MAN ON FIRE: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty by Jules Abels

MAN ON FIRE: John Brown and the Cause of Liberty

Email this review


The trouble with Mr. Abels' well-researched and eminently readable biography of John Brown is his own essentially divided vision toward his subject. While apparently accepting Brown's own valuation of himself as Gideon, ""an instrument of God,"" martyred to rouse the conscience of a nation to the infamy of slavery, Abels spends most of his time depicting Brown as a liar, a blackguard, a thief and (in Kansas rather than at Harper's Ferry) a heartless mass murderer. Kansas, we are told, first began to bleed profusely when Brown and his clan committed the Pottawatomie Murders whose ""victims were well chosen by Brown not because they were guilty but because they were innocent. He instinctively grasped the essence of maximum terror."" But is this damnation or praise? Historical necessity or senseless carnage? Abels seems unable to decide. As for the Harper's Ferry venture, we are told that ultimate success or failure ""is the touchstone for judging adventures of this kind"" and assured that in the annals of ""weird conspiracies"" (The Gunpowder Plot, Hitler's Beerhall Putsch, the Bolsheviks in Geneva, Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains) Brown's foray was rational and Harper's Ferry a logical starting point. But what becomes of this ""logical starting point"" when Abels coolly informs us that Brown could not have selected a better spot in the country ""for a demonstration of slave loyalty?"" Throughout there is the unsettling use of two moral yardsticks: Brown is either a Hegelian world-historical figure exempt from all mundane standards, or ""the common garden variety of fanatic,"" but to Abels he is both, and (in a rather strained attempt to be very up-to-date) the leader of ""a youth activist movement"" operating in ""a generation gap of thinking"" between young abolitionist militants and the cynical politicos of the Missouri Compromise. In sum, the attempt to separate the myth from the man is not altogether successful and the ""inspiring saga"" is intermittently murky. As a psychological study it is less integrated and convincing than Stephen B. Oates' To Purge This Land With Blood (p. 544).

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1970
Publisher: Macmillan