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John Brown’s Body

with 4 comments

This is what I think of as “Christmas vacation,” even though, given the schedule for delivery of my books,  I tend to work right through it.   It’s Christmas vacation for my sons, though, so maybe that works. 

Being Christmas vacation, though, I always think I need to hack through my TBR pile, and I’ve got a very large  TBR pile.  It’s large even when I haven’t bought books for months.  For one thing, a good chunk of my college class ended up in publishin, so I have people at most of the major New York houses who know what I’m interested in and are happy to ship it out to me if they run across it.   In the three years after Bill died, I didn’t buy a single book for myself–I couldn’t have afforded to if I’d wanted to–but I didn’t go without anything I wanted to read, either.  College is useful for a lot of things.

The other reason my TBR is so large, of course, is that people send me books out of the blue, hoping that I’ll review them even though  I  have no regular reviewing gig, or hoping I’ll give them blubs.  I try to give blurbs if I’ve got the time to read the books.  I try to give them even if the books aren’t very good.  On the other hand, I rarely do have time to read the books, what with everything going on here.

One of the books I found on my TBR pile this Christmas is called American  Bloomsbury.  It’s by Susan Cheever, who is both the daughter of the short story writer John Cheever and the great-something granddaughter of Ezekiel Cheever, who was definitely on the churh side of the witch trials in Salem.  That in and of itself is an interesting circumstance, because the book is about the Concord of  Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, and Hawthorne’s great-grandfather was the chief judge at the witch trials in Salem.  Hawthorne was tortured all his life by the connection.  Susan  Cheever gives a page or two to declaring her own tendency to be “haunted” by it.

I don’t mean to be snippy here.  I have no reason to think Susan Cheever is anything but a nice, well-meaning, honest woman who is having a hard time following in a famous father’s footsteps.  I will admit that I have a hard time with people who call themselves “progressives”–I mean, for goodness sake, if youo’re a liberal, call yourself one, and if you’re really a progressive, a child of the Progressive Movement, then you scare the hell out of me for the same reason the Religious  Right does–but the book is both well written and very short. 

I think it might have started out to be a sort of back-and-forth in time.  Cheever writes a bit from the modern  Concord, Massachusetts, has her picture taken in front of Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott once wrote Little Women, describes the gated community that now owns the land off which Margaret Fuller drowned on  Fire Island, and then goes back to her history of the people who lived around Emerson and made up the Transcendental Movement.

I’ve even learned things from this book.  I had been fed the usual drivel mythology about Thoreau and  Walden Pond in high school, then told in college that the man was just a rich dilletante who went “back to nature” but took his laundry into town to be washed.  As it turns out, both those story lines are mythologies, and neither of them are close to true.

Thoreau didn’t “go back to nature” at Walden Pond.  He grew up poor, hunger-inducing, grindingly poor, and he stayed that way all his life.  The only comfort he ever knew was when he lived in a spare room at Emerson’s house and did odd jobs around the place.   He went to Walden when he and Emerson quarreled and Emerson was no longer willing to have him in the house.  Emerson owned the property on the pond.  He loaned it to  Thoreau and Thoreau built a shack for himself where he stayed for two years because he had no other choice. 

I know I’ve been obsessing lately about New England between the Revolution and the Civil War, but this time I’ve actually got a connection with murder and bloodshed and even  Lizzie Borden.  Lizzie Borden was a New Englander, too.

In the meantime, I find it interesting to note that, at least in America, it seems always to have been true that class and money were not the same things.  Thoreau and his family were so short of wherewithall that they often had nothing to eat but root vegetables and game, but Henry and his brother John went to Harvard.  Education was more of a necessity than food or warmth or a roof that didn’t leak.  When I was growing up, we called this attitude “plain living and high thinking.”  You can still find it lying around in places.

The circumstance that reminds me of Lizzie  Borden is, of course, the problem of John Brown.  For those of you who know nothing about American history–and lots of you aren’t Americans, so there’s no reason you should–Brown was a radical abolitionist in the era just before the American Civil War.  He would have been a radical abolitionist in the  Civil War, but he managed to get himself hanged before it started.  This was neither surprising nor unwarranted.

Back when I first brought up Brown, I think in connection with Bill Ayers, somebody  posted to the comment board that at least Brown was a real revolutionary.  He took real risks with his life.   He wasn’t just hanging around coffee houses trying to sound dangerous when he wasn’t.

And it’s true enough that Brown took real risks with his own life.  It’s also true that he was a homicidal nutcase, and a world class thug.   And he made no secret of his activities.  In an era when the demarcations between states were much stronger than they are now, when you could “go over the state line” and be immune from arrest by the state you left, it was less risky than it is now to boast about felonies miles from where you’d committed them.

The felony in question was the raid on Pottawatomie, Kansas n the night of May  24, 1856. 

I’m not saying here that John  Brown didn’t serve a righteous cause, becuase he did.  John Adams said, at the very founding of the country, that allowing slavery to continue under the Constitution would prove to be the worst decision we ever made and would haunt the nation forever, and I think he had a point.  But the “raid” at Pottawatomie is sometimes called a massacre for good reason.

Brown and his sons–they were often called his “men” in contemporary press accounts, but almost all Brown’s “men” were sons or sons in law–set out on horseback after dark and went from one remote farmhouse to another.  Once they got to a house, they would storm it, drag the adult men outside and then murder them.  Some of these men were shot.  Others were literally hacked to pieces.  The killings were done in full view of the men’s families.   At the farm of James Doyle, Brown and his sons dragged James and his two adult sons away from their screaming wife and mother and younger brother. 

What’s more, none of the men murdered on the night of the  Pottawatomie raids owned slaves.  They were only suspected of being pro-slavery, and of being willing to vote to bring slavery to Kansas. 

I think “homicidal nutcase” fits here, even if we allow some of the events preceeding thre raid–a raid by pro-slavery forces from Missouri into Kansas a few nights before, the brutal beating of Massachusetts senator Charles  Sumner by pro-slavery Senator on the floor of the Senate itself–as mitigating factors.  The beatin of Sumner was inexcusable, but more a matter for the District of  Columbia police than for an act of vengenace, and the raids from Missouri were brutal and destructive but more along the lines of causing general mayhem than cold blooded butchery.

There is simply no possibility that Emerson, Thoreau and their friends did not know what Brown was, or what he’d done.  They still came to his lectures in Concord and invited him to speak in their homes.   What’s more, they were thrilled to meet him, and passionate in defense of them. 

What fascinates me is that Cheever, although she acknowledges that this was a moral lapse of some kind, spends no time at all wondering if the things they believed in led them inexorably to their support of something they should not have supported.

I don’t mean their convictions against slavery.  There were plenty of abolitionists out there who had no use for Brown, and who saw him–probably rightly–as a hindrance to the cause of ridding the country of the peculiar institution. 

I do mean that this seems to be another case of bookish people with strong feelings about their need to become “authentic” in some way they don’t think they are being drawn to violence in other people, drawn to violence as if violence itself is the only  real authenticity, dreawn to it the way drunks are drawn to liuor.

This is, of course, the whole point in Camus’s The Stranger and in Crime and  Punishment as well, that the only way a man can get free of the “artificiality” of civilization is by committing murder, and best of all by committing murder with no practical motive at all.

Those little gatherings in Concord parlors for John Brown and his sons remind me of the “reception” Leonard Bernstein gave for the Black Panthers–all such “receptions” are given not in spite of the violence of the guests of honor but because of them.  And they are always given by people who profess to believe that civilization is “artificial” and that human beings only do wrong at all because they have been corrupted by it.  

I said this had something to do with Lizzie Borden, and I meant it, and not just with Lizzie Borden, either.  To the extent that this country’s culture is now and has been a “romantic” one, as romantic was defined by Yvor  Winters a few posts ago, I think we have a fascination with violence, and an attraction to at least some of the people who commit it.   To the extent that this country’s culture is now and has been a Puritan one, we’re like Cecil B. DeMille–we need sermons and tits.  We can only indulge our fascination with violence when we can put it in the context of a moral fable.

Lizzie Borden.  Myra Hinckley and Ian  Brady.  Fred and Rosemary West.  Ted Bundy.   Jack the Ripper.  Hannibal Lecter.  Che Guevera.  Good old Fidel.

We tell ourselves we’re just interested in their psychologies or we’re supporting their rigthteous causes or whatever it is that makes it possible for our Puritan side to allow our romantic side to revel in blood, but really I think there’s just a part of us that likes the feel of that psychic drunk.

Written by janeh

January 3rd, 2009 at 8:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'John Brown’s Body'

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  1. How does Lizzie Borden fit in? There’s no moral fable!

    Hold on a minute until I get my brain in gear! I was thinking – Lizzie herself doesn’t seem to have had any interest in the big moral issues of her or any other day except possibly animal welfare. All she appears to have wanted out of life is nice clothes and the kind of home and social life typical of young women of her era and social class (which her father wouldn’t pay for).

    But then I remembered some of the wilder speculations about Lizzie, ranging from the archetypal ‘female oppressed by patriarchal society until she flips’ to ‘repressed lesbian who later found fulfilment with an actress’ and I can see that some people have wanted to find a moral lesson in Lizzie where I first assumed they were looking at the jarring conflict between the kind of person she appeared to be, based on her history, and the kind of person who would kill two people in a frenzy.


    3 Jan 09 at 10:27 am

  2. Another point – I don’t understand why Susan Cheever or Hawthorne should give a second thought to their ancestors’ participation in the Salem witch trials, much less be haunted by them! Neither of them were at the witch trials; responsibility and guilt aren’t inherited along with eye colour!

    Perhaps because of this, I don’t accept the idea of inherited guilt underlying the various claims that people currently alive are responsible for things their ancestors (or, in some cases, long-dead people of similar ethnicity) did. I understand the arguments – I’ve heard and read them often enough – I don’t agree with them.

    I knew someone once who liked the term ‘progressive’. I asked how she could be sure that the policies of the groups she supported were actually progressive in a literal sense – that is, promoting continuing improvement. She thought it was obvious, but it wasn’t, to me. Progressivism by definition, that was.


    3 Jan 09 at 10:40 am

  3. There’s a pretty close parallel between the Pottawatomie massacre and Michael Collins having about a dozen men shot in front of their families for suspicion of being British intelligence–his previous strategy of shooting men for the crime of being beat cops not having paid off. But Collins, like Brown and Che, put his own neck in the noose. It doesn’t justify any of the three–the righteousness of the cause and the appropriateness of the means are the real issues–but it does place them, to my way of thinking, morally above those willing to cheer them on, but with no intention of assuming the same risks. How comfortable to be on the “right” side without enduring the dirt, discomfort or danger–or, for that matter, having to make decisions under such conditions! This, I think, is the romantic movement at it’s worst.

    But that’s one thing. The desire to exonerate the historically wronged–even when they’re pretty clearly guilty–I think is another. Hiss’s supporters share his politics, it’s true, but surely those trying to exonerate Lizzy Borden aren’t really in favor of taking a hatchet to step-mothers and remarrying fathers? (Or am I one lesson behind in female empowerment again?) I suppose it shares that romantic suspicion that anyone prosecuted by the establishment must be blameless, but it’s not a matter of politics and “authenticity” in the same way.

    The third category is another matter again–those obsessed with murder. And notice that it IS an obsession with murder. A soldier–or a gunfighter–might kill more people. A thief might more effectively defy the law. But the bookstore shelves are stacked with stories involving little mystery but a high or gruesome body count. While I’ll happily denouce certain elements of the Romantic movement, I don’t think it can be blamed for these at all. I do think the continued popularity of such works is fairly disturbing.


    3 Jan 09 at 3:47 pm

  4. This has nothing to do with John Brown – who sounds like a despicable terrorist to me. I came across this and I thought that although it has to do with visual art, there were some parallels to some of the things we’ve been saying here:



    4 Jan 09 at 8:02 am

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