My Love-Hate Relationship with John Brown


Mr. Cummings is the author of the novel, The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books/Penguin Group, 2008). The aurthor's website:

I never expected John Brown to dominate the title of my first novel.  As a native of Harpers Ferry where he was captured, frankly I was a little sick of him well before I ever became a writer.  Yes, he is a standout, albeit white, hero to African-Americans everywhere.  Yes, he is a visionary and martyr and all that.  But in my hometown, he’s also a commercial icon. 

In the case of my novel, Brown’s crusader’s anger became, during the many revisions, a useful foil to my young hero’s pointlessly sour-hearted father.  For 13-year-old Josh Connors, faced all his life with the sight of a musket-thrusting wax John Brown statue across the street from his house, Brown is like a crazy uncle who, unlike Josh’s father, does something with his anger—and becomes famous for it!  In Josh’s young mind, Brown is a man of action.  He doesn’t feel sorry for himself to the point of bringing his life and family to a standstill.  He makes things happen.  He gives my young character, in his sheltered life, a way of seeing what is wrong with his unhappy father:  The man’s mean for no purpose.  

It is Josh’s new, more worldly neighbors who, like the tourists, bring a pilgrim’s hero worship to the abolitionist’s feet.  To them, it’s a no-brainer.  Slavery is totally wrong.  Brown gave his life to stop it.

Josh’s father’s racist undertones, by contrast, never made it into this somewhat autobiographical novel.  The most he can say to a young adult audience is “it would be a cold day in hell before he’d be jealous of a treason-hearted Calvinist.”  The man I know in real life who the character is based on would have much more to say, most not fit to print.
Prejudices I was subjected to at home growing up were inflamed because of this wax John Brown staring at our house.  He was in our faces, with his fury.  He put us back on our heels for being white.  The man’s legacy was fire-raising accusations.  He made us all feel not unlike how I feel today when Reverend Al Sharptonpoints his finger at me, just because. 

In the making of this novel, Brown sparked this same love-hate relationship literally from the first words on.  It was undecided, briefly, whether the title of the novel would be The Night I Freed John Brown or, incredibly, The Night I Shot John Brown.  Thrown in were other variations.  The Night I Battled John Brown.  The Night I Ran With John Brown.  For a while, I was running the gamut of verbs with this man.  But good marketing sense prevailed. 

As the world grapples with a new age of terrorism, I have heard it said that John Brown was the Timothy McVeigh of his time.  Luckily, my novel didn’t have to address that one.  Rather, it shows how a town’s culture is centered on Brown and how different corners of the village react to him.  In the case of my hero, who’s too young and sheltered to wonder if terrorist violence can be justified, Brown is a wild-eyed man who affects everyone around him, either positively or negatively.  When Josh’s neighbor, for example, plays the lead in a local play about John Brown, just the sight of this kindly Mr. Richmond transforming himself into an enraged madman, only to fall out of character with a smile, enthralls Josh.  All of a sudden, the relentlessly crazy-looking man depicted in wax across from his house, when seen in the make-believe world of acting, is someone more fathomable and admirable.  Thanks to Mr. Richmond, John Brown is personified with a human side.  Later, during this community play, Josh has the opportunity to play one of John Brown’s sons and to discover this same on/off switch on his own fiery face. 
I have come to wonder what Brown would have thought of my use of him as a literary device.  Not much probably.  Whims of a starry-eyed writer.  He and I would not have gotten along, I don’t think.  He would have only confirmed what I already know:  unyielding anger by one costs everyone a big price.  Given his stern ways, Brown, as a father, would have likely been no better for Josh than his own father. 

The world continues to ask:  saint or madman?  Okay, I’ll answer right here.  Slavery is barbaric, but murder is murder.  So there can be only one answer:  both.

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Tim Matthewson - 4/21/2008

"As the world grapples with a new age of terrorism, I have heard it said that John Brown was the Timothy McVeigh of his time." Were they similar or very different?

A friend of mine once suggested to me that McVeigh was a hero of his, inquiring of me whether I shared similar views. I responded that I do not respect McVeigh and consider him to be a murder of children and other innocent people and what was worse, McVeigh had no apparent purpose, no goal, no objective that was clearly set forth or reachable. His actions were merely a way of lashing out at apparently random victims and were an expression of the hatred and malice of a deeply frustrated persons who simply could not find his way in life. He had failed at everything he had done, he had never been able to keep a job, he was booted out of the army, and he had never been able to maintain a relationship with a woman. Indeed, on the day before he parked the rental truck in front of the government building in Oklahoma City, he spent the entire day watching porn movies in a local motel. But he picked up on the currents of anger and hatred in the media of the day, whipped up by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Lim Rushbaw, and deluded himself into thinking that he would be seen as a hero if he killed hundreds of government workers and their children. What a poor deluded sap!
John Brown was no McVeigh. It's been years since I studied him and his place in history. But one thing that I do remember is the widespread support of Brown by antislavery advocates such as Emerson and Thoreau, that indeed some of antislavery leaders had provided Brown with funds to carryout his project, and that he was viewed as a Christ like figure when he was hanged. Union troops marched into battle singing "john Brown's Body." Brown's goal was to arouse a slave insurrection that would destroy slavery in the southern states and his terroristic attacks on slaveholders were designed to precipitate said violence, hoping apparently that the slaves of the South would destroy slavery, as the slaves of Saint Domingue/Haiti had done during the years of 1791-1804 and achieved freedom. I strongly oppose the methods of McVeigh and Brown. But I do see them as much different people. Like the soldiers of the Confederacy and the Union armies, it does matter whether soldiers are fighting for freedom or slavery -- or whether they are merely trying to express their frustrations and hatred of others.