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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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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Milestones and Landmarks--
A Decade of John Brown Abolitionist

It is worth noting the ten-year anniversary of the publication of David Reynolds’ John Brown Abolitionist (Knopf, 2005), which was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by Barbara Ehrenreich on April 17, 2005.  As a scholar and biographer of the controversial abolitionist, I believe that Reynolds’ treatment of Brown has proven a landmark biography, not only for its thoughtful and studied treatment of the abolitionist, but also for its clarity and fairness, something often lacking in discussions on Brown.  Indeed, I would suggest that Reynolds has given the 21st century a far more fitting paradigm for understanding John Brown than what was given to the 20th century.

W.E.B. DuBois
The first and perhaps most thoughtful biography of Brown in the 20th century was written by W.E.B. DuBois (1909), whose lyrical style and political perception of Brown’s significance was immediately dashed by his wealthy white liberal associate, Oswald Garrison Villard. Villard was the grandson of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and one of the founders of the NAACP, and also owned The New York Evening Post and The Nation at the time DuBois’s biography was published.  

Oswald G. Villard
Unfortunately for DuBois, Villard was preparing his own Brown biography, and did not rise above using his publications to attack his work.  Likewise, when Villard’s biography was published in 1910, he similarly used his influence to elevate his own biography as objective and definitive.  In fact, despite being better researched (Villard could afford to pay someone to research for him), his biography was stiff and dense, a book for today's researchers, not readers.  Worse, its friendly fire on Brown, based on ideology (Villard was a pacifist) and family interest (Brown got more credit that Garrison in historical memory), left the abolitionist’s reputation vulnerable to less appreciative writers, especially those looking to redeem the South and render the abolitionist a problematic figure in history.  This was especially true of his one-sided reading of the so-called "Pottawatomie massacre," which gave ammunition to hostile writers and journalists for the rest of the century and beyond.

A number of biographers of Brown in the 20th century endeavored to present a more balanced portrayal of the abolitionist.   Most notable is Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood, which often was greeted as the most objective treatment of Brown, and likewise considered the definitive biography.  However,  in retrospect, despite its academic sufficiency (Brown aficionado Boyd Stutler supported and approved it), Oates' work is somewhat sterile and certainly fails to assess key aspects of Brown’s story properly, from religion to the Pottawatomie killings.  Nevertheless, Oates’ biography reigned supreme for the rest of the 20th century, perhaps because little other attention was paid to John Brown by biographers.   In fact, a better book than Oates' was interestingly written by the playwright and researcher, Barrie Stavis, called John Brown: The Sword and the Word.  In fact, Boyd Stutler seems to have preferred Stavis' little book, commending it as having far less to correct or criticize than any other book he had seen--ostensibly including Oates' book, which came out the same year (1970). Unfortunately, the Stavis book seems to have been largely overlooked by Brown scholars and students.
More promising was The Legend of John Brown by Richard O. Boyer, the first installment of a proposed two-volume project, which came out a few years after the books by Oates and Stavis.  As a profile writer for The New Yorker, Boyer’s leftist politics and journalistic skills provided a hopeful opportunity to view Brown with both fairness and feeling, especially within the context of a nation dominated by proslavery interests and racism.  Unfortunately, Boyer died after the first volume was published by Alfred Knopf  (1973).  His half-told story, perhaps is too heavily laden with colorful profiles of Brown’s contemporaries; but it is better written and conveys fact and feeling beyond Oates’ succinct biography. Still, the story was both big and unfinished, and could not provide a counterpoint to the popular 20th century narrative of Brown as a killer and national trouble-maker. (Also see "The Stutler-Boyer Disconnection")

David Reynolds,
Springfield, MA, 2009
While David Reynolds was not the first biographer of Brown in the 21st century, his work proved to be everything that could have been hoped for in Boyer’s second volume and then some.  Whether or not one agrees with all of Reynolds’ narrative, his John Brown Abolitionist proved to be both watershed and landmark in the study.  It was more than fitting that the Reynolds biography would be published by Knopf, which not only closed the loop left by Boyer’s incomplete project, but provided a substantial, studied, and beautifully written work by a skilled researcher and writer.  A deft and insightful scholar of 19th century society, Reynolds folds literary, political, social, and religious themes into his book in a manner that none of his predecessors have done, especially after Villard had so boasted of his work and so belittled that of DuBois.
David Reynolds
(DeCaro photo, 2011)

Reynolds’ biography is a watershed work because he was able to read Brown with a clarity that was lacking in the 20th century, when the abolitionist was consistently skewed and maligned by professional historians with little or no basis. Whether positive or negative, no prior biography has so impacted readers as to turn the flow of the historical narrative more correctly in a direction suited to Brown’s worthy profile as a religious progressive and forerunner of civil rights.  

Reynolds not only debunked baseless and unfair characterizations of Brown, but he replaced them with a reasoned argument for an appreciative understanding of the abolitionist.  Differences notwithstanding, it is clear that even a decade after the publication of John Brown Abolitionist, David Reynolds single-handedly has reset the historical narrative of Brown for the future.  His understanding of Brown as the man who “killed slavery, sparked the Civil War, and seeded Civil Rights” has provided us with a sound, studied, and eloquent reading of a man who, in a real sense, is still ahead of our nation’s quest for racial justice.

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