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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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Monday, October 20, 2014

Proslavery artist Adalbert Volck's facetious
sketch of Brown as a saint
Biographically Speaking--
The Usefulness of "Panegyrics"

Many historians and scholars are quick to label the most famous 19th century biographies of the old man as panegyrics, meaning they are works of praise.  True enough, the 19th century biographies of Brown are works of praise--Redpath's 1860 authorized biography is certainly a panegyric, as are the later writings of Franklin B. Sanborn, one of Brown's close associates from the later 1850s. Even later in the 19th century, the aged Richard Hinton, another former Brown associate, wrote his book about the old man and his raiders.

Sketch of Sanborn
in youth
These works are generally branded as too adoring of Brown to be trusted as worthy historical works, and it is fairly typical of contemporary academics to treat them dismissively to some degree.  Another problem with these works, especially Redpath and Sanborn's respective works, is their reference to divine providence and so forth, which is a real no-no for contemporary scholarship.  While Sanborn was hardly an evangelical like his subject, he does seem to have believed that the phenomenon of John Brown signified some sort of divine providence in history.  Of course, none of this is acceptable by today's standards.  Whatever one may feel about some leader being a godsend, such thoughts are restricted to the realm of private faith and thought to have no place among professional historians.
Early photographic portrait
of James Redpath

There is no doubt that Redpath, Sanborn, and Hinton wrote works of praise; they also wrote works of apologia--works intended to defend Brown against his critics.  Furthermore, their works do have errors, mistakes, and suppositions that historians must check, correct, and recheck at times.  When Oswald Garrison Villard prepared his 1910 biography, he touted it as being objective and definitive, and privately scoffed at the aged Sanborn for being too admiring of Brown, as well as for his mistakes.

Richard Hinton
in later years
Villard is widely considered the first "modern" biography of Brown, and undoubtedly he was granted far more trust than he granted to others, including W.E.B. DuBois.  DuBois' biography of Brown preceded Villard's by one year, and Villard ruthlessly attacked his work in print, pointing out DuBois' mistakes and reliance upon less reliable sources.  What makes this more unfortunate is that poor DuBois had not even wanted to write a biography of Brown in the first place.  In fact, his work on Brown was really a third choice.  His first choice was to do a biography of Frederick Douglass, which was denied him because Booker T. Washington had his sights set on a Douglass book.  Then, DuBois turned to the idea of doing a biography of Nat Turner, which would have been a great contribution had he been permitted to execute the work.  Unfortunately, the Turner biography was also refused by his publisher.  John Brown, it is in many respects an excellent interpretation of the old man and well worth reading.
W.E.B. DuBois
Only then did DuBois turn to Brown as a subject, and when he did write his biography, he did so under great stress from his teaching and activism.  Furthermore, DuBois lacked the financial resources that rich Oswald Villard possessed.  Of course, despite the unreliability of many little details in DuBois'

On the other hand, Villard, the supposed fountainhead of objective John Brown scholarship in the 20th century, was really writing with an ax to grind--indeed a double ax.  Not only was Villard a fanatical pacifist who resented Brown's resort to "violence," but he was also the grandson of pacifist abolitionist great, William Lloyd Garrison.  It's not hard to sniff out the family vendetta in Villard's book.  Like his grandfather, Villard didn't seem to know whether he loved or hated Brown, and he concluded to write an appreciative sort of condemnation of the old man, calling him a murderer at Pottawatomie while elevating his martyrdom.   Villard's book was widely praised, although its worst side was what appealed so much to 20th century scholars, who subsequently used and abused Villard's take on Pottawatomie so much that it became the well-beaten path of almost any historical commentary on John Brown, often to this day.
Oswald G. Villard

In fact, Villard was biased.  His reading of the expansive data gathered by his assistant, Katherine Mayo, was selective and deliberate in its critical conclusions about Brown's supposedly unwarranted violence in Kansas.  Of course, anyone who reads carefully through that data (as I did years ago) knows that Villard's conclusions were hardly obvious.  He was simply writing with a predetermined conclusion of condemning Brown as a murderer, and he was quite persuasive.  Nor was Villard in the place of one worthy to cast the first stone when it came to scholarly errors.
Katherine Mayo

When Villard was an aged, sickly man, his work came under the careful and authoritative eye of Boyd B. Stutler, whose interest in John Brown had started in the 1920s.  Stutler, a native of West Virginia, started as a young newspaper man and a West Virginia history buff.  But the more he collected Brown's letters and built a library of other primary and secondary sources, the more he became pointedly interested in John Brown.  Prior to Villard's death, the author asked Stutler to go through his 1910 opus, and Stutler produced several pages of corrections, allowing Stutler to revise his work before dying.  It's too bad DuBois didn't know about this, or he might have had a few choice words for the merciless Villard.
Boyd B. Stutler
Despite a number of interesting works on Brown in the 20th century, nothing more of significance was written until 1969-70, when Stephen Oates published his landmark biography, To Purge This Land with Blood, and the playwright, Barrie Stavis, published his short but profound, John Brown: The Sword and the Word.  Stutler assisted both writers, but I think that he actually preferred Stavis' little book insofar as capturing the man who lived is concerned.  Unfortunately, Stavis' book didn't get much attention, while Oates' book became the standard for the rest of the 20th century.  

During the 20th century, Robert McGlone began his work on John Brown and seems to have intended to publish the next definitive response to Oates, although for some reason McGlone's work was not published until the 21st century, and by then he was already following on the heels of a number of new biographers.  His work is erudite and even magisterial to some degree, although he seems needlessly cynical at points.  More importantly, McGlone's work lacks the readability of Oates' plain text narrative, or the literary splendor of David Reynolds' 2005 blockbuster, John Brown Abolitionist.  
I'll refrain from going further with this little sketch, except to say a few things about the older works and their "usability."

As I noted above, there's a tendency to slap down Redpath, Sanborn, and Hinton immediately. Indeed, any book that is too warm toward Brown is accused either of being a panegyric or "hagiography" (a saint's life), and such works are all but disqualified in the contemporary realm of history writing.

There are a number of problems with this kind of bias:

While Redpath, Sanborn, and Hinton wrote in defense of Brown, and often quite adoringly with tones of hero worship, they were also primary witnesses who knew Brown and his context better than we do today.  Being part of the story doesn't mean you're objective, but it does mean that their witnesses are valuable, even if they have to be carefully weighed at times.  Their works have errors, but they also contain a wealth of information that biographers and students need.

As we can learn from Villard, "modern," "objective" scholarship is not reliable either.  There is a great deal of bias and prejudice against Brown in the academy.  Many writers who like to point out the "panegyrics" of the 19th century are actually prone to a cynical or polemical approach to Brown. The mainstay of much contemporary writing on John Brown is typically beset with baseless references to contemporary terrorism and violent characterizations of the man, although most writers (and this includes journalists too) know very little about John Brown.

The fact is, there is a great deal more anti-Brown writing on the shelves and on the internet than there are panegyrics, and some of the things labeled hagiography are simply appreciative of John Brown rather than negative characterizations.  When it comes to Brown, the language of contemporary scholars is full of regret, apprehension, even fear.  The cultural norm for writers, at least among "whites," is to approach John Brown with a reserve of suspicion, cynicism, or condemnation.

This aspect should be considered when the old dismissive reproach, "panegyric" is rolled out by the "experts."--LD

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