- The Afterlife of John Brown
John Brown! Monster and Martyr; Conspirator and Saint; Murderer and Liberator; Cause and Consequence! Alerting one-half of the land to emulate his example; stimulating the other to meet aggression; inciting both to shedding of blood! . . . The climax of one age and the harbinger of another.(Tourgée 608–609)
Albion Tourgée, the Reconstruction-era judge and novelist, wrote this incisive description of John Brown in 1882. Just two decades after Brown's botched insurrection at Harpers Ferry in 1859, Tourgee was riding the crest [End Page 114] of a wave. In that short time, Americans had published some twenty-eight best-selling books and hundreds of articles in national publications on the bearded Connecticut-born abolitionist. Obviously, Brown, who first made his name slaying five proslavery settlers in Kansas in 1856, provoked more than passing attention. Even fifty and one hundred years after his death, Americans had not been slaked in their interest in John Brown. Moreover, each moment in Brown's life and each page written about him after his death has underscored a particular component of the legacy of John Brown in American memory, the interpretive battleground where Brown's meaning continues to be contested.
The Afterlife of John Brown, one of two recent volumes dealing with the cultural memory of John Brown, attempts to survey that battleground, placing the Old Hero in many new and some thoroughly worn analytical contexts.1 To be sure, there will always be new angles from which historians can view John Brown, and The Afterlife attempts to bring several related disciplines to bear on the question of the Harpers Ferry mastermind and his place in the American historical landscape. In this collection of essays, edited by Andrew Taylor and Eldrid Harrington, readers view Brown variously through children's literature, French working class radicalism, and various American poets, as well as several other contexts. Unfortunately, like too many essay collections, there are a few pieces in this volume that provoke significant interest, but the majority do not warrant sustained attention.2
The Afterlife gets off to a shaky start with Eldrid Harrington's introduction, an erratic essay that attempts to bring together the diverse contents of the book under a single thematic umbrella. To do so, Harrington merely draws upon the delightfully quotable canon of John Brown, a juicy catalog that runs from Brown's biting critiques of William Lloyd Garrison to the Old Hero's execution day prescriptions for our nation. Simply resurrecting the refrain from "John Brown's Body"—"his soul goes marching on"—usually functions as a sufficient analytical point in an unhealthy portion of Brown scholarship. Harrington invokes Melville's "The Portent" (1859) to call up the image of a John Brown who is "still hanging," a John Brown who "needs to live on" (10). Offering brief glimpses of Robert Penn Warren, Gandhi, and the movie Santa Fe Trail, Harrington draws on a wide range of John Brown references, but seems unable to reach beyond the essays in the collection for any thematic synthesis, failing to give readers a real sense of Brown's complex place in American memory.
Nonetheless, there are several essays of great value in this uneven collection. Franny Nudelman, author of a full-length study of Brown and violence in the Civil War, gives an interesting account of the construction of Brown's [End Page 115] martyrdom, a process she unpacks and explores in depth. Kristen Proehl's "Transforming the Madman Into a Saint" offers readers a truly excellent historiography of the immediate post-Civil War Brown literature, providing a wonderful supplement to Merrill Peterson's 2002 John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Kimberly Rae Connor's "More Heat Than Light" examines Russell Banks's 1999 Brown family novel Cloudsplitter, and provides fascinating context for that novel's account and historical departures. Two essays, the first by Louis De Caro and another by Zoe Trodd and John Stauffer, are substantial enough to discuss at greater length.