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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Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Perennially Unfinished Business of Biography--
Two Responses to Midnight Rising (with comment)

Review by Jean Libby, independent researcher and scholar

Tony Horwitz, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Confederates in the Attic (Pantheon, 1998).  He delivers the details of the event and the people in it by choice or by chance in a narrative that weaves the documentary base into reality.  Not since Stephen Benet’s epic John Brown’s Body (Doubleday, 1928) have the streets of Harpers Ferry on October 16 – 18, 1859, been so vividly portrayed.  Like Benet (who is effectively invoked in section breaks) the author Tony Horwitz has a strong background in the Civil War.                                                  

His work as a war correspondent serves him well, as the John Brown raid is a battle which was intended to be a larger movement (or invasion) gone wrong.  The raid became larger with John Brown’s unflinching insistence on freedom and citizenship for enslaved Americans.  Placing Brown’s plan in the context of world history of small, dedicated and well-equipped forces the raid makes sense.  Horwitz’s knowledge of the terrain—gained on the ground with the expertise of National Park Service ranger David Fox and NPS historian Dennis Frye—focuses his writing with extensive research notes and clarifies the story so often told in miserable confusion.

Horwitz leads us down the same road to Harpers Ferry that John Brown and his men took from the Kennedy Farm in Washington County, Maryland, on October 16, 1859.  The road begins in Sharpsburg, where three years later Confederate forces under the commands of officers who captured John Brown in Virginia would march in the uphill direction toward the creeks and fields that resonate in American Civil War memory—Antietam, the Dunker Church, and South Mountain.

I took that road in the midnight hours of October 16, 1978, which was one of the few occasions that the calendar date is on Sunday night, as it was in 1859.  There was no walking path across the bridge; our National Park Service AWOL guide had a key to unlock the entry gate to the trestles, and knew the train schedule because we would have been knocked into the Potomac had one greeted us in either direction.  On the same road the same Dennis Frye who guided Tony Horwitz and the conference attendees at the 150th raid anniversary in Harpers Ferry in 2009 walked along.  He was a history student at Shepherd University working part time at the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in 1978, where he is now the Chief Historian.  I learned the terrain from his father, John Frye, a ranger on the C & O Canal and longtime archivist at the Western Maryland Room at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown.

This reviewer, among others, is generously credited for research contribution in the acknowledgements.  I had the recent happy experience to be introduced by the author at a book-signing in Menlo Park, California , and make an announcement of local history programming about, and with descendants of John and Mary Brown.  “’Am I Not John Brown’s Daughter?’ Annie Brown in the Civil War” will be presented by Alice Keesey Mecoy at the Sunnyvale Public Library on March 7, 2012.

The mothers, wives, and sweethearts of all the raiders are expanded with the sources.  With the participation of Professor Phil Schwarz in Virginia, the story of Harriet Newby, whose love letters to Dangerfield reveal the immorality of slavery, moves forward in Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz.

General readers receive the respect of making their own judgements from Tony Horwitz.  As it should be, I do not agree with all his characterizations of John Brown.  The subject is balanced, and covered well with the documents.  One of the best sections is Brown’s trial and courtroom behavior. This is brought to life by the author’s journalism background and style.  It is the author’s originality in writing that makes this history move.  Whether read comparing the well-organized chapter notes to the text or straight through with Tony Horwitz’s journalistic structure and rhythm, it is a true to life meeting with John Brown on that rainy midnight of October 16, 1859.  Jean Libby

Jean's full review can be read by clicking on the following link:

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Letter from Larry Lawrence, Chairman, John Brown Society

New York City
December 1, 1859

For full distribution in the John Brown world.

The position of The John Brown Society on the book on John Brown by Tony Horwitz, entitled, Midnight Rising.

Tony Horwitz is a talented writer, and has written a very readable book on John Brown.

The problem with his book is that he is wrong on Harpers Ferry and on Pottawatomie -- still the two most controversial aspects of the revolutionary career of John Brown.  He lags behind the judgment of scholars like David Reynolds and Lou DeCaro on both events.

His book could have been much better if he had consulted and learned from these two already published John Brown scholars and researchers.  He had ample opportunity to gain from their prior work, and he failed to take advantage of that opportunity.

I do not have the time, due to other more pressing personal and political concerns, to go into a detailed treatment of this book.  Lou DeCaro speaks for me on this matter, and I defer to his highly educated opinion in relation to the book by Mr. Horwitz, as I have deferred to his opinion in many other areas related to the life of my old hero.  Lou continues to do valuable and serious research on John Brown.

Happy Holidays to all in the John Brown community


Larry Lawrence

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I appreciate the contributions of both my friends and associates, Jean Libby and Larry Lawrence, who have devoted their lives in different ways to advancing the historical remembrance of John Brown and promoting a sound understanding of his life and work in the cause of justice.  I posted their responses to Tony Horwitz's book together coincidentally, although I feel somewhat constrained to add remarks about both.  Jean is understandably impressed by the rich detail and writing of the book, particularly the manner in which Tony recreated the unfolding drama of the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859.  As a lifetime researcher on Brown, the raid, and Brown's black allies, she is appreciative of his work overall, preferring to relegate criticism of Tony's treatment of Brown to others.  Certainly, there is a great deal understated in her remark that she does not agree with all of his characterizations.  Without negating her objectivity and appreciation of the book's positive narrative qualities, I would suggest that what is primarily important is the question of John Brown and his actions, for this is ultimately why the book was written.  It is one thing to recreate the mayhem of Harper's Ferry during the raid, or the drama of the courtroom during John Brown's trial.  It is quite another thing to characterize John Brown for the ages--or at least, for the next generation or two.

I likewise appreciate the interest on the part of Larry Lawrence to respond.  Although Larry is not a biographer, he is perhaps the most well read student of John Brown, 19th century U.S. history, and the political history of the U.S. that I've ever encountered.   Larry knows the John Brown literature and its history, and he monitors and studies the academic and cultural developments relating to the Old Man's story with an eagle eye.  Unlike Jean, Larry is far more critical of Tony's book, particularly in his characterization of Brown in Kansas and Virginia.  Notwithstanding his deference to me and to David Reynolds, I wish that he might have addressed the book in some detail reflecting his knowledge.  Furthermore, I think we should not forget the important contribution of Robert E. McGlone, whose John Brown's War Against Slavery deserves far greater recognition and attention--especially since it seems that Tony likewise has flown in the face of McGlone's sophisticated historical assessment of John Brown in Kansas and Virginia.  On the other hand, I do not think that Tony's approach to Brown, like it or not, is due to any lack of consultation or research.  His is an informed and deliberate opinion, and Tony is quite aware of the contemporary scholarship on themes like the Pottawatomie killings and the Harper's Ferry raid.  To the contrary, like the rest of us, he has his own presuppositions and objectives, and they are quite manifest in Midnight Rising.  I believe a number of his contentions are highly problematic; certainly, his perception and understanding of the man who died at Charles Town, Virginia on December 2, 1859 is significantly different from mine.

Yet the writing of John Brown biography is perennially unfinished business--every generation produces writers of great stature like Tony, and writers of considerably lesser stature (like me).  However, the last word on Brown has never been published, and the debate continues.

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