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.
Q: You have done readings from your book in the north and the south. Do people react the same?
A: “Broadly speaking, Northerners are more inclined than Southerners to see Brown as a freedom fighter rather than a homicidal fanatic. But the stronger divide is racial. Brown has always commanded tremendous respect among African Americans, from Frederick Douglass to W.E.B. Dubois to Malcolm X, and he’s still widely admired by blacks today.
Q: Who are the writers who influence you most and which historians?
A: “The writer who influences me the most is my wife, Geraldine Brooks, a historical novelist (“Caleb’s Crossing: A Novel” and Pulitzer winner “March”). She’s my first and last editor. We write beside each other all day, and call out whenever we’re stuck or searching for a word or phrase.
“As for historians, I’m a great admirer of Jill Lepore, who writes essays for the New Yorker in addition to her many books. I also like Adam Hochschild, a non-academic who writes history with great clarity and storytelling skill for a general audience, basically what I aspire to. My favorite book of his is “Bury the Chains.”
Q: What would you have asked John Brown if you could have interviewed him?
A: “I’d ask him whether he really believed his military plan at Harpers Ferry would succeed. His raid doesn’t make sense to me except as a self-conscious act of martyrdom, intended to bring on the great conflict he believed necessary to end slavery. In that respect, he triumphed. But he made contradictory statements about his intent in attacking Harpers Ferry, and I’d love to be able to pin him down posthumously.
Q: You did a book on Iraq after the first Gulf war (“Baghdad Without a Map.”) Do you have any desire to go back and do Baghdad with a map?
A: “I often have the desire, and then it passes. I was in my late 20s and early 30s when I reported from Iraq and other hot spots. I was footloose and reckless, and am very thankful for the experience. But now that I’m a dad with two school-age sons, and no longer young, the life of the war correspondent isn’t nearly so realistic or appealing. I applaud others from afar.”