The first volume in a two-part biography, this book focuses on Brown's character, his business failures, and his family life up to 1855. Boyer fully utilizes documentary sources relating to the period and to Brown's life. The study is predicated on admiration for Brown's individualism and libertarian spirit, with the dubious claim that Brown was ""one of the first Americans to challenge the modern corporation,"" but paradoxically Boyer ends up accepting the standard historical judgment (at least in this volume) that Brown was a zealot, if not unbalanced. Boyer's attempts to provide a flavor of the times, as in excursions on Jefferson Davis and slaveowners, are generally trite, while adequate political analysis of the rise of abolitionism is missing. Thumbnail sketches of Brown's followers are spliced in, concentrating on their personal and physical characteristics. The book's strength is its moment-by-moment documentation of Brown's life on the Southern Ohio frontier where he sheepfarmed and became a successful tanner. There are memorable descriptions of the death of his first wife and his attitudes toward his children, and careful accounting of the crushing debt Brown assumed after the disastrous 1837 land speculation from which he never recovered financially. His passionate attempts to form a woolgrowers' cooperative and get farmers a better price were unsuccessful, although the book does not connect these struggles with Brown's and his son's effort to keep land 'free"" (though the primary material will lead the reader to think along such lines). This material makes the book an important addition to existing biographies and other literature on Brown and, to a lesser extent, on the abolition movement -- Brown's belief, for example, in racial equality is the more striking now that we know most abolitionists did not fully share it. The next volume, however, will tell the full critical story.