It would have been as easy to drive a shadow into the centre of a block of granite as to force a pro-slavery falsehood into his brain or heart.

James Redpath

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Holy Days--
Thanksgiving, 1859

"[In 1859, while John Brown was still a prisoner in Virginia awaiting his hanging,] November 24 marked Thanksgiving Day in twenty-seven states of the union, including Brown’s birth state of Connecticut and his adopted home state of New York.  Neither Ohio, the place of his formative years, nor Virginia, his captor, observed the holiday on this date--although apparently some towns like Fredericksburg and Norfolk chose to join in the observance."

Excerpted from Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

 On this Date in 1859--
An Advertisement for Mr. Redpath's Biography in the New York Tribune, Nov. 1859

Although the The Public Life of Capt. John Brown by James Redpath was published in 1860, after the abolitionist's death, it was a work already in progress while the Old Man was awaiting execution in Virginia, in November 1859.  At the time, Redpath was not the only one interested in doing a John Brown biography, since abolitionist author, Lydia Maria Child also had designs on the same project. While both Child and Redpath intended to use the opportunity as a means of supporting Brown's family, the Brown family preferred Redpath, whose book was published by the Boston firm of Thayer and Eldridge to great acclaim.1

This ad, headed by "Wait and Get the Best," appeared on November 14, 1859 (p. 1) in Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, promising a "full account" of Brown's life and a "splendid" engraving of the "Brave Old Man."  The ad seems mainly to have been intended to diminish one or two newspaper compilation efforts, neither of which were intended to aid the Brown family.

Most prominent in this regard was the booklet produced by New York publisher, Robert M. DeWitt, entitled, The Life, Trial, and Execution of Captain John Brown, which actually was published in late 1859, before the release of Redpath's book.  The other effort was produced by Boston publisher, Robert Campbell, entitled, The John Brown Invasion: An Authentic History of the Harper's Ferry Tragedy, published in 1860. Redpath's ad in the Tribune in November 1859 was evidently intended to undermine DeWitt, but he probably had his eye on both rivals.  "Therefore," goes the ad, "do not waste your money on a "pamphlet compilation from the newspapers, but wait and get a genuine Life of Brown, which will do justice to the subject."

As the last days of John Brown passed, Redpath busily engaged himself in collecting letters and information for his book.  On November 30, the Tribune reported Redpath's work continued, and that he "urgently requested that a copy of all communications received from [Brown], as well as of the letters to which they were an answer, should be printed or sent to the undersigned, who has the matter in charge."2  On the day of Brown's hanging, Redpath wrote from Malden, Massachusetts, once more to the Tribune.  It seems that Mary Brown had complained that the New York Herald had published a letter from Brown to his family which they had never received, and believed the letter had been stolen from the mails.  Redpath asked the thieves to forward it to the widow on pain of being traced and exposed.3  Whether or not the letter was stolen, or if stolen it was recovered, is not clear.

In 1860, Redpath's biography was published to great acclaim and controversy, respectively, from Brown's admirers and detractors.  But as John McKivigan observes, it was a best seller that defined biographical writing on Brown for decades to come.4  It was followed the same year by Redpath's tribute volume,  Echoes of Harper's Ferry, which contains letters to Brown, as well as other writings in tribute to the martyred abolitionist, likewise published by Thayer and Eldridge of Boston.  Redpath is remembered as Brown's first and most influential propagandist.  Detractors, then and in subsequent years, have charged the "Roving Editor" with producing a panegyric and legend.  However, Redpath preserved primary sources and wrote from a personal perspective that would otherwise have been lost had he not produced these works.  In the long run, too, Brown's detractors have largely failed to present him fairly, instead erring on the side of misrepresentation.  In my opinion, today's students of Brown are better off having Redpath's work than much of what was written about him in the 20th century.

1 On December 1, 1859, Redpath wrote to the Tribune: “[Child] had been advised to write it, but does not now at least propose to do so, and has kindly yielded to me her claim to the use of ‘the facts and incidents of John Brown’s earlier history."  James Redpath, "John Brown and G. W. Brown," New York Tribune, 7 Dec. 1859, p. 3.  For more on the Lydia Maria Child episode, see Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2013), 79-80.  Also see my books, Freedom's Dawn: The Last Days of John Brown in Virginia, pp. 134-35, and John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown Jail, pp. 10-12 (both Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

2 “John Brown’s Correspondence,” New York Tribune, 30 Nov. 1859, p. 6.

“Various Items.  To the Editor of The N.Y. Tribune,” New York Tribune, 27 Dec. 1859, p. 7.

4 John R. McKivigan, Forgotten Firebrand: James Redpath and the Making of Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2008), p. 54.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Serenading a Historical Double Standard

Award winning author and
musician, James McBride
According to Brian McElhiney of the Bend Bulletin, Bend Oregon, the talented and award winning musician and author, James McBride, will bring his band to that city for a performance tomorrow (Nov. 8)— a performance that interestingly blends readings from his John Brown novel, The Good Lord Bird, with music by a kind of concept band, The Good Lord Gospel Band. As McBride describes it, this band plays neither jazz nor R&B, but rather an eclectic offering of gospel and spirituals in order to highlight readings from The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award in 2013.  “[W]hen I bring the band with me,” McBride said, “I use the music to contrast the words, to color the words, to highlight the dramatic points in the story. So I would expect that’s what people can expect. Sometimes I go off-book, so to speak, and do impromptu remarks regarding this, that, usually the writing experience or something like that. Generally I try to contain my remarks to what’s pertinent with the music, the music sort of element of 'The Good Lord Bird' story and whatever we can learn from it, if that makes any sense.”

Laughing at History

McBride describes his motivation for The Good Lord Bird as essentially to have fun with—and make fun of—history.  The story is centered on a young enslaved black boy named Henry Shackleford, who ends up following John Brown—except that he does so most of the time wearing a dress, leading the abolitionist to mistake him for a girl. Although McBride’s intentions clearly are not malicious, it does seem he makes the whole story of Brown and other leading figures in the antislavery movement into something of a historical burlesque.  I’ve not read the book myself—I don’t generally read fiction about Brown, but my impression is that the figure who gets the worst of the deal in The Good Lord Bird is the abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

McBride told his interviewer that “some people didn’t like” his treatment of Douglass, which I’m told involves portraying the brilliant orator as a lecher. Douglass certainly was something of a lady’s man in his prime, but it does seem gratuitously abusive to portray him as attempting to seduce a young slave girl, especially one who actually is a boy.  Still, the whole point for McBride is fun.  “I’m a funny guy. I enjoy humor,” he told McElhiney. “I enjoy laughing, I enjoy making people laugh. And also, I think people who have suffered tremendously who have the ability to laugh at it, it makes them stronger and makes them live longer, and it helps to absorb difficult truths.”
Douglass--The Brunt of the
joke in The Good Lord Bird

History and Fiction

Obviously, McBride has a point.  Historical figures are not deities, and there is plenty of room in history for satire and fun—if one does it correctly, I suppose.  However, it seems to me that the best approach to historical fiction is to construct fictive characters that move around and interact within a reasonably sound historical narrative.  It certainly demands more of the novelist to do this because it means grounding one's self in evidence and research, and then constructing a fictional narrative.  In so doing,  the characters service the novel while still respecting a defensible reading of historical times and people.  With such a commitment to history the writer will be more inclined to respect the lives and stories of real persons without distortion.

In this so-called “postmodern” era, however, it seems more likely that novelists will disregard facts, going far beyond the idea of creating fictional characters that are interwoven into the facts of history. Since at least radical postmoderns seem to claim there is no fixed meaning in either history or text, it is more likely that writers will feel comfortable rewriting real stories to suit their imaginations and prejudices.   While McBride has done this somewhat,  I doubt any scholar of Brown or Douglass would consider his work the worst case.

Quite in contrast, Bruce Olds produced an atrocious work of postmodern historical slander in his John Brown novel, Raising Holy Hell (1996).  If I recall from hearing Olds defend his magnum odious shortly after its publication, he appealed to postmodernity for his license to do what he did to Brown--which was to skew and malign him.  Fortunately, Olds’ malignant fiction was quite overshadowed by the success of Russell Banks' novel, Cloudsplitter (1998).  While I’m hardly a big fan of Cloudsplitter, at least Banks is far more appreciative of the historical record (although he too misrepresents real historical figures for the sake of his fictional mandate, especially Brown’s son Owen).

A Religious Man

Of course, there’s no reason to think that McBride had any ill intent. Certainly, with regard to Brown, he clearly appreciates the Old Man’s religiosity, something needed in many sections of this so called “secular” culture. McBride thus told his interviewer that John Brown
was a very reflective, Judeo-Christian person, and it seemed to me that a lot of what he represented or tried to represent was, in addition to being very religious in nature, it was also very deep in that he was driven by this deep sense of religious purpose that really was probably too deep. But I understand that having grown up in the church. I want people to understand the power of religion when they hear John Brown’s story, because otherwise, he comes off as a kind of a fanatic, and he’s been treated that way historically as well. I think if people understand a little bit the power of religion — and a lot of that is communicated in the music — it helps to explain his religious zealotry.
This is a very thoughtful observation on McBride’s part, and it is something that he further connects to issues of race.  In recounting Brown’s story, he says, one is really talking about race.  In turn, ”when you boil it down, it’s really about humanity. But it’s hard to get people to accept that and look beyond their boundaries, but if you can make them laugh, it’s a little easier to push past the boundaries when laughter’s involved, and irony, which is laughter’s cousin.”

So What?

McBride evidently thinks that because there are many books about John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and racism, the use of humor serves as a better means of addressing the issue, and doesn’t care if The Good Lord Bird offends some readers.  “Look, so what?” he told his interviewer. “If you’re gonna be offended by it, it’s not the book for you to read. I’ve kind of had my fill of these ‘you better take your medicine’ type books. I don’t think they really push the discourse in the direction that it needs to go on a wider level.”  As far as books on Brown goes, McBride concludes that there are already a lot of books on Brown, and even the inaccurate ones “are very well written.”
Should Distortions of Brown
Be Taken So Lightly?

Even taking for granted that artists sometimes take their work too seriously, this is not where lies my biggest gripe with McBride, if I can said to have one.  To me, it is not merely that he wrote a novel about Brown, or  even that he made sport of the Old Man, going beyond the record of history.  Certainly if someone is going to play with Brown’s image in history, I would rather have someone like McBride doing so.

What bothers me is what comes out toward the end of the interview.  McBride knows enough to acknowledge that despite the various historical readings of Brown (including the bad ones that are well written), “still few people really understand who [Brown] was or even who he was.”   These are his words.  He knows that John Brown widely misunderstood in our culture, and that many others know nothing about him. But if this is true, why then does he take the art of representing the abolitionist so lightly?  Should anyone who ostensibly cares about the struggle for justice take distortions of John Brown so lightly?

A Tale of Two Browns

This becomes more pointed at the end of the same interview, when McBride reveals that he is putting finishing touches on a non-fiction work about R&B giant James Brown, which is due out in April 2016.  “It’s not like the John Brown book,” McBride stated.  “The James Brown book just dropped into my lap, and it came at a time when I was available and thought that I could help straighten out some of the history in his life in terms of how he’s perceived publicly. And in many ways, his life is a metaphor for where we are today in terms of how we see each other.”

When it comes to writing about a soul singer, has McBride now become the historian with a burden for truth and clarity?

When I read these words, I said to myself, “Wow.”  In McBride's first book about a man named Brown, he poked fun and used humor supposedly in order to get people to think differently about the much misrepresented abolitionist.    Yet when it comes to writing about a soul singer, has McBride now become the historian with a burden for truth and clarity?   Apparently, for McBride, it is James--not John--Brown who merits the “straightening out” of the record, and the balancing of public perception.  It is James Brown who is McBride’s “metaphor for where we are today in terms of how we see each other.”

I wonder why McBride did not just write a novel about James Brown too.  Would this not make the legendary soul singer more understandable?  By creating a humorous, fictional narrative of James Brown, would this not also make his “metaphor” come alive for the reader?  As one who has labored for years to “straighten out some of the history” in John Brown’s life “in terms of how he’s perceived publicly,” I would have preferred that McBride would have had the same regard for him as he now apparently does for James Brown.—LD

Source: Brian McElhiney, “James McBride: Joking About John Brown, Serious About James Brown.” The Bend Bulletin [Bend, Or.] online, 7 Nov. 2015

Friday, October 30, 2015


John Brown's Birthplace in China!!

by H. Scott Wolfe

I have a good buddy who, though born and reared in the Midwest, resides within the confines of the Commonwealth of Virginia. A truly gifted historical investigator, he has, however, absorbed a Southern mindset in regard to John Brown...which impels him to continually tease yours truly for my passionate devotion to researching “The Old Man.” To this friend, the “terrorist” Brown is fully responsible for nearly all societal ills, ranging from global Congressional market fluctuations within the Bolivian economy. And he is sure that, should I continue upon this misguided course, my ultimate destination will be The Everlasting Tropics. It is therefore truly ironic that it was while my friend and I were strolling together at an antique show, that I purchased my first piece of John Brown souvenir china. 

It was deep within the enemy’s country, in Chantilly, Virginia, that I spotted a creamy-white porcelain dessert plate...decorated with the familiar image (based upon a photograph) of Brown’s birthplace in Torrington, Connecticut. In addition to this rendering of that classic New England saltbox farmhouse, surrounded by a stone wall, the periphery of the plate featured cutwork and was embellished with gilded oak leaves. The reverse revealed the plate’s origins...”Made in Germany”...and carried the name “P. O’Meara, Torrington, Conn.”
The John Brown Birthplace Plate (Wolfe photo)

Thousands of such items were produced in Germany and Austria...particularly in the two decades prior to World War I...and marketed as take-home souvenirs in this country.  They were often marked with the name of the domestic this case, “P. O’Meara” is probably one Patrick O’Meara, a native Irishman shown in the Torrington censuses of the early 20th century as a “tea merchant.”

I am certain that readers of this blog are familiar with such souvenirs, many of which were no doubt sold in your own hometowns. Whether they were decorated with images of the local high school or courthouse...or the mansion of some regional luminary...these bits of tactile history were seemingly ubiquitous. In my own place of residence...Galena, Illinois...a local jeweler by the name of Coatsworth sold hundreds of pieces of glassware and china picturing either the pre-war or post-war homes of our famous citizen, General Ulysses S. Grant.

Since my initial find in Virginia, I have obtained several other examples of this “birthplace china,” including a small cream pitcher and a matching cup and saucer. I append images of these items, and I’m sure there are more varieties of “John Brown china” out there. So remain vigilant!

Birthplace Creamer (Wolfe photo)

Birthplace Cup and Saucer (Wolfe photo)


While on the subject of the site of John Brown’s birth, I must admit that it was only quite recently that I finally paid a personal visit.  I had passed through Torrington any number of times in years past...and was aware that a commemorative stone marked the historic spot...but I had never made the effort to find it. For some oddball reason, I always assumed that it sat in some urban neighborhood...perhaps in some guy’s yard, strategically placed between the Weber grill and the house of an exceedingly vicious dog.

In reality, the site of the birth of John Brown remains rather bucolic. It sits upon the northern edge guessed it...John Brown Road, immediately northwest of the City of Torrington. It consists of, literally, a grassy clearing in the forest, surrounded by rubble stone the midst of which reigns a lichen-encrusted granitic boulder, inscribed with the words: “IN A HOUSE ON THIS SITE JOHN BROWN WAS BORN MAY 9, 1800.”

Torrington, Conn., marks the cite of Brown's birth home
(Wolfe photo)

My visit occurred in early spring, so with the trees flowering and birds beginning to become territorial, one could almost imagine old Owen Brown’s oxen lowing in the nearby pasture (or perhaps this was simply an unintended side effect of the beer hall the prior evening). Anyway, I remember being impressed by the seeming isolation and tranquillity of the place. 

Although a detailed history is not my intention, there are some significant dates within the chronology of the birthplace of John Brown. His father Owen took possession of the property and some adjacent acreage in 1799 - 1803. Following the family’s emigration to the Ohio Western Reserve in 1805, an impressive number of owners and tenants “used and abused” the house (some of whom were African-Americans). Souvenir hunters became a problem...producing artwork from shingles and canes from wooden beams. (Much like what occurred at the Maxson farmhouse in Iowa, as noted  in an earlier contribution.)

Finally, in 1901, the property was purchased by a philanthropist and transferred to a nascent organization of prominent businessmen and politicians called the John Brown Association. It was at this point that the first attempts of restoring and managing a formal historic site was commenced, including the appointment of a live-in caretaker. This Association, underfunded and lacking a solid organizational structure, was beset for years with numerous lawsuits and a host of leasing and ownership controversies.

Close up view of the Torrington home on the birthplace
plat (above) and photograph of the actual structure
(Wolfe images)

Of course, one of the most significant dates in the history of the property was June 19, 1918, when the farmhouse in which John Brown had been born burned to the ground. An overheated chimney was the probable culprit. The commemorative boulder has marked the spot since 1933.

Today, the property is administered by the Torrington Historical Society, which merged with the John Brown Association in June of 2000. In 2002, an archaeological investigation of the site was conducted, the parcel then receiving the designation as a State Archaeological Preserve.

For those interested in further information in regard to John Brown’s birthplace, I strongly recommend a publication available from the Torrington Society: The John Brown Birthplace by David Ross Bennett (2002). 

H. Scott Wolfe

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Osawatomie Notebook--
Popular Culture Has Misrepresented John Brown!

by Grady Atwater

Of the twelve bonafide
images we have of John
Brown, only one shows
him wearing a beard
There are many misconceptions about John Brown. John Brown’s popular image is of him sporting a long flowing beard, but he only grew the famous beard in 1858 as a disguise due to multiple Missouri and federal arrest warrants out for him. Before 1858, Brown was clean shaven.

Raymond Massey as Brown in
"Santa Fe Trail" (1940)--
one of the worst and most
influential cultural
Indeed, it is ironic that Brown’s attempt at disguise became the image he is primarily known for, so much so that Brown was forced to cut his beard down to an inch long when he raided Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859. Movies and television programs always portray Brown as having the long, flowing beard in Kansas and at Harpers Ferry, but this, like many other realities about John Brown, are often erroneously portrayed in movies and television.

John Brown is also often thought to have been over 6 feet tall, when in reality he was 5-foot, 9-inches tall. The reason for this conclusion was that John Brown was much taller than most people in the 1850s, and he was commonly described as being very tall by his contemporaries. In the modern mind, “very tall” means over 6 feet tall. He was tall by mid-19th century standards but was of average height by modern standards.

This 20th century postcard reflects the image
 of Brown as an angry, violent man
Movies and television often portray John Brown as in a constant state of emotional upheaval, constantly making speeches and devoid of any level-headed thought. The reality is that John Brown was very cool and calm under pressure and was more apt to offer concrete solutions to problems than making long, rambling, dramatic speeches in a crisis situation. Brown’s cool-headed nature in a battle was one reason that Free State advocates followed him, and he was much different than the manic leader that movies and television portray him as.

Brown did not force his family's
support--to the contrary, they were
"all in" on his antislavery purposes,
and paid dearly for it.
John Brown also was not as prone to violence as he is often portrayed. Brown was violent only when he deemed it to be necessary and effective, and most of the time, he relied on sarcasm and debate to address the slavery issue with pro-slavery advocates. The reason that this reality is often glossed over in books, movies and television is that it does not make for good drama nor action scenes, and it does not feed into the popular image of John Brown.

John Brown’s family is often thought to have followed him due to Brown’s domineering personality and actions, but in reality, Brown’s wife and children stood beside him and his abolitionist crusade by choice and voluntary loyalty.

Brown did not force his wife and children to make the sacrifices they did for him out of fear of incurring Brown’s wrath, but because they shared his abolitionist beliefs, and they were willing to stand up beside Brown of their own free wills.
Grady Atwater is the site administrator
of the John Brown Museum and
State Historic Site in
Osawatomie, Kan.

John Brown is often misrepresented in movies and television, which commonly pander to commonly held misconceptions about a man who changed the course of American history, and it is vital to know the real John Brown, not the movie and television version.

Source: Grady Atwater, "Popular culture often misrepresents the real John Brown Story."  Osawatomie Graphic [Osawatomie, Kan.], 21 Oct. 2015.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Milestones and Landmarks--
A Decade of John Brown Abolitionist

It is worth noting the ten-year anniversary of the publication of David Reynolds’ John Brown Abolitionist (Knopf, 2005), which was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by Barbara Ehrenreich on April 17, 2005.  As a scholar and biographer of the controversial abolitionist, I believe that Reynolds’ treatment of Brown has proven a landmark biography, not only for its thoughtful and studied treatment of the abolitionist, but also for its clarity and fairness, something often lacking in discussions on Brown.  Indeed, I would suggest that Reynolds has given the 21st century a far more fitting paradigm for understanding John Brown than what was given to the 20th century.

W.E.B. DuBois
The first and perhaps most thoughtful biography of Brown in the 20th century was written by W.E.B. DuBois (1909), whose lyrical style and political perception of Brown’s significance was immediately dashed by his wealthy white liberal associate, Oswald Garrison Villard. Villard was the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and one of the founders of the NAACP, and also owned The New York Evening Post and The Nation at the time DuBois’s biography was published.  

Oswald G. Villard
Unfortunately for DuBois, Villard was preparing his own Brown biography, and did not rise above using his publications to attack his work.  Likewise, when Villard’s biography was published in 1910, he similarly used his influence to elevate his own biography as objective and definitive.  In fact, despite being better researched (Villard could afford to pay someone to research for him), his biography was stiff and dense, a book for today's researchers, not readers.  Worse, its friendly fire on Brown, based on ideology (Villard was a pacifist) and family interest (Brown got more credit that Garrison in historical memory), left the abolitionist’s reputation vulnerable to less appreciative writers, especially those looking to redeem the South and render the abolitionist a problematic figure in history.  This was especially true of his one-sided reading of the so-called "Pottawatomie massacre," which gave ammunition to hostile writers and journalists for the rest of the century and beyond.

A number of biographers of Brown in the 20th century endeavored to present a more balanced portrayal of the abolitionist.   Most notable is Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood, which often was greeted as the most objective treatment of Brown, and likewise considered the definitive biography.  However,  in retrospect, despite its academic sufficiency (Brown aficionado Boyd Stutler supported and approved it), Oates' work is somewhat sterile and certainly fails to assess key aspects of Brown’s story properly, from religion to the Pottawatomie killings.  Nevertheless, Oates’ biography reigned supreme for the rest of the 20th century, perhaps because little other attention was paid to John Brown by biographers.   In fact, a better book than Oates' was interestingly written by the playwright and researcher, Barrie Stavis, called John Brown: The Sword and the Word.  In fact, Boyd Stutler seems to have preferred Stavis' little book, commending it as having far less to correct or criticize than any other book he had seen--ostensibly including Oates' book, which came out the same year (1970). Unfortunately, the Stavis book seems to have been largely overlooked by Brown scholars and students.
More promising was The Legend of John Brown by Richard O. Boyer, the first installment of a proposed two-volume project, which came out a few years after the books by Oates and Stavis.  As a profile writer for The New Yorker, Boyer’s leftist politics and journalistic skills provided a hopeful opportunity to view Brown with both fairness and feeling, especially within the context of a nation dominated by proslavery interests and racism.  Unfortunately, Boyer died after the first volume was published by Alfred Knopf  (1973).  His half-told story, perhaps is too heavily laden with colorful profiles of Brown’s contemporaries; but it is better written and conveys fact and feeling beyond Oates’ succinct biography. Still, the story was both big and unfinished, and could not provide a counterpoint to the popular 20th century narrative of Brown as a killer and national trouble-maker. (Also see "The Stutler-Boyer Disconnection")

David Reynolds,
Springfield, MA, 2009
While David Reynolds was not the first biographer of Brown in the 21st century, his work proved to be everything that could have been hoped for in Boyer’s second volume and then some.  Whether or not one agrees with all of Reynolds’ narrative, his John Brown Abolitionist proved to be both watershed and landmark in the study.  It was more than fitting that the Reynolds biography would be published by Knopf, which not only closed the loop left by Boyer’s incomplete project, but provided a substantial, studied, and beautifully written work by a skilled researcher and writer.  A deft and insightful scholar of 19th century society, Reynolds folds literary, political, social, and religious themes into his book in a manner that none of his predecessors have done, especially after Villard had so boasted of his work and so belittled that of DuBois.
David Reynolds
(DeCaro photo, 2011)

Reynolds’ biography is a watershed work because he was able to read Brown with a clarity that was lacking in the 20th century, when the abolitionist was consistently skewed and maligned by professional historians with little or no basis. Whether positive or negative, no prior biography has so impacted readers as to turn the flow of the historical narrative more correctly in a direction suited to Brown’s worthy profile as a religious progressive and forerunner of civil rights.  

Reynolds not only debunked baseless and unfair characterizations of Brown, but he replaced them with a reasoned argument for an appreciative understanding of the abolitionist.  Differences notwithstanding, it is clear that even a decade after the publication of John Brown Abolitionist, David Reynolds single-handedly has reset the historical narrative of Brown for the future.  His understanding of Brown as the man who “killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights” has provided us with a sound, studied, and eloquent reading of a man who, in a real sense, is still ahead of our nation’s quest for racial justice.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Take Note!

Steven Lubet on John Anthony Copeland: An Author's Reading in Evanston

If you live in the area of Evanston, Illinois, you have a great opportunity to hear Steven Lubet read from his book,  The “Colored Hero” of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland and the War Against Slavery, just published last month by Cambridge University Press.   Steve will be reading at Evanston's Bookends and Beginnings, on Thursday, October 22, from 7-8:30 P.M.  Bookends and Beginnings is located in the alley on the west side of the 1700 block of Sherman Avenue, in the former location of Bookman’s Alley.   If you are able to attend, don't miss hearing this notable legal historian and ethicist read from one of the most exciting and well greeted contributions to the field of antebellum African American history and John Brown studies, an in depth study of one of Brown's unsung black raiders.

Steven Lubet is the Edna B. and Denyfed H. Williams Memorial Professor of Law at Northwestern University, and is a leading authority on African American resistance to slavery and notable trials in U.S. history.  He has written notable works like Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp,  Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial, and more recently, an unprecedented study of Harper's Ferry raider, John Cook entitled, John Brown's Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook (Yale Univ. Press, 2012).

Lubet's work on Brown's raiders, Cook and (now) Copeland, are tremendous contributions to the study, offering needful focus on the men who followed the Old Man to Harper's Ferry.  This book on Copeland provides a treasure of information and insight into his life and background, and I highly recommend it.  Here are some reviews furnished by the publisher:

"In this vivid account of John Anthony Copeland and his times, Steven Lubet has recovered from unjust obscurity the story of a young man of deep passion and moral commitment. With both narrative verve and a telling eye for the dramatic, he has also given us an intimate portrait of the competing worlds of slavery and abolitionist activism on the cusp of the Civil War. The 'Colored Hero' of Harpers Ferry is a significant addition to our understanding of the brave but tragic saga of John Brown and his men." 
Fergus M. Bordewich, author of America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union

"The 'Colored Hero' of Harpers Ferry is a well-researched and highly readable work of scholarship. Steven Lubet chronicles in fine detail the life and tragic death of a 'colored' participant in John Brown's ill-fated raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. The author brings the raid, its characters, and its aftermath to life in vivid detail, never abandoning the thread that ties the idealistic young John Anthony Copeland to the antebellum movement to abolish slavery." 
Ron Soodalter, author of Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader, and The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today

"In this well-researched and well-written book, Steven Lubet tells the tale of John Anthony Copeland, one of only five black men to join John Brown in his attack on Harpers Ferry. By focusing on one of the men, and on a black man, Lubet has given us a fresh and fascinating perspective on the months just before the Civil War." 
Walter Stahr, Presidential Fellow, Chapman University

"Steven Lubet is a master storyteller. In this book, he tells the story of a little-known well-educated black man, John Anthony Copeland, who joined John Brown at Harpers Ferry. The insurrection is told from the perspective of Copeland, a pious abolitionist who thought he was there to rescue enslaved people and escort them to freedom as he had helped runaways to Canada before … Copeland was one of only five black men who were recruited to John Brown's cause, though he only knew of Brown's true purpose shortly before the shooting began. From Lubet's careful reading of original material, he is able to piece together a thoroughly engrossing tale. A story to be read and remembered." 
Lea VanderVelde, Josephine Witte Professor of Law, University of Iowa College of Law

Best wishes to you Steve!