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  • Thoreau in Pittsburgh:Reflections on Domestic Terrorism
  • Joshua David Bellin (bio)

I grew up in Squirrel Hill, a five-minute walk from the Tree of Life synagogue. Though I wasn't raised in the Jewish faith—a detail that escaped the spectators who screamed anti-Semitic obscenities at me when I played Pony League baseball games in their neighborhoods—I did have many Jewish friends, and I attended their bar mitzvahs at Tree of Life. Likewise, though I didn't know any of the eleven men and women who were murdered there on Saturday, 27 October 2018, I was in Squirrel Hill when it happened, visiting my father, a nonobservant Jew, at the nursing care facility that used to be called the Jewish Home for the Aged. The building was on lockdown while the standoff with police played out a couple of miles away.

The Monday following the shooting, my American literature class met at La Roche University, a small Catholic institution in Pittsburgh's northern suburbs. As it happened, we were scheduled to discuss Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849). But the students were visibly shaken by the mass murder in their community, and we ended up talking about that instead: about their fears, their disbelief, their connections to Squirrel Hill. One woman had attended a wedding at Tree of Life the previous week. She knew congregants who were killed, and she couldn't shake the feeling that, if not for a quirk of fate, she could have been among them.

Like most Pittsburgh residents, I've had trouble forgetting that day. As a teacher, there have been moments when my activities pale beside the enormity of what happened at Tree of Life; I've wondered what difference American literature makes in a world where innocent people are slain in houses [End Page 553] of worship. Perhaps because I've been wrestling with such dissonance, I've given considerable thought to the question of Thoreau's relationship to what we now term domestic terrorism. We can easily draw such connections: at the end of a decade that saw Thoreau's increasing antislavery radicalism, he delivered "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1859), which celebrates the life and martyrdom of the antebellum era's most notorious domestic terrorist.1 Could it be, I've wondered, that the almost unthinkable incongruity of these two events—a terrible act of hatred in my old neighborhood, the study of Thoreau's celebrated statement of political nonviolence in the college classroom's ostensibly safe confines—harbors a deeper affinity? To put it more plainly: was Thoreau a sponsor, an apologist, and a disciple of the homegrown terrorism of his day?

To answer such a question, I had to (re)turn to Brown, whom I've long found both fascinating and repellent. I inherited my interest in this controversial figure from my father, a Brown enthusiast whose long life ended roughly a month after the shooting. More than forty years earlier, my dad piled the family into our Buick Skylark convertible and embarked on a meandering voyage through southwestern Pennsylvania in search of a tannery Brown operated. That trip ended in disappointment when, on the barely drivable dirt track that led to the site, we ran over a nail and popped a tire. I've gone on many Brown odysseys of my own since then. In a climate-controlled storage vault in the Massachusetts Historical Society, I stood face to blade with one of the pikes Brown commissioned to arm freed slaves at Harpers Ferry; in a cluttered museum in Charles Town, West Virginia, I surveyed the wagon in which the convicted killer was carried to the site of his execution. With my teenage son, I poked around in the restored Maryland farmhouse where Brown gathered his arms and men before marching on the federal arsenal. Our next trip will be to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where Brown met with Frederick Douglass in an abandoned [End Page 554] quarry and, unable to convince the seasoned orator to join his team, recruited Douglass' much younger companion, fellow escaped slave Shields Green. Green, like Brown, would later be captured at Harpers Ferry and executed.2

In my research...


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