to be aggressively anti-racist, he awkwardly explains much of Brown’s inspiration as his exposure to an ill-defined "black culture" (p. 103, 118). Brown developed numerous friendships of equality, so rare for his time, with African Americans (famous and ordinary), but what black "culture" musical, spiritual, political, psychological? And to call Brown’s unique racial egalitarianism a vision of a "multicultural" society seems a little too academic in a book that seeks a broad readership.
Reynolds succeeds in humanizing Brown and the struggles of his many sons to cope with and follow their warrior father. That some of those sons rebelled and almost abandoned the old man’s private war comes to light in these pages in riveting detail. Reynolds also skillfully discusses all the ways the Brown "mystique" as a warrior and his "legend" as abolitionist martyr took hold in American culture in the wake of his hanging. And the origins of the enduring song, "John Brown’s Body," and Brown’s powerful hold on the literary and poetic imagination over time sparkle in the final chapters. But sometimes when Reynolds compares Brown to other major figures such as Lincoln or Frederick Douglass the cultural biographer stumbles. Is it really accurate to say that Lincoln, the "antislavery warrior" of the Second Inaugural in 1865 is a "heightened version" of Brown, the "God-directed fighter" on the gallows in 1859? Moreover, Reynolds contention that Brown almost single-handedly turned Douglass away from pacifism to violence through the course of the 1850s collapses far too much complexity and biography into a single cause. To declare Douglass "not as brave as his words" for not joining Brown at Harpers Ferry is to deny the former fugitive slave the wisdom and discretion that kept the great orator alive.
Perhaps the boldest, if oddest, feature of Reynolds’s biography is his use of counterfactuals in order to enhance Brown’s world historical significance. If Brown had lived in another era, Reynolds posits, Harpers Ferry would not have happened, the Civil War would have been delayed, and slavery would have lived longer. More specifically, he claims that "secessionist arguments would have carried little weight" in 1860-61 were it not for Brown’s raid (p. 441). Without question, Harpers Ferry influenced the election of 1860 and the secession crisis. But so did four decades of agitation and political conflict over the expansion of slavery. Southern secessionists were amply threatened by the Republican party’s determination to halt the spread of slavery long before Brown’s men fired a gun. Brown’s raid tapped into a deep well of racial fear as much as it filled it. Brown was a great man and events really matter in the coming of the Civil War. But playing out an alternative time-line for the nineteenth century is not necessary to understand the old Puritan’s importance.
Reynolds convincingly shows, though, that it was more in death, not life, and in words, not deeds, that Brown achieved lasting significance. His extraordinary eloquence at his sentencing, reported all across the country, and his note handed to the jailer as he walked in chains to his death "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood…" are language and drama for the ages. It is Brown the authentically mythic figure of vengeance in the name of human freedom who still speaks to our own bloodied and distracted world. It is Brown on his own cross who still lives and dies for us in our history lessons. In nearly every one of the twenty-two paintings in Jacob Lawrence’s magnificent series on John Brown, some image of a crucifix appears vividly in the elongated hanging body or obliquely in twisted crosses, rifles, or knives. The artist seemed to know that Brown was somehow the nation on the gallows. Not easy to love, except by a necessary death.
- David W. Blight is Professor of American History at Yale University, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, and director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.