“For drama, controversy, and historical impact, the life of John Brown exceeds that of any other private citizen of the United States.” Thus begins a bold account of the mastermind behind the raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.
By book’s end, readers will be fully persuaded that the author’s provocative opening salvo has the added virtue of being true. Where David Reynolds’s remarkable John Brown, Abolitionist (2005) highlighted the cultural currents that helped shape the steadfast ideologue whose armed resistance to the southern slave power helped ignite the Civil War, Carton (English/Univ. of Texas, Austin) focuses on what it must have been like to have been Brown. No easy task, and in less sure hands may have been a half-baked historical novel or a bloodless clinical analysis. Instead, we get a rare humanizing of an icon. The grandson of a Revolutionary War veteran and son of a strict Calvinist, the deeply religious Brown appears to have pledged early on to oppose slavery adamantly. He sublimated this vow throughout his varied career as a failed scholar, farmer, breeder, shepherd, tanner, trader and land speculator, but as the national debate grew increasingly convulsive throughout the 1840s and ’50s, Brown sharpened his involvement in the abolitionist movement. He became especially notorious as Captain Brown, leader of militia forces that murdered pro-slavery citizens in Pottawatomie, Kan. Utterly devoid of racial prejudice, he appears to have deeply impressed all who actually met him, even bitter opponents. Although his poor business savvy constantly kept his family near poverty, Brown’s unwavering rectitude and tender solicitude bound each of his two wives and 20 children firmly to all his enterprises, including the failed attempt to incite a slave rebellion that resulted in the death of two sons and his own hanging. Though Carton addresses the “meaning” of John Brown’s life and death, he truly excels at portraying the man himself.
A dramatic, expertly paced biography of American history’s most problematic figure.