James McBride, “The Good Lord Bird” (2013) (narrated by Michael Boatman) – People don’t really know what to make of John Brown. I can’t claim to be a John Brown scholar but I have read a fair amount about him and people really don’t know how to paint a full, communicable picture, and sometimes it seems that the closer a given writer gets, the more the real man and his real story eludes them. It also sometimes seems that writers contemporary with Brown, both enemies and friends, maybe get somewhat closer. That’s not linear- writers in the late nineteenth century seem just as lost as writers in the late twentieth. It seems to me that whatever sets of filters come down to make Brown opaque came down not that long after his death, and stayed there (or got thicker). I’m tempted to place the date at 1877, the year the US abandoned Reconstruction and well into the decades-long global freakout about revolution that came about as a result of the Paris Commune, but that’s not really something I can prove at present.
In any event, the combination of factors that go into John Brown’s story — race, slavery, militancy, strategy, psychology, religion, to say nothing of the chasm of the years and the many succeeding historiographical paradigms between now and 1859 — make it hard, really hard, to tell his story in a way that feels adequate. And each angle of his story, every aspect that makes it relevant today, also provides opportunities for people, honestly or not, to drive the story into one or another pitfall, slot it nearly somewhere it doesn’t belong but which pleases the teller. The guy who first got me into John Brown in a serious way is a crank, an anti-masker libertarian (opinion varies on the question of whether he was always that absurd or if he got worse over the years). He’s a somewhat more needlessly ideologically elaborate version of the Republicans who try to claim Brown as theirs. That’s a straightforward misprision- they only get weirder and more tedious from there.
I don’t say this often, but arguably, the contemporary American leftist attitude towards John Brown — admiration, of a type rarely extended to white men of his time, and not looking at him too hard — might actually be a decent default setting for contemporary people with things to do. Especially because this lack of digging usually means that said leftists won’t slavishly follow Brown’s failures; he’s a symbol, not the man with the plan ala Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, etc. The reasonings behind the attitude of the contemporary left towards John Brown might range from the respectable (they admire Brown’s courage) to the eye-roll worthy (he’s someone a variety of black figures, including Malcolm X, have given white people “permission” to admire- he has yet to be “canceled” in any meaningful sense), but there it is.
Still and all- people will look closer, and I’d say it’s a good thing to do so. This review is part of that. And novelists have taken a crack at it, too, not just historians. I tried reading Russell Banks’s “Cloudsplitter” and didn’t like it. Too much modern psychologizing, too slow. Even then, near the beginning of my historical education, I could see there was something just “off” about trying to wedge John Brown into contemporary standards. I don’t think we should abandon our standards while looking into the past, excuse slavers and tyrants and fuck-ups with “well, they were men of their times.” But the opposite doesn’t work either. As per usual, we are forced to think more, think better (or, you know, find another hobby).
“The Good Lord Bird,” by novelist and memoirist James McBride, takes a novel approach to John Brown, at least novel as far as I know in “serious letters”: violent slapstick comedy. This is the story of a boy known variously as Henry, Henrietta, and perhaps most often in the story, Onion. Enslaved in Kansas Territory and working in a tavern with his drunken slave father (his mother isn’t in the picture, and it’s implied that she’s white- McBride first came on the literary scene writing about his own mixed background, son of a black father and a white Jewish mother), Onion gets swept up in the fighting in “Bleeding Kansas” and freed/kidnapped by none other than John Brown. Somehow, Brown gets the impression that Onion is a girl, and for a variety of silly reasons, Onion keeps up the charade for most of the book.
The story is narrated by Onion many decades after John Brown’s death, with a “found footage” backstory to the manuscript I rather like. You’re never sure how truthful he is, and I’m uncertain whether McBride has everyone — Onion, Brown, Brown’s men, Frederick Douglass, JEB Stuart — speak in the same informal English because that’s how Onion would have recounted it, or under the idea everyone would have spoken like that (maybe they would have- I don’t know nineteenth century speech patterns).
In any event, Onion gets brought into John Brown’s band of antislavery militants and has to survive the maelstrom of Bleeding Kansas. Bleeding Kansas compounds our John Brown confusions, because Americans, historically, haven’t been great at looking at the realities of “unconventional”/“informal”/“irregular”/guerrilla/insurgency (the profusion of terms isn’t a good sign for clarity) war in the face. Bleeding Kansas looked more like Syria during its civil war than what we think of when we think of the American Civil War, with its uniformed armies fighting each other in open battle. Bleeding Kansas was ambush, massacre, pillaging, avoiding battle and striking at enemy civilians. It’s one possibility of what the whole north-south border could have looked like if the South had come closer to winning the Civil War… McBride’s tone, both comic and horrified, actually works pretty well for the situation. Onion keeps trying to get back (what he has to get back to — he was enslaved, and his father died in the raid that freed him — is questionable, but he’s twelve and far from home) and keeps getting into situations with angry, armed, often drunk (except John Brown- no booze for him) white people, scared and confused and trigger happy.
The relationship between Onion and John Brown makes up the emotional core of the book, and was the thing that gave me the most ups and downs in terms of what I thought of the whole project as I read it. There’s a section where Onion is separated from Brown and his band, lives as a slave for a hotelier, witnesses an abortive slave rising, etc., but that part felt almost wedged in to make the timeline work- it was the time between the Pottawatomie massacre and Brown’s decision to make his final raid. Onion’s time with Brown both gives him the chance to be eyewitness to history and to develop the relationship. As you can imagine, writing the relationship between a white historical figure and a young black boy (dressing up as a girl), set in the mid-nineteenth century, in the second decade of the twenty-first with all the weirdness about representation and literal-mindedness in literature that time entails, makes this a charged endeavor.
This is my own peculiar perspective, but as I came to listen to the book, I came to see Onion as, essentially, a contemporary subject, looking at and trying to grasp a profoundly non-contemporary subject, John Brown. That is to say, Onion is a lot like us, and like McBride, in terms of where we stand next to the figure of Brown. Onion is interested in the sort of things that we today often assume most people are interested in, as a baseline that people might somewhat deviate from but usually not abandon entirely: Onion wants fun, generally understood as relaxed and luxurious living with plenty of booze, he wants sex and love (confused, as it often is, especially in the minds of adolescents), he wants freedom for himself, and, relevant but generally less important than the other things, he wants to belong. That last does the most to propel him into action and keeps him around Brown, but his fecklessness and cowardice continually screw the pooch (and arguably alter history). The narrator is quite open about his fecklessness with the advantage of years, and Onion is only somewhat less open about it on the ground.
I’ll go out on a limb: this is the contemporary subject, as understood as the reader of contemporary literary novels. Feckless, cowardly, self-aware, looking for something bigger and better but unsure where to find it and skeptical of all comers. John Brown… is not. He was none of those things and is not the contemporary subject. In many ways, the admiration the left has for him is admiration for the qualities that render him alien, that, when we look a little deeper than “a white guy who actually meant it” — and he did, far more than Lincoln or Grant or any of the others — cause us to reach for terms like “religious fanatic” or “clinically insane.” And McBride dwells on both- John Brown’s praying spells, his evidently being off his rocker in numerous ways. Onion sees “the old man” as crazy and often wants to get away from him. He doesn’t, but often wants to. I would further put it to the reader that our construction of the “human” and the “normal” are as restrictive, if not more so, than many previous regimes, and surely more opaque, this despite the inclusiveness we all pat ourselves on the back for.
The worst moments of the book, for me, are the moments when I think McBride will take an easy way out. I’m actually continually surprised that John Brown hasn’t been “cancelled” as a “white savior.” It really wouldn’t fit — among other things, unlike Lincoln, Brown really did believe in social equality, lived with black people, gave them real positions of authority in his militia based on merit — but when has that ever stopped anyone? McBride, or anyway his narrator, depicts Brown, for much of the book, as blind- blind to Onion’s real identity as a boy, blind to the problems with his plan, blind to the realities of race. That’s in keeping with the slapstick/satire thing McBride is doing. I came to think, at certain points in the book, that maybe he wasn’t trying to “cancel” Brown — Onion never once doubts Brown’s sincerity — but that he was trying to deflate Brown. Just another guy with ideas, the classic foil of the feckless individual subject. Among other things, McBride does seem bound and determined to deflate Frederick Douglass, who he depicts as a lech and a hypocrite. My understanding is that Douglass didn’t actually treat women that well. But it seemed a bit much, and worse, a signal of intent towards Brown. “Weren’t those people in the past stupid? Isn’t greatness a joke?”
But it wasn’t that way, and I’m glad I stuck with “The Good Lord Bird” until the end, with its depiction of the Harper’s Ferry raid. It doesn’t get sloppy or sentimental. John Brown doesn’t suddenly become what a contemporary subject could see as a hero- flawless, a deus ex machina. In a lot of ways, that would have been worse than just deflating him. I am uninterested in uncomplicated, unearned heroism. Let’s put it this way- both Brown and Onion become tragic in intertwined ways, and in Brown’s case, it leads to something like apotheosis. Maybe Brown didn’t want to die, maybe he thought his plan could work (McBride presents it as obviously foolish- I’m not sure it was, but it’s also worth noting that calculuses of success and failure, and the tools used to pursue them, were radically different at the time). But he accepts his death- interestingly, accepts it at the moment when Douglass backs out of the plan. When he does, the truth — including the truth that Brown isn’t blind, that he sees a lot more than young Onion gave him credit for — emerges. Brown and his men are there to die and by dying, kill slavery, not all at once, but to set the events in motion. Even Onion’s failures — and one of the reasons Brown fails and dies, in this telling, is Onion’s fecklessness — ultimately contribute to this apotheosis.
Death is unavoidable, and the use of death as a solvent for truth is a deep and old enough trope that it finds its way even into our trite pop culture. In some ways, the idea that Brown died for what he believed in is what unites him with the contemporary subject- the latter can still admire the former, even if he can’t follow (Onion, after all, lives to tell the tale as an old man). Arguably, McBride didn’t understand Brown better than anyone else for most of the book. Among other things, comedy is a great excuse-maker- “I’m just trying to be funny, not trying to interrogate the way our present construction of sanity and, indeed, the human subject itself, impedes our understanding of John Brown and of the nineteenth century more generally!” And it is funny, and in the end, McBride does touch something outside of the cyclical self with with we all appear stuck. That’s something. ****’