Like the mountain, John Brown was a Cloudsplitter. From his home in North Elba, he took his visionary crusade against slavery into battle. His extreme actions forced Americans to choose between those who accepted or profited from slavery and those who came to adopt his view that bloodshed was the only solution to its horrors.
Cloudsplitter is the story of the martyr or villain of the abolitionist movement, depending on where you stand on the issue of American slavery and the Civil War. Beginning with his unprecedented actions in Bleeding Kansas, John Brown provided an alternative to the passive abolitionists who had ineffectually taken the moral road to end “the peculiar institution.” By 1850, the United States’ drift towards acceptance of the national influence of the slaveholding states had begun to quicken. Brown and his sympathizers knew that their work on The Underground Railroad could be undone right up to, and in some cases over the Canadian border. The 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, was developed as the first blow in a new resistance and escape movement that would give pause to the bounty hunters and lawmen who might take escaped slaves or even free black people to the South. Instead, it became a watershed moment in the run-up to the Civil War.
Russell Banks could have taken any number of routes to tell this story, but he chose an intriguing one. Fifty years after Harpers Ferry, Brown’s third son, Owen, is an old sheeptending hermit in California. Visited by an assistant to his father’s biographer, Owen initially rejects her, then offers to write his account of his father’s story. But this is primarily Owen’s story–John Brown’s domestic, business, and militant life are faithfully recited, but Owen has another goal. He wants to explain his own life, meditate on the nature of father-son relationships and ponder his vision of the Abraham/Isaac story. (That Biblical tale is a dynamic that will arise again and again in John Brown’s life.) Owen quenched his own life for the attractive certainty of his father’s vision, but made himself a murderous lieutenant in return. He takes the credit–or blame–for showing his father and his father’s other followers how easy it is to cross the line into murder, and from there the path to Harpers Ferry is set. But Owen’s confession leaves the reader uncertain. Has he come to this view with the hindsight of half a century? Was his confusion over violence, sexuality, and his father’s influence the result of his solitary existence or is he capturing feelings that he felt at the time?
Owen does wonder about the soundness of his father’s plan, but does not make this the story of a madman. Banks’ John Brown believes his mission is direct from God, and that the reverses and losses that filled his life were signs from the Almighty that his work lay in ending slavery. (The historical record bears this out–John Brown was a deeply religious man intimate with every part of the Bible and accustomed to preaching its exhortations.) Contemporary views of him show a passionate advocate; later images would cement Brown’s popular image as an insane Moses. (I believe Cecil B. DeMille had this in mind when he depicted the celluloid Moses at the Red Sea.)
Finally, Banks also explores frontier life in all its relentless work and harshness. The Brown family and their neighbors labored from “can’t see to can’t see” to break the land, secure food, build shelter, and care for their animals. They also suffered death on all fronts–John Brown would lose his first wife in childbirth, and of his 20 children only 12 would survive childhood. That level of detail humanizes a man usually known for the penultimate act of his life. His ultimate act would split the country in two for decades to come.
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