In 1941 my distant cousin, Nellie Groves, filed suit against Warner Brothers Pictures for their depiction of John Brown in the movie “Santa Fe Trail.” A music teacher and violinist who once had a vaudeville act, she was used to being billed as “the granddaughter of John Brown, the Liberator, Martyr of Harpers Ferry,” and she was righteously appalled by the film’s depiction of her grandfather as a bloodthirsty, maniacal murderer. She claimed that it had caused damage to her reputation as a performer. The judge threw out her suit without a trial. She was in her early fifties then, about the same age that I am now.
I thought of Nellie Groves the other day, when I clicked on a fluff piece in my news feed heralding a forthcoming film adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 satirical novel, The Good Lord Bird. It will run as a miniseries on the SHOWTIME channel, produced by and improbably starring Ethan Hawke as my great-great-great-great grandfather, John Brown, the Liberator, Martyr of Harper’s Ferry.
In 1941, the living memory of the Civil War was close to dying out. John Brown’s cultural capital was sinking, but his name still had the power to stir patriotic feeling. As far as Nellie Groves understood, John Brown was an American hero, a man of principle who lived and died to purge our republic of its original sin. She was horrified not just by the negative portrayal of his character, but also by the way in which the movie wantonly discarded the known facts.
Warner Brothers, through the medium of the motion picture Santa Fe Trail has made a vicious attack upon my grandfather. They called him an enemy of mankind, a murderer, and a vicious killer. They besmirched his name by showing episodes which never occurred, and all through the picture are distortions of the truth. They misrepresent and vilify the character of a nation’s hero.Nellie Groves’ lawsuit made the papers and she received letters of support, including one from a medical doctor in Los Angeles who wrote:
It is an outrage, unbridled license and ruthless violation of tradition the way these low class Jews and others sacrifice right, honor and common decency and respect merely for box office returns. And these Jews control the movies... Some of these low Jews would even make Lincoln a ruthless renegade, as they have John Brown, if they thought they could get away with it.He went on to rhapsodize about his visits to John Brown’s grave, “hallowed in the memory of all old-timers and historians that believe in right and justice and honor where honor is due.”
This was 1941, the same year that hundreds of thousands of Jewish people were murdered in ghettos and concentration camps and pogroms all over Europe, the same year that the gas ovens went into operation at Auschwitz. I have to wonder how John Brown’s granddaughter felt about the doctor’s letter.
* * *
Nellie Groves was born in 1878, nearly two decades after John Brown’s execution for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. She never knew him. Her father was Salmon Brown, a son of John by his second wife. At the age of seventeen, Salmon was among the band of men who attacked a proslavery settlement near Osawatomie, Kansas, and killed the men with broadswords during the Kansas-Missouri border wars of the 1850s. That event, which came to be known as the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” marks the most infamous episode of John Brown’s infamous career. Even those historians who are sympathetic to my ancestor politely turn their eyes away from that night in 1856, clear their throats, and back out slowly from the room.
|Young Salmon Brown|
Where does murder end and war begin? Who gets to decide? For as long as John Brown’s body has been moldering, Americans have been divided as to the nature of his truth.
|Salmon Brown in later life|
With Salmon Brown's suicide in 1919, the last eyewitness and the living memory of what happened that night on Pottawatomie Creek vanished forever from the earth.
Salmon Brown--shepherd, butcher, meat packer, abolitionist, father of ten children, husband to Abigail--was buried with fanfare in the Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery on a hill in southwest Portland. The grave is still there, beside the graves of Abigail, and Nellie’s brother, John Brown III, DDS, a dentist with a drug habit whose marital problems played out publicly in the pages of the Oregon Journal.
|Salmon Brown's house today|
More than a hundred years have passed since that gunshot rang out, and nobody much remembers Salmon Brown. The house where he ended his life was for sale the last time I drove past. There is no plaque, no historical marker. It's just a rundown Portland foursquare, too close to 82nd, on a slow march toward the wrecking ball.
Like Nellie Groves, I never met John Brown. I’m every bit as biased as she was, just as righteously defensive about his legacy. I’ve been known to write letters to editors, correcting the record. Unlike Nellie Groves, I’ve long been accustomed to the mischaracterizations, misunderstandings, and factually incorrect assertions that abound in both popular culture and scholarly literature. He’s a historical figure, fair game for all confabulators. The sinister fiction of “Santa Fe Trail” was novel and shocking to Nellie Groves in 1941. For me, having grown up in the late twentieth century, it’s standard fare.
|Curry's famous John Brown mural, Topeka, Kan.|
(Lawrence Journal-World, 2009)
John Brown definitely had issues. He suffered from bouts of depression, and may have been obsessive. He was at least obsessed with ending slavery in America. He was zealous in his conviction that slavery was a grievous moral wrong, and after running stations on the Underground Railroad for most of his life, he set out in his fifties to take decisive action. It takes a kind of madness to believe that your individual actions can bring down a long-established tyrannical state like southern slavery, to stand up against the lies of an immoral system and insist upon the truth.
The Good Lord Bird gave me a perspective I didn’t have before on the black experience of the John Brown myth. I read it, and then I forgot about it, and then I saw that article about the miniseries, and felt vaguely sick.
I didn’t mind McBride’s book when it first came out. He did some research, and clearly had affection for the characters he wrote. I didn’t once confuse those characters with my ancestors. I read the book as a parody, satire, farce, a send-up of all the ridiculous fictions about John Brown, from “Santa Fe Trail” to God’s Angry Man. It was only when my bookish friends began to talk about it that I grew worried. Did they believe that these characters were based on people? That the plot was rooted in history? It’s fiction! I wanted to shout, and more than fiction, parody! Whatever ties to the truth McBride started out with, he cut them loose and let his story float away from fact, untethered and buoyant as a hot air balloon.
|"Santa Fe Trail's" bizarre John Brown (Raymond|
Massey) typified 20th century assumptions about the
abolitionist, especially in the white community
Inured by long exposure to the myth of John Brown’s insanity, I can easily enough accept that millions viewers will now have reason to believe he was a bible-thumping lunatic with a good heart who looked like Ethan Hawke. I find it harder to bring that same sense of resignation to the fictional depictions of John Brown’s children, maybe because they’re closer to me in blood, maybe because in a distant sense I count myself among them.
Out of all possible tellings of the John Brown story, that The Good Lord Bird should be the basis of the only contemporary film version enlists from me the sort of indignation that spills from the pages of Nellie Grove’s lawsuit against Warner Brothers Pictures. Novels are soon forgotten, even when they win the National Book Award, but miniseries stream forever on the internet. Worse than that, they reach large audiences. McBride wrote a fanciful tale, full of made up details, like the notion that the Brown boys were hard-drinking outlaws, when in fact they were all staunch temperance men. But it’s McBride’s caricature of Frederick, John Brown’s youngest son by Dianthe Lusk, that really gets me.
|Ethan Hawke as John Brown in |
SHOWTIME's "Good Lord Bird"
Frederick was on Pottawatomie Creek that night, but he didn’t wield a sword. Whether he was keeping watch or couldn’t stomach the task, we’ll never know. Witnesses agree that Frederick waited in the road while others carried out the bloody deeds. The retaliatory killing of Frederick is a bitter irony. He led a painful, struggle-filled life, and paid with his life for his complicity. Hasn’t he paid his dues? Apparently not. Apparently the facts of his sad life must also be distorted and subjected to parody on the Showtime channel.
If you know a little something about John Brown, the odds are good that your opinion is already fixed and unlikely to be moved one way or the other by a recitation of facts. He’s a good example of a polarizing figure, a symbol of all that divides us, a convenient object for a nation’s displaced hopes and fears. Southern propagandists made him a cartoon villain, and northern propagandists made him a cartoon saint. The difference then, as now, is that one side was on the right side of history. One side was on the side of liberty and truth.
The United States wasn’t very united in 1859 on the day of John Brown’s execution, and it isn’t very united now, in the age of President Trump. Like Nellie Groves, I want to believe that facts still matter, but maybe they never did. We seem increasingly unable as a people to distinguish truth from fiction. Maybe we never could.
I can’t stop SHOWTIME from making their miniseries. I’ll probably watch it. It will give me a convenient object on which to displace my rage and fear. I’m glad for Nellie Groves’ sake that she never lived to see it.--Marty Brown