Bad Hair Day Rising?
Bloomberg Businessweek is featuring excerpts from Tony Horwitz's new book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, and today's excerpt begins:
"In 1859, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, propelled a divided nation toward Civil War. Brown’s wild hair and desperate scheme to free and arm slaves helped foster his enduring image as a crazed fanatic, a zealot on the far fringe of American society.
But for most of his 59 years, the abolitionist was a clean--shaven entrepreneur--a mercantilist everyman in the rapidly expanding economy of the 19th century."
|"Wild Hair" Evokes This Notion of JB, as|
seen in this easily googled image
As far as Brown's mane goes, his hair definitely had body, and both his hair and beard grew quickly. But unless Tony knows otherwise, I don't think there is any contemporary description of Brown having "wild hair"--unless, of course, one considers his blood-matted hair following the failure of the raid as "wild." Recall that at least two marines (not one, as the conventional account goes) tried to kill Brown in the Harper's Ferry engine house, an assault that included being bludgeoned on the head with the hilt of a costume sword. Journalist accounts following the raid note the white-washed brick inside the engine house smeared with blood and strands of the Old Man's hair. Perhaps too, his hair got a little "wild" during his incarceration in Virginia. The degree to which he was allowed to look after his own personal hygiene in jail is not clear; Brown was meticulous in his self-grooming by all accounts. So if he had "wild hair," it was no fault of his own.
But I don't think this is what Tony had in mind. What he is referring to is an image, a notion, really, that exists largely in the minds of "white America"--"wild hair" being a metaphor for someone who was frenzied, irresponsible, and possibly crazy. "Wild hair" is Tony's way of pressing the button, hitting the buzzer, of popular culture. It signals something that he knows they'll understand. It's a word that functions like the bell that makes Pavlov's dog begin to drool.
|Just googling and once again it's "Wild Hair"|
I don't want to make so much of this that the reader won't appreciate whatever is good in Tony's offering. But I do want to point out the power of signal words and phrases in the way the Old Man is described--how by plugging into longstanding popular images and notions that were themselves manufactured by longstanding prejudice, a skillful writer can pre-justify questionable conclusions that may be drawn later, regardless of their historical viability. Whatever else Midnight Rising says about John Brown, remember that it begins with John Brown as the man with "wild hair" and "desperate schemes."
Will it be another bad hair day for the Old Man?