‘Cloudsplitter,’ John Brown, Our Madness

A major project of late 2008 and early 2009 was reading Russell Banks’s “Cloudsplitter.” The duration of the task–I carried the book around with me long enough so that the dust jacket is shot–says more about my overall fecklessness and willingness to spend hours online or in front of “The Wire” than it says about the novel. cloudsplitter.jpg

The books’ subject is John Brown, the abolitionist, activist and finally anti-slavery terrorist. Despite the national romance with the Civil War, not much about John Brown sinks in these days. To most, he is a fringe character. If you know him at all, you know him as the author of pointlessly bloody and tragically ill-conceived acts of violence that he imagined might further the anti-slavery cause. He was hanged, or martyred, for his trouble.

The novelist, Russell Banks, tries here to suggest the larger-than-life place Brown held in the national consciousness immediately before the war and for decades after. John Brown’s story is told in the voice of one of his sons, Owen. As an old man, he is speaking to a researcher for a writer working on a new biography of John Brown on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the raid on Harper’s Ferry. The researcher, Kathleen Mayo, the historian, Oswald Garrison Villard, and the book, “John Brown, 1800-1859: A Biography 50 Years After,” are all real (in fact, 99 years after publication, the 700-some-page biography is available online for free).

But this is a novel, and Banks conjures all of these characters to confront what Owen Brown says is the only question that matters about his father’s life: was he mad?

“Since they first heard his name, men and women have been asking it. They asked it continuously during his lifetime, even before he became famous. Strangers, loyal followers, enemies, friends, and family alike. It was then and is now no merely academic question. And how you and the professor answer it will determine to a considerable degree how you and whoever reads your book will come to view the long, savage war between the white race and the black race on this continent. If the book that your good professor is presently composing, though it contain all the known and previously unrecorded facts of my father’s life, cannot show and declare once and for all that Old Brown either was or was not mad, then it will be a useless addition to the head-high pile of useless books already written about him. More than the facts of my father’s hectic life, people do need to know if he was was sane or not. For if he was sane, then terrible things about race and human nature, especially here in North America, are true. If he was insane, then other, quite different, and perhaps not so terrible things about race and human nature are true.”

Having declared that as the central issue, Owen never raises it again in so many words, and never again in the context of a war between the races. Instead, we watch his family wracked by financial disaster, privation and death. The constant is the father’s domination of his family, his austere religiosity, the purity of his rage against slavery, and his determination to thwart it, then kill it. John Brown, his sons and acolytes wind up in Kansas, hacking slavery sympathizers to pieces with broadswords. Soon, he leads his men into the fastness of Harpers Ferry to launch a slave revolt he believes will sweep the South.

Just before the last act, Owen tells the unseen Miss Mayo that “Father’s progression from activist to martyr, his slow march to willed disaster, can be viewed, not as a descent into madness, but as a reasonable progression–especially if one considers the political strength of those who in those days meant to keep chattel slavery the law of the land.” And later: “… my father’s gradual progression from anti-slavery agitator all the way to terrorist, guerrilla captain, and martyr … seemed … a reasonable and moral response to the times.”

The times are the point. John Brown seemed a madman; he shocked and repelled many. It was convenient and desirable for many to label him insane.

But he had lots of company. The very nature of the conflict drove everyone to some degree of madness. Slavery was based on a mad conception of humanity and rights. Those who insisted on its continuation as a matter of right were mad. Those who manufactured defenses for it out of scripture were mad. The reign of terror that kept slavery in place was mad.

And the madness–what Banks calls the war between the races–didn’t die with John Brown or the Civil War. It lived on through a century of Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and segregation. It survived the Civil Rights era and into the age when the same United States that just a few generations ago enslaved African Americans as a matter of course elected a black man president. (You don’t think this race madness continues? Ha. What do you think the immigration “debate” is about?)

I read another Brown book this year: “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.” It’s by David S. Reynolds, a cultural historian from New York. As his book’s subtitle suggests, he makes lots of claims for Brown and his legacy. Many, especially the arguments for his overarching importance in sparking the war and in somehow “seeding” the civil rights movement, are a stretch. But one premise I will readily buy: John Brown was sane. And yes, as Banks’s Owen Brown says, “terrible things about race and human nature, especially here in North America, are true.”

10 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, History, Literature

10 Responses to ‘Cloudsplitter,’ John Brown, Our Madness

  1. jb

    I read this too…after I heard you talk about it. First time I started I lasted to about page 25…Owen the Elder in Upstate New York. Good imagery in that scene. Then I started over about two months later and read it all the way through. It is really beautifully written. What is sad (for me) is I knew the outcome of the story and I just wanted it to end differently. I wanted Brown to escape Harper’s Ferry to fight another day. He died only a few months short of Fort Sumter and the Civil War. It is hard to imagine a guy like that not looking to be involved that fight.
    As to the madness, he was a product of his times. Slavery and the slave trade was madness. The contortions that the republic had to endure to remain intact strike me as part and parcel to the madness. Dred Scott, Kansas-Nebraska, the Fugitive Slave Act and the all-around totalitarian nature and methods of the slavocracy would..for starters…tend to drive a sane person to extremes. The country could not keep going on as a democracy if it had to continue with those Faustian bargains. At best it could have limped along for a few decades as an ever nastier plutocracy.
    What strikes too is how much of this history has been sanitized over the decades since the events. Brown is portrayed in movies and books madman, even a scoundrel, while so much of the former slave empire is depicted as urbane and benign.

  2. Dan

    John, I think you hit all the main points. One of the interesting things that Reynolds says in his biography is that Brown was labeled as insane mostly by critics in the North (the notable exception being Emerson, Thoreau, and their crowd, who embraced him as a Christ-like revolutionary who did what was necessary to overturn an unjustifiable evil). Observers in the South, starting with the governor of Virginia who was present when Brown was interrogated after Harper’s Ferry, were virtually unanimous in declaring that Brown was sane and argued his position with a sort of admirable rationality. They hated his position, of course; and they had an interest in saying he was sane–they wanted to paint him as the embodiment of Northern aggression; similarly, the large majority of northerners who were not abolitionists wanted to repudiate him and thus argued he was crazy.
    Reynolds also makes the point that Brown’s unwavering fidelity to his cause and fearless acceptance of his fate won the anti-slavery cause a much bigger following in the North.

  3. jb

    Here is a link to a Times piece from today. The subject is John Wilkes Booth and it mentions that he was at the execution of John Brown in 1859. Booth actually has admiration for Brown, for the same reasons you mention here.
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/the-assassins-debut/

  4. I’ve been following the NY Times Disunion blog that jb linked to above. They’re basically blogging the Civil War 150 years after the fact. It’s just fascinating. The Washington Post has another Civil War blog, but I can’t seem to find the link right now.

  5. Dan

    Yeah — you know, Reynolds mentions this too: Booth got himself an appointment to a Virginia militia specifically so he could be at the hanging. Reynolds take is that he saw himself as cut from the same cloth–or maybe a finer grade of the same cloth–as Brown and was still acting out that belief (or fantasy) when he assassinated Lincoln.

  6. Dan

    I hadn’t checked in on the Disunion blog. Looks great. Interesting to see the commenters fall to squabbling; I stopped reading a comment thread when someone drew a parallel between opposing slavery and opposing the Taliban.
    We subscribe to the NYT, and the archives by themselves are worth the price of admission (though yes, it’s a steep price).

  7. jb

    Joining the militia to witness an execution is macabre. If Booth had been such a devotee of the Confederate cause one would think he’d have had ample opportunity to offer his good services as an infantryman or in the sanitary corps…something. From the descriptions of the guy he was quite able-bodied. But I’ve never read of him showing up at any actions of CSA armies…putting his life on the line for God, country and peculiar institution. Killing Lincoln strikes me as a shriek for attention on the part of Booth as much as it was an act of revenge for the defeat of the South.

  8. Dan

    Re-reading Reynolds’s stuff on this, I have to clarify a couple of things: Booth was a member of the Virginia Greys militia; from what Reynolds says, he was not at Harpers Ferry during the uprising, but arrived in Charles Town between the time Brown was convicted of treason (against the state of Virginia) in November 1859 and hanged (December 2, 1859). Reynolds says the Greys were assigned to guard the gallows before the hanging and thus Booth had a ringside seat for the proceedings.
    His reaction to Brown was of limited admiration for his stoicism, but mostly he said he detested Brown and what he stood for. Later, when he had taken it into his head to murder Lincoln, he came to tell people he viewed Brown as a heroic figure, one who had managed to change history with a single stroke. In fact, Reynolds quotes him as calling Brown the greatest man of the century (in contrast to Lincoln, the worst). His idea, or delusion, was to join Brown in the pantheon by killing the president.
    Note that Booth by this time probably suffered from wet brain.

  9. jb

    Wet brain? At 26? I didn’t know Booth was a tippler. No wonder he couldn’t join the army. They might have made him a general.

  10. Dan

    Yeah–he was supposed to have been quite a drinker. By one account, he left Ford’s Theatre between acts the night he shot Lincoln to have a couple of shots of brandy. I’ve been looking for a Booth quote from 1865 I came across–either a letter or a diary entry–that talked about how depressed he felt about the state of his beloved cause and which I think mentioned the drinking.

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