History, Research, and Current Themes

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

Search This Blog & Links


Thursday, December 27, 2012

John Brown Studies Past, Present, and Future

It almost goes without saying that in the century and a half since his death, the abolitionist John Brown has been the subject of a good many books and articles.  To be sure, the Brown bibliography—including everything in print from the best studies and biographies to the very worst screeds and fiction—cannot rival the number of books written about Abraham Lincoln.  Yet even the professional gatekeepers of “American history” cannot deny that the controversial abolitionist has enjoyed a popular come back in the 21st century that has now become prominent in the academy as well.  For more than a decade now, there has been a steady stream of books about Brown, including four biographies, a number of valuable cultural studies, essay collections and readers, as well as novels and illustrated books for young people.  While a number of these works are problematic to say the least, nevertheless they bear witness to the upsurge of interest in Brown.
            Whatever the biographer may conclude about Russell Banks’ fictive interpretation of the Old Man in Cloudsplitter (1998), there is no doubt that this successful novel both signaled and enabled a sea change in popular thought about Brown.  Indeed, Cloudsplitter probably did for John Brown what Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” movie did for the popularization of the Muslim activist in the late 20th century.  Of course, in both cases (and I can attest to this first hand as a student of both leaders), the undercurrents of interest in Malcolm and Brown were already quite vital, and it is not always easy to determine when novels and movies have inspired trends or when they are simply manifestations of what is already at work in society.  Neither can we be certain that for all the popular appeal created by biographical novels and films they do not also undermine real historical understanding in the long run, since they typically revivify their stories as much as they skew them in the name of art.  Then, perhaps they also tend to both stimulate and satiate the popular appetite for history at the same time.   Regardless, Cloudsplitter was a boon to the rising popular interest in Brown that had ripened by the time of the sesquicentennial of the Harper’s Ferry raid in 2009.  Certainly the kind of popular sympathy for Brown did not exist when a former generation commemorated the centennial of the Harper’s Ferry raid in 1959.
Boyd B. Stutler
Yet as important as novels and movies may be in popular culture, the academy has its own ways of thinking. Certainly by the mid-20th century, the prominent attitude toward Brown among leading historians was negative. Historians like Allan Nevins, C. Van Woodward, and David M. Potter really knew little about Brown, although this did not stop them from banishing him to the margins of history as little more than a mentally unstable troublemaker.  Meanwhile, the two most knowledgeable scholars in the John Brown field, Boyd B. Stutler and Clarence S. Gee, were a magazine editor and a clergyman, respectively.  Stutler, a very conservative man in political and social concerns, took academic prejudice against Brown in stride, but privately lamented the misrepresentations of Nevins and other renowned academics of the day, somewhat facetiously referring to them as the “scientific historians.”  Still, it is quite telling that Stutler advised and assisted both Oswald G. Villard in correcting and revising his supposedly definitive 1910 biography, and Stephen B. Oates in preparing his supposedly definitive 1970 biography.  While the Villard and Oates biographies remain important works for the historian, in a sense they also frame the relatively thin and worthless academic contributions to John Brown studies during the 20th century.
Thomas Vince
Even after the appearance of Oates’ landmark biography, To Purge This Land With Blood, the wealth of research in John Brown studies largely remained in the hands of grassroots and local scholars throughout the rest of the century.  This is evident in the case of two young associates of Stutler and Gee, Thomas Vince and Edwin Cotter.  Vince, an archivist and community historian in Hudson, Ohio, and Edwin Cotter (d. 2001), for many years the supervisor of the John Brown Farm in Lake Placid, New York, did more ongoing, on-the-ground research than contemporary academics.  Both Vince and Cotter were not only knowledgeable generalists in the study, but also became specialists in specific areas of Brown’s life by amassing knowledge of community history and documentation that far outstripped the work of professional historians.  Other local historians have likewise done significant research on Brown even to the present time, and these researchers, many of them librarians or people affiliated with local historical societies, represent vital streams of research almost completely removed from the academy.  (I dare not fail to mention that I have periodically featured articles by Scott Wolfe, an independent scholar and research librarian in Galena, Illinois, as well as articles by Grady Atwater, the superintendent of the John Brown cabin in Osawatomie, Kansas.)
Jean Libby

Historically speaking, another notable figure is Jean Libby, a photographer and college teacher from Palo Alto, California, who has worked mainly in the milieu of local historians in her study of the Harper’s Ferry raid.  In the 1970s, Libby actually did field research in Jefferson County, (by then) West Virginia, including the oral traditions of whites and blacks reflecting the direct impact of Brown in 1859.  In so doing, she overturned the popular notion of the non-involvement of enslaved people in the Harper’s Ferry raid, revived and contextualized Osborne Anderson’s vital black witness, A Voice from Harper’s Ferry (1861), and buttressed her arguments with actual research.  Libby has subsequently studied original documents and daguerreotypes of Brown in a manner far beyond what any pure bread academic has done.  Her contributions are unparalleled, and the academy heretofore has offered nothing even close to this kind of in depth, ongoing research.
Given the conventional hostility and lack of adequate scholarship in the academy regarding John Brown, one must appreciate the impact made when David S. Reynolds, a professor of English and American Studies at the City University of New York, published his breakthrough biography, John Brown Abolitionist, in 2005.  While Reynolds was not the first scholar to publish a full biography of Brown in the 21st century, his work received immense and immediate attention, and deservedly so.  While John Brown Abolitionist was not without some problems, its strengths are considerably more important.  Portraying the abolitionist as “the man who killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights,” Reynolds turned the tables on the conventional 20th century academic portrayal of John Brown, rendering him a flawed hero, but far more a hero—a man in advance of his times, a racial egalitarian in an age of flagrant white supremacy, whose life and death can no longer be filed away under conventionally dismissive categories.

To be sure, Reynolds cannot be credited for single-handedly bringing about a John Brown revolution among scholars.  A great deal of thinking and writing was already underway for years prior to the publication of John Brown Abolitionist.  Historian Robert McGlone had been working in John Brown studies for decades, and his important biography, John Brown's War Against Slavery—which finally appeared in late 2009—was undertaken in part as a response to Stephen Oates’ acclaimed 1970 biography.  Other scholars had undertaken the John Brown theme following Oates, and perhaps the leading spirit in this regard was Paul Finkelman, a professor of law and history who has edited two collections of scholarly writing on Brown, the first and most notable being His Soul Goes Marching On: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (1995).  Finkelman also spearheaded a notable scholarly conference on John Brown at the Mount Alto campus of Penn State University in July 1996, "John Brown: The Man, the Legend, the Legacy"—perhaps the first sign that academia was awakening to the fact that the Old Man could not be so easily dismissed.
The Mont Alto Conference,

While the Mount Alto conference had its inevitable share of screeds and “terrorist” papers, it pointed toward the immediate future of John Brown scholarship.  A number of its attendees published books on John Brown in the first few years of the 21st century, thus proving that interest in Brown had already come to a head by the time of the Reynolds biography.  Yet it was John Brown Abolitionist that proved to be muscular enough as a work of scholarship to break through academic barriers of prejudice and misinformation, and lyrical enough to become the banner text of a new era.  In a sense, every new biography and study of John Brown in the 21st century will be considered against the backdrop of Reynolds’ text and interpretation, and no narrative of the abolitionist will escape the long shadow of John Brown Abolitionist, just as most writing on Brown in the 20th century could not help but reflect the importance of Oswald Garrison Villard’s 1910 biography.

Nevertheless, none of this suggests that the John Brown study has been exhausted.  We are far from the point, as we are in the case of Abraham Lincoln, where one may justifiably sigh aloud at the appearance of yet another new book.  While the Lincoln narrative has been exhaustively parsed like a Greek verb in a seminary classroom, Brown’s narrative begs more work in almost every facet of the story, from his less exciting early life and business efforts to his militant anti-slavery efforts in Kansas and Virginia.  Works like Brian McGinty’s John Brown’s Trial (2009) and Steven Lubet’s John Brown’s Spy (2012) have demonstrated what can be accomplished by working in heretofore unexplored areas of the story.  Indeed, notwithstanding McGlone’s belated but formidable John Brown’s War Against Slavery, the McGinty book on the historic trial of the abolitionist may prove to be the single most important contribution to a sadly neglected but central category of John Brown biography.  I have hardly been exhaustive in this article--there have been other quite notable works published in recent years that have likewise contributed to the forward movement of John Brown scholarship, a noteworthy contribution being Evan Carton's very popular biography, Patriotic Treason.  I may not agree with significant aspects of his book, Midnight Rising, but Tony Horwitz should also be saluted as for demonstrating the vitality and influence of the Old Man's story in our own time.  This is a good time for John Brown studies, and we are looking forward to what 2013 may bring.

To all my readers, I wish a most happy and studious new year!

No comments: