This essay analyzes two works of historical fiction about abolitionist John Brown and his followers: James McBride's The Good Lord Bird (2013) and Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter (1998). Both texts decenter John Brown from the raid on Harpers Ferry and examine how his followers, historical and imagined, made the choice to participate in violent resistance. Both authors use the metaphor of castration anxiety to depict their protagonists' relationship to Brown: his leadership leaves them "unmanned" and destabilizes their identities. I argue that, while Banks's text reinforces traditional notions of masculine leadership and privileges the story of his protagonist's white male maturation over the politics of abolition, McBride more genuinely focuses on the contributions of women and people of color in the abolitionist movement. In doing so, he tears down the Freudian notion of "normal" development and celebrates the possibilities of being "unmanned." For his character Onion, losing a stable male identity allows him to build solidarity and empathy with women and to reject stereotypical assumptions about what it means to be a man.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 129-142
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.