Hardly great and enduring literature, Russell Banks’ novel Cloudsplitter is nothing if not thick. Yes, I am venting, but more than 750 pages of often tedious, often repetitive fictionalized history left me in the mode of Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost: No one ever wished it longer.
In this book, Banks allows John Brown’s longest surviving son, Owen Brown to tell the story of his father’s career in letter form to would-be biographers, decades after the Bleeding Kansas and Harper’s Ferry incidents. Owen, perhaps self-servingly, paints himself as the spark who pushed his father into action. It was he who corrected his father’s dalliance in financial speculation, he who instigated the Pottawatomie Massacre, and he who constantly urged the Old Man from theory into action. Why, then, is Owen the lone Brown survivor of Harper’s Ferry and the ensuring trial. He is much fuzzier in relating that aftermath, basically dismissing the question with the information that he ran off to California.
Cloudsplitter sheds very little light on John Brown, and I honestly do not believe that such light is truly Banks’ object. The author invests what to me is a disproportionate amount of his narrative into events in the Brown saga that are, frankly, not terribly interesting. Do we really need several chapters to tell us about John and Owen traveling with a cargo of wool to England and then, with a few days on their hands, making their way to the continent and Waterloo? This episode could be dismissed very quickly if Banks were presenting a biographical account of the great man, especially since most of the words that he places in Brown’s mouth are utterly unknowable. But his purpose seems instead to trace the effects of being the son of the great man. At various points, especially in the Harper’s Ferry segment, to my mind the most fascinating part of the Brown saga, Owen confesses that the details of the raid are well known. What he can add is small and, perhaps unreliable. After all, how much do we trust the unverifiable recollections of a violence-traumatized man thirty years after the fact?
Perhaps I am simply impatient in finding this book slow-moving and overly long, but portions of it are engaging and insightful–if not into the particular psychology of Owen Brown then into human nature overall. The forces that took John and Owen Brown to eastern Kansas and then to Harper’s Ferry required years of development, years of deployment, and years of profound focus on the elimination of a singular evil within the nation. Surely I can dedicate a few night’s reading to their journey.