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.

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