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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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Paul Giamatti, FX, will make "Midnight Rising" into a TV Mini-Series

According to Deadline Hollywood blogger, Dominic Patten, "Paul Giamatti and FX are in the early stages of a limited series on the spark that started the fire of the Civil War."  According to Patten, the yet untitled project on John Brown is based on Tony Horwitz’s 2011 book, Midnight Rising, which is centered upon the Harper's Ferry raid.  Patten says that Horwitz will serve as a consultant on the project, which is expected to be from six to eight hours total--which I guess is about three or four episodes.  Patten says that Gabriel Range, who helmed the faux documentary "Death Of A President" in 2006, is adapting Midnight Rising into a screenplay. Range will also serves as co-executive producer on the project.
Paul Giamatti

The John Brown community, particularly those scholars who have invested ourselves deeply into the study of the man and his legacy, are naturally excited as well as concerned by this news.  Over the past decade there have been rumors of John Brown films, from the never produced film version of Russell Banks' fiction, Cloudsplitter, to the apparently back-burnered American Film Company's proposed movie on the Harper's Ferry raid, as well as talk from Quentin Tarantino that he wanted to do a John Brown film.  There are currently other screenplay efforts underway, and it seems that sooner or later, some feature film will bring the Old Man to the screen.  Perhaps this time, it is far more likely that some interpretation of the John Brown story will finally reach the screen, albeit the television screen.  This is obvious good news for Tony Horwitz, although even he probably cannot predict how his work will be spun by Gabriel Range as a screenplay.  While I have considerable differences with Tony Horwitz on aspects of the John Brown story, the larger point of concern, however, is what "Hollywood" will do with the John Brown story vis-a-vis Midnight Rising.
Tony Horwitz
Time will tell, although we certainly hope that we do not have the image of a violent religious fanatic John Brown, or a mentally disturbed terrorist John Brown brought to the screen.  Since too many people in this nation are too lazy to actually read history in a serious manner, they will take their history from film, just as they did in 1940, when "Santa Fe Trail" was released.  While there will be no more spinning of the Brown story to suit the whims of Southern romancers and "Lost Cause" types, it is possible that the themes of terrorism and religious fanaticism will be overdone by Hollywood.  It is hard enough for a post-Christian, secular writer to appreciate Brown's religious ideas, non-non-violence, and antislavery zeal.  It will be almost impossible for entertainment types to see Brown in a balanced light.

This is a story worthy of following and we'll do so.  At best, we hope that a television mini-series will get more attention for the John Brown story in schools and forums of real historical discussion and education.  We have good reason to believe that Mr. Giamatti, having shown respectable interest in early U.S. history, will likewise approach this theme with respect and consideration.  On the other hand, should our worst fears be raised, and this film lends itself to the lower appetites of popular culture, then most assuredly there will be, as Brown once put it, "all hell stirred from beneath" from our part.  We have come too far to see our 21st century understanding of Brown reduced to some misanthropic figure, whether on TV or in the movies.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


I'm Laughing AT YOU, not with You: Quick Review of Methodist Minister's Eyewitness Account, and a Lazy, Arrogant Amazon Reviewer

Samuel Vanderlip Leech was a Methodist minister who had occasion to meet John Brown during the incarceration of the abolitionist in 1859.  Fifty years later, Leech wrote a reminiscence of of the raid and an assessment of John Brown, entitled The Raid of John Brown at Harper's Ferry as I Saw It.  In my opinion, the work offers little of value except a brief vignette of the abolitionist's rejection of some pro-slavery ministers while in jail.  Unfortunately, he doesn't even date or sufficiently develop the more important episode of his little book.  Otherwise the work offers little of value to historians, except an old conservative compromiser's assessment after the fact, written at a time when white supremacy had been revised in 20th century terms.

At any rate, I made a brief comment on the book on Amazon, which you can read here.

What cracked me up, however, was the following Amazon "review" by a fellow named Geoffrey Sebesta, who gives this work four stars and writes:

"I read the pamphlet in the evening and found it lucid, revelatory, and delightful. The author is a cautious, cowardly liberal of the kind we all know and love, and his admiration for Brown is mixed with his horror at the sheer madness of the man and the impossibility of what he wanted. I learned a tremendous amount about the raid with very little expenditure of effort thanks to this book."

While I bear no malice toward Mr. Sebesta, I had to laugh at his "review" and let him know that I was laughing too.  But it's worth reporting here because it is very telling.  First he writes, with the typical arrogant presumption of many people in this nation, of "the sheer madness" of Brown and "the impossibility of what he wanted."   I need not go at length to say that, notwithstanding Tony Horwitz's baseless flirtation with alleged bipolar or manic disorder, there is no evidential basis for concluding that Brown suffered from mental illness.  The point is that Mr. Sebesta assumes Brown's madness with the same assurance that Mr. Sebesta assumes himself human, not a monkey.  This kind of assurance of truth regarding Brown is what typifies so many ignorant and arrogant people who typically bash Brown online.   The same applies for "the impossibility of what he wanted."  Very likely, Mr. Sebesta, like so many other Brown bashers out there, don't even really know what Brown "wanted."  And why should they, when no few number of historians and authors have so misrepresented Brown's goals?    Unfortunately, Mr. Sebesta is the product of an educational system and a historical prejudice, and his brief "review" is graphic in exposing the point.

The same applies for his grateful comment, that he had "learned a tremendous amount about the raid with very little expenditure of effort"!   Wow, this guy is a living illustration of the problems that John Brown studies face.  People who delight in putting forth little effort in studying, people who are historically lazy, so to speak, but want to have a "John Brown for Dummies" experience, and then walk away feeling he is both educated and qualified to speak on the subject.  He knows neither facts, context, or historiography, but he's absolutely delighted that he found a pamphlet that has taught him a "tremendous amount" without him having to expend very much effort.   This underscores the larger problem, that many people are too lazy to work hard at history, and to some degree history as a discipline suffers because of this laziness.  But John Brown--who is wrongly characterized so traditionally in white society and the mainstream media--especially suffers from lazy people who think this way.

Like I commented on his review, as a biographer of John Brown, I'm laughing.


Monday, July 15, 2013

From the Field--
Iowa and John Brown: A Road Trip Report from H. S. Wolfe


Mix your "From the Field"-man and a warm, July Saturday and what do you get? Why, a John Brown Road Trip...that's what!
Plaster from the Maxson Farm House (H. S. Wolfe)
My principal destination was the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, where a special exhibit dealing with Iowa's role in the Civil War was my objective. But, lo and behold, the display began with John Brown himself. Besides a number of images and broadsides, a display case contained three artifacts: 1) a "John Brown Sharps" rifle, of the type stored in Iowa and carried to Harpers Ferry; 2) a faux "John Brown pike," which (this particular object has been floating around the Springdale, Iowa vicinity since the 19th century) shows not the least resemblance to the pikes carried to the Ferry; and 3) something new!  If you recall my epic article about Brown's soldiers at Springdale (see "Farmer Maxson's Newel Post"), I believe I mentioned that the men, before departing in April of 1858 for the Constitutional Convention in Chatham, C.W., signed their names on a wall of their winter quarters, the Maxson farmhouse. Here, today, I viewed a piece of plaster inscribed with the following: "Taken from wall where John Brown's men wrote their name in 1859    Springda  Io." Besides having the year wrong and cutting off the location, it provided me much excitement...for I had never seen such a souvenir before. 
Townsend's Traveler's Rest (H. S. Wolfe)

When departing West Branch, I paused to photograph the structure which once housed James Townsend's "Traveler's Rest." This roadside "inn/tavern" was, in 1856, patronized by John Brown...and described in a much published story popularized by Irving B. Richman's "John Brown Among the Quakers" (1894). An image is attached. Appreciate it...for I risked my life in oncoming traffic.

Upon arriving in Springdale, for a tour of the John Brown sites there, yours truly, the From the Fielder, was compelled (by issues of vanity) to pose beside the village sign on its western limits (see final image). Please note the red and white bib overalls. These were obtained by barter from Bozo the Clown...I get his pants and he gets an original pair of John Brown's leg irons.
DAR Maxson Family Monument (H. S. Wolfe)
Finally, I paused at the site of the Maxson farmhouse...in order to evaluate the condition of the 1924 DAR monument marking the same. Sadly, it still remains much neglected...although someone has cut a bit of the long grass masking its roadside face...and, perhaps the same someone, has placed three small American flags to honor the spot. Heavily shaded by a towering sycamore...and backed by corn already shoulder high...one requires a licensed guide, such as myself, to even locate the spot. But the stone remains...which we can claim as progress. 
Our correspondent marks the site,
as always, with panache  (H.S. Wolfe)

When one includes the pork and pepper sandwich at "Reid's Beans Cafe" in West Branch, it turned out to be a most interesting and enjoyable day. Perhaps, someday, the esteemed Dr. DeCaro himself will travel to the provinces for a personal tour. Nothing better than breathing Iowa dust while listening to the call of the dickcissel.

Yr obt srvt,

H.S. Wolfe...From the Field

We are grateful for yet another refreshing infusion of word and scene from Correspondent Wolfe, whose historical adventures range from deep in the archives to the breadth of the nation's plains and rolling hills.  Under the watchful survey of Mr. Wolfe, no rock is left unturned, no tome is too faded to be studied, no road is too dusty to be traveled, and no Civil War cannon too rusty to be fired off!  Of course, one burning question remains: What is a "dickcissel"?--LD  

Happily, we learn from a subsequent communication from Mr. Wolfe, concerning the aforesaid dickcissel:

"I take it as a symptom of an overextended exposure to concrete and urbanization that you are unfamiliar with the dickcissel. This glorious, avian forager of the fields of the hinterland...a member of the genus Spiza and family Cardinalidae...can be heard performing his musical lyrics along any country road in Ioway. Any John Brown research visit to the Maxson farm is accompanied by such melodious background music."