"Were I asked to say, in the fewest and plainest words, what Brown was, my answer would be that he was a religious man. He had ever a deep sense of the claims of God and man upon him, and his whole life was a prompt, practical recognition of them."
Gerrit Smith, "John Brown" [a broadleaf], Peterboro, N.Y., 15 August 1867

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Er, Thank You, We Think. . .

Kenneth Mack on John Brown: Tipping His Hat, or Talkin' Smack?

I'm only a humble historian teaching at a small, fully accredited seminary, teaching a typically heavy load of courses because that's what small religious institutions tend to require of their faculties.  At our school, the administration packs us two professors to an office in order to save space, and puts us in fishbowl type circumstances so that anyone with any question can see us while we're working and knock on the door.  Sometimes I wonder what it's like to be an important professor--you know, the kind with an endowed chair and a professorial title (named after some rich, dead donor), teaching one or two courses a semester, along with a research assistant, and an office where you can actually close yourself in sufficiently to read and write.  (I do my serious work at home.)

Important Scholars

This wondering on my part becomes especially acute when I read the declarations, pronunciations, and opinions about John Brown that are issued forth from one or another important scholar, somewhere out there in the "high up on the hog" Academy.   Over the years I've noticed that high-class academics inhabit a higher echelon of discourse than the mass of humble academics, especially those of us in small institutions with hard-earned accreditation.   In their higher academic echelon, their books, articles, and opinions matter--the media seek them out and take their word for fact; and they take each other's words as fact.  Their discourse and research is exclusive--they quote each other, compete with each other, collaborate with each other, and tend to ignore everything and everyone else.  Now, this wouldn't be so bad if they actually were the most learned in their subject matter.

But as far as John Brown goes, at least, I can quite confidently say that they're not.

I don't want to seem harsh, but as an example, I reviewed a book by an Ivy League graduate a couple of years ago, the scholar now having moved onto a notable academic position, his resume replete with publications and columns in prestigious and notable journals and magazines.  The book he wrote on Brown was very poor, and although I handled it as gently as possible, his book was quite bad--riddled with errors, presumption, bias, and more bias.  To no surprise, the book was nominated for a prestigious historical award because this is the way his world works.  As a biographer, I never saw a work so fraught with mistakes and bias, although one or two Ivy League publications on Brown have come close.  Of course, my criticism probably was just ignored, because there is no actual dialogue with Mt. Olympus from down here.

Professor Mack

Prof. Kenneth W. Mack
I was reminded of this reality this very evening, when I  read a blurb, ostensibly made on behalf of the Old Man by Kenneth W. Mack, whose academic title is "the inaugural Lawrence D. Biele Professor of Law at Harvard University, and the co-faculty leader of the Harvard Law School Program on Law and History."  By all accounts, Mack's Harvard website is impressive."  Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer (Harvard University Press), was selected as a Top 50 Non-fiction Book of the Year by the Washington Post, was a National Book Festival Selection, was awarded honorable mention for the J. Willard Hurst Award by the Law and Society Association, and was a finalist for the Julia Ward Howe Book Award.  His is also the co-editor of The New Black: What Has Changed – And What Has Not – With Race in America (New Press, 2013)."  Pretty impressive.  Besides this, Mack is a columnist for many notable publications, and a talking head for PBS.
His research and writing have focused on the legal and constitutional history of American race relations. His 2012 book,

I will also add that Professor Mack is black, which makes his recent blurb on John Brown perhaps a bit more interesting.
"What the @#!!, Mack.  With 'help'
like that, who needs enemies?"

In the November 2014 online edition of The Atlantic, Mack is quoted among a number of other important scholars under the column, "The Big Question."  In this edition, the big question is, "Who is the most underrated politician in history?"  Mack's blurb reads:
An antislavery zealot and murderer who failed at everything he did in life, John Brown was executed for the ill-planned 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Everyone underestimated him, including the Virginia political leaders who made the mistake of putting him on trial, the platform he used to help bring on the Civil War.

The Company He Keeps

Taken at its best face, Mack's remarks seem to fall in the tradition of a number of other African American intellectuals, including Ralph Ellison, Kenneth Clark, and Benjamin Quarles, whose fealty to the white liberal establishment, blended with the black heritage of regard for Brown, produced a peculiar kind of loyalty to the old man.

Kenneth B. Clark
In Robert Penn Warren's 1965 book, Who Speaks for the Negro?, the white Southern writer interviewed the notable psychologist, Kenneth B. Clark, who seemed of two minds on the subject of John Brown.  While Clark held to Brown on one level, he too easily surrendered the old man to the liberal-racist Warren (who wrote an unworthy biography of Brown in the 1920s).  Clark compared Brown to Christ and Socrates, but also conceded that he was "mad," "neurotic," a "murderer," and a "fanatic" (see Who Speaks for the Negro?, pp. 318-21).  

Although writing two excellent books in appreciation of the African American, Benjamin Quarles declared Brown "warped in many ways" (Allies for Freedom, p. 197).  Ralph Ellison, also interviewed by Robert Penn Warren, similarly concluded that Brown was "demonic" rather than a "lunatic," but also "utterly impractical" and a "little off his beam." (Warren's interview with Ellison, 25 Feb. 1964, Ser. II, tape #1, p. 12, no. 030H42, RPWCR, 32, R.P. Warren Civil Rights Oral History Collection, Margaret I. King Library, University of Kentucky.  Trans. courtesy of Best Efforts, Inc.)

So, Professor Mack is standing on the stooping shoulders of other brilliant but conflicted black scholars in both saluting and denigrating John Brown in a single statement.

On One Hand. . .

On the positive side, of course, that Mack would advance Brown's memory among "underrated politicians" seems a point of loyalty.  Obviously, Brown was not a politician, and he would be offended being included in such a group.  The Old Man had no use for politicians after John Quincy Adams, and certainly there is nothing of a "politician" in Brown's straight-shooting, single-minded determination to destroy slavery.   So Mack's willingness to salute Brown seems awkwardly stated in the context of the question.

It may be that Mack's awareness of how white society has undervalued and underrated John Brown found voice in this opportunity, and for that he is to be commended.  A black scholar tells white society, in effect, not to overlook or underestimate the importance of John Brown by viewing him as a freak who stumbled on and off the stage of history just in time for Abraham Lincoln to appear.

On the Other Hand

Still, Mack has done Brown no favors, and reflects not only a flawed and unstudied knowledge of the Old Man, but reflects his own tendency to frame his discourse to placate the white liberal establishment in which he seems to thrive.  Like Clark, Quarles, and Ellison, Mack talks this smack, thinking that he is speaking the truth about Brown, when in fact, he is only muddying the waters of history.   And as unfair as this may seem, this kind of blend of admiration and effed-up historical understanding is perhaps worse for John Brown than an outright assault upon him by some stupid Neo-Confederate or right-wing Philistine who has sufficient racist instinct to recognize Brown as an inimical force in opposition to their white supremacist outlook.

Mack may be a Harvard scholar and an important scholar by all accounts.  After all, The Atlantic asked his opinion.  But frankly, John Brown could do without this kind of help.  That John Brown was a "murderer" is simply not true, and at worst stands to be reevaluated.  The evidence suggests his lethal activity in Kansas were defensive, preemptive, and taken in a situation lacking in protection by law enforcement.  For Mack to simply call Brown a "murderer" just shows ignorance, and reinforces the prejudice of many people who have no regard for the Old Man.

Furthermore, for Mack to call Brown a failure at everything he did shows that the professor has not read sufficiently, and may have relied too much on famous writers and elite scholars, since this is typically the way of life in the upper-echelons of Academia.  For the record, Brown faced hard knocks in life, but he enjoyed a number of episodes of success and certainly a period of recognized expertise in the area of fine sheep and wool, so that he had no perception of himself as a failure as many of the recognized "experts" contend.  I have written about this in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom.

Spare Him (and Me), Please

Finally, Mack's contention that "everyone underestimated him" is only true in a limited sense.  In fact, Southerners did not underestimate Brown.  They screened his mail as a prisoner, denied him a jailhouse photograph, and explicitly lied to cover up his success in attracting enslaved people, maligning him as a rank insurrectionist and recognizing his utter sincerity and the force of his intentions.  They, more than Republicans in the North, understood his importance, which is why they wanted to kill him as quickly as possible.   When they could not, they absolutely prevented every Northern journalists from entering Charlestown.  Were it not for a certain undercover Tribune journalist from New York, they would have accomplished their goal.   Verily, it seems that Mack himself has actually underrated Brown.  (Of course, all of this is featured in my forthcoming book, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia.)

Notwithstanding Mack's good intentions, I would remind him what is proverbially said of "the road to hell."  My own sense is that Professor Mack and others who are not prepared or competent to speak for John Brown, ought to do him a favor and quit paying him such backhanded salutations.  He doesn't need Mack or anyone else to pat him on the back while calling him a murderer, a failure, and a fanatic whom no one took seriously.  

Furthermore, this kind of smack only forces me to stay up late, writing rejoinders to important scholars who won't read them, when I should be preparing for one of my five classes this semester.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Bulletin Board--

Filmmaker's Documentary to Explore John Brown's Activities in Iowa

Kelly Gallagher, a candidate in the MFA program at the University of Iowa, is working on a short film about the Maxson house in Springdale, Iowa and the John Brown episode.  Gallagher primarily produces handcrafted animations and animated docs, but her John Brown film will be a live-action documentary.  We look forward to seeing the finished film, which explores a chapter of the old man's story that is not often discussed.

John Brown in Iowa - Teaser 2 from Kelly Gallagher on Vimeo.

Jean Libby's John Brown Photo Chronology Revised 2014-2015 at the African American Museum and Library of Oakland [CA] October 16

Researching and reproducing the photographs of John Brown the abolitionist is a lengthy project of historian Jean Libby, a retired community college history instructor who publishes in the name Allies for Freedom.   

Exhibition of sixteen different photo portraits of John Brown at the African American Museum and Library of Oakland (AAMLO) on October 16, 2014 is presented as a workshop for public information and participation.  The photo history reveals strong interest in the new technology by Brown and his friends seeking replication of the images and facsimile signatures to advance the cause of ending slavery and establishing equal rights and citizenship to the liberated people. 

Jean Libby has written and published three books about Brown and his African American supporters since 1979.  Since 2006 Libby has researched and published on the history of John Brown’s family in California.  Mary Brown is central to the continuation of her husband’s legacy of antiracism with community activities and association with his photographs and art. 

The Photo Chronology took root with the contribution of forensic analysis in 2002 and publication by The Daguerreian Society in 2004.  Research and analysis continues for revision of her 2009 exhibition created for the 150th anniversary of the John Brown raid in Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. 

In September 2014 Jean traveled to central New York, eastern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania in search of additional photographs history.  The AAMLO event on October 16 synthesizes her findings in preparation for revised publication.

The African American Museum and Library of Oakland is located at   659 14th Street Oakland, CA  94612    (510) 637-0200 

Please contact AAMLO for further information on the October 16 event from 6 to 8 p.m.  

Grady Atwater on the Battle of Osawatomie

"The Battle of Osawatomie was an important battle, for it was the largest battle during the conflict over slavery during the Bleeding Kansas era. The battle built the courage of the Free State forces to stand and fight proslavery forces in Kansas Territory. John Brown made the decision to start his abolitionist crusade as he watched Osawatomie burn when John Reid’s proslavery militia men sacked and burned the town.  John Brown and 30 to 45 Free State guerillas battled John Reid and 250 to 400 proslavery guerillas in modern day John Brown Memorial Park on Aug. 30, 1856. By later Civil War standards, it was a skirmish, but by the standards of guerilla warfare, the Battle of Osawatomie was a large battle. . . .

To read the entire article visit Grady Atwater, “Abolitionists more determined after Battle of Osawatomie.” Osawatomie Graphic, 24 Sept. 2014

Grady Atwater is site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

"Site-ing" History--
The Charlestown Jail in Images

The Charlestown jail, then in Virginia and today in West Virginia, was where John Brown spent the last weeks of life.  Unfortunately, the building is no longer standing, although it can still be seen in a number of pictures that have survived over the past century, especially in postcards that pop up online from time to time.

Perhaps Charlestown historians could provide far greater detail, and it would be welcomed here.  We can say the jailhouse was not originally built as a jail, but as a private residence.  At some point, the two-story building was converted into a jail, which included a residence for the jailer.   During Brown's stay, of course, the jailer was John Avis, who was married and had a family.  More about Avis can be found in my forthcoming book.

   In the first picture at the right, I have provided a detail from an illustrated newspaper sketch that shows Brown being taken on a wagon to the site of execution.  The artist captured an excellent rear view of the jailhouse, showing the 12-13 ft. wall that surrounded the back yard, the barred windows, and the back entrance.  Perhaps there is also a small guardhouse to the left.  
Next is another postcard artist's rendering of the rear view of the jail, in this case a night scene showing guards at the walls.

The third image shows the building in the late 19th century or early 20th century.  This image provides color and detail to the building, although, once more, it is from a later time and I have no idea if this was simply colorized for style (it is also a postcard that appeared on eBay).  It may be that the larger front entrance was an addition to the building made after Brown's time.  The larger entrance does not seem to be visible in newspaper sketches of the jail at the time of Brown's incarceration.  Clearly, windows on the street side of the building either were added or restored at a later point. 

Brown's cell was located on the first floor, and during his incarceration, he had only one window looking into the enclosed backyard. At least once, he was known to have stood on his chair in order to get a view somewhat over the back wall of the troop movements in town.

Finally, here is a photograph taken in the early 1900s, when the jailhouse was torn down.  Unfortunately, it was not preserved as a landmark, as it would have served as a great point of interest today.  The Charles Town post office is now situated on the site of the old jail.   

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

"No Brag, Just Fact": Seven Reasons Why You Will Want to Read My Forthcoming Book on John Brown's Last Days 

The first and most extensive of my two forthcoming books to be published by Rowman & Littlefield is focused on the last days of John Brown in Virginia. In the 19th century, a number of writers produced articles under this theme, but the reader can be assured that the forthcoming will present the most extensive and detailed narrative of Brown's last days in the 154 years since his death.  As Walter Brennan's character in the TV series, "The Guns of Will Sonnett," used to say, "No brag, just fact."

Readers can be assured of the following:

1.  They will get as close as possible to Brown, from the Harper's Ferry raid to his burial, that is, unless readers have a time machine.

2.  They will read a carefully reconstructed narrative of Brown's last days that includes letters, jail visits, and significant themes and episodes that took place during that time.

3.  They will gain a better understanding of the role of journalists, especially the undercover New York Tribune journalist who actually preserved a realistic front-seat view of Charlestown at the time of Brown's incarceration.

4.  They will observe a number of conventional notions about the raid are challenged, if not overturned.

5.  They will observe how the proslavery press functioned to hide or misrepresent Brown and his impact in Virginia, and the paradigmatic influence of the antislavery Tribune versus the proslavery and racist New York Herald.

6.  They will see a number of never-before-published sketches of Brown made from life, and will see the more familiar newspaper illustrations contextualized in association with the three major illustrated newspapers rivaling each other in covering this episode.

7.  While other books may overlap, no other book looks at the raid, defeat, incarceration, trial, hanging, and immediate aftermath of Brown's impact so fully, since most biographies and studies tend to close with the conclusion of the raid.  This book will begin with an assessment of Brown's broader plan, what actually went wrong in the raid, what really happened to Brown when he was "captured," and then recounts the rest of his life in an unprecedented narrative.

No brag, just fact.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Take Note--
The Great Rock at John Brown's Gravesite

"Was this rock placed here purposely as a monument for the one who alone and silently lies at its base?  Was this mountain chain designedly reared to wall this spot around?"
A journalist for the New York Times, quoted in "John Brown's Grave," The Independent (22 Aug. 1867): 4.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Righteous Indignation--
From John Brown to Michael Brown

"Missouri has an especially racist legacy. The last of the slavery states, it was a launching pad for numerous raids into Kansas by slaveowner militias hired to turn the vote in that state in favor of the slavers. It was from Missouri that raiders went to the abolitionist town of Lawrence, Kansas and burned it to the ground. This led to a guerrilla war that involved John Brown and his band. Symptomatic of the US’s racism is how so many history books cover that war. John Brown’s campaign is consistently labeled as murderous, while the actions of the raiders is often portrayed as a response to Brown’s tactics. This is despite the well-documented attacks on Lawrence, including one known in history as the Lawrence Massacre. The coverage of the Michael Brown murder in the mainstream press suggests that the actions of those who carry on the raiders’ task (in this case the Ferguson police) continue to be excused for their violence."

Excerpted from Ron Jacobs, "Quantrill's Raiders Come to Ferguson," Dissident Voice: A Radical Newsletter in the Struggle for Peace and Social Justice , 16 August 2014.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Checking in--
Sorry to Neglect You. . .

I apologize to the friends of this blog for my absence, which was supposed to be brief, but unfortunately has proven far longer.  Just so you have a pulse from me, I thought I'd post a few small items, and hope that I can get back to you with something a bit more substantive over the next week or two.

"Hell on Wheels"--A Brief Homage to the Old Man

Perhaps you caught the most recent installment of "Hell on Wheels," the dramatic series on AMC based upon the development of the transcontinental railroad following the Civil War (now in its fourth season).   The series annoyed me from the start, when one of its first season characters was a lunatic preacher, Reverend Cole (played by Tom Noonan) who rode with John Brown, and who ultimately acted just like the mythical John Brown that white people like to put forth in popular narratives.   Fortunately, Reverend Cole was killed off in the series, although his daughter Ruth (played by Kasha Kropinski) continues to keep a church amidst so many wild, godless railroad men.

This is a snippet, passingly recalling the fictional Cole's association with the Old Man. (Sorry it was recorded with an iPod, handy but the sound is hollow.)  However, it's different, perhaps due to the scriptwriter, who presents this conversation between Ruth and Psalms (played by Dohn Norwood), one of the leading railroad workers among the freemen.  It's interesting, especially the subtle smile in Psalms' expression when he invokes her father's association with John Brown.  Even six degrees of separation between Brown and a freeman in the 1860s would suggest a warm undercurrent.  The admiration for Brown that Norwood so skillfully conveys in Psalms' expression is probably the most authentic reference to the Old Man as portrayed yet on "Hell on Wheels."  Ruth's response is interesting too, but I'll leave you to debate that amongst yourselves.


West Virginia's Big Story

On another note, here's a link to an article by our friend, Naj Wikoff, in today's (Aug. 15) Lake Placid News, about a documentary maker with an interest in West Virginia history.  Lemuel Muniz's documentary about West Virginia necessarily includes an interest in John Brown, and I look forward to talking to him in the near future.


Keep your eyes open for Steven Lubet's next big offering on the John Brown story, namely a book about the raider, John Anthony Copeland, that will be published by Cambridge University Press. No spoilers here, folks.  But I can tell you that it will be a first for John Brown students as Lubet brings his strong research and wonderful writing to give us yet another monumental work on the often overlooked raiders (his first being John Brown's Spy, a biography of John Cook)--especially the black raiders.   Save some of your weekly allowance so you can buy it when it comes to press, I hope in early 2015.

Speaking of books, yes, that's what's kept me away from this blog a lot (besides other teaching obligations).  I'm making good progress on my narrative of John Brown's last days in Virginia.  It is going to be published by Rowman & Littlefield, and likewise will be the first of its kind.  All of Brown's biographers, including me,  have only sampled from Brown's last days in our books. This book is about John Brown's last days.  BTW, I've got another book on Brown following on its heels by the same publisher, but more about that later. . . .

Okay, that's it for now, friends.  As the Old Man would say (quoting Oliver Cromwell), trust in God and keep your powder dry.