The one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and his subsequent capture, trial, and execution in 1859 prompted a new bookshelf of biographies and studies of the life and influence of the militant abolitionist. This most recent outpouring began as early as 2004 with Franny Nudelman’s John Brown’s Body: Slavery, Violence, and the Culture of War, moved through David Reynolds’s mammoth biography, John Brown, Abolitionist (2005), and now includes R. Blakeslee Gilpin’s new contribution to the John Brown literature. Drawing on a variety of sources, including biographies, poetry, and visual arts, Gilpin sees in these diverse treatments of Brown a microcosm of attitudes toward slavery, race, violence, and crusades for social justice in the United States from Brown’s time to our own. Gilpin writes that “Brown has forced generation after generation to [End Page 221] clarify the morality and utility of violence. . . . His willingness to die in a violent invasion to free his enslaved brethren made it impossible to separate change from violence, or violent change from equality.” For Gilpin, Brown’s afterlife “reveals America’s deep difficulties in coming to terms with its violent history, its checkered progress toward racial equality, and its resistance to substantive change” (p. 8).
This fabric of race, violence, and equality, which is essential in understanding Brown’s career, is equally at the heart of Gilpin’s interpretive strategy in this volume. Brown has been the subject of a huge number of poems, artworks, biographies, memoirs and reminiscences, historical studies, and works of fiction. Any book of reasonable length requires a method of selection, hence Gilpin’s sharp focus on sources that foreground his chosen theme. His readings of these are well-written and exceedingly well-researched in primary sources. Of particular note are Gilpin’s chapters on Robert Penn Warren’s 1929 biography of Brown in the context of Warren’s involvement in the Fugitive group of poets and critics in the 1920s and 1930s (Gilpin shared an early version of this chapter with me in 2004 for my own work on John Brown), his treatment of the controversy between Brown biographers W. E. B. DuBois and Oswald Garrison Villard, and his last chapter on contemporary African American artist Kara Walker and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.
This last chapter, called “Epilogue,” reveals Gilpin at his interpretive best, as he considers Walker’s destabilizing visual representations of Brown, both of them versions of the famous though fictional story of Brown kissing a slave baby on the way to the gallows. In one version, Walker has Brown being nursed by that child; in the second, Brown, dressed in codpiece and boots, fellates the child. These images suggest Walker’s efforts to decenter and dethrone Brown as the martyred white male hero and tell the story differently, as Michele Cliff does in her novel Free Enterprise (1993). Much as Walker provokes discomfort through her art, Obama provoked dismay and anger simply in raising the unfinished business of race in American life on the stage of the presidential campaign in 2008.
The very sharp focus that served Gilpin well is, at the same time, [End Page 222] the source of some difficulties in this otherwise fine study. The author describes Brown’s religious commitments as “delusions,” (p. 195) yet no understanding of Brown is complete without a thorough grasp of his Calvinist theology and apocalyptic worldview. It may be, as I have argued elsewhere, that by the end of the nineteenth century Brown was being interpreted in more secular frameworks, but for several decades it is the religious one that dominated. And while Gilpin is adept at interpreting visual art, he is less skilled at reading poetry, offering only a cursory reading of the important last lines of Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body (1928).
Still, John Brown Lives! deserves a place on that shelf of must-reads for professional and armchair readers alike who share a fascination with...