Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Midnight Rising - Listening to History

I know that I don't read as much non-fiction as I should, and I've often stated right here on this blog that I prefer to swallow my history couched in fiction. But....Tony Horwitz, like Erik Larson or Isabel Wilkerson last year, lends such vibrancy to our past in this detailed account of John Brown's life, in particular the attack on Harper's Ferry which would become a precursor to the Civil War.

I ask myself "what is a terrorist?" Does the end justify the means as Machiavelli opined? How many times in our scant 200 -and- some- year history have well-meaning people concluded that revolt is the only answer? John Brown became one of those men. So appalled and despairing of the cruelty of slavery, especially after the enactment of The Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Brown convinced himself and his followers that only action, rather than peaceful negotiation, would culminate in freedom for the African slaves forced into this country against their will as a boon to the southern economy.

The facts of the matter we may learn in school, but the telling by Horwitz adds a tremendously personal note to those facts. Brown, who had settled not far from my home town in Springfield, Massachusetts, had a small but important following in the free thinkers of the day. Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were all part of the burgeoning abolitionist movement that was spreading throughout the northeast. In fact, the church where Brown worshipped was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

I especially enjoyed the way Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and husband of another Pulitzer winner, Geraldine Brooks, credited so many strong, courageous women, not the least of whom was Brown's wife Mary, with their steady devotion to the cause. By necessity Mary and her daughters-in-law had to stay behind at their farm in New York state, raising the children, doing without, seeing her sons and their husbands off to join Brown in his battles against the scourge of slavery, whether in Kansas or Virginia, where he raided the armory at the renowned Harper's Ferry.

Horwitz gives readers small but telling anecdotes, individualizing many of the men who followed Brown to Harper's Ferry and he also goes into minute detail about the Virginians who were being held hostage by Brown's men. Through their court testimony we learn that, while they disagreed with Brown and even feared his efforts to free and arm their slaves, they respected him for his gentlemanly treatment of them and for his seeming unwillingness to harm them unless in self-defense.

There is a dichotomy here between the way Brown saw himself and the way others saw him. Over the last century he has been villified as a domestic terrorist and hailed as a lone voice for the abolition of slavery. A maniacal firebrand or a Christ-like figure willing to sacrifice himself for the freedom of others? The truth is always somewhere in between, isn't it? It's true that "John Brown's body is mouldering in the grave," but his legacy of righteous anger, his desire to see all men truly free, and the courageous manner in which he faced his death sentence, are a testimony to the impact of his short time on this earth.

1 comment:

Cheap Flights said...
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