Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...
Let me begin by saying that John Brown's mission to end slavery was noble (I am gonna go ahead and take a stance against slavery- controversial, I know). However, author Tony Horwitz' treatment of the John Brown story offers a more complicated narrative that begs questions that have been easy enough to dismiss in hindsight (especially since the beatification of Brown is passed down through such a catchy tune).
The task at hand for Horowitz was, in many ways, similar to that confronted by Eric Metaxas in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet Spy (which I, by coincidence, read a few weeks back). Bonhoeffer (who was killed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler) and Brown were both men who sought to oppose institutions that most of us agree were completely amoral. However, as Horwitz described in a PBS interview, the means by which these acts occurred is not something we, as a society, typically sanction.
Religious fundamentalism? The right of the individual to oppose their government? All these issues are still troubling and relevant. And that’s why I think Brown is still with us. He — he worries us. What do we do with this homegrown American terrorist?
Here's where the Bonhoeffer parallel ends, and where John Brown starts raising quite a few red flags for this reader. At the very least, the image of John Brown as the ultimate abolitionist, without whom we might never have gotten around to freeing the slaves, began to feel naïve.
A twice married man (though not at the same time), John Brown had twenty children (though eight died while they were very young). A die hard Calvinist and abolitionist, morals were not something to be taken lightly in the Brown household. Just look at the happy faces of his second wife, Mary Ann, and daughters Annie and Sarah (I'm kidding- I know the photography of the era involved a lot of holding still).
Brown comes across as kind of fanatical by nature. Though I try to avoid condemnation by association, it was interesting to me that John Wilkes Booth (an eyewitness to John Brown's execution, and volunteer in the militia that raided Harper's Ferry) was reported to respect Brown's methods (though, obviously, not his mission). Brown seemed more Fred Phelps than Abe Lincoln, but one can only guess at who Brown would have been at another time in another place.
This was an interesting read that I would certainly recommend, but that has left me feeling a bit inarticulate vis-à-vis my feelings on Old John Brown.