Pulitzer-Prize Winner Tony Horwitz Coming to Providence
Thursday, November 03, 2011
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author Tony Horwitz’s latest subject is John Brown and his doomed 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. The Providence Athenaeum is hosting Horwitz, who will read from his new book Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War.
Horwitz, a Brown alum and former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, is also the author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, Confederates in the Attic, and A Voyage Long and Strange. Horwitz took time to talk with Tracey Minkin about his subject: the passionate, violent John Brown.
Why did you write about John Brown?
I've always been hooked on the Civil War, and therefore curious about Brown, but to be honest, I came to do this book mainly because of the urging---one might say, nagging--of my wife, Geraldine. She writes historical novels and based one of her characters on Louisa May Alcott's real-life father, Bronson Alcott, and in researching him she came across his association with the Secret Six, Brown's covert supporters. And she kept telling me that as a Civil War bore I should write about the relatively neglected story of these six extraordinary men, Yankee intellectuals and armchair radicals who funneled guns and money to Brown as he plotted his crusade to overthrow slavery.
To get her off my back, I finally did some research on the Secret Six, who are indeed a fascinating crew--but they're dreamers and tortured idealists who struggle and mostly fail to live up to their convictions, just the sort of people Geraldine loves to write about. For whatever reason, I prefer to write about actors and action, and that drew me to John Brown, this passionate and violent man who not only lived up to his convictions but died for them. I wanted to know what made him and his followers tick.
Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 is a dress rehearsal for the full-scale war that breaks out 18 months later. Brown and the men who follow him are militant idealists who feel that only conflict can purge the nation of slavery, and they're willing to risk their lives for a cause they passionately believe in. The Southerners on the other side of the Harpers Ferry conflict--including Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, "Stonewall" Jackson, John Wilkes Booth--are equally staunch in their defense of Virginia and its "peculiar institution" of slavery. The Harpers Ferry raid, and the court and prison drama that follows it, expose and deepen the chasm between North and South. To me, it's a window into the ideals and rage and divisions that will enable Americans to kill each other by the hundreds of thousands in the 1860s.
Why would Brown attack Harper’s Ferry, a mission that to us looks doomed from the start?
My own view is that Brown attacked Harpers Ferry as much for shock value and symbolism as he did for military reasons. He was striking one of only two federal armories in the nation--a symbol of American power--in the largest slave state in the country, and threatening to free and arm slaves across the South. He felt that even if his mission failed and he died in the attack, he would shock the nation into confronting its great sin and bring on the conflict that he believed was necessary to end slavery. And that's more or less how things played out.
Brown’s second wife, Mary, is a tragic figure in your book: she lives in near poverty during their marriage, many of her children die either very young or as a result of Brown’s raids, and she’s separated from her husband for years at a time. What does their relationship tell us about Brown?
Brown is almost an Ahab figure, an obsessive man whose white whale is slavery. One can admire his conviction while recognizing that it came at great cost to his family. This is true of many change agents in history. He loved his family but in the end analysis, his mission was all-consuming and he was prepared to sacrifice himself and his family to it. Three of his sons die fighting in his cause, several others are wounded or traumatized, and Mary, after 25 years of near-destitution and the early death of nine of her 13 children, is left with a shattered family of young widows and mourners. Her husband's martyrdom gives her a measure of renown, and financial security due to contributions from Brown's admirers, but it is indeed a tragic story.
Do you think Brown is a hero?
One reason I wanted to write this book is that previous treatments of Brown have tended to portray him as either a hero or monster, martyr-saint or murderous madman. Brown is much too complicated a man to fit into any of these pigeonholes. Also, I don't see it as my role to damn or sanctify Brown. I'm a journalist by training, I wanted to engage with the primary sources and come to my best judgement of what happened and why, and tell that story in the most compelling way possible. I leave it to readers to decide how they feel about the man.
Do you agree with Frederick Douglass' claim that Brown's raid began "the war that ended slavery"?
Yes I do. We look back at this period through the prism of the South's loss in the Civil War, and think that the conflict and emancipation were inevitable. And thanks largely to Gone With the Wind, the "Old South" has this aura of underdog and "lost cause." But that's not true to how things appeared in the late 1850s, when Americans couldn't see the future and the slaveholding South was very strong, politically and economically. As Douglass also said, before Brown attacked Harpers Ferry, "the prospect for freedom was dim, shadowy and uncertain... Slavery had so benumbed the moral sense of the nation that it never suspected the possibility of an explosion." Harpers Ferry changes that. It forces people to confront this issue and take sides. There's no going back.
Echoing the Langston Hughes poem quoted at the end of the book, how should we remember John Brown?
We should remember him as a troubling, flawed, and visionary American who changed the course of our history. As the Langston Hughes poem makes clear, we should also remember the men, black and white, who went into battle with him. Brown wasn't a lone gunman. He was the leader of a bi-racial band of young men who believed America's founding promise of liberty and equality could only be fulfilled through the destruction of slavery. We can and should argue about Brown's tactics, and whether violence is ever justified in the pursuit of justice, but ultimately he and his followers were on the right side of history.
Tony Horwitz will read, discuss, and sign Midnight Rising at the Providence Athenaeum Friday, November 4, from 5-7 pm. 251 Benefit St, Providence, 421-6970. Copies of the book will be for sale.
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