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

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

David Reynolds on Midnight Rising

Notwithstanding the immense value of Robert McGlone's 2009 biography of Brown, no author and biographer has done more for John Brown's cultural and historical reputation in the broader public than David S. Reynolds, whose 2005 biography, John Brown Abolitionist broke through the wall of 20th century anti-Brown ignorance and bigotry, effectively restoring a great deal of light and reason to the popular understanding of Brown in the 21st century.  Reynolds' book signaled a real change for good, despite the snobbish protestation of writers like Sean Wilentz and others who prefer the conventional view of antebellum U.S. history (where white supremacy and chattel slavery are acceptable landscapes for the more meaningful story of white people and their political history).

Since the publication of Reynolds' book, some scholars have raised questions about Brown while suggesting their general appreciation for his noble stance in history.  In one case, it has been suggested that too much has been made of Brown's exceptional stance toward black people, and that his attitude and efforts for black freedom were far more typical among his white abolitionist contemporaries.  This attempt to "right size" Brown is unconvincing, especially in light of the Reynolds thesis, as well as my own previous profile of Brown in "Fire from the Midst of You."   To be sure, there were some notable white egalitarians among the abolitionists, and in some respects these heroic figures formed notable alliances with black abolitionists, a point illustrated in John Stauffer's seriously flawed but appreciable Black Hearts of Men.   However, as Reynolds shows, the sum of Brown's contributions was greater than the parts of the most notable anti-slavery figures in the antebellum era.  Hopefully I will revisit this more extensively at some point, but this is neither the time nor the place for addressing the problematic notion that Brown was hardly singular as a moral steward of abolitionism.

Yet the more positive and holistic view of Brown has been even more pointedly challenged, notably by Tony Horwitz in his new book, Midnight Rising.  Tony writes on the side of history where Brown's contributions and heroism may be appreciated, but not without considerable challenge and revision.  Clearly, Tony is not comfortable with the John Brown portrayed by Reynolds, Carton, me and others being accepted as the emerging 21st century image of the Old Man.  According to his own words, Tony argues for a more "nuanced" view of Brown in his new book.
Midnight Rising: Tony Horwitz
is not comfortable with the emerging
21st century portrait of John Brown

It is interesting, then, that David Reynolds has published a response to Midnight Rising in today's Wall Street Journal (Oct. 22), excerpts of which I publish below.  (The title, "An Angry Prophet," is undoubtedly the work of an editor, obviously intending to grab readers' attention.)  Due to copyright concerns, I have provided a substantial excerpt for the reader, who can use the provided link to read the review in its entirety on the WSJ website.
In his prologue to Midnight Rising, Tony Horwitz laments that, in his son's ninth-grade textbook, John Brown—the militant abolitionist whose attack on Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 helped to trigger the Civil War—is only a "speed bump for students racing ahead to Fort Sumter and the Gettysburg Address." When I was in high school, in the mid-1960s, my senior-year history book devoted only a dismissive paragraph to Brown. Back then, he wasn't so much a speed bump as road kill—a stinking skunk on history's highway. Brown was widely viewed as a homicidal maniac with a delusional plan for ending slavery.
In recent decades, Brown's reputation has improved, as historians have learned to value his dedication to eradicating slavery, his progressive attitudes on race and his perception that violence alone could uproot the South's peculiar institution. Mr. Horwitz says that, with Midnight Rising, he wants to enhance Brown's role in history by providing fresh information about him and his followers. He does indeed add some details to the record, but along the way he revives a few old, negative images of Brown that have been challenged in recent books, including Evan Carton's Patriotic Treason and Lou DeCaro's "Fire From the Midst of You." . . .
Brown thus plotted an invasion of the South that involved freeing some slaves and then retreating to the mountains, then moving southward and freeing more slaves and retreating again, and so on. He hoped thereby to destabilize the slave system and create panic among slaveholders. . . . 
. . .When it came to his plan to invade the South, Brown mustered support in the North and then stayed for months on a Maryland farm, training recruits. On the rainy evening of Oct. 16, 1859, he and 21 followers began their foray on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry. Brown seized the arsenal, liberated slaves in the region and took hostage a number of slaveholders, but he stalled too long in the town. After a bloody battle, he and several followers were captured by federal troops. Brown was tried before a Virginia court and hanged on Dec. 2, 1859. Six of his men followed him to the scaffold. 
Why did Brown linger in Harpers Ferry instead of fleeing to the mountains? Mr. Horwitz suggests that he had come to see himself as a new Samson, ready to sacrifice himself as long as the temple of slavery collapsed around him. 
Brown's immediate posthumous reputation was inevitably divided. In the South, he was seen as a satanic agitator who represented the North's aggressive designs. In the North, his insurrection plan seemed quixotic and futile, at first. But prominent Northerners like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau called Brown a peerless martyr who had died in a noble effort to free the slaves. Emerson predicted that Brown would make the gallows "as glorious as the Cross." The North's veneration of Brown swelled until he became a legend among Union troops, who famously sang as they marched: "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, / But his soul goes marching on." 
The idea of Brown as an inspiring freedom fighter has never died out. But during the long period of legalized segregation known as Jim Crow, his reputation plummeted. Biographers depicted him as murderous, fanatical, insane. This image was conveyed by revisionist historians and by movies like "Santa Fe Trail" (1940), in which Raymond Massey plays Brown as a wild-eyed zealot. 
It was left to modern historians to rescue Brown from ignominy. The civil-rights movement fostered a growing appreciation of Brown's forward-thinking views on race. A more positive view informed Stephen Oates's 1970 biography, To Purge This Land With Blood, which showed signs of sympathy while still questioning Brown's methods and sanity. 
Mr. Horwitz worries that, "through the lens of 9/11," we may now see John Brown as a "long-bearded fundamentalist" and Harpers Ferry as an "al-Qaeda prequel." He is right to worry about such reductionism, though 9/11, ironically, does help us to see that Brown's invasion plan was not utterly absurd. The past decade has shown what can happen when a determined splinter group wages war from hideouts—how disruptive it can be to the status quo. Had Brown made it to the mountains before he was captured at Harpers Ferry, he too might have had a powerful effect on events—a positive one (unlike al Qaeda), since he aimed to free four million slaves. 
Reynolds: "Emerson and 
Thoreau were 
closer to the truth."
Mr. Horwitz urges us to view Brown from within his own era. Here, too, there are reasons to see his plan as more plausible than crazy. In places like Jamaica and Haiti, black populations had driven out European colonizers by striking from mountain redoubts. Brown's plan changed over time, which leads Mr. Horwitz to see both vacillation and ineptitude. But Brown's tactical idea remained steady: He wanted to disrupt slavery from the mountains, whose topography he knew well from his days as a surveyor. 
To emphasize what he calls the "manifest implausibility" of Brown's scheme, Mr. Horwitz presents him as a maladroit leader with a fragmented following. Brown had "poor judgment of personnel," Horwitz tell us—as though there was ample opportunity in the 1850s to sort through a field of candidates ready to join a dangerous mission in the South. Mr. Horwitz notes that Brown's Northern supporters and his own soldiers often quarreled with him about battle plans—as though anyone in that decade could envisage a sure military strategy against the South. (Lincoln, for one, said in 1858 that war was not even an option against slavery.) 
In Midnight Rising, Mr. Horwitz corrects a fact here and there, adds some human anecdotes and local history, and records such details as the degree to which the various hanged bodies quivered after the noose had done its work. But much of his book is a gloss of what is already known. 
As for the figure at the center of the story, Mr. Horwitz sees him too often as the grim Old Man of long-ago histories: bold, arrogant, sly, fanatical, murderous, muddle-headed and possibly insane. One has to think that, with their more admiring view, Emerson and Thoreau were closer to the truth.

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