"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, September 17, 2012

"Hell on Wheels":
Preacher Cole and John Brown

Last fall (Dec. 9, 2011), I pointed out the John Brown type character, "Preacher Cole" (played by Tom Noonan) in AMC's post-Civil War western series, "Hell on Wheels."  The AMC blog describes Preacher Cole as follows:

Noonan's "Preacher Cole" is a
negative John Brown type
Reformed from a life of violence and alcohol, Reverend Cole has turned his life to God. After riding with John Brown in Kansas and serving as a minister for the Union Army in the Civil War, Cole is sick of the slaughter; he genuinely wants to help the whites and Indians avoid another war. He takes up a holy mission of conversion and peace to prevent the annihilation of the native race. When his cries for peace fall on deaf ears, ignored even by his daughter Ruth, he abandons his family and turns back to personal demons of drinking and death.

Preacher Cole's character is fictional as almost all the characters in the series are thematic inventions by Joe and Tony Gayton, the producers of "Hell on Wheels." But while Preacher Cole's character is fictional, he is inspired by the Gaytons' perception of John Brown the abolitionist.  Early in season 1, we saw that Cole was a free state fighter in Kansas, and was one of the sword-wielding followers of Brown at Pottawatomie.  To no surprise, at the end of season 1, the Gaytons have their "John Brown" figure decapitating a soldier with his Pottawatomie sword.  In season 2, Cole had fallen into an alcoholic pit, only to be revived by an inspired vision of arming Native Americans against the intrusive railroad and the onslaught of the paleface.

In tonight's episode, Preacher Cole's effort rises and falls after he declares, "I was fool to believe that love would win over hate."  His attempt to have his "manifesto" published in the New York Tribune comes to naught and his "adopted" Native American son kills him rather than see Cole massacre the rest of his captives.  The episode is titled, "Purged Away with Blood."

Clearly, the Gaytons squeezed every last drop of blood out of their ghoulish perception of John Brown.  From beginning to end, their interpretation of Brown vis-a-vis Preacher Cole was that he was a deluded religious fanatic and violent killer.  In tonight's episode, Preacher Cole kills a railroad employee by running him through with a sword from behind.  Before he is finally stopped, he even makes another reference to John Brown to underscore that all this mad violence is rooted in Preacher  Cole's association with Brown.

"Hell on Wheels" has proven entertaining, though not always well written.  Admittedly, it does address a fascinating period in U.S. history, and it is not a neo-Confederate romance.  In fact, in this evening's episode, it is not only their imagined "legacy" of John Brown that is "purged away with blood," but also a Confederate doctor who had been part of a band of violent rebels.  The Gaytons seem to be suggesting that the nation had to be purged of both pro-slavery fanatics and anti-slavery radicals before "progress" could come.  It is probably not an accident that this episode's title is much like the famous Stephen Oates' bio of John Brown, To Purge this Land with Blood--a pretty awful title, I should add.

If this series continues another season, I'm relieved that Preacher Cole, the John Brown representation, has been eliminated. It is unfortunate that the Gaytons' premise about the abolitionist is entirely wrong: in turning back to his demons in this episode, Preacher Cole was really returning to his John Brown days, when he used violence, not love.  This is a far cry from John Brown the man who lived.  Brown was not compelled or motivated by a passion for bloodletting and violence.  Nor was he delusional and pathological in his reasoning.  Nor did he breed it in the men who followed him.  

2 comments:

Juanita's Journal said...

The Gaytons seem to be suggesting that the nation had to be purged of both pro-slavery fanatics and anti-slavery radicals before "progress" could come. It is probably not an accident that this episode's title is much like the famous Stephen Oates' bio of John Brown, To Purge this Land with Blood--a pretty awful title, I should add.


This is the same attitude that marred John Jakes' "NORTH AND SOUTH" Trilogy. Both the first novel and the first miniseries seemed to blame the conflict over slavery and the outbreak of war on the pro-slavery and abolitionist "fanatics". Jakes' story refused to acknowledge that civil war came about due to the country's failure to do anything about slavery other than compromise on it.


Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Well said. Thanks for the info and insight!--LD