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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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Monday, November 21, 2011

(A Review) From the Field:


by H. Scott Wolfe *

“Can’t we all just get along?”  Rodney King

I was soon to depart for my annual tour of the sunny South, so I was desperate for a copy of Tony Horwitz’s new book, Midnight Rising. Thus I trotted into a Barnes & Noble on a hope and a prayer for, technically, the book had still not been formally released. Cornering a clerk, and assuming a tragic look of woe sure to enliven her compassionate instincts, I inquired if the volume could somehow be available. Consulting her computer, she cryptically whispered: “It’s not on the shelves yet, but it is in the receiving room.” I was flooded with regret, for I had neglected to bring latex gloves and a surgical mask…but she happily broke the strained silence with “I’ll go check for you!” And moments later, the angelic capitalist returned with a fresh copy…still warm from the oven…and I was a happy man.
Your correspondent begins reading Midnight Rising 
at the Lincoln Trail Monument, near Vincennes, IN 
(photo by Nancy Wolfe)

The book was to join me as a traveling companion, and I eagerly anticipated perusing it. And peruse it I did…in fits and starts…from New Harmony, Indiana…to Vicksburg, Mississippi…to its completion upon an iron bench in New Orleans’ Jackson Square. I treated this new acquaintance with an open mind, as I customarily do whenever a new piece of John Browniana appears before these myopic eyes. I have devoted over half of my scandalous lifetime to the study of the Old Man and his associates. And all of my actions have, I sincerely trust, been based upon the accumulation of FACT…not personal bias…not my incisive intuitions or speculations…not clinical diagnostics…and certainly not what some learned sage wrote in his monumental biography of yesteryear.

The notorious keeper of this blog, the much esteemed Dr. DeCaro, had kindly invited me to provide my impressions after reading the Horwitz effort. He also, in subsequent postings, compared my Southern tour to that of James Redpath, the first of the Old Man’s biographers. I must first respond to the latter, for that comparison is invalid. My settled outlook is not that of Redpath’s Roving Editor, not that of Olmstead’s Cotton Kingdom, but rather, more closely akin to H.L. Mencken’s Sahara of the Bozart.** That said, it is on to his initial request….

Comfortably ensconced upon the banks of the Wabash, I began reading the prologue of Midnight Rising…and was immediately beset with terror. Expecting, at long last, a solid historical narrative of the Old Man’s Harpers Ferry incursion, I instead began to lose some of my joyous vacation demeanor…Some unseemly oaths began to be launched (My apologies to the hotel housekeepers who may have overheard me.)…And, most distressingly, my jalapeno pizza at the Yellow Tavern just did not seem as enjoyable as in years past. The cause of my suffering was the author’s blunt statement of purpose: “The place I wanted to be was inside their heads. What led them to launch a brazen attack on their own government and countrymen?”  And then, of course, the obligatory references to 9/11, where a “long bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government,” launches a “suicidal strike” upon a Federal facility.

I must admit, I found myself quoting the immortal words of General McAuliffe at the Battle of the Bulge: “NUTS!”

What was life REALLY like in that attic?" The Kennedy Farmhouse, 
Washington County, Maryland, pre-raid headquarters 
for John Brown and his men (photo by H. Scott Wolfe)
I would be an exceedingly wealthy man if I had received a dollar for every time I’ve told someone that I longed for an accurate, readable account of John Brown and his men at Harpers Ferry. In an long-ago geological epoch, when I first began the intellectual pursuit of the Old Man, I had collected a number of the earlier attempts: Laurence Green’s The Raid (1953); Allan Keller’s Thunder at Harper’s Ferry (1958); and Truman Nelson’s The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (1973). None of these efforts satisfied me, for they were replete with inaccuracies, fictional accounts and a lack of proper documentation. I longed for a truly evocative, sensory treatment of those stirring events of long ago. At times I feared that it would require a gifted novelist…not an arid historian…to tell the story I so craved. For I wanted to hear those desultory gunshots…the squeal of the express train from Wheeling…the curses of the drunken patrons of the Galt House saloon. I wanted to vicariously experience the dark, damp interior of the armory engine house…its numbing cold, its fear and confusion, the moans of the dying, the metallic smell of blood, the choking smoke of gunpowder. Unrealistic dreams, perhaps.

So then, with such high expectations, I was confronted with the possibility of yet another psychoanalytic leap into “their heads,” or the viewing of Harpers Ferry through the well-worn lens of present day Islamic terrorism. Why is it that when writers seek to describe a historical character, such as John Brown, their accounts immediately degenerate into Freudian monographs? “Yes,” they might pontificate, “this homegrown American terrorist found himself gripping a Sharps rifle for the obvious reason that during early childhood he lost a prized yellow marble beyond recovery.” Or perhaps: “Add to this the fact that he once stole three large brass pins,” they rant, “it is no wonder he became a Kansas outlaw.” In more recent Bin Ladenish years, one would almost believe that the length of an individual’s facial hair is in direct proportion to his proneness to fanaticism.

This is crazy! Instead of telling the fascinating STORY…the incredible STORY…the momentous STORY of John Brown, we gravitate toward psychobabble and petty schoolyard disputes. We immediately line up in factions…black and white…pro and con…praise and damnation…hero and villain…terrorist and freedom fighter…sane and insane. We criticize a Brown history or biography as if it were some kind of tax bill being considered by a “bipartisan” Super Committee…each side firmly entrenched…unwilling to budge from their preconceived notions…all fearful of upsetting their basic constituencies. What we are losing folks, through our own neglect, is one of the most fascinating sagas that history can ever hope to offer…one of the greatest stories in the annals of American history. Indeed, I say,“can’t we all just get along?”

Now before you all assume that I am contemplating yet another sword thrust to the vitals of Midnight Rising, do not be misled. There was plenty more to read. And as I absorbed Horwitz’s basic outline of the life of Brown…and the narrative of the Harpers Ferry raid…I can honestly state that I enjoyed the book very much. His goals listed in the prologue did not ultimately consume the book. He did not attempt to stretch the Old Man and his men on the psychiatric couch of history.

No, the narrative did not meet my self-imposed expectations of evocative writing. I could not vicariously find myself tucked behind a tree in the arsenal yard on October 17, 1859. But I found it a very readable book…a book eminently capable of introducing the Old Man to a general audience devoid of the least knowledge and appreciation for his historic import. And (most pleasing to me) for the very first time, the neglected members of Brown’s Provisional Army of the United States were adequately introduced to the reading public. Horwitz has admirably utilized a wide-ranging and significant sampling of primary sources…quoting from the letters and papers of the men…and has provided most welcome, if brief, biographical sketches of those who marched to the Ferry. There is much more work to be done, but perhaps we have turned the first shovel full of earth.
Your correspondent finishes Midnight Rising in 
Jackson Square, New Orleans, LA  
(photo by Nancy Wolfe)

This is not a scholarly book. This is a popular book. It is written to make money…and a good deal of money is being spent to promote it. The abundance of reviews in major publications and the appearance of the author on such programs as PBS’s Newshour has increased the public exposure of John Brown and Harpers Ferry…which is all to the good. I say, the more the merrier.

Metaphorically, I consider Midnight Rising a sturdy framework…upon which more specialized studies of Brown, his men or the events in which they participated, can be firmly set in place. Once this basic framework is fully laden with the bricks and mortar of honest and unbiased research, it is my sincere hope that the TRUTH of John Brown will, as Mrs. Howe famously declared, keep marching on.

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes.

** Editor's note: I had to look this one up, folks.  Scott's reference is to a 1917 essay by Henry Louis Mencken in the New York Evening Mail, later reprinted in his book, Prejudices, Second Series (1920). The article proved a blunt and provocative criticism of Southern culture in that era.  But Mencken was from Baltimore, and his criticism was not a Northerner's harangue, but rather was premised on his belief that the South had declined into cultural sterility and provincialism in his era.  See Fred Hobs, "Henry Louis Mencken, 1880-1956," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press

Monday, November 14, 2011

From the Field:
The Roving 21st Century Editor Writes from Deep in the South

I write you from Tupelo, Mississippi . . . awash with the ghosts of Elvis. I have been without computer access since New Harmony, but have had a most successful sojourn in both Vicksburg, Miss. and New Orleans, La. . . .

     I survived my seventeen mile jaunt at the Vicksburg battlefield. Pretty good for an old guy. While enroute, I found out that there is still work to be done in the "Red States."

     I had halted for lunch at a point known militarily as "Thayer's Approach." I was happily ingesting some biscuits that I had purloined from breakfast, when a group of unreconstructed Confederates pulled up in their enormous SUV. Their "leader" (or at least the fellow with the biggest mouth) promptly began to lecture the others in this way (with the proper Suthin' lilt):

"Don't y'all wish you coulda been up there shootin' Yankees?"
"Y'all bet," they responded in unison.

"Too bad the Confederates didn't win," said the leader. "We sure wouldn't have all these problems we have today. For sure we wouldn't have all these folks on welfare."
"Y'all are right there," said the disciples.

 I had my back turned during this discourse and, having finished eating, I headed down the road. About ten minutes later they drove up beside me, and the leader rolled down his window and said:

"Why y'all wearin' that Yankee hat?" ( I was wearing a Union kepi.)
"Well," I responded, "we are inside the Union lines, aren't we?"
"True enough," said he, "so y'all better change it on the other side."

Having experienced these showoffs yearly (and knowing them to be essentially cowards), I slipped in the knife by saying:

 "You know, you Rebs are good at two things."
 "What's that?" said the blowhard.
 "Making Bar-B-Q and surrendering," I answered.

The redneck turned redder, and sped on into the sunset.

True story. Will send you something on my return.

From the (battle)field,

H. Scott

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District and now a regular correspondent and contributor to this blog. He has devoted many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes. 

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Bearing Witness:
James Baldwin: “Ask John Brown”

PEN American Center is the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization.  It was founded in 1922 (International PEN was founded in 1921).  According to its website, PEN American Center “has remained a writer-centered organization in which members play a leading role,” and today has 3,400 Professional Members—“the most distinguished writers, translators, and editors in the United States.”

This past August 2, PEN American Center featured an interview with James Baldwin by Frank Schatz in 1973, in honor of Baldwin’s birthday.  The website says: “In his typically candid style, Baldwin talks . . . about the legacy of slavery, a nation in perpetual decline, and the American tendency to ‘destroy history.’”  This feature is less than ten minutes in length, and probably is an excerpt from a larger interview.  However, it is vintage Baldwin on Brown.

James Baldwin was a frank admirer of the Old Man.  Once, during a presidential campaign, a reporter asked him which presidential candidate he was voting for.  Baldwin replied, “John Brown.”  I have never been a reader of his fiction, but I consider his essays about racism and white society profound and prophetic.   As Malcolm X once observed, Baldwin was not permitted to make a speech during the 1963 March on Washington because they were not sure that he would stick to the script.  James Baldwin was unabashed in highlighting the life and meaning of Brown in the most unrestrained tones of admiration.  This remarkable interview portion makes this clear, as Baldwin audibly thinks about the racism of the United States, as it were, through the historical lens of Brown's life and struggle.  Thanks to the PEN American Center for sharing it with us.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Dear John--
John Brown and Violence: A Response

A thoughtful reader, Professor John Rudy, made the following comment on the other entry for Nov. 3rd on this blog.  He writes:
I think my chief problem with Brown has always sprung from his use of violence, because I've never been convinced that taking another's life, whether perpetrated by a slaveholder on another human being or by Brown and his men at Harpers Ferry and Pottawatomie, can ever be deemed just.  
I have had my students in the class I am teaching on Brown this semester ruminating on that very concept, as well as investigating the divide between Garrisonians and Immediatists, as they try to dissect who Brown was and why he chose to do what he did. I would love to hear your thoughts on when and if it is just and right to end another person's life by force.
Prof. Rudy is kind enough to offer a thoughtful comment and also solicits my thoughts on whether the use of violence is ever "just and right" to use force to kill someone.  Obviously, his remarks require extensive reflection and discussion, but I will attempt to make some response in the hopes it is helpful, even if he does not agree.

First, I'd say that the issue of John Brown and violence is typically a theme raised by people who are not pacifists in principle.  Therefore we need not get bogged down addressing their criticisms, which essentially reflect some degree of political double standard or hypocrisy.  You pose a different question than people who like to attack Brown’s legacy because he used violence while turning a blind eye to the violence of slavery, the violence of their nation against other nations, and the violence of their heroes (often exerted against people of color).  

Second, I would only say that if your students want to know who Brown was and the source of his actions, they must fairly understand not only the political but also the religious themes of Brown’s culture and past.  Simplistic treatments of the “violent Old Testament God” versus the “peaceful New Testament God” is anachronistic gnosticism that has no validity in itself let alone in Brown’s case.   Your students should be willing to consider why a sincere, essentially peaceful, and extremely moral and gentle Christian man like John Brown would fundamentally differ with someone like William Lloyd Garrison.  I hope they will consider reading my “religious life” of Brown which may help to some degree.  They should also explore the long debate in Christian history between pacifists and advocates of “just” force, but also keep in mind that many Christians like Brown were both peacefully oriented but could not subscribe to pacifism in principle as a binding stricture for all circumstances.    

Third, you have asked me what I believe as to the use of force in ending human life.  My view is probably closer to that of John Brown.  My understanding is living a peaceful, nonviolent existence should be normative for a Christian. While Christians like Brown believed that humans are made in the image of God, the sanctity of human life does not take precedent in all situations for them.  Certainly, Brown believed that government was granted the right to capital punishment and to wage war under conditions that did not violate biblical morality.  He also believed that under certain circumstances, individual Christians could employ some degree of force to oppose injustice for the sake of the weak and oppressed.

Obviously, there is not enough space or time to debate these presuppositions.  There is a long tradition of pacifism within Christianity, and it is arguable that the early church (for instance) did not begin to change until the “Christianization” of the Roman empire.  Whether or not that’s true, the preponderant voice of early Christianity was non-violent and extremely so.  But later Christians took a different view, particularly the “Just War” view coming out of Augustine and Aquinas.  The Protestant Reformers, as seen in the case of the magisterial Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and others, were not pacifists like the Anabaptists.  Brown was quite consciously rooted in the Calvinistic-Puritan tradition and probably never was a pacifist, although it seems that in his twenties and early thirties, he was somewhat influenced by a conservative bent that amounted to de facto pacifism.  It was only as the slave power grew in militancy and violence that Brown began to conclude that force might be necessary to win back the nation and liberate the enslaved from its grip.  Indeed, we can see that Brown did not openly espouse the use of force until the Fugitive Slave Law if 1850 effectively forced the entire nation under the domain of slavery.  Certainly by 1859, there was no possibility of any kind of liberation—every legal and practical avenue toward peaceful resolution of the problem of slavery was gone.  While the South was increasingly threatening secession, it was itself promoting the most radically violent and terroristic program in Kansas. 

Finally, I respectfully disagree that the sanctity of human life always trumps every other issue.  I do not understand the teaching of Jesus to advocate complete passivity in the face of wicked violence, although I believe that His followers should go the greatest length before the resort to violence.  The answer is not ideal: it is not always clear what the greatest length may be, or what kind of violence is necessary.  Often the resort to violence can slip into tragedy, and even good people may end up shedding blood unnecessarily in the midst of a legitimate struggle.  It is interesting that Brown’s hero was Oliver Cromwell, whose legacy is forever stained by the bloody slaughter of Irish Roman Catholics at Drogheda and Wexford.  Yet Brown’s case is hardly that of Cromwell.  The five men killed at Pottawatomie in the Kansas territory in 1856 were collaborating with terrorists and the Browns and others had no resort to protection from the law, even as a veritable army of thugs were planning to attack Osawatomie and specifically targeted the abolitionist Browns.  At Harper’s Ferry, Brown gave no order to murder people and those few killed were either shot dead in gun battle or killed by accident and/or apart from Brown’s orders amidst the attack.

Advocating for the necessary use of force and for the necessity of taking human life under certain circumstances is a difficult and often imperfect position to take.  It is easy for pacifists to lampoon those who use violence because, as we acknowledge, often the efforts of even the most conscientious soldiers result in the deaths of non-combatants or slip into unforeseen, terrible outcomes.

On the other hand, the pacifist is consistently subject to the criticism that they are enslaved to a notion of peace that is not only unrealistic with respect to the human condition, but also disqualifies them from serving any real good for humanity except as Brown put it, “talk, talk, talk.”  Garrison had a lot to say about the evil of slavery, but he had no plan—not even a political plan to end slavery.  His solution was to destroy the constitution and “morally” persuade selfish, wicked men to give up their property, which might as well be the religion of tooth fairies and unicorns.  I personally do not believe that Garrison advocated a consistently biblical view of the use of force; furthermore, people like him generally stand by while weak and oppressed people suffer without hope of relief.  Pacifists never liberate people from evil forces, but rely on "violent" people to do the fighting.  Pacifists are so high-minded and doctrinaire about the supposed inviolable value of every human life that they are willing to stand by and let individuals be slaughtered, raped, enslaved, and oppressed in the name of not harming a single soul!  God forbid that you or I should ever find ourselves in mortal danger with only a pacifist as an ally.  

The reason that Oswald Garrison Villard painted such a negative view of Brown the hero in his 1910 book was because he was not only Garrison’s grandson, but a radical pacifist.  Villard himself was later criticized for having been willing to let the Nazis take over the world in the name of non-resistance.  Brown and his family were quite convinced that such passivity in the face of evil was no virtue, and in the absence of any effort on the part of any anti-slavery figure of the antebellum era, he alone tried to launch a program that would use force without insurrectionary bloodletting for the liberation of enslaved people.

I think it is easy for you to sit back in the comfort of your particular situation and pin down John Brown's historical ears for having used violence.  At least I hope you’re consistent in applying that presupposition to all circumstances, and I hope you would take the same position if the lives of your loved ones and community were under militant and malignant assault.  I wonder whether you would reevaluate your assumption that killing bad people is unjust.  Perhaps you would be true to your conviction, and allow thugs and murderers to do unspeakable evil in your presence when you have the power to resist.  I hope not.  I do not consider that virtue, Christian or otherwise.  I consider such a response sheer folly.

I admit that taking the road to the use of force is terrible and terribly uncertain.  But I believe that time and again in history, good men and women have made a difference by taking up swords and guns in the face of real threats of evil.   I also believe that throughout history, the deaths of bad people or people in the service of evil systems has proven a benefit to humanity.  Of course, had good people only relied on swords and guns, perhaps their actions would also amount to folly.  But people like John Brown did not “live by the sword” as many assume.  Brown himself believed that bearing the sword of steel was something given to him for a season and that it was also a manner of warfare inferior to the “sword of the spirit,” which he ultimately wielded with far more success.  However, had he not used the sword of steel, he could not have unsheathed the sword of the spirit.  Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we find ourselves entangled in conflicts that involve both, and we should worry when men and women neglect either one for the other. 

When I think of John Brown, I think of a man whose extraordinary example was clearly seen and appreciated by Garrison, Quakers, and other pacifists precisely because they knew that his use of force and violence was the not the sum total of who he was or what he did in opposing slavery.  It seems to me that if you are likewise a pacifist, you should explore more deeply why a whole generation of pacifists were ultimately won over by the words and character of such a “violent” man as John Brown.  Were they deluded?  Assuming that they were not deluded, then as a pacifist yourself, it seems to me that you have not yet grasped what they did concerning the Old Man of Harper’s Ferry.  I suspect that most people are entirely clueless as to John Brown the man who lived, and that his admiring pacifist friends probably knew him better than many of us do today.

I'm Not Surprised--
Boyle's New York Times Review of Midnight Rising

As I understand it, the policy of the New York Times Book Review is NOT to ask specialists to review new books addressing the subject matter of their specialization.  Perhaps it is assumed that professional jealousy and doctrinaire prejudice would militate against a fair review, and therefore it is better to have a review written by someone marginal to the subject.  If this is true, then the rationale is flawed, mainly because it sacrifices depth of understanding, even as it potentially blinds the reader from ascertaining whether the book under review is really as good (or bad) as the reviewer says it is.

I raise this point because Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising was reviewed in the NYTBR this past week (Oct. 28)--and frankly it’s superficial at its best, and awfully misleading and stupid at worst.  In this case, the reviewer is a Ph.D at Ohio State University named Kevin Boyle who—according to his online university profile—teaches “twentieth century American history, with an emphasis on class, race, and politics.”  This is not to detract from Dr. Boyle, who seems to be "all that and a bag of chips" as far as academia goes.  By all accounts, he is an award-winning, fellowship holding, board-sitting son of a gun and probably knows a lot about his areas of specialization in 20th century history.  The problem is that Dr. Boyle doesn’t know diddly about John Brown, except for what he’s read in Tony’s book and perhaps what he’s watched on the History Channel or some other corrupted source.

For the most part, Boyle’s review is pedestrian.  Then he ends the review with this fairly stupid piece of affectation:
Horwitz does his best to keep the ghosts at bay, taking care to avoid tying Brown directly to today’s fevered politics. The link is tricky, to be sure. No matter what anyone may argue, no current issue can claim the moral purity of the abolitionist crusade. Still, it’s impossible to read this fine book without thinking about the modern-day Browns, soldiers of a vengeful God, seeking righteousness in a fierce burst of violence, justice in the shedding of blood. Maybe Horwitz decided that he didn’t need to make the comparison explicit. As he knows so well, the past and the present have a way of fusing together on their own. And this time the connection isn’t comforting at all.
Frankly, I’m not surprised.  It was inevitable that some ill-schooled academic (inevitably a white man with all the right credentials) would take Tony’s thesis and run in the wrong direction with it.  Almost anything published about Brown is good enough reason for one of these types to do their little anti-John Brown song-and-dance.    Can we forget the gratuitous, silly tirade of Sean Wilentz in reaction to David Reynolds’ milestone biography?   Dogs just can’t help barking at the moon.

As much as I like Tony Horwitz and respect his work and efforts (no one can say that he didn’t research or produce a well written effort), I still say that his take on Brown is flawed, both regarding Pottawatomie and the Harper’s Ferry raid.  Of course I disagree with his treatment of the facts; but this is largely a presuppositional matter.  It is important to point out that notwithstanding his careful attention to detail in many respects, Tony’s book flies in the face of important evidence and the preponderant views of the dominant writers and researchers on Brown.  While Tony is careful not to step in the same pile he stepped in when he wrote that New York Times Op-Ed piece back in 2009 (by insinuating comparisons between Brown and bearded Muslim terrorists), he leaves enough room for—and perhaps even baits—others to make that same insinuation, as Boyle’s conclusion reveals.

To be sure, Boyle is not entirely culpable for finding it “impossible” not to read Midnight Rising “without thinking about the modern-day Browns, soldiers of a vengeful God, seeking righteousness in a fierce burst of violence, justice in the shedding of blood.”  This is partly Tony’s fault, given his ambivalent view of the Old Man--seeing him as both someone to appreciate and someone to disdain.  Yet if Boyle’s review ends with references to bursts of violence, shedding of blood, and the inevitable “discomfort,” it’s also because he’s both prejudiced and unstudied in matters pertaining to John Brown—which is only to say that he’s a member of a very large club in the American academy. 

As I said before, I’m not really surprised by any of this.  "The Old Gray Lady" could have asked McGlone, Reynolds, Carton, or me to review the book.   Or they could have asked me if I knew anyone competent to review a book about John Brown, and I could have told them to ask Jean Libby or Scott Wolfe, two people who have spent years in their respective grassroots research on Brown and the Harper’s Ferry raid.  (I should mention that I am patiently awaiting a review from the latter, who is currently touring the South, Redpath style, while he reads Midnight Rising).  Certainly, a qualified reviewer would have been far more sensitive to the considerable points of vulnerability in Tony’s narrative and interpretation.  But knowing nothing about Brown or Kansas or Harper’s Ferry, Boyle merely takes his word for it, and then draws the same old hackneyed conclusion he probably made even before he read the book.

As reviews go, Boyle’s review of Midnight Rising is fairly useless, except to point out that those with the worst prejudices against Brown will not be sufficiently challenged by the book either.