On a rainy Sunday night, October 16, 1859, seventeen men led by the violently religious abolitionist John Brown, who thought slavery a greater sin than murder and regarded himself as “an instrument in God’s hands” for extirpating it, took over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. There the Potomac and Shenandoah meet.

“In the moment of their junction,” Jefferson wrote in Notes on Virginia (1785), “they rush together against the mountain, render it asunder, and pass off to the sea.” He called the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge “one of the most stupendous scenes in nature,” and was confident that “this scene is worth a voyage across the Atlantic.”

What excited Jefferson was Nature charging about on land so near his own, erupting and breaking through the expected. John Brown, the subject of Russell Banks’s new novel, had not chosen Harpers Ferry for the “spectacle” it presented, but he certainly regarded himself as a force of nature answerable only to God. He believed that his attack on Federal authority would in an instant throw the slave South into convulsions; he planned to pass out the captured arms to the many runaway slaves who would join him. After John Brown’s raid, the final outrage to the South would be Abraham Lincoln’s election the next year, which led to secession and the Civil War.

War, in the name of the immediate total abolition of slavery, was Brown’s ultimate purpose. This alone explains why, after losing two of his sons and most of his fellow raiders, black and white, in the attack on Harpers Ferry, and aware that the few survivors would be hanged after him, he went to his execution in December with seeming alacrity. Killing had become as natural to him as prayer. When Kansas was opened to “squatter sovereignty,” the territory became a battlefield between Free-Soilers and advocates of slavery fighting to determine its future character as a state. John Brown, a failed businessman in several states, legally a bankrupt, had enthusiastically thrown himself, with his sons, into the fight over “bleeding Kansas.” He was so dominating that he became “Captain” John Brown, then “Osawatomie” John Brown, after the river in Kansas near which he and his sons had, in 1856, taken five pro-slavery settlers out of their homes and hacked them to death.

He was sure that in the national disturbance over slavery he alone knew how to bring slavery to an end. Impatiently dismissing all peaceful abolitionists except his six financial backers in New England, Brown was confident that after he took over the arsenal at Harpers Ferry the great mass of armed slaves ready to join him would tear the South apart and free all the other slaves. Shelby Foote in his three-volume history of the Civil War quotes Brown as boasting, “One man and God can overturn the universe.” His farm at North Elba, New York, in the vast empty spaces of the Adirondacks, had long been a way station on the underground railway speeding individual slaves to Canada. But whether or not Brown actually believed his attack was enough to unleash a mass insurrection of slaves, this was his declared purpose. He even talked of the self-emancipated slaves forming a state of their own, somewhere in the West. There would be a great future for blacks in America.

Brown had pleaded with the leading black abolitionist Frederick Douglass to join him, but Douglass warned him that taking over Harpers Ferry would result in a blood bath. In the event, the occupation of the arsenal lasted thirty-six hours and seventeen people lost their lives during it. Stephen B. Oates summed up the first human cost of the raid in the most objective biography of Brown, To Purge This Land With Blood (1970). “Three townsmen, a slaveholder, and one Marine had been killed, and nine men had been wounded. Ten of Brown’s own recruits, including two of his sons, had been killed or fatally injured. Five raiders had been captured.” The rest escaped into the Maryland mountains, but two of these were captured. Five men escaped for good, including Brown’s son Owen.

Not a single slave broke away to join them. Brown had taken hostages from the town and had left three of his band outside the arsenal to await the slaves they expected, but the three men were immediately assailed by Southerners rushing into the fray. Then US marines (a civilian named John Wilkes Booth was among them), led by Colonel Robert E. Lee, broke into the arsenal to capture a badly wounded Brown and the few survivors. Brown’s bearing at his trial impressed everyone, but he was soon sentenced to hang. As Brown dropped to his death, Lee vindictively cried out, “Thus perish all enemies of the human race!” After the execution a jailer unfolded a slip of paper Brown had left behind. It was his deepest belief. “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”


Not many people had known of John Brown before he went to Kansas to keep it from being overrun by pro-slavery forces. In Charlestown prison (now in West Virginia) awaiting execution, he became a world celebrity. Victor Hugo pleaded with “America” to release this second Christ. Emerson said Brown, “if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious like the Cross.” Emerson’s son Edward, one of the few who went to hear Thoreau publicly read his “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (he called Brown “an angel of light”), said Thoreau read it “as if it burned him.”

The most charitable thing those hostile to Brown would ever say about him was that he was “mad,” and from a family disposed to insanity. This is still the posthumous verdict in Robert Penn Warren’s John Brown, The Making of a Martyr (1929) and Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore (1962). After his execution Brown became the everlasting martyr who virtually all by himself had set out to free all the slaves. Salmon P. Chase, a leading Free-Soiler who was to become Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and later Chief Justice, said of Brown, “How sadly misled by his own imaginations! How rash—how mad—how criminal thus to stir up insurrection which if successful would deluge the land with blood & make void the fairest hopes of mankind!” Yet Chase could not forget “the unselfish desire to set free the oppressed—the bravery—the humanity towards his prisoners which defeated his purposes—! It is a tragedy which will supply themes for novelists & poets for centuries—Men will condemn his act & pity his fate forever.” And he concluded, as those hostile to Brown seldom do, “How stern will be the reprobation which must fall on the great wrong of forcing slavery upon Kansas which began it all and upon slavery itself which underlies it all.”

Not many Union soldiers went to war hoping or expecting to end slavery, but such was the power of Brown’s name that marching to war they gave “holy” meaning to what had originally been a sardonic song about a sergeant also named John Brown—

John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave
John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the grave
His soul is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah!…
Now has come the glorious jubilee,
when all mankind are free.

Melville, in his poems of the Civil War, Battle-Pieces, called Brown “The Portent”:

Hidden in the cap Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face, Shenandoah!
But the streaming beard is shown (Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

The historical and imaginative literature about John Brown is enormous, embittered, usually extreme. Picking up still another novel about him, Russell Banks’s immensely long Cloudsplitter, one can hardly help wondering what new version of the ever wrathful and violent Brown will emerge from this enormous book. Banks calls it “a work of the imagination,” but it necessarily owes so much to Oswald Garrison Villard’s many volumes, his indispensably basic biography John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After (1910), that Banks cleverly opens his novel just after Villard’s assistant, a Miss Mayo, has been trying to interview Owen Brown, the one son who survived the raid on Harpers Ferry, and who for many years has been a recluse tending his sheep on a hill in Altadena, California.

Owen has rudely turned Miss Mayo off, admits to being a very complicated character, still harbors conflicting feelings, thoughts, and “secrets” pertaining to his celebrated father. But now, apologizing to Miss Mayo, he becomes the narrator of the novel, unrolling a past which he dominates by reason of his sensitivity as much as John Brown does by his personal war on slavery. Owen is less witness to his father’s life than—by way of contrast to his monolithic father—an everlasting puzzle to himself. This does not make him interesting, least of all when he thinks he has “betrayed” his father by not sharing his motives—and also by surviving. Though he promises to unravel Brown and to “correct” the established record, he seems to have as much trouble understanding Brown as we do today.

What really happened at the Pottawatomie massacre? Why did old Brown go down into Harpers Ferry and stay there long after he could have come out alive? Why did he take his sons and his sons-in-law and all those other fine young men to certain death with him? How did his third son, Owen Brown, come to be the one son who escaped? All these inexplicable events have been explained hundreds of times, hundreds of ways, some of them ingenious, some foolish, all of them plausible. But all without the backing of truth.

Owen, still alive in 1910, is for Banks our contemporary, our double—agnostic, unsure, neurotic, a killer in Kansas like his father but someone who never really holds his father’s vengeful faith or has any inner assurance of his moral supremacy. This is his real “secret,” his “crime,” his guilt—not his passing responsibility for the death of a black friend. In Banks’s novel, the account of Owen’s experience is presented as the untold story we never knew until now. This doesn’t work because, with the other principal characters in Banks’s novel, Owen is a pitiful fellow—abjectly dependent on “Old Brown” and incoherent in explaining his inner turmoil. Yet it is Owen who waveringly dominates the novel, which ends with his own escape from Harpers Ferry.


This leaves out John Brown’s trial, the great, lying speech he gave in court about his nonviolence in fighting slavery, and his expressions of pleasure in the beauty of the country (he had never noticed it before) as he is driven to his execution sitting on the casket in which he will be buried. The book brilliantly comes alive only in the violent scenes that are the central parts of Brown’s story—his Kansas killings and his attack on Harpers Ferry. Russell Banks is a talented and agile novelist who moves easily from one American subject to another; he is strong in short descriptive effects but weak in creating characters equal to his larger design for the book.

In his best-known novel, Continental Drift (1985), the ever-hopeless Bob Dubois, a repairman of oil burners in New Hampshire who drags his family to Florida only to end up a total disaster, is abstractly teamed (they never meet) with a pathetic Haitian widow who has paid everything she has to be smuggled into Florida and is washed up on the shore without her family and with only her old African-Caribbean gods to protect her. Bob and Vanise are each so desolate and desolating that Banks has to tell us in an opening “Invocation” and a closing “Envoi” what he had in mind for them, for his book, and for our everlasting struggle with race in America.

It’s not memory you need, it’s clear-eyed pity and hot, old-time anger and a Northern man’s love of the sun, it’s a white Christian man’s entwined obsession with race and sex and a proper middle-class American’s shame for his nation’s history…. With a story like this, you want an accounting to occur, not a recounting, and a presentation, not a representation, which is why it’s told the way it’s told.

Actually, there’s no “accounting” for what happens to the characters (all of them victims) in Continental Drift, just a vaguely diffused compassion. And though we might expect that a novel about so tremendous (and somehow improbable) an actor in history as John Brown would attempt some kind of “accounting,” in Cloudsplitter this holy murderer remains unaccountable.

John Brown was more than a “Cloudsplitter,” the nickname of a mountain dominating his farm at North Elba in the Adirondacks. Clouds do not always split into bad weather, and if they do the world is not everlastingly changed. Brown certainly helped to change this country forever. History is cruel enough; he made it crueler. He had the violence of the totally engaged revolutionary, the terrorist as revolutionary; he was a vehemently purposeful terrorist like Robespierre and Lenin, sure that the killings he authorized and committed would erase the “sin” of slavery (and many a slaveholder as well) and thus bring in the ensuing world of “virtue” (as Robespierre called it) whose coming justified endless terror.

Banks says his novel “should be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a version or interpretation of history.” Impossible. You cannot base a novel on so drastically committed and still controversial a figure—Brown more than any other individual enraged the South—and not give us something new to think about. Every historical novel, if the history in it is felt by the novelist at all, must be, however slightly, a new “version or interpretation.” Banks gives us the standard John Brown—a man whose religious fanaticism is difficult for us to understand. We see the father always through the son. This actually puts more emphasis on Owen Brown’s inner conflicts than on John Brown’s sure belief that he was acting for God. What is missing in Banks’s novel is Brown’s driving, maddening, murderous conviction that he alone knew, in Lenin’s fatal phrase, “what is to be done.”

The world had entirely to be made over. Then emancipated blacks would come to love whites as their natural brothers. What we get from Brown in Cloudsplitter is a lot of speeches about his affection for blacks, his Calvinist belief in the predestination of the individual. What we do not get to see is the brave new world that the genuine revolutionary envisions in his ecstatic embrace of power over other lives. Brown really believed that his violent hatred of slavery would bring the first fraternity between blacks and whites.

Instead, John Brown is the one person who can be clearly charged with helping to start the Civil War. And the war alone led to the end of slavery.

This Issue

April 9, 1998