JOHN BROWN STILL LIVES: America’s Long Reckoning with Violence, Equality, and Change. By R. Blakeslee Gilpin. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. 2011.
John Brown, it turns out, is an empty signifier. Since his execution on December 2, 1859, his memory has been placed in the service of countless political projects. He has been deployed as an instigator of violent insurrection and as a “benevolent and peaceful martyr” (61). W. E. B. Du Bois understood John Brown as a latter-day Nat Turner; Stephen Vincent Benét turned him into a proto D. W. Griffith. Jacob Lawrence used Brown to highlight the violence of the old regime and the importance of black struggle; John Stuart Curry portrayed him as an “erratic, crazy old coot and a murderer” (155). Henry Highland Garnet used Brown to argue that racial equality requires violent intervention; Robert Penn Warren, by contrast, used Brown to shore up the ideology of the Lost Cause. In sum, since 1859 Brown has been pressed into the service of an astonishing variety of political causes. It is as if there has never been a politics too radical or too conservative to benefit from the legacy of John Brown.
R. Blakeslee Gilpin’s John Brown Still Lives beautifully captures the stunning symbolic afterlife of John Brown. Beginning with James Redpath’s The Public Life of Captain John Brown, published only thirty days after Brown’s execution, and ending with Obama’s Audacity of Hope, Gilpin stresses both the continuity and the contradictions in the appropriations of John Brown. His narrative focuses on those with the most invested in the appropriation: Redpath, Franklin Sanborn, John Greenleaf Whittier, W. E. B. Du Bois, Oswald Garrison Villard, Stephen Vincent Benét, Robert Penn Warren, John Steuart Curry, Jacob Lawrence, and Kara Walker. His detailed accounts of the political contexts, literary histories, and partisan motives driving these figures are outstanding—the best part of the book. In each instance, Gilpin challenges what we think of these figures and their investment in American racial politics by foregrounding their partisan appropriation of John Brown.
To read Gilpin’s volume is to be overwhelmed by the unrelieved opportunism that, from every spot on the political spectrum, has found in John Brown the perfect vehicle for partisan gain. The net effect of Gilpin’s survey is an appreciation for the symbolic powers of rhetoric. For, as quickly becomes clear, the facts of John Brown’s life have relatively little bearing on their subsequent appropriation. Consider the legacy of Bleeding Kansas. In the 1870s, Franklin Sanborn argued that Brown “did not kill anyone in Kansas” (72). This position was challenged by, among others, Henry Highland Garnet, Oswald Garrison Villard, and John Steuart Curry. While these latter three may have agreed that Brown killed Kansans, they each drew starkly different political lessons: Garnet used Bleeding Kansas to argue for more violence, Villard suggested that Brown should be respected despite his violence, and Curry pointed to Bleeding Kansas as evidence that Brown was an “erratic crazy old coot.” From the perspective of latter day politics, the question Sanborn pursued proved to be immaterial. For, regardless of whether or not Brown killed Kansans, his memory could, depending on the need of the hour, be made to serve a politics of either insurrection or non-violence. The story of Brown’s appropriation, in other words, is one-hundred percent rhetorical history: the history of how partisan actors have deployed the ever-malleable symbol of John Brown.
Gilpin asks that we think of Brown as a “conduit,” a mechanism by which Americans are able to engage enduring issues such as violence and equality generation after generation. Gilpin is at his best rendering Brown a conduit, showing how every generation has rewritten him according to the political need-of-the-hour. I would have liked to see more space dedicated to meta-level reflection on the consequences of so constant a rewriting. What does it say about America, its racial politics, or its rhetoric, that John Brown exists primarily as a conduit?
Dave Tell, University of Kanas