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, February 25, 2013

A Controversial Review--
Christopher Benfey on The Tribunal

While a shift has taken place since the late 20th century showing greater appreciation of John Brown from a wide range of scholars, there is still no small segment of the academy that remains imbedded in a thought style of contempt toward the Old Man.
Christopher Benfey

We have recently seen this displayed in a review by Christopher Benfey of The Tribunal, the acclaimed Stauffer and Trodd reader recently published.  Benfey is the Mellon Professor of English and the Interim Dean of Faculty at Mount Holyoke College.  By all accounts, he is an accomplished and honored man of letters, with a Ph.D. from Harvard in Comparative Literature, a number of notable fellowships, and membership in The American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  His online vita says that he is also a "prolific journalist," with numerous contributions to major publications as a reviewer and art critic, including the The New York Review of Books, in which he has published his review of The Tribunal.  Benfey is an Emily Dickinson scholar and an award winning author of many books and poems.  He's even got a forthcoming memoir of his family, and from what I've seen, it is interesting and nicely written.  Unfortunately, I cannot commend his treatment of John Brown in his review, "Terrorist or Martyr?" (Mar. 7). 

The Hawthorne Trajectory

David Reynolds
Benfey begins with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who "was appalled by Emerson’s much-quoted remark about Brown’s martyrdom," Benfey writes.  In fact, Hawthorne concluded, "Nobody was ever more justly hanged" than John Brown--whom he considered a "blood-stained fanatic."  It is very clear from the onset that Prof. Benfey has chosen sides with the white conservatism of the 19th century in opening and closing his review according to Hawthorne, which tends to criminalize Brown.   This is in particular contrast to the approach taken by David Reynolds, which is why he so masterfully brought the reading of Emerson and Thoreau to bear in John Brown Abolitionist.  Reynolds is hardly second to Benfey in 19th century literature.  Were he to have begun with Benfey's presupposition, Reynolds might have begun his assessment of Brown with Mark Twain, for instance, who was not an admirer of Brown either.  But Reynolds did not do so, I suppose, because he understands that men like Twain and Hawthorne did not understand John Brown, whatever else their admirable qualities may have been.  Clearly, Hawthorne could not transcend his own racialist provincialism.  In contrast, Emerson and Thoreau manifested a "reading" of Brown that was more reliable and meaningful in light of the moral and ideological crisis of slavery in the 19th century--a reading that Benfey obviously rejects.  Thus, a question about Benfey's understanding of U.S. history must be raised from the onset.  The trajectory of thought established by his choice of Hawthorne actually defines the direction of his thesis, which is quite disappointing--especially at a point when scholarship on the abolitionist has put many of the older, problematic charges aside, or at least demonstrated a greater need for care in making judgments about Brown.

Tony's Terrorist Option

Benfey's problematic perception is unpacked when he, of all things, quotes Tony Horwitz's unfortunate New York Times Op-ed piece of December 2, 2009, sadly entitleld, “The 9/11 of 1859.”  In that review, Tony drew the inappropriate parallel between Brown and the Muslim fanatics behind the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in 2001.  Benfey thus samples Tony's problematic "bearded fundamentalist" comparison, which--as I recall--brought quite a reaction from a number of us.  One may not agree with all of Tony's conclusions, but certainly he did not carry this blatant language into his more seasoned writing in Midnight Rising.  However, the professor grabs a hold of Tony's words to set up the provocative question he intends to use to Brown's detriment--was Brown a terrorist?

Preemptory, not Retaliatory

I should note, in responding to Benfey's evaluation, that I do not always agree with the reading of Brown in The Tribunal.  While Stauffer is an exceptional scholar and has presented some interesting insights in his own work, I would not agree with his view of the Pottawatomie killings as "retaliatory" (which is Benfey's characterization of Stauffer's view).  In my estimation--and I think a solid case can be made for it--the killings at Pottawatomie in May 1856 were preemptory, and inherently defensive with respect to a known plot (in which the "victims" had participated) to turn the Browns and others into the hands of murderous pro-slavery invaders in the area.   Essentially, what Brown and his men did in slaying the Doyles, Wilkinson, and Sherman was what they were planning to do to the Browns.  Pottawatomie evidenced a wartime struggle amidst a total breakdown of territorial law and order, and was a situation where Brown, his family, and allies had no recourse to the rule of law within the United States.  Given my view, I will not defend Stauffer's reading; still, Benfey cannot properly evaluate the Pottawatomie killings except as a "hideous crime," a conclusion that I think is worse than simplistic.  

Some Old, Hackneyed Assumptions

In another part of the review, Benfey writes:
Despite his family history of mental illness and the testimony of his own men regarding his “monomania,” Stauffer and Trodd stave off suggestions that Brown might have been mentally unstable with the bullying assertion that they arise from “the power of racism in America.”
This single sentence is loaded with problematic assumptions.   Without weighing evidence or making qualifications necessary in speaking of mental illness in 19th century terms, the professor simply cites Brown's "family history of mental illness" and "monomania."  Perhaps he is somewhat encouraged by Tony Horwitz, who pushes the issue close enough to the edge in Midnight Rising so that anyone so predisposed could fall headlong into the mistaken notion of Brown's mental instability.  But Benfey is probably also drawing from the old, poisoned well of his academic forebears, who constantly used "insanity" as a cudgel on the head of Brown's historical legacy.  It would be advisable for him to read Robert McGlone's bio-study, John Brown's War Against Slavery (2009), wherein the author makes an exhaustive consideration of the "insanity" angle, showing its lack of substance.

There are other points that illustrate his reliance upon old, hackneyed assumptions, such as the apparent mystery behind Brown's intentions in Virginia ("It remains unclear what precisely Brown hoped to accomplish by the attack") or his supposed failure to communicate with the black community in advance of the raid ("Brown. . .alerted none of the slaves in the region of his intentions").  These are erroneous notions that unfortunately are still conveyed in contemporary writing.  There is sufficient scholarship to show that Brown had contacted some of Virginia blacks in advance, that many more blacks knew about his intentions through networks of black communication, and that he generally intended to render slavery unstable throughout the South. A good dose of Osborne Anderson's testimony in A Voice from Harper's Ferry would have helped Benfey here, but apparently he relies on contemporary writers, particularly those with a decidedly cynical view of Brown's effort.

John Stauffer
"Bullying Assertion?"

At another point, the professor writes: "[Stauffer and Trodd's] admiration occasionally verges on sentimentality, as when they claim that 'Brown is a testament to ordinary individuals’ potential to transform themselves and their world' and stave off suggestions that Brown might have been mentally unstable with the bullying assertion that they arise from 'the power of racism in America.'"  This is a most unfortunate and unworthy statement, not only because Stauffer and Trodd are basically correct, but because Benfey reduces their evaluation to mere "sentimentality"--as if Brown cannot be appreciated upon the grounding facts of history.  This is human contempt disguised as academic critique, but it is certainly snobbish and condescending--like an adult belittling children for appreciating childish things.

To no surprise, then, Benfey makes the incredible charge against Stauffer and Trodd, that they are "bullying" readers by arguing that the "insanity" portrayal of Brown is linked to the ideology of white racism.  It seems that Benfey really is in denial.  Anyone who has studied the developments of history following the Civil War and leading into the 20th century would recognize that Brown's profile indeed suffered as a result of the powerful impulse of white racism following the demise of Reconstruction.  The prominent academic and narrative revisions of Brown in white America is clearly a corollary of the recalcitrant nature of white supremacy.   I wonder if Benfey would argue that African Americans, from 1859 until now, are simply being "sentimental" in appreciating Brown's role, or if he thinks blacks are "bullying" whites by insisting that Brown not be viewed as insane?

The Retrospective Appeal to Moderation

Finally, Benfey makes a deplorable argument, based upon the moral compromise of "measured reflections" (a euphemism for white men sidestepping history) put forth by Andrew Delbanco--another writer who would rather praise the conservative attitude of Hawthorne than the abolitionist attitude of Emerson and Thoreau.   In this light, Benfey has the audacity to write in a manner critical of abolitionist extremists who advocated "violent emancipation of all slaves" as representing "a recurring type in American society. . . . since there is always something that strikes a sizable part of the population as worthy of abolition, including alcohol, abortion, fossil fuels, guns, slaughterhouses, and so on."   To Benfey, abolitionists like Brown were just troublesome extremists making unrealistic demands upon society.  "Against such imperious demands," he concludes, "those who call for political process or votes or compromise or gradual solutions will always seem, to the abolitionists, spineless temporizers."
To Benfey, abolitionists like Brown were just troublesome extremists making unrealistic demands upon society.
The professor's argument is as clear as it is disturbing.   He writes as if standing with those in the 19th century who put "moderation" over black life and freedom--as if the nature of chattel slavery in the antebellum era, as well as the state of the political circumstances then reigning, rendered an attack upon slavery as worse than slavery itself.  One is tempted to conclude his rationalization is deeply rooted in racism. 

One must ask what kind of person would write these words in 2013.  For the most part, the old 20th century anti-Brown rhetoric no longer works.  The charge of "insanity" has largely been replaced by "terrorism," although Benfey neither abandons the former nor argues so specifically for the latter.  Instead, he takes a patently "moderate" viewpoint of slavery and the John Brown raid--the kind of view that one might have seen in The New York Herald or the The New York Times following the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859.  Many conservatives at that time claimed to dislike slavery, but argued that compromise and national stability (not to mention economic prosperity) required the preferential treatment of white nationalism--that is, that enslaved Africans were in the hands of white society to do with them what was first and best for white society.  This is the view of "moderation" to which Benfey's argument inevitably must appeal when he uplifts Hawthorne and his kind.

In the 21st century, anti-Brown rhetoric has become somewhat more subtle, usually coming along the lines of counter-factual appeals.  For instance, the argument that the Civil War might have been evaded had the nation been able to find another route to resolve the slavery issue--something made impossible by the likes of Brown and the radical abolitionists.  In the name of all that spilled white people's blood, they reason with regret that anti-slavery extremism encouraged slavery's demise at the barrel of a gun and the tip of a pike.  But this rationale necessitates that black suffering might have been extended in the name of compromise, so that a national blood -letting could be avoided.  This not only subordinates black humanity, but assumes that blacks at that time were wrong in supporting Brown and any form of anti-slavery radicalism.  It is further problematic in suggesting that we--150 years-plus afterward--can see more clearly how to have wiggled out of the problem of slavery, whereas people in that generation were blinded by "fanatical" ideals.  Quite to the contrary, Brown and others knew that there was no compromising with chattel slavery's agenda, and that any further compromise would only extend the oppression of four millions of blacks in the United States.  Were "moderation" and compromise viable alternatives, the leaders of that era would have found them ultimately useful.  In fact, moderation and compromise defined decades of North-South relations, and this only fed the lust of the pro-slavery leadership for more land and more slaves.   As Brown perceived, it was they who were preparing in advance for violent secession, and it was the violence of slavery that ultimately necessitated civil conflict.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reflection and Response--
"He Who Endures to the End": The Play

Last evening I attended a play at the National Black Theater on 125th Street in Harlem, entitled, "He Who Endures to the End."  The play, written by Bill Harris, was part of The National Black Touring Circuit's 2013 Black History Month Play Festival, and starred Ralph McCain as Frederick Douglass, and my friend, Norman Marshall, as John Brown (Norman portrays JB in his own play, "Trumpet of Freedom," co-written by George Wolf Reily).  I was invited to participate in a post-play panel, along with Larry Lawrence of the John Brown Society (NYC), Herb Boyd, journalist and author of works relating to Brown and Malcolm X, and a Ms. Bailey, an activist and family researcher (whose first name I regretfully failed to obtain), who also happens to be the last descendant of Frederick Douglass in the Bailey family line.  The play was directed by Ajene Washington, and also featured Marcus Naylor as the black leader, Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, and Leopold Lowe as Shields Green, the Douglass associate who ultimately joined Brown at Harper's Ferry.
Ralph McCain portrays
Frederick Douglass

I'm no theater critic, but I can say that I enjoyed the play and thought the actors carried their roles effectively.  Lowe did a fine job as Green, and had the most strenuous role, which involved moving a lot of props while he spoke.  It was more than interesting to see the veteran Marshall as John Brown--that is, as John Brown in a different play.  The John Brown in "He Who Endures to the End" is fair, but the playwright has him spouting Bible verses like a frustrated preacher, and so tends to present a caricature within a caricature.  The other issue is that this Brown has a kind of messianic atonement complex that is not true of the man who lived.  The John Brown who lived nowhere spoke of his death as being for the sins of the nation, etc.  While this may have been applied to him after the fact (it certainly was applied to Lincoln after his assassination), Brown's only stated feeling about his own death was that it would help the anti-slavery cause.  Brown was self-consciously a martyr--that is, a witness.  But he never conveyed himself as anybody's messiah bearing the sins of the world.  

Norman Marshall portrays
John Brown
Biographically, "He Who Endures to the End" has two main flaws relating to the Brown-Douglass relationship.  First, it suggests that Douglass sort of led Brown on with respect to militancy--that Brown was looking to the encouragement of Douglass in pursuit of his militancy, indeed that he was something of Douglass' creation.   The theme of "what is necessary can be invented" did not apply to either man, but the younger Douglass certainly was in no position to make Brown after his ideas.  If anything, Douglass followed Brown--something which the play pointed out in showing that Douglass became more militant in his rhetoric by the 1850s, something that even Douglass in real life attributed to the John Brown factor.

Second, the play fails to show the depth of their friendship and the intimate and mutually admiring relationship that existed between Douglass and Brown.  They were not just political allies, but men whose families interacted, who were guests in each other's homes, and who had a personally comfortable rapport for more than a decade by the time of the Harper's Ferry raid in 1859.  While plays cannot nor should be thorough as histories, something more along these lines might have been added to deepen the drama of their final tensions.

In the end, Douglass walks away from Brown--the latter appearing more like a lovingly pitiable and ill-fated Don Quixotic, who tried and inevitably failed.  So while the play tends to portray Douglass as self-serving and ultimately evasive of Brown's expectations, it seems to justify his abandonment of Brown and allows him the "last word" by complimenting his dead friends who went to Harper's Ferry.  Yet at the same time, the play inherently promotes the notion that Brown was irresponsible and, to some degree, deluded, while Douglass was the realist.

In contrast, the more accurate portrayals of the play are the secondary figures of the Rev. Garnet and Shields Green, the self-liberated man who chose to join "the Old Man" in hopes of dealing a blow to slavery.  Garnet, who is often unsung in discussions of antebellum abolitionism, was a Presbyterian pastor in New York City.  In 1843, as the play shows from the onset, Garnet delivered a call to black militancy at a national black convention that finally was quashed through the influence of the moderate Frederick Douglass.  Garnet and Brown were on the same page from the beginning, and in a sense it is a shame that Brown could not have looked to Garnet to direct black men to his side in 1859.  But Douglass was the foremost black spokesman, the man who dominated black press and oratory, and the one whom Brown had most strategic reason to pursue.  In the long run, however, Douglass refused to throw his weight behind Brown's effort, a posture that substantially wounded Brown's recruitment efforts.   Likewise, Shields Green was warmly played as a faithful and zealous figure, who decided that taking action in following Brown was better than helping Douglass move ever higher in profile as a black leader who helped the anti-slavery cause by winning converts.

The truth about the Douglass-Brown story is widely unknown, and even the leading Douglass scholars have failed in large part to unpack this episode.  As it came out in the after-play panel, there is a general tendency to accept Douglass' autobiography uncritically, even though it has been shown (that is, I have shown this to some extent in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom) that Douglass knew about the Harper's Ferry raid much longer than he portrayed, and that he consistently refused to assist Brown.  The icing on the cake of Douglass' dissent was his rejecting the urging of a notable interest among blacks in Philadelphia to support Brown.  In retrospect, Douglass conflated a few meetings with Brown during 1859 into one meeting at Chambersburg.  While he was honest enough to portray himself "willing to live for the slave," Douglass probably could not comfortably portray the reality of their waning partnership, nor the extent to which he knew that he had disappointed both Brown and his family and followers.  

The Panel

The panel was a good complement to the play, or so feedback suggests.  The Douglass descendant shared of her experiences, including the incredulous manner in which her school teachers disdained her claim to being related to Frederick Douglass (she is a great-cousin, in effect, but I do not know how many generations removed).  Herb Boyd guided the conversation and notably raised the subject of Osborne Anderson's first-hand account of the raid, A Voice from Harper's Ferry, which he wrote in 1861 with the assistance of Canadian expatriate abolitionist, Mary Ann Shadd Cary.  Larry Lawrence raised key points concerning the need to expose the truth about Abraham Lincoln, pointing the audience to Lerone Bennett's Jr.'s political expose, Forced into Glory, which presents the reality of Lincoln's racism, and how it played out in his failure to lead the cause for justice--and ultimately how he was obligated by forces beyond himself to promote the end of slavery.  Brown is not the forerunner of Lincoln, he is the authentic liberating figure over against Lincoln's obligatory and racialist approach to black liberation.  

Annoying Amiri Baraka

An interesting discussion developed when the eminent poet and author, Amiri Baraka, expressed his "annoyance" at the centrality of the John Brown discussion, which he characterized as itself an expression of the influence of white racism.  I took issue with Baraka's comments, as did Larry Lawrence, who pointed out that--quite to the contrary--Brown is the lever that white society has manipulated so unfairly for over a century in order to keep the reality of slavery and white supremacy from being clearly discussed.  Baraka argued that a number of movies had been made about Brown, while not a single movie has been made about Douglass.  In fact, only three movies have centered upon Brown--Santa Fe Trail in 1940--a piece of latter day Lost Cause propaganda, Seven Angry Men (about a decade later), in which Raymond Massey reprised his role as Brown.  While the latter was more sympathetic, it failed to make an impact equal to Santa Fe Trail.  In the early 1980s, Johnny Cash portrayed Brown in the mini-series, North and South.  While he did so with more sympathy, this was not a film primarily focused upon the John Brown story.   While Douglass has not been portrayed in any major films, he has been portrayed in modest film efforts, and probably has been portrayed more positively in the media overall (he is portrayed in an awkwardly silent vignette, for instance, in Glory).    

As Baraka was insistent on this point, I countered that actually not a single film has been done that serves the story of John Brown fairly.  Not one.  Furthermore, I patently disagreed with his intention to circumvent the Brown story as if it were both immaterial to the struggle for justice, or even unworthy of being the central point of discussion in such a forum.   No human being born in privileged skin can excel what John Brown did for the struggle for black freedom.  To be sure, he did it imperfectly, but he yielded his life after subordinating even the needs of his own family, and did not, in my opinion, deserve to become the brunt of Mr. Baraka's expressed "annoyance."  
John Brown meant to do good, and died doing it.  Douglass meant to do good and did much good--but he also did very well for himself in the final reel. 
Frederick Douglass experienced indignities, violence, and loss that Brown could never approach in comparative human experience.  Yet Douglass also lived a longer life, and did so increasingly by moving along an upward trajectory that Brown never knew: the adoration of thousands if not millions, laudation and fame far exceeding the controversy and disdain he previously faced in the antebellum era; positions of influence and even a measure of prosperity; a long life, lionized and celebrated to the point that he was able to write three autobiographies; and, in the end, the ability to write the history of John Brown in a manner salutary but also self-serving.  John Brown meant to do good, and died doing it.  Douglass meant to do good and did much good--but he also did very well for himself in the final reel.  Douglass was a unique star--born in the darkness of slavery and degradation, he arose above his people as a guiding light, but rose much higher still, higher than most men of his generation, regardless of skin and "race."  His stardom, celebrity, and fame allowed him a palette of pleasure that he shared with only few men of his time.  This is not to begrudge him his stardom, for Douglass was the man needed for that hour and epoch.  Yet Douglass was a star if ever there was one.  The man seems to have been born to his greatness, and perhaps it was this sense of himself that became like a wedge between him and John Brown.   

Man for Man

Man for man--as men only live their lives within their own skins, skeletons, and skulls--Douglass escaped hell and mounted heaven, while Brown never went so high except to dangle by his neck a few feet from the earth.  Brown had spent his white privilege walking hills, valleys, and plains, often losing much and usually gaining little for himself or his children.  Most of his free time (double entendre intended) was spent worrying over slavery, or how to fix crooked conditions, or simply how to serve his God and feed his family.  He was hardly the supreme example of a privileged "white" man.   Douglass left Brown behind and ascended the stairway of contemporary renown and flattering historical memory.  Brown was left to ascend the steps of the gallows, where even today the rope of "mainstream" white opinion seeks to pull him downward, ever downward.  In the long run, then, it does seem a little misshapen--if not perverse--to express one's disgust that Brown, not Douglass, become the focus of a discussion about the Harper's Ferry raid.  After all, it was Brown who risked all and lost all there, while Douglass, by his admission, made no investment in it after so many years of projecting his support.

In his complaint, Amiri Baraka might better have considered statuary, memorials, and other cultural tributes that have been paid to Frederick Douglass.  Certainly, there is more recognition of Douglass in the common view of both the black and the so-called "white" communities today than there is for John Brown.  Every statue of Brown in existence is old and usually situated in a geographically and socially marginal place (one has now become inaccessible, essentially confined on the grounds of a zoo).  This is not the case with Douglass's tributes, including the elegant Frederick Douglass Circle statuary and memorial that stands at the end of my street in Manhattan.  For all of his annoyance, I wonder if Mr. Baraka can point me to the nearest John Brown statue.  Probably not.  (I can find two Frederick Douglass statues within fifty blocks of my apartment.)  Finally, from a purely political standpoint, I would conclude that when and if it comes to the place that John Brown's central role in U.S. history cannot be discussed without annoying certain friends with such gripes, then perhaps there is nothing more to be said in those circles.  

Monday, February 11, 2013


This photograph was published in Peterson's Magazine for April 1898, showing black residents of the house in Torrington, Conn., where John Brown was born in 1800.  The house was destroyed by fire in 1919.