Of all the men who were said to be my contemporaries, it seemed to me that John Brown was the only one who had not died. . . . I meet him at every turn. He is more alive than ever he was. He has earned immortality. He is not confined to North Elba nor to Kansas. He is no longer working in secret. He works in public, and in the clearest light that shines on this land.
Henry David Thoreau
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Tuesday, July 30, 2013
I'm Laughing AT YOU, not with You: Quick Review of Methodist Minister's Eyewitness Account, and a Lazy, Arrogant Amazon Reviewer
Samuel Vanderlip Leech was a Methodist minister who had occasion to meet John Brown during the incarceration of the abolitionist in 1859. Fifty years later, Leech wrote a reminiscence of of the raid and an assessment of John Brown, entitled The Raid of John Brown at Harper's Ferry as I Saw It. In my opinion, the work offers little of value except a brief vignette of the abolitionist's rejection of some pro-slavery ministers while in jail. Unfortunately, he doesn't even date or sufficiently develop the more important episode of his little book. Otherwise the work offers little of value to historians, except an old conservative compromiser's assessment after the fact, written at a time when white supremacy had been revised in 20th century terms.
At any rate, I made a brief comment on the book on Amazon, which you can read here.
What cracked me up, however, was the following Amazon "review" by a fellow named Geoffrey Sebesta, who gives this work four stars and writes:
"I read the pamphlet in the evening and found it lucid, revelatory, and delightful. The author is a cautious, cowardly liberal of the kind we all know and love, and his admiration for Brown is mixed with his horror at the sheer madness of the man and the impossibility of what he wanted. I learned a tremendous amount about the raid with very little expenditure of effort thanks to this book."
While I bear no malice toward Mr. Sebesta, I had to laugh at his "review" and let him know that I was laughing too. But it's worth reporting here because it is very telling. First he writes, with the typical arrogant presumption of many people in this nation, of "the sheer madness" of Brown and "the impossibility of what he wanted." I need not go at length to say that, notwithstanding Tony Horwitz's baseless flirtation with alleged bipolar or manic disorder, there is no evidential basis for concluding that Brown suffered from mental illness. The point is that Mr. Sebesta assumes Brown's madness with the same assurance that Mr. Sebesta assumes himself human, not a monkey. This kind of assurance of truth regarding Brown is what typifies so many ignorant and arrogant people who typically bash Brown online. The same applies for "the impossibility of what he wanted." Very likely, Mr. Sebesta, like so many other Brown bashers out there, don't even really know what Brown "wanted." And why should they, when no few number of historians and authors have so misrepresented Brown's goals? Unfortunately, Mr. Sebesta is the product of an educational system and a historical prejudice, and his brief "review" is graphic in exposing the point.
The same applies for his grateful comment, that he had "learned a tremendous amount about the raid with very little expenditure of effort"! Wow, this guy is a living illustration of the problems that John Brown studies face. People who delight in putting forth little effort in studying, people who are historically lazy, so to speak, but want to have a "John Brown for Dummies" experience, and then walk away feeling he is both educated and qualified to speak on the subject. He knows neither facts, context, or historiography, but he's absolutely delighted that he found a pamphlet that has taught him a "tremendous amount" without him having to expend very much effort. This underscores the larger problem, that many people are too lazy to work hard at history, and to some degree history as a discipline suffers because of this laziness. But John Brown--who is wrongly characterized so traditionally in white society and the mainstream media--especially suffers from lazy people who think this way.
Like I commented on his review, as a biographer of John Brown, I'm laughing.