May 5, 1998
Essayist Roger Rosenblatt considers a new novel called Cloudsplitter.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Near the end of Russell Banks's monumental novel about the abolitionist John Brown Owen, Brown's third son, the narrator of the piece, asks his father: "You know Gods mind?" John Brown answers: "Yes, the Lord speaks to me." Brown leaves no doubt that he believes that is so. John Brown, the most famous radical in American history, he of the abortive raid on the federal arsenal of Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and who was hanged for it; he who slaughtered men, women, and children gladly for the purity of his anti-slavery cause; and he was equally made and right was the archetype of the dangerous, terrifying, driven, inspired zealot.
Born in the romantic age, John Brown was the perfect Byronic romantic. God spoke to him. Banks's novel is both about the man and the idea of the man, about those terrible and blessedly rare moments in history where a mad man is required to do the right thing and where the exercise of virtue seems to demand sin. Because the greater sin was human slavery, Brown felt empowered by God to smite pro-slavery forces, who are also people. And smite he did, as Banks writes in the smoke and blood of Kansas, with the bodies of men and boys hacked to death with machetes and lying in chunks, steaming like fresh meat. How could such furious brutality ever be forgiven? And did the Civil War, which Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry almost certainly brought on, justify Brown's cold-blooded rage?
Did his madness save America's soul? This moral question goes so deep it makes one quiver even today when slavery is long past and radicalism is the stuff of memoirs. Had this novel come out in the 1960's, it might have seemed a road map to the times. The 1960's have radicals aplenty, so-called, who raged at the powerful in the government and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. The trouble was that most of those radicals had compromised motives, little nerve, and were merely playing at righteousness. The ones who killed with guns and bombs had John Brown's murderousness but not his cause. At the opposite end of the revolutionary scale one looks to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who had the causes but not the madness. No. To find an analogue to Brown one must go to the bloody French Revolution or the bloody Russian Revolution, neither of which wound up solving the problems they meant to shoot or behead. John Brown, mad and murderous as he was, effected a true national cleansing. So was his fanaticism worth it? Probably. Though one would not want all the corrections of history to be entrusted to the hands of a John Brown.
Banks's novel is as much about a man as a problem, and the man was huge, Old Testament. When he is out of the novel, it is as if the sun is clouded. The novel is called "Cloudsplitter" after the mountain that loomed over Brown's farm in the Adirondacks. Brown, himself, was a cloudsplitter, part of America's moral and deadly landscape, which has rustled Banks' proven territory. Banks is establishing himself as one of America's lastingly great writers in books like "Continental Drift," "Affliction," and the "Sweet Hereafter" by prying open the granite of the American mind and examining it with love and severity. Now he gives us John Brown, laden with more love and severity than any mortal ought to bear. But the point is not to show how distanced he is from the rest of us but, rather, how close he is.
In a scene in which he beats son, Owen, with a leather strap for having stolen his grandfather's pocket watch, then hands over the strap to Owen to beat him for having reared a sinful son, Brown explains that all of us are connected in all our thoughts and deeds. We too are both liberators and murderers. We too can go mad with righteousness, and sometimes we too hear God speak to us. If that were not so, we would not at once be horrified by John Brown and fear him and acknowledge him as a savior. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.