History, Research, and Current Themes

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

Search This Blog & Links


Monday, August 02, 2010

Regarding Fiction

A Non-fiction Reader Recommends Fire on the Mountain

Like the late Boyd Stutler, the godfather of John Brown scholars, I am not a big fan of fiction, and would not generally read fiction unless it provided some background to my historical research.  Probably, a good part of my apathy toward fiction is that I spent so many years in graduate and post-graduate studies and there always seemed to me to be more to be read in the literature of my chosen disciplines.  I realize man doesn't live by history alone, but with some exceptions, I've managed to live without fiction for some time now.

As far as John Brown is concerned, a good number of fiction works have been written, most notable being Elbert Hubbard’s Time and Chance; A Romance and a History: Being the Life of a Man (1899), Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body (1928), Leonard Ehrlich’s God's Angry Man (1932), Truman Nelson’s The Surveyor (1961), and George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Angel of the Lord (1994). Although my impression is that these works are all admirable to a degree, I have thus far avoided reading any of them.  Once more, I have never felt the time required to do so could be justified when there is so much research and reading to be done as to John Brown the man who lived. 

Probably the worst work of historical fiction about Brown is Bruce Olds’ Raising Holy Hell: A Novel (1995)—worst, not from a literary standpoint (I’m hardly in a position to make that judgment); but speaking as a biographer of Brown, Raising Holy Hell is an abomination.  Olds evidently believes that the postmodern writer of historical fiction has neither debt nor responsibility to the subject who lived, and thus he abuses the person of Brown in the most negative and cynical portrayal of the abolitionist to date.  (Of course, I did not read it, although I examined it the way one might examine a virus under a microscope.)   Although I was a bit more optimistic about the appearance of Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter: A Novel (1998), it took me several years to even attempt to read it.  Initially, I found it interesting, particularly Banks’ use of Katherine Mayo, who in real life was the professional assistant employed by biographer Oswald Garrison Villard.  Since I actually worked through the Villard papers at Columbia University, including the vast collection of Mayo’s field research, I thought my experience with Cloudsplitter would prove more interesting.  Ultimately, though, I did not find myself captivated by the story despite Banks’ obvious talents as a writer and story-teller.   Although I understand that historical fiction is primarily fiction, some of the features of Cloudsplitter made no sense to me as a biographer, and as a reader quite familiar to the John Brown story, I lost interest--frankly--because the real story is far more interesting to me, and the author’s artistic license as exercised only served to make me question the wisdom of writing historical fiction in the first place.  I have never finished reading it and probably will never endeavor to do so.  Indeed, for a beautifully written work on the life of John Brown, one need not consult fiction, but find an old copy of Barrie Stavis’ beautiful and moving biography, John Brown: The Sword and the Word (1970).  Stavis was a playwright with a keen sense as a researcher, and this little book may be the best thing written on Brown in the 20th century from both a literary and historical standpoint. 

I don’t know when (perhaps it was at the 1996 Penn State Mont Alto conference on John Brown), I remember someone talking about an interesting novel in which the author engaged the John Brown theme in a work of counterfactual fiction, a “what if” about the Harper’s Ferry raid.  However I soon forgot the discussion and never made inquiry about the book until this past May, when I happened upon an article written by the notable Sci-Fi author, Terry Bisson.  The piece, which Terry subsequently gave me permission to reproduce in this blog, is entitled, “John Brown—150 Years After Harpers Ferry,” and appeared in The Monthly Review online in October 2009.  

Beyond this excellent article, I soon learned that Terry Bisson was the author of that “what if” novel about the Harper’s Ferry raid that I had heard about years ago.  The book, Fire on the Mountain was originally published in 1988, but was republished last year for the John Brown/Harper’s Ferry Raid sesquicentennial with a new introduction by Mumia Abu Jamal.
To the point of this entry:  Despite distractions and competition from other readings, after I committed to reading Fire on the Mountain, I could not put it down until I had read it through.  It is not a long book, but it is conceptually as substantial a work as it is beautiful to read.  Nor is it another attempt at recasting the life of John Brown in the name of fiction, but rather Bisson engages the thoughtful question, “What if John Brown had won at Harper’s Ferry?”

I have no idea if this is the first counterfactual about the Harper’s Ferry raid, but for me the reading of Fire on the Mountain was a thoughtful and reflective experience.  This is partially so because I believe what actually happened at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 is not properly understood based on conventional sources.  Specifically, despite the tendency on the part of U.S. historians, journalists, and novelists to portray Brown’s raid as quixotic, it is my opinion that the effort had far more promise than most people realize.

First, Brown attacked Harper’s Ferry only after having made a thorough study of the town and the armory operation, and he knew that Harper’s Ferry was vulnerable and that the armory works had only a few armed guards.  Even though it was a government site, there was not even a military presence at the armory.  (Brown had lived in Springfield, Mass., the location of the only other government armory, and he knew far more about the operation of the facility than do most historians writing about Brown and Harper’s Ferry.)

Second, Brown struck on Sunday night and had he followed his original plan, he and his men would easily have exited Harper’s Ferry before the next morning.  Had they done so, they would likewise have eluded capture by local militia or the military from their positions in the mountains.  The U.S. military in 1859 was unimpressive and could not have easily apprehended small bands of Brown’s men, moving through the mountain system that stretched down into the South.  Even if the army mounted an attack, Brown's men were armed with superior Sharps rifles.  (Nor did Brown intend to take weapons from Harper's Ferry; his guns were superior to what was produced by the armory, and he told one reporter as much.) 

Third, contrary to the claims of white Virginians (who informed the Northern press), enslaved people responded enthusiastically to John Brown’s men.  Not only do we know that the view of the raid inherited by the North is highly questionable, we know that blacks responded to Brown’s presence with determination.  Although Brown ruined himself by delaying in Harper’s Ferry to the point of being surrounded and cut off from escape, there is ample evidence that locally enslaved blacks were waiting on the periphery of the town for him to withdraw.  When fighting broke out in town, these people withdrew. 

I would argue that any treatment of the raid that does not seriously consider these aspects will only perpetuate the same, tired old notion of the raid as an adventure in fanaticism.  Counterfactually speaking, John Brown narrowly missed an opportunity that might very well have resulted in an entirely different manner—certain escape and movement into the mountains, where he and his men would form elusive cadres of freedom fighters plunging deeper and deeper into the South over days, weeks, and months—all the time attracting increasing numbers of enslaved people to join them until the slave states were thrown into economic disarray, panic, and fear.   This is not to say that Brown’s fullest goals would necessarily have been met, or that he would have become the second George Washington, although even that is possible.  But we can be certain that a reasonable withdrawal from Harper’s Ferry would have put John Brown on the map in a way that we would still be talking about 150 years after the fact. 

In Fire on the Mountain, Terry Bisson takes this counterfactual perspective, but he starts one hundred years after Brown’s successful campaign began in Virginia.  As Bisson imagines it, Brown’s efforts ultimately resulted in a black state in the South, a state entirely separate from the older United States in the North.  Nor is the story primarily about Brown, but about a black woman descended from an ex-slave who followed the victorious Brown into the mountains, a story told through old correspondence.  Indeed, the story is presented on different levels—in the experience of the woman, Yasmin, who must travel to Harper’s Ferry in 1959 to present the narrative of her ancestor, Dr. Abraham (the young slave who was later trained in medicine), who had followed John Brown in 1859.  The story moves between past and present, ancestor and descendant, and further adds the correspondence of a young Virginia doctor who is converted to abolitionism and becomes a supporter of Brown.  The story thus moves easily and interestingly through these narratives, until we learn that Brown and his men had escaped Harper’s Ferry and made their way up into the mountains where they proved elusive and ferocious warriors.  This John Brown is not fraught with psychological or moral contradictions; he is simply a liberator, a freedom fighter who dies in the early 1860s after being wounded in battle.  In the long run, the successful efforts by Brown and his men result in the defeat of slavery and the founding of the black state of Nova Africa.  It is a different world indeed—a world where an independent black state has developed progressively to the point of space launches.  Brown is thus part of the founding history of a new nation, not the marginalized, misunderstood “terrorist” of other works of historical fiction.

One of the most interesting and enthralling moments of the story is when the main character comes upon a counterfactual version of the book, John Brown’s Body.  In Bisson’s version of history, John Brown’s Body is the same story as it is in reality, except in this counterfactual story it is anti-Brown political fiction written by a white racist.  In a world where John Brown is triumphant, it becomes a “what if” written from the untenable standpoint of Brown losing at Harper’s Ferry and being hanged for it.  Thus, instead of John Brown’s successful war of liberation, the nation is plunged into a counterfactual civil conflict primarily concerned with white nationhood.  Thus, by reading our nation’s history through the reverse counterfactual lens of Nova Africa in 1959, Bisson helps us to understand that what actually happened after the real John Brown’s death in 1859.  “White right prevails; the slave owners keep the land, even get more,” it is explained to Yasmin the main character.  “The slave system is modified” so that blacks “end up as serfs,” or “a sort of landless nation packed into the slums of Chicago and New York for occasional servile labor” (p. 76).

I agree with Mumia that Terry Bisson “uses fiction to answer the “What ifs” of human nature with brilliance and insight.”  Fire on the Mountain is enthralling and easily transports the reader to the “counterfactual historical” realm, which despite being fiction is both thoughtful and useful.   This is historical fiction done well and done right; instead of exploiting Brown’s weaknesses as precedents for distracting literary flourish, Bisson takes the precedent of a tenable raid on Harper’s Ferry and extrapolates a different outcome—one that helps us understand and appreciate history anew.—LD

Another Blogger's Review of Fire on the Mountain

Fire on the Mountain is an alternate American civil war history, in the classic mode: one battle goes differently, for the want of a battle the war is lost, and the nation becomes an altogether different place. But Bisson's approach is more than a bit of militaristic speculation: it is a revolutionary polemic clothed in an exciting and moving adventure story. In Bisson's world, Harriet Tubman joins John Brown at Harper's Ferry and the two of them kindle a nationwide abolitionist uprising that sparks a global series of socialist revolutions, in Canada, Haiti, Mexico, France, England, Ireland, and across the American continent among indigenous people.

The story takes place in two timelines: the history of the revolution is told in the form of a memoir of a slave-boy who grew up to be a revolutionary leader, and in correspondence from a white Virginian doctor who turned his back on privilege and fought alongside the rebels in John Brown's army.

Then there's a "contemporary" story, set in 1959, when socialist Africa is just about to land its first astronauts on Mars. Yasmin is the great-great granddaughter of the ex-slave whose memoir recounts the history of the revolution, and she is the widow of an African astronaut who died in space on an earlier, failed Mars mission. She is delivering her ancestor's papers to a revolutionary museum, travelling cross-country with her teenaged daughter, Harriet, the bother of them absorbed with bitter emotion at all the space travel in the news.

Weaving between these three stories, Bisson paints a picture of a world where progress is based on peace, not war, cooperation, not competition. And he tells the gripping tale of the war that was fought and the blood that was shed to get to that world, and of the ambivalence that the fighting and the not-fighting engender among all concerned.

It's a slender novel, a mere 150 pages, but it does the science fiction trick of making you step back from your own world and see it more clearly, and it does so while wrenching your heart and setting your pulse pounding. All in all, one of the best alternate histories I've read -- and a side of Bisson (a southerner who fought in the John Brown Anti-KKK League) I'm glad to have discovered.

No comments: