Guest Observation: Russell Banks

From “Cloudsplitter,” a fictional memoir of Owen Brown, one of the sons of radical abolitionist John Brown. Not a new book–it came out ten years ago–but I just started reading it the other day. It’s beautiful and charged with the strangeness and rage of John Brown’s story.

“… Though there was never a man so detached from the sinner who so loathed sin, when it came to the sin of owning slaves, which Father labeled not sin but evil, all his loathing came down at once and in a very personal way on the head of the evil-doer. He brooked no fine distinctions: the man who pleaded for the kindly treatment of human chattel or, as if it could occur naturally, like a shift in the seasons, argued for the gradual elimination of slavery was just as evil as the man who whipped, branded, raped, and slew his slaves; and he who did not loudly oppose the extension of slavery into the western territories was as despicable as he who hounded escaped slaves all the way to Canada and branded them on the spot to punish them and to make pursuit and capture easier next time. But with the notable exception of where a man or woman stood on the question of slavery, when Father considered the difference between our way of life and the ways of others, he did not judge them or lord it over them. He did not condemn or set himself off from our neighbors. He merely observed their ways and passed silently by.

“And he knew all the ways of men and women extremely well. He was no naif, no bumpkin. My father was not the sort of man who stopped up his ears at the sound of foul language or shut his eyes to the lasciviousness and sensuality that passed daily before him. He never warned another man or woman off from speech or act because he was too delicate of sensibility or too pious or virtuous to hear of it or witness the thing. He knew what went on between men and women, between men and men, between men and animals even, in the small crowded cabins of the settlements and out in the sheds and barns of our neighbors. And he knew what was nightly bought and sold on the streets and alleys and in the taverns of the towns and cities he visited. The man had read every word of his Bible hundreds of times: nothing human beings did with or to one another or themselves shocked him. Only slavery shocked him.”

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