History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

John Brown: His Fight for Freedom to be released in time for the Harper's Ferry Raid Sesquicentennial

I am currently enjoying two newly released books on the Old Man, Robert E. McGlone's John Brown's War Against Slavery [review forthcoming] and the delightful and brilliant John Brown: His Fight for Freedom by John Hendrix. Hendrix's John Brown is a beautiful, yea, masterful illustrative work for young people. As I have no technical or professional knowledge of the illustrator's craft, I will leave it to readers of greater understanding to detail the beauties of this work. Suffice it to say that the book is wonderful--beautiful images, colors, and wonderfully imaginative use of typography. John Hendrix, although still a relatively young man, is a seasoned illustrator with an impressive curriculum vita and portfolio, and you are encouraged to visit his professional website, which includes an array of information, a sketchbook, and a gallery (you can purchase prints, including prints of John Brown).

What makes John Brown: His Fight for Freedom even more interesting is that the illustrator is also the author of the book, and a truly excellent writer in his own right. Of course I must acknowledge a measure of bias here: I met John and Andrea Hendrix about a decade ago when they moved to the east coast so that John could pursue his studies at The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Having studied at Lawrence, Kansas, John was already endowed with a real interest in Brown and had done some illustration work on a Kansas project related to the subject. Delighted as I was to have the Hendrixes attend the church where I was serving as pastor (in nearby Jersey City), I was even more pleased to learn that I found someone else who was actually interested in talking about the Old Man. It quickly became evident to me that John is not only a super-talented guy at his craft (I was also tickled to learn that he worked in his sketchbook during church service, which means that a few of his sketches were sort of illustrated notes on my sermons), but that he has the mind of a scholar. While I am honored that my books have, along with other texts, served to inspire and instruct John in his own reflections on Brown, his work as writer equally impresses me for its clarity and faithfulness to the record.

He has not only written an honest, studied account of John Brown, prepared for a young audience and thus crafted as succinct and simple (in the best sense of the word), but has captured critically important themes of the story. One of my favorites is a line from a page picturing John Brown perplexed as the raid at Harper's Ferry turned for the worst: "The unfolding events shook John to the core," our John writes. "He became a hesitant leader." This is a critical moment in the story, best chronicled by Osborn Anderson, the surviving raider who left us the only written account by a participant in the raid. John also provides a thoughtful author's note, a short bibliography of selected sources, and an index. However impressive for its art, this is not simply a book of grand illustrations that will excite the imagination of young people and interest adults as well. It is also a reflective, researched, and arguably relevant interpretation of Brown in its own right.

I believe that, broadly speaking, should young people have the opportunity to read John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, this book may prove to be a significant factor in creating a generational turning-point in the way that Brown is understood in this nation. Hendrix not only knows art and illustration; he also understands Brown as a cultural and religious figure, and he seems far more mature, liberal, and reflective in handling Brown than do many academics still caught up in the same old pants-piddling commentaries about the Old Man as a fanatic, madman, and terrorist.

I thought I would also include a brief entry that John Hendrix made about the book this past spring on Drawger:

"This is the first book I wrote and illustrated, and it represents over 6 years of work, struggle, heartache and caffeine. Seeing it exist as a real book for the first time is so thrilling and humbling. Truly, I have no idea how this book got made. A book, for children, about a religiously motivated abolitionist who was hanged for treason is the definition of a hard sell.

The book was picked up in 2003 the first time at another publisher and we worked on it for a year and a half before they dropped it due to the controversial nature of the content. But, it came to life again at the amazing Abrams Books for Young Readers in 2006, thanks to editor Howard Reeves.

Writing any book for children is not an easy undertaking, but a non-fiction book adds an entirely new level of scholarship and responsibility to the historical record. I found that I really enjoyed learning everything I could about a subject. Lets just say, next time you see me at an opening, don't bring up John Brown- because I have hours of material.

Most people ask me why I chose to write a book, for children, about John Brown.

In my opinion, he is a true civil-rights hero. And, generally, most people think he was a lunatic. We have this popular image of him as an insane loony who killed people with some flawed notion of his own importance who was punishing innocent civilians because of his religious beliefs. When you really read what he believed and why he was brought to his actions- you see just how unique he was in his own era. A true visionary, and he has been minimized because I think most people are uncomfortable with people who are strongly motivated by religious ideas. So, I feel as though he deserves a more accurate account of his life.

The challenges in telling this story are easy to pick out. Though I really think there is value in talking to children about the nature of human conflict and the nature of evil, showing the events of his life (visually!) to an audience of young people was tough. You don't want to sugar coat his action and create some inadvertent propaganda. But you also need to be sensitive and protect young people from things that would negatively affect their minds. Generally I think that kids are pretty robust thinkers and can handle cognitive dissonance, as long as we present it in a manner that is clear.

I've been invited to present my work at the 150th anniversary of the Harper's Ferry Raid at the John Brown Conference this year... and yes, I will be wearing my full John Brown costume.

It is not officially released till September, but just track me down in person.... I'll be carrying a copy with me at all times for the next three months. Now, its time to start the next book. A John Brown sequel!"

John Brown: His Fight For Freedom: An Exhibit (University City, Mo.)

You may have seen John Hendrix's illustrations in Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times or Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine for United Airlines. Hendrix combines his significant skill at crafting a strong drawing with a designer's eye for composition to create visually arresting images that are heavy with significance. He's also a big fan of Civil War history, a fact that informs his forthcoming children's book, John Brown: His Fight For Freedom. The famous abolitionist may seem an odd choice for a young reader, what with the murders and the attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory and all, but Hendrix handles the matter truthfully and with respect for his readers' intelligence. Hendrix also highlights the idealism of a man out of step with his own time, who believed slavery was an abomination in God's eyes, and who was recognized by Thoreau and Emerson as a visionary civil-rights advocate. In honor of John Brown, Hendrix has commandeered the gallery and the front window at Subterranean Books (6275 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-862-6100 or www.subbooks.com) with original illustrations and developmental drawings that show the process of making the book itself. His front window display, a massive open Bible with a chain and padlock atop it and a Bowie knife slicing said chain asunder, is classic Hendrix magic. Nothing could more perfectly represent the two sides of Brown's public character. Hendrix's work is on display daily through Sunday, September 27. On Thursday, September 10, Hendrix celebrates the official release of the book with a reception and signing.

Date/Time:Daily from Mon., August 10 until Sun., September 27
Price: free

Subterranean Books
6275 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO


Andi said...

Hi Lou-
For some reason I haven't read this until now. Thank you for your kind words about John's book. You must know that you played a huge part in this as well!
Love to you & the fam.

boris said...

It might be interesting to note that in Gen. Grant's autobiography,he stated that his father at a young age moved west. He temporarily lived with the Brown family, of which John Brown was a young man at the time. Grant's father said he didn't have much recollection of John except that he was fanatic about everything he did.

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

Thanks Boris--Yes, Jesse Grant said that young John Brown was "a fanatic and extremist in whatever he advocated." This fairly well fits Brown's very forceful and insistent approach to anything he believed in. BUT you left out that Grant also said that Brown was "a man of great purity of character, of high moral and physical courage" too. Bear in mind also that the Grants were hardly abolitionists or passionate allies of black people, so what Jesse Grant said after the fact was reflective of his conservative perspective, including his mistaken notion that it was "the act of an insane man to attempt the invasion of the South, and the overthrow of slavery, with less than twenty men." When conservative people call JB a "fanatic," "insane," and "extremist," they're usually revealing a lot more about their own unwillingness to take action on behalf of others. Grant fought for the Union first, not for black freedom. So his remarks are fairly apropos of his politics.

The Grant material is found in Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885), chapter 1.