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John Brown: Then and Now

“Tragic Prelude” (1938-40) by John Steuart Curry Mural of John Brown holding a gun and a Bible in the Kansas State Capitol, Topeka, Kansas.

With Black History Month around the corner and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation upon us we take a look at John Brown. Brown, an ardent abolitionist had no problem in using violence in the fight to end slavery. Brown is probably best remembered for his armed attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia that resulted in his capture and eventual execution.

One needs to look no further than the subtitle of the recent biography by the award-winning historian and critic David S. Reynolds to understand how important John Brown was  in the evolution of the United States. Reynolds calls him “The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.”

An essential element of the American core begins here.

c. 1846

 The Life and Letters of Captain John Brown was first published in 1861, two years after he was hanged.


John Brown’s fictional reach remains strong:

George MacDonald Fraser’s  Flashman and the Angel of the Lord. contains a study of Brown’s character.

Henry Miller discusses Brown in Plexus. Book Two of The Rosy Crucifixion.

Langston Hughes celebrates Brown in his poem “October 16.”  The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. 

Finally, it’s pretty clear that Russell Banks has a little of John Brown’s spirit floating around. His 1998 Pulitzer Prize finalist novel, Cloudsplitter features one of Brown’s sons as narrator.

And in the late 1960’s a small magazine he edited featured a Underground Railroad issue. Brown played a major role in the Underground Railroad as well making his then hometown Springfield, Massachussets and one of the safest and most significant stops on the Underground Railroad.

Banks, Russell and William Matthews, editors. Lillabulero: Being a Periodical of Literature and the Arts. Volume 2, Number 1. Underground Railroad Issue. Chapel Hill: Lillabulero, Winter 1968. Signed by Russell Banks on title page.

The books above were featured in our recent Bibliology email featuring select material relating to the Underground Railroad.

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