Synopses & Reviews
In the history of slavery and its legacy, John Brown looms large as a righteous if bloody hero whose deeds partly precipitated the Civil War. As Frederick Douglass wrote: "When John Brown stretched forth his arm...the clash of arms was at hand". A stern, violent figure, Brown led the famous raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859, and was executed in Charleston in that year. DuBois's biography shows how Brown embodied - literally and allegorically - the American racial dilemma writ large. Leading Americanist David Roediger has written a new introduction for this edition, and has edited and chosen commentary for it.
A moving cultural biography of abolitionist martyr John Brown, by one of the most important African-American intellectuals of the twentieth century.
In the history of slavery and its legacy, John Brown looms large as a hero whose deeds partly precipitated the Civil War. As Frederick Douglass wrote: "When John Brown stretched forth his arm ... the clash of arms was at hand." DuBois's biography brings Brown stirringly to life and is a neglected classic.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -241) and index.
About the Author
David Roediger is Kendrick Babcock Professor of History at the University of Illinois (Urbana/Champaign). His books include The Wages of Whiteness and, as editor, Black on White.
Reading Group Guide
1. W.E.B. Du Bois was passionately involved in African American freedom struggles, as John Brown had been. What is gained and what is lost when a biographer is associated with the causes for which his subject also fought?
2. Much writing on John Brown has narrowly focused, as parts of his trial did, on whether he was sane. How and why does Du Bois avoid telling Brown's story in such a way? What were the central issues in Brown's life for Du Bois?
3. The great novelist and critic James Baldwin once remarked, "There was something special about John Brown. He attacked the bastions of the federal government-not to liberate black slaves but to liberate a whole country from a disastrous way of life." Baldwin added that, "horrible as it may sound," Brown's raid was an "act of Love." Would Du Bois have agreed with Baldwin? Would you?
4. At his trial, John Brown firmly denied that he had committed the crime of treason. How did he make this argument and why would it have seemed important to him to make it?
5. John Brown was a zealous Christian, the patriarchal head of his family, and an ambitious (if unsuccessful) entrepreneur. How did these roles, today so often identified with political conservatism, help lead him to Harper's Ferry?
6. Literature about success in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries stressed that good things happen to deserving people. John Brown's life, even on Du Bois's sympathetic account, was filled with financial disaster, family tragedy, illness and death, deep sadness, and military defeat. It ended with execution. How does Du Bois nonetheless make a case for Brown's not being a failure? In what specific ways did Brown's vision and "soul" triumph?
7. Discuss Frederick Douglass's decision not to join Brown's raid-what underlies this decision, and how does it inform Douglass's subsequent treatment and assessment of Brown?