By Russell Banks
New York: HarperPerennial, 1998
ISBN # 0-06-093086-1 (paper)
758 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2008

Russell Banks presents a gripping account of the life of radical abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859). This account is narrated by Brown’s son Owen, the chief “officer” in Brown’s army. While ostensibly Owen is writing the account in 1899, 40 years after the raid on Harper’s Ferry, to aid some scholars who are writing a sympathetic biography of his father, the novel is also a touching exploration of an extremely difficult father/son relationship, sort of Owen’s last confession before his own death.

We follow the Brown family from shortly after Owen’s birth in 1825 to the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 with a few details of Owen’s life after Harper’s Ferry.

While Banks himself in his introduction emphases that this is a novel and that he has collapsed various events into one another for dramatic effect, and not been fully accurate to some historical characters, it is nonetheless clear that he has done enormous research into Brown’s life, and given the power of Banks’s storytelling, I would expect the novel will hold its own in the historical corpus not only on the life of John Brown, but on the half century of American life leading toward the Civil War.

John Brown was a radical abolitionist believing that only violent action, sort of a Biblical purging, could destroy the morally evil institution of slavery. Brown was convinced that not only was God on his side, but that he personally communed with God and was doing God’s bidding in his work. He worked with non-violent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, but believed their well-intentioned tactics would never end slavery.

Banks seems to capture the driving forces of Brown’s confidence and courage when he has him say: “You must not obey a majority, no matter how large, if it oppose your principles and opinions…”

Much of Banks’s portrait of John Brown is familiar to us from standard historical accounts – at least the basic factual data. But not so of Owen’s relationship to his father. It is this sub-plot – if indeed it is really “sub,” -- that pains and grips the reader. John Brown was a true believer, God was God, and had set firm rules of life and conduct and provided that data to humans in The Bible. The greatest sin John Brown could imagine was the enslaving of other humans and he, John Brown, was called and commissioned by God to use the tools of deadly force to lead to the end of this evil social institution. Owen was to be his chief aide in this work.

Owen compares his father’s relationship to God as like Job’s to God – the faithful servant whom God could treat as he wished, even unfairly, yet Brown would still know he was God and be the obedient servant.

Owen was different. He did not even believe in God, but found himself much in the same relationship to his father as Job had been to God. John Brown could and did dominate Owen’s life, treated him badly many times, but it didn’t matter. John Brown was Abraham to Owen’s Issac. At God’s bidding Abraham was willing to kill Issac as commanded.

On Owen’s own view, when he looked at himself in his mid-twenties, he had accomplished virtually nothing of his own, yet at that age his father was already an important national figure in the anti-slavery movement.

Owen even had doubts about the use of violence, but the power of his father silenced his doubts. He reveals:

Ah, father, how you shame me one minute and anger me the next. How your practical wisdom, which at times borders on a love of violence for its own sake, challenges my intermittent pacifism, which borders on cowardice. Your voice stops me cold, and then divides me. One day and in one context, I am a warrior for Christ. The next day, in a different context, I am one of His meekest lambs. If only in the beginning when I was a child, I had been able, like so many of my white country-men, to believe that the fight to end slavery was not my fight, that it was merely one more item in the long list of human failings and society’s evils that we must endure, then I surely would have become a happy undivided man.

In the end the assignment Owen was given by his father at Harper’s

Ferry spares Owen the fate of death. But he seems to have internalized this fact as somehow his own betrayal of his father and fellow troops. Thus in these last days of his own life in 1899 he is “confessing” his lingering doubts and guilt for not being the son he thought his father wanted and perhaps even deserved.

Along the way of telling his story Russell Banks raises a number of fascinating discussions. Without, I hope, any plot spoiling, I want to comment on a few of these themes.

Overall I relished reading the novel, and read this huge 758 page book in just a few sittings, gripped by it. Banks’s research and command of the period is very impressive. Nonetheless I do find it excessively indulgent and too long. Banks has the tendency when making a point about John Brown’s life to go on too long using too many examples. The book needed serious editing and I think it would have made a much better 500 page book than it does a 758 page one.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett