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

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The New York Review "Exchange":
Uneasy About Brown? 

On February 25, this blog featured comments on Christopher Benfey's article in The New York Review (Mar. 7) of the latest effort by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, The Tribunal.   In response, I wrote: "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."  Unfortunately, my remarks seem confirmed in the most recent "Exchange on John Brown," published in the The New York Review, after David S. Reynolds, Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York's Graduate Center, took Benfey to task in the latest edition of the Review (May 9).  Following Reynolds' criticism, the Review printed Benfey's response.  The latter writes quite in keeping with the outlook of an elitest 20th century academic hold over.
David Reynolds

"Hawthorne's Jaundiced Lens"

In his rejoinder, Reynolds writes that "Benfey devotes a sizable amount of his review to discussing Hawthorne. . . a political doughface who had virtually nothing useful to say about John Brown or slavery," as well as Herman "Moby-Dick" Melville, whose writings added "little to the political debate [over slavery] other than underscoring its complexity."   Reynolds rightly contends that it was Emerson and Thoreau's consideration of Brown that merits "far more space--and respect--than Benfey gives them," the latter preferring "Hawthorne's jaundiced lens."

To Reynolds' well-placed mark, Benfey attempts evasion.  "The subtle men of Concord are uneasy allies in the canonization of John Brown," he writes in response.  Benfey thus argues that Thoreau's attraction to Brown was based only on the fact that the former was a "writer of blunt and pungent rhetoric"--a notion that is reductionist and self-serving.  To the contrary, Thoreau wrote that "no man in America has ever stood up so persistently for the dignity of human nature" than John Brown.  "He could not have been tried by his peers, for his peers did not exist."  This hardly sounds like the words of someone who was uneasy about Brown.

Christopher Benfey
Benfey attempts the same slight-of-hand on Emerson, claiming that it was Brown's courage that most captured the eminent author.  Not only did Emerson have "little to say about slavery in his praise of Brown," writes Benfey, but he apparently plagiarized his famous statement that Brown would make his gallows as sacred as the cross.  Whether or not this is true is not clear, although Benfey makes much of the fact that the "gallows glorious" remark was apparently removed from Emerson's published work in later years.

Undoubtedly, Reynolds can better prove that Benfey is making a desperate attempt to diminish Emerson and Thoreau's admiration for Brown because he cannot escape the point: Benfey looks to 19th century writers like Hawthorne and Melville, who were racially prejudiced and indifferent to the antislavery cause, as his basis for approaching Brown.  This is like using Lincoln's disparaging Cooper Union remarks to form an opinion of Brown.  It simply does not work in historical terms. Since he cannot defend Hawthorne and Melville from Reynolds' piercing criticism, Benfey can only attempt to fool the all-too-willing readers of the Review into thinking that Emerson and Thoreau were actually "uneasy" about John Brown, a ludicrous claim.

Even if we acknowledge that Emerson's "gallows glorious" remark was edited out of his published words in later years, this doesn't negate Reynolds' point.  Rather, it suggests that if Emerson later backed away from his earlier, admiring remarks as Benfey says (actually he draws this from a note in Stauffer & Trodd's The Tribunal), this only reflects the mood of the nation following the Civil War--a backing away from the abolitionist zeal of the former antebellum era.  As such, it is more suggestive of how Emerson changed in the post-war period.  A lot of white folks did, such as the New York Tribune's Horace Greeley.  Like Greeley, many whites wearied themselves over black freedom and wanted to get past the drama of slavery, even to the point of backing away from the vital concerns of the freedmen.  So Benfey's remark only takes advantage of the nation's historic backsliding.  The question, then, is which provides the more correct assessment of Brown by Emerson--the "gallows glorious" remarks of 1859, or his post-war back-peddling?

Mocking Contextualization

Another point of evasion by Benfey is made in response to Reynolds' valid criticism of his remarks on the 1856 Pottawatomie killings.  The latter rightly observes that Benfey had failed to "contextualize the incident adequately," particularly the fact that proslavery thugs had been active in murder, vote tampering, and terrorism in the Kansas territory well before Brown led the killing of five proslavery thugs in May 1856 along the Pottawatomie creek.   Reynolds concludes: "John Brown, as a journalist of the time wrote, 'brought Southern tactics to the Northern side.'"

Supposedly addressing this criticism, Benfey relies on sarcasm, writing: "Ah, contextualization, that magic wand by which so many bad deeds. . . can be forgiven. . . .  That is always the defense for atrocities. . . ."  He then quotes Willie Lee Rose, an anti-Brown writer in the 20th century who remarked that it was true enough that proslavery thugs were wicked.  "But it happens that none of those men of blood has ever been, at least to my knowledge, in the slightest danger of being canonized."

But this is wise-cracking disguised as debate.  First, it is true enough that the proslavery thugs from Missouri and the South were not canonized--except, perhaps, for Jesse James, who was of the same ilk that Brown killed at Pottawatomie.  Jesse James was in the company of "Bloody" Bill Anderson and the vile William Quantrill, and yet "American" society has "canonized" him by rendering Jesse James as a kind of Robin Hood of the old west.   But that's really a secondary issue.  More importantly, the point is precisely that John Brown is not "in danger of being canonized" either, particularly in the mainstream thinking of the nation, and in the halls of academia where some scholars like Benfey continue to denigrate him.  Furthermore, none of us--neither Reynolds, Carton, nor I--have tried to "canonize" Brown in our biographical work.  Rather, we simply have tried to help people read the fullest extent of the evidence and the argument in the certainty that he will be seen for the good and worthy man that he was.  

Still, Benfey dodges the issue by diminishing contextualization as a means to rationalize or cover crimes.  But there is a difference between rationalization and contextualization, and the point of contextualizing Pottawatomie is hardly about rationalization.  No one, especially Reynolds, has rationalized these killings led by Brown.   However, the overwhelming number of descriptions of the Pottawatomie affair have failed to present the fullest context, including the brief treatment in the recently published, Midnight Rising, by Tony Horwitz.  So contextualization is vital if we are ever going to fairly discuss this bloody episode.  Indeed, there is a strong argument, including sufficient evidence, that the Pottawatomie killings were preemptory, exercised in the context of absolute lawlessness and the absence of justice, amid a state of war, and in response to a conspiracy that was afoot. While the killings cannot be literally characterized as "self-defense," they were arguably far more akin to self-defense than to war-time "atrocities."  The real problem with the Pottawatomie killings in retrospect is the manner in which historians and writers--from Villard to Horwitz, and Benfey (who is not in the company of the former, to say the least) have decidedly refused to consider the evidence for Brown's desperate actions in Kansas.  Mocking contextualization simply will not do.

Fanaticism and Nuance

Finally, Benfey settles comfortably on the language of "fanatic" in his assessment of John Brown, and repeats Sean Wilentz, another ivory tower anti-Brown sniper, who criticized Reynolds' biography of spending too much time "in establishing Brown's sanity," when the "really important point is that it is entirely possible to be sane and rational and also, like Brown, a fanatic."  Excuse us, Doctors Benfey and Wilentz: the whole of the 20th century was spent by scholars impugning Brown as "insane"--but Reynolds was not supposed to address the issue?  Admittedly, Robert McGlone probably beats a dead horse in his exhaustive treatment of mental illness in his 2009 bio-study, John Brown's War Against Slavery.  Anyone who reads that great effort will certainly get tired at the lengths that McGlone goes to extend this really needless discussion regarding Brown's mental state.  But to suggest that Reynolds made too much of the issue in his breakthrough biography, John Brown Abolitionist (2005), is simply incorrect.

In the end, Benfey appeals to "nuance" in suggesting that Reynolds is unable to get past "bludgeoning 'contextualization.'"  However, in Benfey's case, "nuance" is a euphemism that allows him to suggest that calling Brown a "fanatic" is historically reasonable--that somehow he stands, along with Hawthorne and Melville, between anti-slavery “ideals” and the so-called fanaticism of "questionable physical means."  But as Reynolds' work reveals, in the antebellum era of the United States, it was the majority of white people who actually were racial "fanatics," not John Brown.  Indeed, as the abolitionist understood, the non-violent anti-slavery side was already "nuanced" to the point of inaction and lack of a real strategy to end slavery in the United States.  

Contrary to Benfey, Brown's plan for a liberation movement in the South was the finest expression of real political and ethical nuance, because he sought justice for the slave as a priority without blunt insurrection--which necessitated the killing of slave masters as a point of strategy.  As Brown put it on the last day of his life, he wanted a movement that could accomplish freedom for the slave "without very much bloodshed."  If this not "nuanced," I do not know what is.  Quite unlike David Reynolds, Christopher Benfey remains incapable of reading this story without prejudice and caricature, and his arguments smack of evasion more than fact.

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