Thursday, April 21, 2005
John Brown: The Transcendentalists' terrorist.
Okay Unitarian-Universalist and American literary history buffs, be sure to read Adam Gopnik's essay about the brilliant, violent abolitionist John Brown. I'd like to call your attention especially to the way the Transcendentalists — our most famous Unitarians — embraced Brown after he and four of his sons slaughtered five pro-slavery men in Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas. That's right, after. Reviewing David S. Reynolds's new biography, Gopnik writes:
Brown was never arrested or tried for the Kansas killings, and when he came back East he found himself a hero—though not with the members of Garrison’s abolitionist “establishment,” who were firmly pacifist and consumed by their own sectarian squabbling. Instead, it was the high Transcendentalists, Thoreau and Emerson and Alcott first among them, who became Brown’s fervent admirers and propagandists. Some of Reynolds’s most illuminating pages are devoted to Brown’s relationship to the Transcendentalists. The historical cliché has been that the Transcendentalists had their heads too far up in the clouds to see what was happening on the bloody earth below. Reynolds, however, following Stauffer, establishes that they were Brown’s most important intellectual allies.
In a way, it was an early instance of radical chic: the Transcendentalists preferred a real man to a squabbling set of Mrs. Jellybys. But there was more to it. They shared a disdain for materialist Northern society—which Brown had bankrupted himself out of, and which the Transcendentalists viewed largely with baffled dismay. Whatever else Brown might be, he was not a trivial man, or a worldly one: he was not a merchant with a Sunday cause. He was a free man already in a state of liberty. In a way that recalls the idealization of Jean Genet by the French existentialists, it was his own freedom from constraints, as much as his urge to break the shackles of others, that drew the Transcendentalists to him.
He received the backing of a group of wealthy abolitionists who called themselves the Secret Six, though a less secret secret group is hard to imagine. They included Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the man who was later Emily Dickinson’s patron. (Reynolds has some fascinating speculative pages on traces of Brown’s life in Dickinson’s poetry, one essentially fanatic American imagination speaking to another.) From that time on, Brown was devoted to fund-raising and recruiting for his Southern invasion plan, which soon centered on the Federal Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.
Another member of the Secret Six was the radical Unitarian minister Theodore Parker — along with Emerson one of the saints of Unitarian intellectual history — whose involvement Dean Grodzins describes this way:
Parker grew convinced that there could be no wholly political solution to the slavery crisis. During the proto-civil war in Kansas territory, he raised money to buy weapons for the free state militias, and later became a member of the secret committee that helped finance and arm John Brown's failed attempt, in October 1859, to start a slave insurrection in Virginia. When Brown was arrested, Parker wrote a public letter defending Brown's actions and the right of slaves to kill their masters (John Brown's Expedition Reviewed).
Gopnik makes the case that Brown was central to the American Civil War:
By writing John Brown out as an oddity or sideshow, [Reynolds] insists, we miss the essential reality of the war: what was unthinkable and extremist in 1859—the armed descent of the North on the South to end slavery—had by 1864 become a mass movement, so that the war could be understood as what Lincoln called “a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale.” Brown is the first mover in the American tragedy, the man who struck the bell and struck it hard.
I'm not sure I had very directly confronted the fact that the Transcendentalists knew they were funding a murderer and terrorist when they embraced John Brown's rebellion. (Loaded word? Sure, but it fits precisely, as Gopnik shows.) Brown and his supporters illustrate how clarity of purpose can justify violence, a tragic outcome of commitment — something I thought about when reading Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club, which also focuses on a handful of New Englanders in Emerson's orbit during the Civil War.
("John Brown's Body," Adam Gopnik, New Yorker 4.25.05)
Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 21 April 2005 at 9:26 PM