BookTalk: John Brown's "Midnight Rising"

Thu Dec 22, 2011 5:03am EST
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By Richard Satran

NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than 150 years after his violent attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, abolitionist militant John Brown still inspires fiery debate.

In a new book, Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer-Prize winning war correspondent and author, provides a vivid history of Brown's life, a departure from his usual breezy personalized histories like "Confederates in the Attic," which was about civil war nostalgia.

"Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid the Sparked the Civil War" is Horwitz's first serious history. He spoke to Reuters about why Brown's story remains so alive and why Brown remains a controversial figure.

Q: He was hung just over 150 years ago -- why is John Brown still relevant?

A: "Brown is relevant because he raises eternal questions about ends and means. Is violence justified in the cause of justice? And should an individual defy laws that he or she regards as immoral? Also, we're living in troubled times, when change seems to bubble up from the extremes, as it did in 1859. Then, as now, people are attracted to blunt, viscerally satisfying solutions. Hopefully, though, we're not headed for armed conflict."

Q: As a journalist who covered Middle East and East European wars, do you see parallels between fundamentalism there and Brown's raids?

A: "Brown is a religious fundamentalist who leads 18 men in what is ultimately a suicide strike on a symbol of American power, a U.S. armory with 100,000 guns, just 60 miles from Washington. He seeks to terrorize white Southerners, shock the nation, and bring on the great conflict he believes is necessary to cleanse America of its great sin.

"And in the end, he identifies with Samson, pulling down the pillars of slavery around him and dying in the ruins. He triumphs as a martyr. But I don't think he should be lumped with terrorists in our own time, who slaughter thousands of innocents. He didn't kill indiscriminately. He had a clear target, and his cause was racial justice.   Continued...