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John Brown Still Lives!

America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change

R. Blakeslee Gilpin

Publication Year: 2011

From his obsession with the founding principles of the United States to his cold-blooded killings in the battle over slavery's expansion, John Brown forced his countrymen to reckon with America's violent history, its checkered progress toward racial equality, and its resistance to substantive change. Tracing Brown's legacy through writers and artists like Thomas Hovenden, W. E. B. Du Bois, Robert Penn Warren, Jacob Lawrence, Kara Walker, and others, Blake Gilpin transforms Brown from an object of endless manipulation into a dynamic medium for contemporary beliefs about the process and purpose of the American republic.

Gilpin argues that the endless distortions of John Brown, misrepresentations of a man and a cause simultaneously noble and terrible, have only obscured our understanding of the past and loosened our grasp of the historical episodes that define America's struggles for racial equality. By showing Brown's central role in the relationship between the American past and the American present, Gilpin clarifies Brown's complex legacy and highlights his importance in the nation's ongoing struggle with the role of violence, the meaning of equality, and the intertwining paths these share with the process of change.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-6


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pp. vi-8


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pp. 9-11

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pp. xi-17

In several years of chipping away at a legend, one incurs many debts, to places and institutions, but especially to people. I would not have pursued my PhD if it were not for the encouragement and enthusiasm of one of my undergraduate teachers at Yale, Eric Papenfuse. Eric now owns the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but he remains my ...

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pp. 1-8

John Brown believed that slavery would meet an end that matched its brutality. In 1859, his bold invasion of Harpers Ferry and polarizing trial by the state of Virginia aroused the sympathy and anger that would spark the Civil War. On the day of his execution, Brown seemed to predict the cause and extent of that conflict. “I John Brown,” he wrote, “am, now quite certain that ...

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1 SOME DEFINITE PLAN: The Early Life of John Brown

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pp. 9-16

In the late 1850s, John Brown was often asked to recount the circumstances that led to his celebrity. No stranger to the grand narratives of the United States, Brown was particularly attracted to providential accounts of the American republic and the ways his life mimicked these themes. Accordingly, the abolitionist crafted autobiographical tales that fit his antislavery ...

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2 THE FINAL ARBITER: Bleeding Kansas and the Creation of the Old Hero

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pp. 17-31

As John Brown made his way across Pennsylvania and Ohio in September 1855, he was a man still searching for his calling. Life in Timbucto had validated his beliefs in racial equality, but the experience had not offered much in the way of leadership. Brown had long maintained that liberty for all was impossible without intervention and benevolent guidance. “Forcible sepa-...

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3 NOT BURIED BUT PLANTED: Cultivating the Legend of John Brown

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pp. 32-54

Although John Brown’s invasion of Virginia generated much confusion, some grasped the man and his mission immediately. John Zittle, captain of one of the first military companies to arrive at Harpers Ferry, wrote that Brown’s raid “was the signal gun of the great war.”1 Zittle, a native Vir-ginian, was not the first, or the last, to assign such importance to the in-...

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4 A SAINT IN SUSPENSE: Competing Visions of John Brown

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pp. 55-78

On December 3, 1860, a riot broke out at Boston’s Tremont Temple. Harper’s Weekly provided a vivid illustration of the incident, revealing the tensions consuming the nation on the eve of the Civil War (figure 4.1). The event was meant to be a peaceful celebration for the abolitionist martyr John Brown. However, when free blacks began entering the hall, a group of white Bosto-...

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pp. 79-105

The keynote speaker at the Harpers Ferry Niagara convention in August 1906 was Reverend Reverdy Ransom, but his volatile cofounder of the Niagara Movement, W. E. B. Du Bois, delivered the weekend’s closing speech (figure 5.1). The convention was “in significance if not in numbers one of the greatest meetings that American Negroes ever held,” Du Bois wrote in ...

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6 THE SOUL RESTS: Stephen Vincent Benét and the Silencing of John Brown’s Body

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pp. 106-119

Stephen Vincent Benét’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body, arrived in bookstores in 1928. In its structure, content, and message, the poem mediated long- standing divisions, not just those that had raged between W. E. B. Du Bois and Oswald Garrison Villard, but even the conflict that had consumed the Union and the Confederacy some seventy years before. While Benét’s ...

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7 THE FUGITIVE IMAGINATION: A John Brown for the Old South

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pp. 120-143

In July 1925, Tennessee was thrust into national headlines. John Scopes, a Rhea County biology teacher, was charged with illegally explaining evolu-tion in his high school science class. A bonanza for journalists, the trial ex-posed America’s sectional fault lines and reinforced long- standing national stereotypes of the South. H. L. Mencken, a writer for the Baltimore Sun ...

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8 REVISING KANSAS: John Steuart Curry and the Fanaticism of John Brown

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pp. 144-157

John Brown had long inspired artists, but his memory produced an explo-sion of art in the 1930s unequaled since the 1860s.1 Just as Revisionist his-torians converged on an interpretation of Brown that mirrored Robert Penn Warren’s, artists began giving visual expression to similar ideas. Painters, playwrights, and writers were galvanized by Stephen Vincent Benét’s popu-...

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9 TOGETHER UNDER ARMS: Jacob Lawrence Paints Black History

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pp. 158-180

Whereas John Steuart Curry suffered because of John Brown’s contentious legacy, another painter thrived. At the very same moment Curry worked in the Kansas statehouse, Jacob Lawrence, a young black painter from Harlem, finished a series of paintings called The Life of John Brown. These twenty- two captioned images were the culmination of more than 170 scenes ...

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Epilogue: CLIMAX AND HARBINGER: A Life as a Common Cause

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pp. 181-196

The stage directions of Orson Welles’s 1932 play The Marching Song described “a great unearthly light fall[ing] full upon” the “transfigured” protagonist. The play investigates one man’s life through conflicting recollections to explore how myth can permanently obscure the truth. While Welles used an almost identical method in Citizen Kane, his 1941 cinematic ...


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pp. 197-246


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pp. 247-264


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pp. 265-279

E-ISBN-13: 9781469602608
E-ISBN-10: 1469602601
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807835012
Print-ISBN-10: 0807835013

Page Count: 296
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011