- John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown by Louis DeCaro
Louis DeCaro’s John Brown Speaks: Letters and Statements from Charlestown gathers a host of important documents focusing on the aftermath of Brown’s October 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. A history professor at New York’s Alliance Theological Seminary, DeCaro published a book on Brown’s religious life in 2002.
Divided into four parts, the present collection begins with letters Brown penned from the Charles Town jail while awaiting trial and then execution. Especially poignant are a series of letters Brown wrote to his wife, Mary. On November 26, Brown finally overcame his admonition that she not visit him in jail, admitting, “I am entirely willing” (57). The letters make the reader understand Brown was a father and husband, not just a historical symbol or antislavery martyr. Gathered into groups chronologically, each subsection of letters is prefaced with a one- to two-page introduction that places them in the larger context of events and identifies the correspondents. DeCaro’s transcriptions and presentation follow the editorial method outlined in the book’s front matter and offer a compelling glimpse into the mind of the radical abolitionist. Provenance for each document appears in the endnote section at the end of the volume, intermingled with explanatory annotation and citation of material quoted in document introductions. This can be a bit [End Page 83] confusing, and readers may have been better served if provenance appeared in the text at the end of each document. Nevertheless, the range of documents shows wide research that makes the collection valuable to scholars and students interested in the events after the raid.
The second section gathers selected statements and documents, including selected excerpts from the dog-eared and underlined bible that Brown held in his prison cell, instructions to his attorneys, and will drafts and redrafts written before his December 2 execution. Parts three and four aim to set the events surrounding the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown’s execution in broader contemporary context. The third section compiles a selection of published interviews appearing in both northern and southern newspapers between October 21 and November 29, just three days before his execution for treason. This section is especially interesting because the newspaper accounts clearly document an emerging division among public views on Brown’s actions at Harpers Ferry. The final section of documents concerns the memory of Brown and also includes the reflection of pro-slavery and antislavery individuals. One abolitionist who had visited the old man at the Charles Town jail wrote in 1887 that “Brown died victoriously and well” and that his execution was “a fitting close of his life lending glory to the gallows and receiving naught of disgrace therefrom” (171). In contrast, a Virginia physician and journalist declared Brown to be “a fanatic, and a man of one idea,” who was “devoid of all attributes of greatness” (161).
While DeCaro’s choice of documents sheds important light on the events that followed Brown’s raid, the audience for this volume is not readily apparent. The book’s introduction rambles over Brown’s expertise as a sheepherder and wool authority and events in Kansas, but fails to offer any description of Harpers Ferry events necessary to make the volume appropriate for classroom adoption. Minor editing errors also mar the prefatory material with words missing in some sentences, and modern usage is ignored throughout without explanation (Harpers Ferry, not Harper’s, and the Virginia town is two words, Charles Town). These are grievous errors in a document collection. DeCaro also goes to lengths to argue against a historical interpretation of Brown as insane, which has long been discarded by scholars of abolition. Despite these concerns, John Brown Speaks pulls together important historical documents ensuring that Brown’s words will reach an audience of twentyfirst-century readers. [End Page 84]