How Now John Brown?

by John J. Miller on October 15, 2009 · 7 comments

in Blog Posts

  • SumoMe

When it occurred to me that the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was this year, I had one thought: news peg!

I also figured that if I wrote an article on a Brown-ish topic–the piece appears today–it would be a good way to plug my soon-to-be-published novel, The First Assassin. People who are willing to read an article on the legacy of John Brown may also be inclined to read a historical thriller set in 1861 Washington. It’s a low-tech version of affinity marketing.

So I drummed up the idea of a piece about John Brown’s Body, the long poem by Stephen Vincent Benét. I would base it partly on an actual visit to Harpers Ferry, which isn’t too far from home. My editor at the Wall Street Journal approved the topic. I started my research, made my visit, and hammered out the article. In the bio-line, I’m not identified as a National Review writer, which is my normal credit, but as “the author of The First Assassin, a forthcoming historical novel.”

I had hoped The First Assassin actually would be available right now. Alas, the wait continues. We’re still dealing with a few production details. So when will it come out? Soon, very soon. Watch this space.

John Brown

  • Whitney O’Keefe

    My junior year high school english class read “John Brown’s Body”. I found it to be very interesting and gripping.

    These days I live in Augusta, Georgia, next door to the campus of Augusta State University where the Benet family once lived. The father was assigned to the Arsenal, now the location of the university. The house they occupied is one of the campus structures.

  • Scott Kelly

    Mr. Miller – thanks for your piece. A quite instructive and illuminating take on John Brown can be found among the papers of Frederick Douglass, who in 1881 (I think) wrote and spoke of his association with Brown and what Brown meant to abolitionism and America. Brown had wanted Douglass to join him at Harper’s ferry, but Douglass wisely refused. (Douglass also departed for Europe after the raid in case he was arrested for any connection to Brown.) Well worth the read.

    Here’s an excerpt posted on the Harper’s Ferry national park web site: http://www.nps.gov/archive/hafe/douglass.htm

    (Side note: Douglass’ take on Abraham Lincoln in his april 14, 1876, speech does more to explain the 16th president and what he meant than any other speech or book.)

  • clayton h. farnham

    Well, now, Mr. Miller, welcome to Atlanta for these two weeks, and congratulations to you and to Emory!

    Your attention to “John Brown’s Body” in today’s WSJ was a pleasant surprise. One supposes that the absence of Tarantino-ish depravity in the work, together with the presence of rhyme and meter, disqualifies this “middlebrow literature” as against today’s high literary standards. However, the mind grasps and remembers, among hundreds of such moments, “Love came by from the river smoke” and “Fall of the possum, fall of the coon,” holding them for life.
    You surely know of the 1950s production of JBB stage version in New York, with Tyrone Power, Judith Anderson, Raymond Massey and a chorus for musical effects, The Voices of Walter Shuman. Columbia Records published an LP volume of it, which is stunning — but hopelessly middlebrow, of course. Today they’d work in some pederasty to give it some flavor to beg acceptance from the druids of taste.
    I will watch for “The First Assassin” with interest.

  • Scott Kelly

    If I’m not mistaken, S. V. Benet also wrote “Fishhook at Gettysburg,” one of the few literary pieces written about the war that the late Shelby Foote said was truly good.

  • Scott Kelly

    Er, my mistake — it’s all part of the same epic.

  • Boko Fittleworth

    General Flashman had a high opinion of Brown. Me, not so much, but I appreciate the General’s first-hand account of the events at Harper’s Ferry, as detailed in the tenth packet of the Flashman Papers, FLASHMAN AND THE ANGEL OF THE LORD.

  • richard cox

    An interesting essay! Thanks.
    A truly remarkable–and very short(14 lines)–poem about John Brown is THE PORTENT, by Herman Melville. It depicts Brown’s swaying body, just after he was hung. The poet muses on the significance of his abolitionist ardor. Those musings constitute the epilogue to Melville’s little-known book of poems on The Civil War. The book is called BATTLEPIECES AND ASPECTS OF THE WAR (1866). A supberb interpretive essay on THE PORTENT is by Roaanna Warren. It appears in an edition of BATTLEPIECES, published by Prometheus Book (2001) and edited by Paul Dowing and myself. Richard Cox, Prof Emeritus of Political Science, SUNY-BUFFALO.

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