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The Irrevocable Step
John Brown and the historical novel
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John Brown comes to us as a figure in isolation. As Henry Ward Beecher, the most prominent anti-slavery minister of the 1850s, confidently proclaimed from his New York City pulpit while Brown was still alive and awaiting trial:

The surprise of the whole nation, at a recent event, is itself the best evidence of the isolation of that event. A burning fragment struck the earth near Harper’s Ferry. If the fragment of an exploding aerolite had fallen down out of the air, while the meteor swept on, it would not have been more sudden, or less apparently connected either with a cause or an effect!

Beecher’s pyrotechnics are a vivid example of how certain liberals shielded themselves from gnawing panic, trying to put a safe distance between themselves and the irrevocable step Brown and his comrades had taken. “We certainly have no right to attack [slavery] in any manner that will gratify men’s fancies or passions,” the minister intoned. “We must seek to benefit the slave as much as the white man, and the white man as really as the slave.” The attack at Harpers Ferry in 1859, for the likes of Beecher, was a kind of spectacular accident. So also, according to Abraham Lincoln, “John Brown’s effort was peculiar. It was not a slave insurrection. . . . That affair . . . corresponds with the many attempts, related in history, at the assassination of kings and emperors. An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.”

Has anyone made—are we capable of making—a John Brown who, in passionate interaction with his moment, makes our era and makes us?

Lincoln’s and Beecher’s dismissals were more passive than the familiar out-and-out reactionary trope of Brown’s “criminal insanity.” (“Always restless, he seems never to sleep. With an eye like a snake, he looks like a demon. Apparently a miserable outlaw, he prefers war to peace, that pillage and plunder may the more safely be carried on,” said Henry Clay Pate, a pro-slavery militia leader.) The overall reactionary response, however, oscillated between demonstrably false claims that Brown was mentally unstable and paranoid interpretations of his sober self-presentation after he was captured at Harpers Ferry. Brown and his attack emerged organically from a developing minority of Northern popular opinion but not from even the most secret desires of powerful Northerners in 1859 or 1860, who remained staunchly Unionist, i.e., committed to compromising with slavery as much as politically possible.

Some more imaginative liberal Northern intellectuals, however, came closer to seizing on a kernel of truth. Thoreau: “Some eighteen hundred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are two ends of a chain which is not without its links.” Like Beecher, Thoreau was speaking out while Brown was still in prison.

Newspaper editors argue . . . that it is a proof of his insanity that he thought he was appointed to do this work which he did. . . . They talk as if it were impossible that a man could be ‘divinely appointed’ in these days to do any work whatever; as if vows and religion were out of date as connected with any man’s daily work; as if the agent to abolish slavery could only be somebody appointed by the President, or by some political party. They talk as if a man’s death were a failure, and his continued life, be it of whatever character, were a success.

Brown’s attack, and the “vows and religion” that informed it, were indeed crucial evidence that the process of the abolition was—and would continue to be—driven more by popular pressure than orchestrated by elites. A small minority initially supported Brown, as Thoreau said, but it was also an “important and growing party,” rapidly developing an aspiration “to be something more than stupid and timid chattels, pretending to read history and our Bibles, but desecrating every house and every day we breathe in.” Many lives would have to be lost before progress could be made on abolition. Brown’s impending execution was not the first—Nat Turner’s revolt thirty years earlier was the most obvious precursor—but it did mark a new departure. Thoreau rightly drew portentous energy from the cloud of national surprise, unlike Beecher, who saw only Brown’s quixotic folly.

Beecher’s Brown was a random “burning fragment”; Lincoln’s was a solitary assassin; Thoreau called him the representative Christ of his time. When average reactionaries hotly declared him criminally insane, secessionists claimed he was the cool-headed epitome of the emerging Republican Party. Like Thoreau, they were distinguishable from their more rudderless fellows by their determination to harness the national surprise at Harpers Ferry in order to actively shape the future. Not all myths are the same: some are more in touch with the basic processes and relationships of contemporary history than others.

It is this point that we must keep in mind if we are to inherit a historical Brown fully alive within our own time. Has anyone made—are we capable of making—a Brown who, in passionate interaction with his moment, makes our era and makes us?

The Bird is Not the Word

W. E. B. Du Bois begins his 1909 life of Brown with a stern and subtle warning: “The view-point adopted in this book is that of the little known but vastly important inner development of the Negro American.” Only a narrative could fully substantiate this viewpoint, but Du Bois sets out his position as starkly as possible at the outset: Brown is the real thing, a well-informed race traitor, not that false thing, a self-regarding white savior. “John Brown worked not simply for Black Men—he worked with them; and he was a companion of their daily life, knew their faults and virtues, and felt, as few white Americans have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot.” For Du Bois, Brown’s friendships with Black leaders and others, and his sympathetic study of Black radical history in the Americas, meant that his thoughts and actions were part of the “inner” story of Black American consciousness.

Not all myths are the same: some are more in touch with the basic processes and relationships of contemporary history than others.

Many depictions of Brown have followed Du Bois’s lead, not only in substance but in form, by prefacing the story with a declaration of principle. For example, the 2020 Showtime miniseries based on James McBride’s 2013 comic novel The Good Lord Bird begins with a voiceover:

Most folks never heard of John Brown. If they have, all they know is he was hung for being a traitor and stirring up all kinds of trouble and starting the Civil War. Some Black folks love him, ’cause they think trouble needed to be stirred. But some Black folks hate him for thinking he was some sort of bullshit white savior. Me? I knew him. I loved the man.

These words do not appear in the novel, but they do sketch its overall plot: a Black teenager gets pulled into the historical mayhem churning in Brown’s wake and narrates the transformation of his skepticism into “love.” Onion (the narrator) gradually decides that he loves Brown despite his violent religiosity, seeing it as a kind of sanity raised to the level of insanity: “He was a Bible man. A God man. Crazy as a bedbug. Pure to the truth, which will drive any man off his rocker.” The novel’s humor comes from how Brown’s religiosity eclipses his historical judgment, while he muddles through even so—or, to use Onion’s metaphor, “roll[s] into history,” down some inner slope of sublime morality. Being “outdoor people,” the Browns “didn’t think like normal folks. They thunk more like animals, driven by ideas of purity. I reckon that’s why they thought the colored man was equal to the white man.”

The problem with The Good Lord Bird’s humor isn’t that it dovetails with radical pessimism about American racism—as good a theme for literature as any other—but that its perception of Brown conforms to the Beecherite “burning fragment” model. Brown only comes alive once we begin to narrate his religiousness as part of his rationality, not in opposition to it.

What Happened in Kansas

The most Du Boisian novel of John Brown—setting aside the many novelistic passages of Du Bois’s seminal biography—is Truman Nelson’s The Surveyor, a masterpiece published in 1960, now completely forgotten. Nelson was a self-taught working-class intellectual and anti-racist agitator, with no credentials other than a partial high school education. He was the author of three historical novels, numerous articles, an essay collection called The Right of Revolution, and the editor of an anthology of abolitionist journalism. The Surveyor is informed by Thoreau, by Du Bois’s biography, and by the race and class struggles of the 1940s into the 1960s Nelson and Du Bois exchanged letters and became friends in the years before the latter died in 1963. Nelson wrote “A Prophet in Limbo” for The Nation in 1958, in which he polemicized against anti-communist persecution of Du Bois. Du Bois, in turn, published a thoughtful and beautiful review of The Surveyor which he called “an extraordinary book . . . resulting from intensive studies which no person but Truman Nelson has ever made.”

John Brown’s incomparable decisiveness stemmed not from some mysterious given of his personality but from active religious faith and long self-discipline.

The Surveyor concentrates on Brown’s participation in the conflict known as Bleeding Kansas.” The opening page presents the reader with a long list of haracters, warning that “the time of this book is in direct chronological sequence from March 1855 to October 1856.” Nelson’s formal decision has the drawback of failing to depict Brown working in close association with Black leaders and comrades, as he was from the late 1840s up until he went to Kansas Territory. On the other hand, it has the value of creating a concrete, well-structured narrative expanse, populated with varied characters and voices, where Brown is only one among many foci locked in messy, grinding conflict.

When the story opens, in March 1855, Brown is a local figure, a radical abolitionist cattle-breeder in Ohio, who has never fired a shot in anger; when it closes, he has begun to build a national reputation for himself as Captain Brown, the Kansas Free State militia commander in two small but highly significant armed conflicts—the Battle of Black Jack and the Battle of Osawatomie—between settlers from Northern states opposed to the introduction of slavery into the Territory (and to the accession of Kansas to the Union as a slave state) and squads of pro-slavery settlers, led by slaveholding politicians—working closely with the Franklin Pierce administration—attempting to ensure that Kansas became a slave state. As Nelson traces Brown’s jagged path from relative obscurity to national significance, the temptation that has defined generations of popular assumption—to depict Brown either as an “enthusiast” brooding in isolation or on the edge of insanity—dies a natural death. It is replaced by a vision of the United States fitfully lurching toward civil war. As Du Bois wrote, Nelson “is not telling a tale which develops logically, regularly or continuously; but he is trying meticulously to fix what actually took place out there on the borders of civilization where slavery and freedom fought a bloody duel embellished and made possible by the color of men’s skins and the stealing of toil.”

What happens in Kansas, in Nelson’s telling, is that Brown succeeds, amid a highly unpredictable struggle, in recruiting and leading just barely enough Free State settlers in a policy of active militant insurgency so as to doom the pro-slavery machinations of the Missouri “Border Ruffians.” Nelson’s Brown illustrates one of the important lessons of radical historiography: that at certain junctures, namely in moments of major popular upsurge, small groups of ideologically committed individuals can make an enormous difference. “I know the first man to put a troop into the field against the Missourians, armed and equipped will control the movement,” Brown tells a potential weapons donor early in the book. Some Northern newspapers have been fantasizing about a pitched battle between Free State settlers and Border Ruffians; boxes of weapons are sent, but the leaders in Kansas turn out to be more intent on pursuing legal channels, to the point of adopting a “Free White State” constitution prohibiting both slavery and free Black settlers. The Border Ruffians will prevail if they can intimidate enough Free State settlers and keep up an appearance of “law and order” such that slaveholders begin investing in Kansas land. The Free State settlers retain a chance as long as they can mount a resistance open enough to dispel the appearance of peace and prove the depth of their determination.

The popular upsurge had been, to put it mildly, a long time coming. Brown closely followed the process throughout his adult life, and summarized it with great clarity in a summer 1859 conversation (post-Kansas, pre-Harpers Ferry) with journalist William Addison Phillips, who paraphrased Brown as follows:

[As] slavery became more profitable . . . the desire grew to extend and increase it. The condition of the enslaved negroes steadily became worse, and the despotic necessities of a more cruel system constantly pressed on the degraded slaves. Rights they at first possessed were taken from them. The little of domestic happiness and independence that had been left them was taken away. The [Atlantic] slave-trade being ended, it was profitable to breed negroes for sale. Gradually the pecuniary interests that rested on slavery seized the power of the government. Public opinion opposed to slavery was placed under ban. The politicians of the South became slavery propagandists, and the politicians of the North trimmers. When the religious and moral sentiment of the country indicated a desire to check this alarming growth, a threat of secession was uttered, and appeals were made not to risk the perpetuation of this glorious republic by fanatical antislaveryism. Then began an era of political compromises, and men full of professions of love of country were willing, for peace, to sacrifice everything for which the republic was founded.

The “era of political compromises” began in 1850 with the Fugitive Slave Law. The law resulted in mass meetings, abolitionist “vigilance committees,” and highly publicized “rescues” of alleged fugitives. (It also called forth Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a remarkably palatable serving of temperate middle-class rage.) The next pro-slavery gentleman’s agreement, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, was even more aggressive and even less successful than the heartening disaster of 1850. By introducing the principle of “squatter sovereignty”—according to which not Congress, but a majority vote of settlers, would determine whether a territory entered the Union as a free or slave state—the Act both opened federal territories to slaveholding settlers and channeled the sweeping political unrest onto a definite battleground (what Du Bois called a “bloody duel”) in Kansas Territory.

Nelson does not become too fascinated by the problem of depicting Brown’s actual moments of action, realizing that his real task is to depict the vast, tense, treacherous slowness of political-economic contradiction. That is, the immediate world Brown inhabited in his daily life. The prevailing experience in Nelson’s novel is debate of the most varied kinds: inner debate, familial debate, parliamentary debate, newspaper debate; debates overheard, secret, frivolous, sycophantic, deadly; debates strategic, religious, political, economic; between acquaintances, spouses, father and sons, sons and sons, neighbors, elected delegates, soldiers and civilians; between a hapless President Pierce and one of his hapless appointees; between individuals randomly meeting on the prairie at night; and so forth and so on. In all 667 pages of The Surveyor, about thirty-five pages actually represent Brown engaged in decisive action. “Tell me what to do, Dad,” says a young Free State politician at one point. “Endure hardness,” Brown replies, and leaves.

Through severe discipline—ranging from republican-Calvinist prayer, to the bodily effort of transporting a wagonload of guns from Akron to Kansas, to struggle against winter starvation—Brown’s determination roots itself in the totality of popular life. What György Lukács has argued about the historical novels of Walter Scott is true for The Surveyor: in Nelson’s portrayal, too, “historical necessity is always a resultant, never a presupposition; it is the tragic atmosphere of a period and not the object of the writer’s reflections.” It “asserts itself . . . through the passionate actions of individuals, but often against their individual psychology,” because it “has its roots in the real social and economic basis of popular life.”

Brown understands clearly from the beginning what is really needed—an abolitionist counter-offensive, breaking through the hard crust of gentlemen’s agreements and once and for all rejecting the “Bogus Laws” enacted through obvious voter fraud. His first words, eighty-seven pages into the book, are: “It is my deliberate judgment that the most ready and effectual way to retrieve Kansas would be to meddle directly with the peculiar institution.” However, by the time he arrives with a wagon full of guns and his son and son-in-law (other family members are already there), Border Ruffian overreach has already driven some semi-proslavery settlers to the Free State side. Rather than go on the offensive, Free State leaders have embarked on a “suffer and be strong” policy of defensive coalition building and due process (the “Free White State” platform). Brown is too late. His eldest son is one of the Free State leaders, reluctantly enlisted as figurehead of the legitimizing abolitionist left wing of the coalition. A counter- offensive, such as Brown longs for, would isolate his son politically.

At the same time, David Rice Atchison, the Ruffians’ leader, also clearly understands from the beginning what is needed: “law and order,” meaning imposition on Kansas of the Missouri slave code with the maximum trappings of formal legitimacy. Atchison “abhorred thinking of himself as a lawless man. . . . No southern man of property and standing wanted to look bad in respect to the law, least of all to flout it: they had to live in a system of controlled violence, it had to have insulation around it.” Atchison, too, must await renewed disturbances in the Territory, in order for his “Self-Defensives” to invade, bully, and intimidate as “defensively” as possible.

But Atchison’s pious pilgrimage to the shrine of property and capital goes awry: first, when political demagoguery and newspaper intimidation fail and he must fall back on voter fraud; second, when voter fraud begins to fail, because settlers attempt to establish a parallel Free State legislature, and Atchison must escalate intimidation; third, when local but determined resistance to the “Bogus Laws,” led by the Browns and their neighbors, eventually leads him to escalate intimidation to the point of letting his Ruffians loose to burn and loot Lawrence, the largest Free State settlement in Kansas.

Here the Browns are again too late, not having been alerted quickly enough of the need for defense of the town. News of the sack of Lawrence meets them on the road, when they and a small troop of their Free State neighbors are halfway there. Debate ensues.

The Old Man shook an angry fist at him. —We can attack best while their forces are scattering. We can burn their wagons, stampede their horses, explode their powder. Poison their water supplies, trail them and dog them every step of the way. Parch the earth all about them. Steal their weapons while they sleep and if we manage to get them in a tight place . . . why, then we can stand fast in the gap and battle for the Lord.

And yet, this is not what they attempt. While lying in ambush, but uncertain of the Ruffians’ route, they learn that local Territorial officials have been threatening to destroy homes, lynch one of their supporters, and terrorize their family members who have remained behind. With this highly credible threat, Brown once again turns aside from full confrontation of the Ruffians. “I am thinking of what happens if [we] . . . cannot engage in any military action at all in this area,” he says. “There has to be an irrevocable step taken somewhere and one of us has to make it.” The Lawrence leadership has just demonstrated deep cowardice. Brown’s “irrevocable step”? “Summary execution” of five of the “Bogus” officials threatening his popular base. He turns toward home with four of his sons, a son-in-law, and two others. On the way, they camp overnight. Then, the next night:

If this had been a carefully wrought plan it could be diverted or corrupted in numerous little ways; it was the other side who worked their will on people by long-standing plottings and gambles and now he, by lying in wait with a will subdued enough not to act until the opportunity came for a decisive stroke, could with a minimum of forces and material create absolute havoc on the camp of the enemy. To your tents, O Enemies, now see to thine own house.

Here, then, more than two-thirds of the way through the novel, more than halfway through a terrible century structured by a long accumulation of elite “plottings and gambles”—from the U.S. Constitution itself, to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, to the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War, to the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854—and more than nine-tenths of the way through a life of prayer, endurance, and determination, Brown acts: not with haste or vengeance, but with the most creative decisiveness. That night, using broadswords rather than guns in order to maintain silence, he and his men execute five minor pro-slavery Territorial officials outside their homes—the same as the number of Free State settlers that have so far been murdered in Kansas by pro-slavery settlers. It is the first really decisive and “irrevocable” Free State response to the Missourians’ federally backed machinations. As the conflict escalates, Brown emerges as the first Free State militia commander capable of leading citizen-soldiers into out-and-out battle, and eventually becomes nationally known for his role at the Battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie. In the raid on Harpers Ferry, three years later, most of his men are recruited from Kansas. The events at Harpers Ferry come to bear a similar relationship to the national conflict as the five nighttime killings bear to the “bloody duel” in Kansas Territory.

Destiny, Manifested

John Brown’s incomparable decisiveness stemmed not from some mysterious given of his personality, and not from some quirk or emotional break, but from active religious faith and long self-discipline. Nelson’s first depiction of Brown in the novel focuses, with brilliant ease, on this well-documented (but often distorted) elemental fact of his life. We first meet the Old Man riding in a train through Ohio. The train lurches around a bend, throwing passengers out of their seats, but Brown is “in the rapt suspension of a struggle with his own eternity and impervious to earthly displacement.”

A man of overflowing religious faith, a predestination Calvinist, knowing that all he had done so far and nothing that he could do from now on could either save him from damnation or deny him eternal life among the saints, he had come to that moment in his life where he should be getting a revelation of what lay ahead for him in the great change, as death was known to him.

Outside the window of Brown’s train passes a “vast panorama of disaster and defeat,” a rich landscape that Brown once owned on paper, in his land speculating and surveying days, before bankruptcy and further failures. “Nevertheless, this did not crush out this man’s hope of Heaven.” For the Calvinist alone with his conscience and his worldly efforts is also alone with his textual interpretations:

He did not ascribe to the belief that God showed His grace in profits and His reprobation in poverty. He was perfectly capable of reading the Bible himself and putting his own glosses on it—and if this was true, why had the writers of the Bible said that he who mocked the poor reproached his Maker? He wanted his proof of election to come in another way and prayed for it for thirty years . . . that he, John Brown, would be God’s chosen servant in breaking the jaws of the oppressors and letting the enslaved go free.

Thus, his “struggle with his own eternity” is not brought on by his mere failure to accumulate capital; rather, what is explicit in the landscape outside the train window is a failure to accumulate the means of providing weapons of self-emancipation to slaves and other victims of slavery. He carries in his pocket a letter from his son in Kansas, pleading for tools of war: “Now we want for you to get for us these arms. We need them more than we do bread.” Brooding on his inability to answer this call—debt-burdened, “his inadequacy burst on him like a white light from an exploding bomb”—he overhears a wealthy acquaintance and a younger man gossiping about Kansas in the seat behind him. Subsequently, through extended, multi-scene debate, these men eventually help him to get the weapons he needs.

We should understand Brown neither as a “burning fragment” nor as a Promethean fire-bringer.

In historical fact, Brown did not have as much difficulty getting arms for Kansas as he does in Nelson’s novel. However, as a dramatic introduction to the experience of Brown’s republican-revolutionary Calvinist psychology—a well-documented aspect of the record—the scene is very effective.

None of this is to suggest that The Surveyor gives us the last word on narratives of Brown. Nelson’s chosen formal constraint—the focus on Kansas from early 1855 into October 1856—screens out one of the most crucial threads of Brown’s history, namely, his close association and friendships with a wide range of Black people, including important Black leaders, informed by his sympathetic study of the history of slave insurrection and Black political violence. Nelson dramatizes Brown’s historical attunement in the crucible of Kansas, but Du Bois remains the best narrator of the whole arc of his life.

We should understand Brown neither as a “burning fragment” nor as a Promethean fire-bringer, but as a brilliant analyst of contemporary history whose actions closely tracked the structure of the situation. Because this situation was a complex outcome of Black popular agitation above all, and because Brown self-consciously sought to participate in this agitation in the face of a profound leadership vacuum, it’s true that he was always going to seem to a lot of influential people like he came out of nowhere. His passionate Calvinism was a way of embracing and surviving this contradiction, a way of living out the rational, decisive solidarity that was always going to be denied and misrepresented as insanity and isolation.