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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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

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