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John Brown’s Body is in the Grave, but his Story Keeps Marching On

After re-reading Gilead with its accounts of the protagonist/narrator’s grandfather riding with John Brown in some decidedly non-pastoral actions, I found myself drawn to the notorious abolitionist and realized that, despite living in territory through which he might plausibly have passed and teaching less than a day’s ride by horse away from Osawatomie, Kansas, I really knew very little about this man. To remedy that lack of knowledge, I naturally went to the pages of fiction. Okay, honestly, I went to the pages of fiction because I was intrigued by the interpretation grafted onto this historical figure just as certainly as by the historical figure himself.

In 1998, Russell Banks published a Pulitzer-nominated novel, Cloudsplitter, that had as its premise the idea that Owen Brown, the last surviving son of the great man, had entered into correspondence with Katherine Mayo, a research assistant for Oswald Garrison Villard in the preparation for his 1910 John Brown 1800-1859: A Biography Fifty Years After. Over the course of lengthening letters–over 700 printed pages of them, it seems–Owen Brown relates his memories of life with father. Not surprisingly, Cloudsplitter winds up being more of a revelation about Owen Brown than about John Brown.

Reflecting on this book, I find myself struck by two conclusions. First, Banks does an admirable job of tracing the conflicted loyalties of Owen Brown as he lived his young adult life in the considerable shadow of his father. Although not adhering to the powerful religious sentiments of his father, Owen, despite several attempts, cannot seem to break himself away from the older man’s orbit. It is with a great deal of nuance and psychological insight that Banks relates this influence, plausibly suggesting that even Owen himself did not fully understand their relationship until many years later. The second conclusion I draw is that John Brown truly does stand at the crossroads of American culture in the decades before the Civil War. At first, I believed that Banks was simply dropping names, yet the names he drops truly had connections with Brown. He takes some liberties, placing a couple of Peabodys on the ship that carried the Browns to England–and, if I read between the lines correctly, suggesting that Nathaniel Hawthorne might have impregnated the younger Peabody aboard–but largely he places Brown between the forces of agrarian and mercantile America, between the violent slavers and the passive abolitionists, in the presence of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau. This book, while overlong, possesses both literary and historical merit.

On the other hand, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Angel of the Lord contains very little of merit. Fraser takes his “Flashy” character back to America through a series of ridiculous hoodwinkings worthy of Walker, Texas Ranger–honestly, how many times can one character be abducted?–and lands him as John Brown’s right-hand man, a first-row witness to the debacle at Harper’s Ferry. Simultaneously, Flashy is supposedly attempting to advance the raid on behalf of the abolitionists, control the raid on behalf of a shadowy KKK precursor, and ensure Brown’s death, preferably before the raid, on behalf of the U.S. government.

Fraser’s book demonstrates the fruits of a couple of weeks of historical research but possesses none of the psychological insight that Banks brings to the table. In the end, predictably, Fraser doesn’t take Brown’s religious belief seriously and dismisses him as a fool and a hypocrite. Despite John Brown’s obvious failings, he deserves better treatment.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary, English Literature.

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