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Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks

May 12, 2015


On 16, 1859, John Brown and a small band of guerilla fighters attacked the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. By that point, Brown had already earned a reputation as a radical abolitionist, but his daring, ultimately unsuccessful raid elevated him from an historical footnote to one of the most controversial figures in American history.

For some, John Brown was a hero. For others, he was America’s first homegrown terrorist. As Brown swung from the gallows, abolitionists and slavers alike debated his righteousness and his significance. For the abolitionists, Brown had acted on what they all believed—if Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman were of the pen, John Brown was literally of the sword. But even to those who agreed with his ends, his means were highly questionable. And for Southerners, John Brown represented evidence of a growing danger, proof that the anti-slavery movement wasn’t just talk. Men were willing to commit violence to bring about an end to slavery. Although it would be an overstatement to say John Brown caused the Civil War, his actions pushed the north and south, already tilting toward war, across a threshold of violence.

“John Brown” by Ole Peter Hansen Balling (1823-1906). National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Cloudsplitter is the fictionalized story of John Brown, told through the eyes of his third son, Owen. At Harper’s Ferry, in a moment of cowardice, Owen hid in a tree and then narrowly escaped. This story is told in a series of letters from Owen to a journalist many years later. It’s a very long book—covering from Owen’s boyhood through Harper’s Ferry. Some of it feels superfluous, as the real action doesn’t start until that last quarter of the book. And if you know about the historical John Brown, the end is no surprise. The intrigue of the story, then, lies in how John Brown was radicalized, to use a modern term. Cloudsplitter is the story of growth and transformation, of a man consumed by his ideas. It imagines an answer to the question of how a pious farmer became a religious zealot, and how his religious fervor and his hatred of slavery led him to murder.

If Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was shocking in its boldness, the more shocking act of violence came three years earlier in Kansas, when Brown and his men dragged five pro-slavers from their homes and hacked them to death with broad swords. The Pottawatamie Creek Massacre contributed to the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” It is a turning point in the Brown story, the most pronounced leap from radical ideology to radical action. And it is perhaps the most challenging leap for any character, historical or otherwise, to credibly make. Banks handles it well, and his use of Owen gives him a convenient distance from John Brown. Owen cannot know his father’s thoughts. He can only report his actions.

Adding to the religious fervor of Brown is the style of narration—an overwrought, somewhat cumbersome, almost Biblical English. Whether or not historically accurate, it certainly sets a tone.

As interesting as the main storyline is the time period itself. Banks fully conjures the culture of the day, including both news items as well as details from everyday life. He also throws in a few celebrity cameos—from Frederick Douglas to Ralph Waldo Emerson. I assume they are based on factual meetings, but either way they’re fun and place the story in a well-rendered historical context.

I decided to read this book after giving a second listen to David Blight’s class on the Civil War at Yale University (free to listen on iTunes U). What Blight does, and what Banks does here, is make history come alive. You feel the building tension, the passion, the fervor and the madness building not only in John Brown, but also in the nation. Brown may be the most interesting personification of the slavery fight, but like any good historical fiction, Cloudsplitter is as much about the time and place. In this case, the United States on the precipice of the war that would define its contours for centuries to come.

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