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M A Y  1 9 9 8

A Fictional Portrait of John Brown
by James M. McPherson


Russell Banks.
758 pages, $27.50.

"CLOUDSPLITTER" is the English word for the Indian name of Mount Tahawus, in the Adirondacks, 120 miles north of Albany and near the rural community of North Elba, where the abolitionist John Brown established a home in 1849. But the real cloudsplitter in this novel is John Brown himself, who launched lightning strikes against pro-slavery settlers in Kansas and whose thunderbolt descent on Harpers Ferry, in 1859, lit flames of civil war that were not fully quenched even at Appomattox, six years later. Russell Banks has constructed this complex narrative on two levels. The first is the story of John Brown and his large family from the 1830s to the moment of his defeat at Harpers Ferry. The second and more profound level consists of a prolonged meditation on the interrelationships of blacks and whites and fathers and sons.

The first-person narrator is a fictionalized Owen Brown, John Brown's third son and his principal lieutenant in the Kansas wars. The story takes the form of autobiographical notes compiled by Owen in 1899 for Katherine Mayo, the research assistant of Oswald Garrison Villard, who published in 1910 what still stands as the fullest biography of John Brown. The knowledgeable reader will recognize how Banks has employed novelistic license to describe events that never happened, to place Owen at scenes where in reality he was not present, and to date his composition of these notes eight years after the real Owen died. But of course this is a work of fiction, not history, and these contrivances enable Banks to construct a version of "truth" beyond that of literal history.
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Related links:

  • Russell Banks online
    The transcript of a March, 1998, interview with Russell Banks in a Time Magazine forum.

    From Atlantic Unbound:

  • Books & Authors: "Inheriting Slavery," (February, 1998)
    An Atlantic Unbound interview with Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family.

  • John Brown was an Old Testament warrior-prophet transplanted into the nineteenth century. He believed in a God of wrath and justice. He also considered himself God's instrument to free the slaves and punish their owners for the sin of holding human beings in bondage. One of his favorite biblical passages was from Hebrews 9:22: "Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins." Brown possessed a powerful personality that enabled him to dominate his seven grown sons, most of whom became soldiers in his war against slavery and three of whom were killed in that war. Brown's strange charisma also won other allies, both black and white, who followed him to death and martyrdom at Harpers Ferry or provided him with financial support for his armed crusade against the pro-slavery power that dominated Congress, courts, the presidency, and the Army in the 1850s.

    Many people then and later believed that John Brown was insane. This novel, however, conveys the message that Brown was insane only if slavery and white supremacy were sane. As Owen expresses it, his father had a capacity singular among white men to see the world from the black man's point of view. From that perspective the insane became sane, and vice versa. "Something deep within [John Brown's] soul, regardless of his own skin color ... went out to the souls of American Negroes," Owen writes,
    so that he was able to ally himself with them in their struggle against slavery and American racialism, not merely because he believed they were in the right, but because he believed that somehow he himself was one of them.... 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 consider the political strength of those who in those days meant to keep chattel slavery the law of the land.... due to our obsession, we were, as it were, insane. Which to the Negroes, to Lyman, made us perfectly comprehensible and trustworthy -- sane.
    The Lyman in this quotation is Lyman Epps, a free black farmer and a neighbor of the Browns' at North Elba, where the wealthy abolitionist Gerrit Smith had granted land to blacks and to John Brown to establish a kind of exemplary interracial rural community. From North Elba, Epps and the Browns carry escaping slaves to Canada on the Underground Railroad from 1850 to 1855, when most of the Browns go to the Kansas territory. Epps was an actual person, but in this novel he looms larger than he did in real life. He plays a pivotal role in Owen Brown's self-awakening, which even more than John Brown's progression to martyrdom is the central theme of the novel.

    Owen wishes to transcend his whiteness and, like his father, enter into the soul of blackness. But in the presence of blacks he cannot forget his color, which "angered me in a way that left me secretly ashamed." Owen and Lyman, portrayed here as being about the same age, become close friends. But Owen realizes, in a sort of shameful epiphany, that he has fallen in love with Lyman's wife, Susan -- an emotion that, as he will come to realize, is really a displacement of his love for Lyman. Consumed by guilt, he flails himself and experiences a surge of hatred for Lyman, which produces another round of racial guilt that is purged only when, in a climactic scene, Lyman accidentally shoots and kills himself in circumstances that Owen could have prevented if he had acted in time.

    Owen thus convinces himself that he is a murderer and can atone for this atrocious act only by becoming the coldblooded killer of slave owners and destroyer of slavery that he believes his father wants him to become. "I was the man," Owen writes,

    who had never been able to forget that Lyman, while he lived, was black. Thus, until this moment, I had never truly loved him. He was a dead man now -- finally, a man of no race. And as surely as if I had pulled the trigger myself, I was the man, the white man, who, because of Lyman's color and mine, had killed him. It was as if there had been no other way for me to love him.
    There was nothing for love, now, but all-out war against the slavers.... Father would be my North Star.... I had become outwardly a hard man, a grim, silent warrior in my father's army, soon to be a killer more feared by the slavers for his cold, avenging spirit than any Free-Soil man in all of Kansas. More feared even than Father.

    This passage suggests another dimension of Owen's self-awakening -- his contrapuntal dependent-independent relationship with his father. Here Banks hints at an Oedipal interpretation, but he never develops it. Owen's mother died when he was eight, a devastating experience, and Owen resented his father's marrying again even as he experienced overwhelming love for his father, who forgave his youthful sins: "It was as if his words had cleansed me, for at once I felt uplifted and strong again. Whatever Father wished me now to do, I would do without argument, without hesitancy, without fear."

    Instead of Oedipus, the Old Testament stories of Job and of Abraham and Isaac become the models for this father-son relationship. God tested Job's faith by letting Satan take everything from him -- his wealth, his servants, his family, his health. Yet Job refused to curse God, and the Lord rewarded him by restoring health, wealth, and family.

    The figure of Job was, of course, like no one so much as Father himself. As Job stood to God, Father did also. My terrible understanding was that I, too, was like no one so much as Job. Not, however, in my relation to God; but in my relation to Father.
    Owen tries repeatedly to break free of his father's domination, to become his own man, like his older brothers Jason and John Jr., but he cannot. Like Isaac, he is compelled to obey his father, even if his father is commanded by the Lord to slay him as a sacrifice.

    The death of Lyman Epps, by compelling Owen to become a killer of slave owners to atone for his sin, seems for a while to have reversed the relationship of father and son. When the time comes for revenge against pro-slavery depredations in Kansas, it is Owen who ruthlessly instigates the cold-blooded murder of five settlers in the infamous Pottawatomie massacre. John Brown was beset with indecision, so "I reached forward and banged roughly on the door" of the first victim's cabin; "I kicked it and swiftly put my shoulder into it"; "I remember raising the blade of my sword ... and then I brought it down and buried it in the skull," and so on for two pages (emphasis added). "And Father? Where was Father? All the while, he stood away from us, and he alone did not use his sword. He watched."

    Shortly before Lyman Epps shoots himself, he tells Owen that Owen isn't half the man his father is. But after Pottawatomie "I now found myself twice the man my father was." Yet in another ironic twist Pottawatomie galvanizes John Brown into becoming a fearsome guerrilla warrior, "so that before long it was no longer required of me to goad or brace him in the least, and in fact I found myself barely able to keep pace with him."

    THE final eighty pages of the novel, culminating in the Harpers Ferry raid, are something of an anticlimax, in contrast to the raid's climactic status in the history of the real John Brown. This anticlimax is important mainly for Owen's "betrayal" of his father and those brothers who died or were captured at Harpers Ferry. Left behind at the farm where the raiders holed up while they prepared for the assault, Owen is to take charge of arming the slaves who his father expects will flock to the banner of insurrection. When the assault collapses in disastrous failure and no slaves appear, Owen alone among the Browns escapes and survives to tell the tale. When he fails to join his father and brothers in Harpers Ferry, becoming instead an Isaac making his escape while "my father, Father Abraham [, was] making his terrible, final sacrifice to his God," it was "as if, after a lifetime bound to my father's fierce will and companionship by heavy steel manacles and chains, I had watched them come suddenly unlocked, and I had simply, almost casually, pitched them aside."

    Of course it did not actually happen that way. Owen could have done nothing to save his father and brothers. And many other crucial events in the novel did not occur as portrayed, or never occurred at all. Lyman Epps did not shoot himself; indeed, he sang John Brown's favorite hymns at Brown's funeral, in North Elba. For me as a historian to point this out is not to criticize Russell Banks as a novelist. In an "Author's Note," Banks states clearly that he has "altered and rearranged" historical events and characters "to suit the strict purposes of storytelling.... Accordingly, the book should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a version or interpretation of history." Fair enough. Unlike some of my literal-minded colleagues, who grind their teeth in exasperation at every departure from fact in a historical novel, I am quite willing to recognize -- and to learn from -- the novelist's license to reconstruct the past in the interests of a reality deeper than literal fact.

    But I do confess annoyance at the numerous minor historical errors in Cloudsplitter that have no bearing whatsoever on the development of the author's story and would harm nothing if they were corrected. Such errors seem to indicate a certain indifference to the careful research that should underlie historical fiction. One or two or even half a dozen mistakes of this sort would be negligible, but the large number herein become a vexation. To mention but a few: the number of slaves in 1859 was four million, not three; Martin Van Buren did not establish the National Bank but helped to destroy it; John Brown was executed on December 2, 1859, not December 12; William Lloyd Garrison was not a Quaker; Franklin Sanborn could not have been an editor of The Atlantic Monthly in 1850 or 1851, because the magazine was founded in 1857; none of the federal troops in Kansas in 1856 were conscripts; Sharps rifles were manufactured by a private firm in Hartford, not by the government in Harpers Ferry; and Lewis Washington, one of the hostages captured by the Harpers Ferry raiders, was a collateral rather than a direct descendant of George Washington. Finally, Owen repeatedly refers to Oswald Garrison Villard, for whom this "Secret History" of John Brown is intended, as "Professor Villard" of Columbia University. Villard was a journalist, and a proprietor and an editor of The Nation and The New York Evening Post, but never a professor at Columbia or any other university.

    For most readers, however, such petty errors will not detract from the powerful passages and profound insights in this novel. It humanizes John Brown, a figure all too often demonized or idolized in history as well as in fiction. Our understanding of this tragic era in the American experience will never be quite the same again.

    James M. McPherson is the George Henry Davis Professor of American History at Princeton University. His
    Battle Cry of Freedom won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize in history. McPherson's most recent book is For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (1997).

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; May 1998; A Fictional Portrait of John Brown; Volume 281, No. 5; pages 124-129.

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