Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
One of the most colorful and controversial figures in American history went by the deceptively plain name of John Brown. A strident abolitionist, Brown would make his mark in history as a leader of violent actions during the years before the Civil War. He is remembered for his role in the struggle over Bleeding Kansas, with the Pottawatomie Massacre of five pro-slavery settlers using broadswords, and even more so for the raid at Harpers Ferry, where he and his followers seized a federal armory in Virginia in the hopes of inciting a slave revolt that would sweep the South.
Opinion on John Brown was dramatically split in the mid-19th century, and it remains so today. Heralded by some as a martyr in the struggle against slavery, and by others as a bloodthirsty terrorist, there is at least broad consensus amongst historians that Brown's actions played a substantial role in fanning the flames that led to open warfare between North and South. James McPherson devoted a number of pages to Brown in his seminal Civil War history, The Battle Cry of Freedom (reviewed here), emphasizing the disparate reactions to Harpers Ferry and the disbelief each side felt upon learning of the other's attitude:
Extraordinary events took place in many northern communities on the day of Brown's execution. Church bells tolled; minute guns fired solemn salutes; ministers preached sermons of commemoration; thousands bowed in silence reverence for the martyr to liberty... Perhaps the words of Lafayette quoted at a commemoration meeting in Boston got to the crux of the matter: "I never would have drawn my sword in the cause of America if I could have conceived that thereby I was helping to found a nation of slaves." John Brown had drawn his sword in an attempt to cut out this cancer of shame that tainted the promise of America. No mater that his method was misguided and doomed to failure... It was "the work of a madman," conceded Horace Greeley even as he praised the "grandeur and nobility" of Brown and his men.
The distinction between act and motive was lost on southern whites. They saw only that millions of Yankees seemed to approve of a murderer who had tried to set the slaves at their throats. This perception provoked a paroxysm of anger more intense than the original reaction to the raid. The North "has sanctioned and applauded theft, murder, treason," cried De Bow's Review. Could the South afford any longer "to live under a government, the majority of whose subjects or citizens regard John Brown as a martyr and a Christian hero?" asked a Baltimore newspaper. No! echoed from every corner of the South.
Historical opinion of Brown has been decidedly mixed, though the 21st-century has seen a revival of academic interest with a decidedly more sympathetic tone, including David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist and Evan Carton's Patriotic Treason. The revisionist trend seeks to place the violence perpetrated by Brown and his group in the context of the injustice of slavery and the impending bloodiness of the Civil War, while emphasizing Brown's unique blend of racial egalitarianism and self-sacrifice.
Slightly ahead of the curve was novelist Russell Banks, who used Brown's life as the basis of his historical novel, Cloudsplitter. The book was published in 1998, just as Banks was gaining fame from the feature film adaptations of two of his earlier novels, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, both of which I have previously read. It might be more apt to say that Banks uses not John Brown's life, but that of his son Owen, as the basis for the novel. For Owen is the book's narrator, finally sparked in the late years of his life by a visit from an academic research assistant into reducing to writing his memories of his family, his father, and the tremendous, terrible things they did together:
I want to tell you everything--now that I have decided to tell a little. It's s if I have opened a floodgate, and a vast inland sea of words held back for half a lifetime has commenced to pour through. I knew it would be like this. And that's yet another reason for my prolonged silence--made worse, made more emphatic and burdensome and, let me say, made confusing, by the irony that the longer I remained silent, the more I had to tell. My truth has been held in silence for so long that it has given the field over entirely to those who have lied and risks having become a lie itself, or at least it risks being heard as such. Perhaps even by you. Thus, although I have begun at last to speak, and to speak the truth, it feels oddly and at the edges as if I am lying.
Considering that John Brown and his sons are most famous for their actions in Kansas and Virginia in the latter half of the 1850s, it is worth noting that the first two-thirds of Cloudsplitter's 750 pages are devoted to the Browns' lives before they were drawn to Kansas. His time spend amongst freedmen homesteaders in the Adirondack mountains, good for a mere paragraph in Brown's Wikipedia entry, occupies the bulk of the book. It his here, with Brown's efforts at that Banks conveys a sense of the righteousness of the man, without the ambiguities of his later violence:
The first thing we needed to do was survey and validate their claims, he told me: to keep the Negroes from being cheated by the whites, who had been squatting there for several generations--ever since the terrible, year-long winter of '06 had driven most of the original settlers out--and had come to think of the whole place as theirs alone. Father's motives were moral and idealistic, the same as had always prompted his political actions, and he described this move as essentially political--for he had visited North Elba alone the previous fall and had come away newly inspired by a vision of Negro and white farmers working peacefully together. His hope now, he explained to us, was to build a true American city on a hill that would give the lie to every skeptic in the land. There were many such utopian schemes and projects afoot in those years, a hundred little cities on a hundred little hills, but Timbuctoo may have been the only one that aimed at setting an example of racial harmony. This would be our errand into the wilderness, he said.
Banks' use of the medium of historical fiction also allows him to paint a portrait of John Brown as a man, as a father and a husband, in the kind of intimate terms unavailable to historians:
On reflection, I believe, also, that there was for Father yet another deeply pleasing aspect of the North Elba project, one that he hid from us then but which I understood later. Its force was stronger than the moral point that he and Mr. Gerrit Smith wished to make and more substantive than the poetic effect of the landscape on his soul. For many years, the Old Man's life had been cruelly divided between his anti-slavery actions and his responsibilities as a husband and father, and despite his unrelenting, sometimes wild and chaotic attempts to unite them, it was often as if he was trying to live the lives of two separate men: one an abolitionist firebrand, a public figure whose most satisfying and important acts, out of necessity, were done in secret; the other a good Christian husband and father, a private man whose most satisfying and important acts were manifested in the visible security and comfort of his family. He was a man who had pledged his life to bring about the permanent and complete liberation of the Negro slaves; and he was the head of a large household with no easy sources of income.
While offering this more personal portrayal of the man who set a nation ablaze, Banks does not shy away from political and social commentary through the voice of Owen Brown. Of particular interest to me were the justifications offered for the resort to violence; while it is unknown to me whether these were the actual rationale professed by John Brown or his son, they suggest a perspective on America in the 1850s lost to the modern consensus that views the decade as an inevitable slide toward war:
I showed them at the time and afterwards that if we did not slay those five pro-slave settlers and did not do it in such a brutal fashion, the war in Kansas would have been over. Finished. In a manner of weeks, Kansas would have been admitted to the Union as a slave-state, and there would have been nothing for it then but the quick secession of all the Northern states, starting with New England, and the wholesale abandonment of three million Negro Americans to live and die in slavery, along with their children and grandchildren and however many generations it would take before slavery in the South was finally, if ever, overthrown. There would have been no raid on Harpers Ferry, certainly, and no Civil War, for the South would not have objected in the slightest to the break-up of the Union. Let them go. We will happily keep our slaves.
When we went down tot he Pottwatomie, I believed all that. And in spite of my guilty feelings, I believe it still. No, I swear, I did not go down there for the pleasure of killing my enemies, nor did Father, nor my brothers, despite what the writers, North and South, puzzling over the causes of that event, have said in the intervening years. On that dark May night in '56, I truly thought that we were shaping history, that we were affecting the course of future events, making one set of events nearly impossible and another very likely, and I believed that the second set was morally superior to the first, so it was a good and necessary thing, what we were doing. We could slay a few men now, men who were guilty, perhaps, if only by association, and save millions of innocents later. That's how terror, in the hands of the righteous, works.
How persuasive that all is, right up to the last line in which one realizes that, for better or worse, this is indeed terrorism we are talking about. Of course, terrorism is a rather loaded term, even moreso in 2009 than in 1998 when Banks published this book. Perhaps it is simply easier to romanticize or at least forgive terrorism on behalf of a cause now universally lauded, such as abolitionism, rather than those still in contention. Could not, after all, the murderer of Dr. George Tiller make a speech not unlike the one above? Would that make his actions any less reprehensible?
Clearly Banks is working with some weighty, combustible topics, and he integrates them into the narrative with great success. The book drags at certain points, and certainly for those more interested in John Brown's acts of violence, it may be well-nigh impossible to wait more than five hundred pages to get to them. But the effort is worthwhile, for Banks has provided not just a vivid imagining of the life of John Brown, but a reflection on the intersection between public and private morality, the roles and responsibilities of family, and the workings of time on both the memory and the conscience.