Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Book Review: "Patriotic Treason"

John Brown must be a tricky subject for any biographer. In Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America, Evan Carton (professor of English and director of the Humanities Institute at the University of Texas at Austin) has created a visionary Brown, whose "'madness' and 'treason' remain necessary" even today. Because Brown's "vision" was rooted in what Carton sees (and Brown saw) as the lessons of Scripture (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) and the Declaration of Independence (all men are created equal), Carton excuses his attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and his calls for a violent slave as the actions of a man ahead of his time, seeking to fulfill American ideals of social justice and equality that remain elusive to this day.

In his afterword, Carton writes that many people with whom he had casual conversations in the course of writing this book believed Brown was black, and that many others thought he was crazy ("mentally unbalanced, a religious fanatic, a violent sociopath, or all three"). He takes previous biographers to task for their judgements of Brown, and adds "The historical misconception of Brown as a madman and the popular misconception of him as a black man, proceed from a common source: the stunted moral imagination and the incomplete embrace of democratic principles of the society that shapes the conventional assumptions of its historians and its ordinary citizens alike."

Well, I can't speak for the people who thought Brown was black, but as for the conclusion that he was more than a little bit off his rocker in one way or the other, that's frankly hard to escape. Brown refused to listen to wise counsel from, well, just about everyone that his foolhardy raid on Harpers Ferry was sure to be a disaster. He drew up a bizarre "Provisional Constitution and Ordinance for the People of the United States", which he intended to promulgate after his show of force. His religious fundamentalism and marytr complex are well known and documented, even by Carton. Sure, with the benefit of hindsight and our twenty-first century ideas, Brown's actions can seem less fanatical (or rather, more justifiable, perhaps) than they were in 1859 ... but I am hard pressed to think that we today would view a similar action in a positive light (in fact, such an action today would almost certainly be considered terrorism, whatever its object).

For its flawed interpretation, Carton's book is still a fairly good outline of Brown's life, particularly for the Bloody Kansas period. I would have liked more on the Harpers Ferry conspiracy, particularly on the involvement of key Northern abolitionist figures, but on the whole the biographical work was well done (aside from Carton's habit of adding dialogue and sketching in unknown details, which I found unnecessary). Of course, the perennial footnote problem was present here; while some quotes were sourced, they were not indicated in the text.

This new account of John Brown's life and activities, while interesting and an intriguing read, was just a bit too admiring for my taste.

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