"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Isn't that special--
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
Overall, the excerpt is pretty good.  From what I've seen, for the most part I don't take issue with what Tony has written about Brown's early life.  But this introductory line is the stuff of magazine articles.  It is pure bait, and it shows how skillful word professionals like Tony Horwitz can craft a line that grabs readers' attention.

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" 
Of course, Tony proceeds to point out that for most of his life, he was anything but a crazy man.  Yet he seems to be signaling that at some point, John Brown went off the road of the rational and became a "wild-haired" kind of guy--the kind of guy who concocts "desperate schemes."

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?

1 comment:

Deb said...

Hey Louis! I just couldn't resist!: " Yet he seems to be signaling that at some point, John Brown went off the road of the rational and became a "wild-haired" kind of guy"

No he doesn't "seem to be signalling" - he definitely is. After all, he had to be an irrational, wild-haired crazy man for concerning himself - nearly to the death - with *gasp* Negroes (I'm being polite) wouldn't he?

I read the piece at the link and the hair thing goes right along with his description of Brown as "militant." The author's mention of Brown's "flock" of children is no less perturbing. It brings back memories of a Black, "Talented 10th" organization at home, which saw fit to change some copy - which my brother'd written and submitted to them about my grandmother - to reflect that she had a "litter" of 19 children.

I'm so tired of folk...