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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Saturday, December 04, 2010

In Years Past: 1910

The year 1910 marked the 51st year after John Brown’s raid.  Although a half-century is a life time, there were still a good many people alive at that time who were children or young adults at the time of John Brown’s raid.  Despite its flaws and biases, the biography of Brown by Oswald Garrison Villard, which was published in 1910, was fortuitous for our study beyond the intention of the author because the research behind it far exceeded Villard's use.  It has thus proven a great resource for a number of biographers subsequently, including yours truly.  Many readers know that Villard, the son of magnate Henry Villard, was also the grandson of William Lloyd Garrison (his mother was Frances Garrison).  Villard, a graduate of Harvard University and the heir to his father’s ownership of two prominent publications, The New York Evening Post and The Nation, was determined to prepare a scholarly work on Brown in commemoration of the half-century mark since the Harper’s Ferry raid. 

Oswald Garrison Villard (Library of Congress) -
His bio is a better resource book than an interpretation
In 1909, while Villard was preparing his book, W. E. B. DuBois, the eminent black scholar (and also Harvard graduate) published his book on John Brown in the 50th year after the raid, thus crossing the finish line before Villard. Although the biographers were associates in the early civil rights movement, Villard used his newspaper connections to harshly review the DuBois biography.  The latter protested, but his demands for an opportunity to respond were met with condescending rejection.  In turn, Villard’s book was published the following year to great success.  The story behind the DuBois-Villard friendship/falling out is a fascinating chapter for a number of reasons, but it certainly touches the theme of white liberal racism as well as professional and ideological bias.  (Readers with an interest in this theme may wish to check out my chapter in The Afterlife of John Brown (Palgrave Macmillan.)

W. E. B. DuBois, Biographer
of John Brown (National Park
) - despite its flaws,

his bio of Brown remains in print 
as a classic interpretation
Villard’s biography of Brown was premised on the claim of being an objective, factual work.  Of course, in many respects it was a thoroughly researched and "definitive" work for a new century.  On the other hand, despite his lofty claim to objectivity, Villard seems to have had two unacknowledged motivations in writing his book.  First, as the proud grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, he intended to revise the older, heroic view of Brown by painting a sympathetic but diminished treatment of the man.  Although he could not entirely compensate for the “stolen thunder” his grandfather Garrison had lost after Brown's famous martyrdom, it must have given him some satisfaction to publicly disqualify Brown from historical sainthood based upon his version of the Pottawatomie killings.  In private communication Villard gloated that at least his grandfather had not “murdered” people.  He also took out his extreme pacifist resentments upon Brown, whose use of force in any sense rendered him guilty in Villard's eyes.  In fact, he actually was an extreme pacifist, not just a non-resistant in political terms; his bias in this regard definitely shaped how he viewed John Brown. Villard could not have written his book had he not been wealthy and privileged to some degree.  Yet despite the fact that his work reflects a measure of snobbery and entitlement, the fact that he could afford to do the research has served later generations well.  It is also a point of criticism of Villard that he lambasted DuBois for using hackneyed, older sources in his John Brown 1909 biography.  DuBois was an activist and educator, not a wealthy, privileged white liberal, and he did not have the time or resources that Villard possessed.  Fortunately, history has proven more kindly to the DuBois biography, which continues to be published and read in new editions.  DuBois outlived Villard, and must have taken great comfort in seeing a 1962 edition of his biography published in honor of the Emancipation Proclamation centennial.  In contrast, the Villard biography has not enjoyed wide readership and is known mainly by students and scholars despite its largely negative impact upon later writing on Brown in the 20th century.

Katherine Mayo (in later
life) - her research on
Brown is memorable
More importantly, however, Villard had a very effective researcher (and upcoming writer) in the person of Katherine Mayo.  In 1908-09, Mayo scoured the country looking for John Brown letters, doing primary and secondary level interviews, transcribing holographs, collecting articles, and otherwise building a body of research material unprecedented in any work on Brown.  Notably, Mayo interviewed Brown’s surviving children, old Kansas settlers, and others whose voices might have been lost had it not been for her strenuous efforts to make a substantial record of their words.  Mayo is thus the unsung hero on the positive side of the Villard story: her extensive research, meticulous transcriptions, and exhaustive documentation provided Villard with great scholarly substance.  When I worked in the Villard papers a decade ago, I recall looking through a series of little memorandum/date books.  As I leafed through them, I realized that these were how Mayo constructed the first (partial) chronology of Brown (1855-59), included as flanking material in Villard’s book.  Mayo was not only a researcher, but published a number of articles on Brown at the time, thus cutting her teeth as a professional writer.  Her research—substantially representing most of what is entailed in the Columbia University John Brown-Oswald Garrison Villard Collection—remains a wonderful resource for researchers, following the great archives of the state of West Virginia and the Hudson (Ohio) Library and Historical Society which hold the papers of Boyd B. Stutler and Clarence S. Gee, respectively, as well as the archives of the Kansas State Historical Society.

Truly, the Villard project is a substantial link in the chain of John Brown historiography, and the link between 19th century writers and the monumental documentary research of Boyd B. Stutler, who carried the baton into the later 20th century.  In fact, Stutler became such an aficionado on John Brown that by the 1940s, he even helped Villard revise and correct his biography for a later edition.  From the work of Gee and Stutler (which had wound down by 1970), we then have Jean Libby, Palo Alto, Calif. in the field doing research on Brown’s raid and black involvement in Jefferson County in the later 1970s and onward.  Worthy mention should also be made of the extensive work on Brown’s raiders by N. Scott Wolfe, Galena, Ill.  Libby has since prepared the first and most extensive documentation on the photographic images of Brown. --LD [revised]

Another moment in 1910. . .

William H. Hickman (d. 1928)
Methodist minister,  Civil War
Veteran, and Chancellor of
DePauw University
Indiana GenWeb Project
"December 2 marked the 51st anniversary of the execution of John Brown at Charlestown, Virginia. In commemoration of the event, Rev. Dr. William H. Hickman of Pennville, Indiana gave a lecture in the First Congregational Church of Jamestown on John Brown as the John the Baptist of the Civil War--a lecture which was a masterpiece of its class and the equal of which had seldom if ever been heard from a Jamestown platform. While the audience was being seated, Miss Anna Knowlton played a selection on the organ, peculiarly appropriate to a gathering of this character in that it was an arrangement of patriotic airs."

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