"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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Image--
Jean Libby Announces Her Landmark JB Photo Chronology is Now Revised

Dear friends and John Brown scholars, 
I am grateful to announce the next phase of the John Brown Photo Chronology, planned website publication and narrative development.  Everyone's support and participation through the years is essential to current status, and earnestly sought to continue as we move forward.   
[Jean has made the full Synopsis and History accessible on this link.  (You can also find it directly by going to http://www.alliesforfreedom.org/)  Below, find her conclusions.]
Best wishes to all,
Jean 
Conclusions:  Jean Libby’s revised John Brown Photo Chronology has grown from twelve original portraits to sixteen that are confirmed.  Versions of the photo portraits in painted photographs and murals add to the classifications, making the total Chronology more than forty panels which are annotated.  The timeline of John Brown’s movements from 1856 – 1859 is subject to new interpretation.  Significant discoveries about the photographer of the extant daguerreotype (Boston Atheneum) made in Hudson in 1856 and a new photograph of Mary Brown taken in Boston in November 1859 known previously from the photographer’s statement (John B. Heywood) were found at the Hudson Library and Historical Society in September 2014.  Research and documentation that Libby began in 1976 continues.
 
The development of print photo replication from single-image daguerreotypes was eagerly sought by Brown and his supporters.  Association of the photographers of John Brown with the Underground Railroad is a key intersection.  The full Chronology is in development with Rick Moss, Chief Curator of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (California) to be published online with permissions from the archives owners and a video narrative.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A good place to start--
Human Trafficking Summit Convenes in Charles Town, Where John Brown Was Tried, Hanged

The courthouse (left) as it looks
today, in Charles Town
According to Jeff Jenkins of the MetroNews, an online West Virginia publication, today marks the beginning of a four-day conference on the subject of human trafficking--human slavery.   Today's Charles Town, West Virginia was Charlestown, Virginia, in 1859, when John Brown was tried, convicted, incarcerated, and finally hanged there on December 2.   West Virginia was not yet created as a state in the federal union, which took place during the Civil War.

Holding a meeting on human trafficking at Charles Town is certainly a good place to start, not only because of the historical resonance with Brown's life and death, but also to underscore the fact that even though black chattel slavery ended with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, illegal forms of slavery continue to operate in the United States and worldwide.

Chattel slavery was a monstrous system of oppression and terrorism, and millions of people were victimized and exploited for generations by it.  As an institutionalized and legally protected form of oppression, slavery was intrinsic to the founding and development of the United States. It may have ultimately become a Southern "institution," but chattel slavery's criminality belonged to the nation as a whole, for people in the North enriched themselves on Southern slavery quite assuredly--New Yorkers as well as South Carolinians.  John Brown understood this fact, which is why he was not essentially anti-Southern, but self-consciously anti-slavery and nationalistic in his conviction that slavery had to be destroyed.

Contrary to what many people seem to assume, then, black chattel slavery was no secondary issue for the nation, just as it was no mere social inconvenience to its victims.  Stolen black labor in the United States created the base of capital for the establishment of this nation's primacy in the world, even after the legal abolition of slavery.   Furthermore, even apart from the economic exploitation that gave chattel slavery such power in the United States, the depravity of "race" conception and white racism, as well as the sexual exploitation of black women and destruction of black families was also a function of chattel slavery.  It's diabolical offspring, Jim Crow segregation, followed quickly, snuffing out the hopeful light of Reconstruction after the 1870s--thus assuring that racism and economic disparity would continue into the future. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine once put it, chattel slavery was "America's original sin."

Were Brown alive today, he would certainly be fighting human trafficking and its depraved impact on humanity throughout the world.  Yet contemporary slavery and human trafficking are different despite their common bonds (pun intended) in oppression and exploitation.  Today's slavery is not beholding to federal protection and political interests in Washington D.C. the way chattel slavery was in the 19th century.  As Kevin Bales and Ron Soodalter put it:
Thousands of foreign and native-born women and children are being enslaved in the United States by foreign and native-born human traffickers.  Forced prostitution is, according to the federal government, the largest market for slave labor in America.  This time there is no moral panic; most Americans are simply clueless. [Bales and Soodalter, The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2009), p. 11]
So contemporary slavery survives on ignorance of the facts--including ignorance on the part of many people in this nation, for instance, that many of our products are directly or indirectly related to slave labor worldwide.  On the interactive website, Slaveryfootprint.org, you can actually determine how many "slaves you have working for you."   Likewise, a great deal of internet usage today represents the viewing and downloading of pornography, but how many porn users realize that a great deal of pornography involves the exploitation of enslaved women, young people, and children?

But contemporary slavery has a voracious appetite for exploitation:  As if forced prostitution and serial rape were not bad enough, Bales and Soodalter point out that other forms of slavery are "thriving right under our noses."  Every day, one fourth of all contemporary slaves in the United States are "enslaved domestics" working in homes, or agricultural slaves who are held under threat of violence by crime syndicates  (including as federally recognized "guest workers") in old slave states like the Carolinas and Georgia.

Unlike black chattel slavery, which was initialized by terror and capture, contemporary slaves often enter the house of bondage unwittingly, looking for a way out of personal and economic difficulties. While contemporary slavery is not based on "race," it victimizes poor people around the world, mainly women and children, and its victims in the United States are predominantly from Asia and Mexico, although Bales and Soodalter point out that "shifts in global economies and politics" could easily change the make up of modern slaves.  Still, the Human Rights Center at Bereley, University of California, found there were slaves from thirty-five countries held against their will in the United States.   It is not hard to imagine the deplorable extent of trafficking and human bondage worldwide, the untold victims of all hues and cultures that have fallen prey to the hideous evil of slavery.


According to Jenkins, the summit meeting at Charles Town is entitled, “Widening the Net: Together Let’s Stop Traffick.”  As the second annual international summit, it will be hosted by the American Military University.  Conference organizers expect two hundred experts from all over the world who deal with human trafficking across several continents, as well as survivors.   The program manager for the conference is interestingly named Jim Brown, and he told MetroNews that the conference goal is to promote the furthering of the battle against human trafficking.  Positively, Brown believes more people in the United States are becoming aware of this worldwide dilemma.  Discussion will focus on the development of an International Resource and Coordination Center  to combat modern slavery.

Like the Niagara Movement's civil rights summit at Harper's Ferry in August 1906, this anti-human trafficking summit is convened at the nearby town of Charles Town, in association with John Brown's failed effort to initiate a liberation movement in Jefferson County, Virginia, in October 1859.

His arms pinioned, Brown was
conveyed by wagon to a field just
south of Charlestown, where he was
executed in a military ceremony from
which the public was excluded
Contrary to so many erroneous narratives, Brown intended to launch a kind of armed rescue at Harper's Ferry, attracting hundreds of locally enslaved people.  Unfortunately, his easy attack on the unguarded federal armory was undermined by poor tactical judgment, extended delay and overdue stress on civilian concerns.  Contrary to popular assumption, Brown naturally attracted the interest and enthusiastic support of local victims of slavery, and would have departed from Charles Town (then Charlestown) with a large number of black men had he left in a reasonable amount of time.  Brown was finally forced to hole himself up in the armory engine house with a group of hostages and a few of his men, including two sons.  The United States marines, functionally simultaneously in service of the government and local slave holders, killed most of Brown's men and liberated the hostages, restoring their "property" to them.

John Brown and his surviving men were transported to Charles Town, the county seat, following the raid and incarcerated in the town jailhouse, which is no longer standing.  As James Redpath put it, Brown spent the last "forty days in chains," tried and convicted by a court predominantly made up of slave holders.  He was ceremonially strangled to death on a gallows on December 2, and his men followed him in death later in the month, and in March 1860.

According to Jenkins, conference attendees are aware of the significance of their meeting site and "will be invited to explore the history of Charles Town and Harpers Ferry and John Brown’s raid which was aimed at freeing African Americans from slavery."

Source: Jeff Jenkins, "Human trafficking summit begins Monday in Charles Town." MetroNews [Charleston, West Va.], 17 Nov. 1859.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Different, to say the least--
Dean Moss' johnbrown, interdisciplinary art on the stage at The Kitchen in NYC

Dean Moss
Last week (28 Oct.), an article by Tara Sheena in the online newsletter, Hyperallergic (a forum for radical perspectives on art and culture),  noted the performance of Dean Moss' interdisciplinary performance, johnbrown.  The program was featured at Manhattan's notable non-profit arts forum, The Kitchen, from October 16 through 25th--commemorating the 155th anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry.      According to The Kitchen's website:According to website of The Kitchen, a nonprofit space in Manhattan devoted to the arts, last month Dean Moss: johnbrown was
"Presented in seven semi-autonomous segments titled after individual articles of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858, johnbrown melds an immersive audio/visual design and rigorous physicality, with a disruptive impressionistic performance structure. It excavates contentious birthrights born of “our peculiar institution,” while simultaneously exploring the gendered and generational processes at play in their perception. johnbrown premieres in New York on the 155th anniversary of the radical activist’s raid on Harper’s Ferry."
The Kitchen also describes johnbrown as the product of three years of research "to create johnbrown, a dark, wry meditation on the legacy of the white 19th-century abolitionist."  The creator, multidisciplinary artist, Dean Moss, is a  2014 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow and Doris Duke Impact Award in Theatre recipient.  "Steeped in a childhood of grassroots organizing and pitched campaigns, multidisciplinary artist Dean Moss draws from an intimate and varied history with activism," notes the website.  As Sheena reports further, johnbrown was presented in seven semi-autonomous segments, each titled after various articles of John Brown’s Provisional Constitution of 1858: “Vacancies,” “Treaties of Peace,” “All Must Labor,” “Irregularities,” “Crimes,” “Voluntaries,” and “Oath.”  Dean Moss is the son of Harold Moss,  the first black mayor of Tacoma, Washington (1994-96) and a civil rights activist who has also served as an official for the Washington State Department of Transportation. Moss senior reportedly provided the material for his son's production. The Kitchen website describes the production further:
"johnbrown melds an immersive audio/visual design and rigorous physicality, with a disruptive impressionistic performance structure. It excavates contentious birthrights born of “our peculiar institution,” while simultaneously exploring the gendered and generational processes at play in their perception."
The program promo below is posted on Vimeo, which includes scenes from the performance, featuring an audio of the producer interviewing his father.

JOHNBROWN (promo) from Dean Moss on Vimeo
I gotta say, I'd don't connect to this kind of art very easily.  I don't like free jazz or abstract painting either, so chalk it up to my simplicity.  The Kitchen site says:
"It is a testament to Moss’s handle on the worlds he creates — complex, multilayered, fantastical, and intimate — that he is able to have the memory of renegade abolitionist John Brown loom over the entire piece. However, we are all aware it is Moss’s John Brown we are seeing. His is a lowercase, no spaces, one-word “John Brown”; johnbrown is a euphemism, a reference, and an ever-evolving metaphor. Brown is so much more than historical matter or biographical trope in Moss’s world; he is an ideological framework, able to produce a compelling, albeit densely layered, performance work."
The performance also included the video-play below, featuring Pete Simpson as John Brown, Okwui Okpokwasili as Frederick Douglass, Aaron Hodges as Watson (John Brown's son), and Tymberly Canale as Helen Pitts (Frederick Douglass' second wife).  The script, written by Thomas Bradshaw, is at once interesting, irreverent, outrageously and grossly inaccurate, certainly risque, undoubtedly quite funny at points, and not without some thoughtful salutations to the unspoken aspects of the story.

Certainly it was common for widowers to remarry younger women in the agrarian 19th century, so the joke about Brown having a thing for young females freshly arrived in womanhood has no grounding in fact.  Bradshaw is judging Brown by contemporary standards; he also disregards that fact that Mary entered marriage at (actually) seventeen years willingly, and they seem to have had a good marriage despite the many difficulties they faced in life together.

In contrast, Bradshaw does poke at a truth in Douglass' relationship with Helen Pitts, his second wife, though certainly not the first white woman that the superlative orator took to bed.  Douglass loved his first wife, Anna Murray, but she was the wife of his youth.  He outgrew Anna quickly, and his sojourn in abolition brought him many places and put him in the company of many admiring women in the United States and Great Britain.  That he married Helen Pitts later in life resulted in a great deal of hostility and flack for Douglass, including from his adult children.

While the fictive "ghost" of John Brown haunts Douglass out of jealousy, there is a resonant truth that Bradshaw recovers from the proper insinuation of history.   His Douglass rebukes Brown, telling him that he had made his choice against his advice about attacking Harper's Ferry.  This is exactly the case.  Brown chose to lay down his life for the slave, while Douglass chose to save his life, believing he could do more good alive than dead.  But Douglass also disappointed Brown, somewhat inteferred with his recruitment efforts, and ultimately proved an "unreliable" associate (to use Brown's term).   Yes, Brown's "ghost" in the video-play is also correct: he and Douglass are forever paired as allies in radicalism, but Douglass enjoyed a long life to match the horrible oppression of his youth.  He loved and made love time and again, and he ultimately won status quo acceptance as an "American hero." Brown devoted his life to the antislavery cause and then gave up life for it, and he has been rewarded by being called mad, fanatical, and terroristic. You can count the number of statues of Brown on almost one hand in this country; the number of tributes to Douglass are numerous.  Not that he doesn't deserve it.  For my money, Douglass' image belongs on our money.

Still, Bradshaw's risque dialogue has some elements of truth, although it largely is a caricature of imagination--playing with the jealousies and fates of human nature and history. You can't help but laugh at points--the performance is good, although Simpson's Brown sometimes reminds me of Will Farrell playing John Brown.  Still, the only reason I took the time to even consider it is because its easy to watch a video.  Watching a video is a passive experience.  I wouldn't have read Bradshaw's text if it were offered me as a script or a novel, which is why I have no interest even in reading last year's acclaimed humorous novel about John Brown and a runaway slave who dressed like a girl. It's too much work for nothing.  I'm interested in the man who lived, not every other artist's imaginary John Brown.  Sic semper ineptias.

You can check out the video-play yourself if you want.  If you know anything about Brown, it will annoy you at points, but it will also make you chuckle.  However you react, don't take it seriously. Art often imitates life very badly, and artists can get away with it since art is often its own justification for misrepresenting the truth.--LD



johnbrown (video-play) from Dean Moss on Vimeo.

Here's an interesting interview with Dean Moss by Young Jean Lee for Bomb magazine (2012).
Here is Dean Moss' page on the website of the Foundation for the Contemporary Arts

Friday, October 24, 2014

New View--
Will Hausman: Playwright Brings His John Brown Story to Film

I was pleased this week to learn about Will Hausman, a playwright and screenplay writer based in Maui, the Hawaiian Islands.  His play, "John Brown's Body," was presented last year on the stage of the Maui Fringe Theater Festival, at Wailuku's Historic 'Iao Theater.   Hausman's "John Brown's Body" won several audience awards.  "I tried to create a personal, full-bodied characterization of Brown," he told a reporter from the Maui Weekly in 2013.  In the play, he sought to portray the Old Man "more as a multidimensional and fallible human being as opposed to the historical depiction of him as a religious fanatic, madman, murderer and martyr."  Hausman's goal as a playwright was "to depict [Brown] as he might see himself, as opposed to what the historians later judged him to be."

Interestingly, the lead actor in Hausman's play was Paul Janes-Brown, a descendant of the Brown family with roots in Connecticut.  Janes-Brown is a journalist and theater professional.   Hausman's award-winning play prompted him to consider transposing the story into "a genuine cinematic film with the play's script as its basis."

Hausman's film will not be a documentary, but he has produced a five-minute video about John Brown's life in documentary style for a Kickstarter campaign. According to Hausman, his short video is intended "to inform and educate people about Brown's life and why he is such a significant person in American history." 



Historically speaking, Hausman stays close to the narrative, although a biographer might be picky about a few points, none of which obscure the appreciative focus on Brown.  Perhaps my only point of clarification would be Hausman's reiteration of the conventional notion that Brown intended to seize the weapons from the Harper's Ferry arsenal, a point that saturates most of the writing on the raid.  To the contrary, Brown explicitly denied any intention of seizing the weapons, and the evidence supports Brown, not the conventional notion espoused by most of the historians.  In fact, throughout his occupation of Harper's Ferry, Brown did not remove the weapons, made no such order, and rather seems to have posted his men to guard the arsenal from being drawn upon by locals.  I discuss this matter at length in my forthcoming book.

There are a number of John Brown film efforts currently being discussed or developed, and my own sentiment is that this indicates a sea change in cultural attitudes toward him in the 21st century. There is a growing interest in and appreciation of the Old Man, and this is increasingly displayed on the stage, in video and films, as well as novels and historical narratives.  Hausman, I expect, will get Brown right.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hudson in 1912
Local History--
John Brown's Hudson Roots Highlighted by Historian and Archivist, Tom Vince

Anyone who knows anything about John Brown should know Tom Vince, the archivist at the Western Reserve Academy (formerly Western Reserve College) in Hudson, Ohio, and former archivist for the Hudson Library and Historical Society.  Vince is not only an unsung expert on John Brown, but also the veteran authority on Brown family history and the wider study of Hudson history as well.  I met Tom in 2000, when I was researching for my first book on Brown, “Fire from the Midst of You.” (NYU Press)  In Hudson, Tom is a local celebrity and undoubted authority on all things Hudson, which is a vital investigation to any Brown scholar.
Tom Vince, Archivist of Western Academy, an authority
on Hudson history and the Brown family history
(photo by LD, May 2009)

According to Laura Freeman of the Hudson Hub-Times (Oct. 15), Vince provided one of his famous tours/lectures at the Old Hudson Township Burying Ground on October 9, which was sponsored by the Hudson Heritage Association.  The burial grounds are also known as Chapel Street Cemetery, originally the site of founder David Hudson's apple orchard.

This historic cemetery is the resting place of Hudson and many family members, but most famously it is the site of burial for both of John Brown’s parents, Owen and Ruth (Mills) Brown. Owen Brown is buried between Ruth and his second wife, Sally Root Brown of Aurora,Ohio, who died in 1840. The abolitionist’s mother died on December 13, 1808, when he was but eight years of age, a loss that devastated young John and left him socially fractured for sometime. “At Eight years old John was left a Motherless boy,” Brown wrote of himself in the third person in 1857, “which loss was complete & permanent.”  Brown wrote that even after his father remarried, he “continued to pine after his own Mother for years.”  In somewhat archaic language, Brown explain that the loss of his mother “deprived him of a suitable conne[c]ting link between the different sexes,” which “opperated [sic] very unfavourably uppon [sic] him.”
Ruth Mills Brown's
gravestone (1808)

Brown was, as he put it, “naturally fond of females,” but he felt the loss of his mother left him awkward and extremely shy around women, and this “might under some circumstance have proved his ruin.”  What he exactly meant is not clear, although Brown said, even up to the day of his death, that he was more shy about being in social settings with women then he was going into battle.  Perhaps this suggests that his first wife, Dianthe Brown, had to help him through the initial phases of the courtship process.

With humor, Vince points out that John Brown, born in 1800, was “a product of the Hudson schools and a preppy since he attended the Morris Academy at Litchfield, Conn.”  Of course, when Brown was a boy, the school in Hudson was a frontier one-room schoolhouse, and Brown’s schooling was done in fits and starts as a result of taking on mature work assignments, and no doubt in the absence of a devoted mother.

Although the Browns were from Connecticut, Hudson was John Brown’s hometown, and as is evident in so many contemporary narratives, it is very difficult to understand his upbringing, religion, and antislavery orientation without knowing about his Ohio roots in Hudson.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Proslavery artist Adalbert Volck's facetious
sketch of Brown as a saint
Biographically Speaking--
The Usefulness of "Panegyrics"

Many historians and scholars are quick to label the most famous 19th century biographies of the old man as panegyrics, meaning they are works of praise.  True enough, the 19th century biographies of Brown are works of praise--Redpath's 1860 authorized biography is certainly a panegyric, as are the later writings of Franklin B. Sanborn, one of Brown's close associates from the later 1850s. Even later in the 19th century, the aged Richard Hinton, another former Brown associate, wrote his book about the old man and his raiders.

Sketch of Sanborn
in youth
These works are generally branded as too adoring of Brown to be trusted as worthy historical works, and it is fairly typical of contemporary academics to treat them dismissively to some degree.  Another problem with these works, especially Redpath and Sanborn's respective works, is their reference to divine providence and so forth, which is a real no-no for contemporary scholarship.  While Sanborn was hardly an evangelical like his subject, he does seem to have believed that the phenomenon of John Brown signified some sort of divine providence in history.  Of course, none of this is acceptable by today's standards.  Whatever one may feel about some leader being a godsend, such thoughts are restricted to the realm of private faith and thought to have no place among professional historians.
Early photographic portrait
of James Redpath

There is no doubt that Redpath, Sanborn, and Hinton wrote works of praise; they also wrote works of apologia--works intended to defend Brown against his critics.  Furthermore, their works do have errors, mistakes, and suppositions that historians must check, correct, and recheck at times.  When Oswald Garrison Villard prepared his 1910 biography, he touted it as being objective and definitive, and privately scoffed at the aged Sanborn for being too admiring of Brown, as well as for his mistakes.

Richard Hinton
in later years
Villard is widely considered the first "modern" biography of Brown, and undoubtedly he was granted far more trust than he granted to others, including W.E.B. DuBois.  DuBois' biography of Brown preceded Villard's by one year, and Villard ruthlessly attacked his work in print, pointing out DuBois' mistakes and reliance upon less reliable sources.  What makes this more unfortunate is that poor DuBois had not even wanted to write a biography of Brown in the first place.  In fact, his work on Brown was really a third choice.  His first choice was to do a biography of Frederick Douglass, which was denied him because Booker T. Washington had his sights set on a Douglass book.  Then, DuBois turned to the idea of doing a biography of Nat Turner, which would have been a great contribution had he been permitted to execute the work.  Unfortunately, the Turner biography was also refused by his publisher.  John Brown, it is in many respects an excellent interpretation of the old man and well worth reading.
W.E.B. DuBois
Only then did DuBois turn to Brown as a subject, and when he did write his biography, he did so under great stress from his teaching and activism.  Furthermore, DuBois lacked the financial resources that rich Oswald Villard possessed.  Of course, despite the unreliability of many little details in DuBois'

On the other hand, Villard, the supposed fountainhead of objective John Brown scholarship in the 20th century, was really writing with an ax to grind--indeed a double ax.  Not only was Villard a fanatical pacifist who resented Brown's resort to "violence," but he was also the grandson of pacifist abolitionist great, William Lloyd Garrison.  It's not hard to sniff out the family vendetta in Villard's book.  Like his grandfather, Villard didn't seem to know whether he loved or hated Brown, and he concluded to write an appreciative sort of condemnation of the old man, calling him a murderer at Pottawatomie while elevating his martyrdom.   Villard's book was widely praised, although its worst side was what appealed so much to 20th century scholars, who subsequently used and abused Villard's take on Pottawatomie so much that it became the well-beaten path of almost any historical commentary on John Brown, often to this day.
Oswald G. Villard

In fact, Villard was biased.  His reading of the expansive data gathered by his assistant, Katherine Mayo, was selective and deliberate in its critical conclusions about Brown's supposedly unwarranted violence in Kansas.  Of course, anyone who reads carefully through that data (as I did years ago) knows that Villard's conclusions were hardly obvious.  He was simply writing with a predetermined conclusion of condemning Brown as a murderer, and he was quite persuasive.  Nor was Villard in the place of one worthy to cast the first stone when it came to scholarly errors.
Katherine Mayo

When Villard was an aged, sickly man, his work came under the careful and authoritative eye of Boyd B. Stutler, whose interest in John Brown had started in the 1920s.  Stutler, a native of West Virginia, started as a young newspaper man and a West Virginia history buff.  But the more he collected Brown's letters and built a library of other primary and secondary sources, the more he became pointedly interested in John Brown.  Prior to Villard's death, the author asked Stutler to go through his 1910 opus, and Stutler produced several pages of corrections, allowing Stutler to revise his work before dying.  It's too bad DuBois didn't know about this, or he might have had a few choice words for the merciless Villard.
Boyd B. Stutler
Despite a number of interesting works on Brown in the 20th century, nothing more of significance was written until 1969-70, when Stephen Oates published his landmark biography, To Purge This Land with Blood, and the playwright, Barrie Stavis, published his short but profound, John Brown: The Sword and the Word.  Stutler assisted both writers, but I think that he actually preferred Stavis' little book insofar as capturing the man who lived is concerned.  Unfortunately, Stavis' book didn't get much attention, while Oates' book became the standard for the rest of the 20th century.  

During the 20th century, Robert McGlone began his work on John Brown and seems to have intended to publish the next definitive response to Oates, although for some reason McGlone's work was not published until the 21st century, and by then he was already following on the heels of a number of new biographers.  His work is erudite and even magisterial to some degree, although he seems needlessly cynical at points.  More importantly, McGlone's work lacks the readability of Oates' plain text narrative, or the literary splendor of David Reynolds' 2005 blockbuster, John Brown Abolitionist.  
I'll refrain from going further with this little sketch, except to say a few things about the older works and their "usability."

As I noted above, there's a tendency to slap down Redpath, Sanborn, and Hinton immediately. Indeed, any book that is too warm toward Brown is accused either of being a panegyric or "hagiography" (a saint's life), and such works are all but disqualified in the contemporary realm of history writing.

There are a number of problems with this kind of bias:

While Redpath, Sanborn, and Hinton wrote in defense of Brown, and often quite adoringly with tones of hero worship, they were also primary witnesses who knew Brown and his context better than we do today.  Being part of the story doesn't mean you're objective, but it does mean that their witnesses are valuable, even if they have to be carefully weighed at times.  Their works have errors, but they also contain a wealth of information that biographers and students need.

As we can learn from Villard, "modern," "objective" scholarship is not reliable either.  There is a great deal of bias and prejudice against Brown in the academy.  Many writers who like to point out the "panegyrics" of the 19th century are actually prone to a cynical or polemical approach to Brown. The mainstay of much contemporary writing on John Brown is typically beset with baseless references to contemporary terrorism and violent characterizations of the man, although most writers (and this includes journalists too) know very little about John Brown.

The fact is, there is a great deal more anti-Brown writing on the shelves and on the internet than there are panegyrics, and some of the things labeled hagiography are simply appreciative of John Brown rather than negative characterizations.  When it comes to Brown, the language of contemporary scholars is full of regret, apprehension, even fear.  The cultural norm for writers, at least among "whites," is to approach John Brown with a reserve of suspicion, cynicism, or condemnation.

This aspect should be considered when the old dismissive reproach, "panegyric" is rolled out by the "experts."--LD

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.