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DAVID L. VANDERWERKEN Texas Christian University Faulkner’s Oblique Presentations of John Browns AMERICAN WRITERS HAVE NEVER BEEN SHY ABOUT CREATING LITERARY characters out of historical figures, sometimes the living but especially the dead. For instance, US Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and Bill Clinton found themselves satirically doubled while still incumbents, Johnson in the Barbara Garson drama, MacBird! (1966), Nixon in Philip Roth’s Our Gang (1973), and Clinton in Primary Colors by Joe Klein (1996). Since they are no longer extant to respond to their literary portrayals, however, the dead are truly fair game for writers. Of those who have undergone multiple literary resurrections, perhaps no public figure has had quite the literary “shelf life,” so to speak, over time as John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame—or infamy. From the moment of his capture one hundred and fifty years ago on 16 October 1859 through 17 February 1998, the publication date of Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter, even discounting biographies Brown has had continual and regular literary resuscitations, more than any cat could imagine. John Brown exploded on that October night into permanence in America’s historical consciousness much like the meteor invoked in Meteor of War: The John Brown Story, edited by Zoe Trodd and John Stauffer. Unlike the brief and unidirectional arc of an actual meteor, Trodd and Stauffer claim, the metaphoric meteor of Brown “blazes through time . . . and Brown’s continual resurrection and reinterpretation since 1859 confirms that the meteor’s trail blazes forward as well as back” (2). Brown’s myriad literary lives form a conglomerate of “broad abstraction and metaphor, and a kaleidoscope of antonyms swirls around him: he is humanitarian, genius, saint, and patriot, but also murderer, egomaniac, fanatic and extremist” (2). So Brown “wanders through time,” Trodd and Stauffer write, “as homeless as a meteor” (4). Bruce A. Ronda, in his recent, even more comprehensive book, Reading the Old Man: John Brown in American Culture, astutely summarizes the result of the long fictional autopsy of the man: “John Brown has been so probed, psychologised, contextualized, explained, deconstructed, or demoted by writers and artists that some truly 410 David L. Vanderwerken dramatic new envisioning is required to see him again” (194). So Brown remains an enigma. So many “John Browns” exist as discourse that the “real” John Brown would need about ten clones to embody all his artistic representations.Rondaprovidesanexcellentsurveyoftheshapeshifter’s multiple incarnations and ponders why Brown preoccupies (obsesses?) so many artists: No single answer will do. . . . Brown is not only the sign of the coexistence of violence and liberty at the heart of American values; nor is he only the principle of antinomianism in American history or the embodiment of the fatal confusion of exemplary ends and repugnant means. He is not unambiguously the model of heroic struggle against tyranny that spills blood to achieve a higher good. . . . He has been a kaleidoscope of much of American life[:] Brown the grim-visaged late Puritan, confident in his knowledge of divine will; Brown the abolitionist guerrilla warrior; Brown the father, husband, farmer, shepherd, and frontiersman; Brown the proto-Marxist revolutionary, Christian utopian, or Christ-like martyr and redeemer. Turning the kaleidoscope again, we see Brown and blacks, Brown and his fellow whites; then Brown the [reflection of the] politics of the 1850s and 1960s; then Brown and his supporters and detractors in every generation since. . . . At each turn, the fragments line up differently. If this volume insists on one thing, it is that Brown perpetually eludes his interpreters . . . for whom each effort at interpretation can only give rise to another. (xxi) As a man of many parts, Brown shows up in the work of a veritable Nineteenth-Century’s Who’s Who of American Literature. For Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, John Brown manifests a heroic and righteous soul whose alleged failure at Harpers Ferry translates into a moral victory; Brown may be unaware that he is actually a Puritan and Transcendentalist New Englander (Bush; Donahue; Hyde; McDonald). Indeed, David S. Reynolds claims that the Transcendentalist cohort made John Brown (89) by treating him as an American version of a recuperated Oliver Cromwell (93). Herman Melville and Walt...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 409-422
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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