Tony Horwitz got his start as a journalist at the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel in Indiana and later at the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia (where he met his wife, celebrated author Geraldine Brooks). He cut his teeth at the Wall Street Journal, first as an overseas war correspondent and later as a reporter on national affairs, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He is best known, though, for his marvelously chatty, informative book-length accounts of his many elaborate adventures.
As an author, Horwitz is hard to categorize. Is he a travel writer? A popular historian? A naturalist? A commentator on contemporary culture? The easy answer is that he's all of the above. But what truly unites his books is a fascination with the almost incestuous relationship between past and present.
In his new book, Horwitz has made a return of sorts to the subject of the delightfully deranged Confederates in the Attic, in which he explored those (very) strange nooks and crannies in the American South where, to this day, the Civil War is more present than the Present. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War is also indirectly about the Civil War. But while the terrain may be familiar, this new book marks a departure for Horwitz: a straightforward history.
Midnight Rising chronicles the hard-scrabble, pious life of radical abolitionist John Brown, which culminated in his famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry with 18 other men, his subsequent trial and hanging, and the media frenzy that consumed and further divided an already fractured nation.
Thoroughly researched, brilliantly told, Midnight Rising may be the definitive account of an episode that was, Horwitz ably argues, one of the seminal events in the lead up to the Civil War.
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C. P. Farley: In the afterword of Midnight Rising, you mention that you first got the idea of writing about John Brown from your wife. I'm curious how that happened.
Tony Horwitz: Well, the back story is that she wrote a Civil War-era novel about five years ago called March.
Farley: I think that book did pretty well. [March won the 2006 Pulizer Prize for Fiction.]
Horwitz: Yes, it did pretty well. [Laughter] And as part of her research on Bronson Alcott, who's the model for the protagonist in her book, she came across his association with what was known as the Secret Six. The Secret Six were Brown's corps of financial supporters and even included some Transcendentalists. She really started nagging me that I should do a book about the Secret Six, who aren't that well known. Just to get her off my back, really, I finally started doing some research. And the Secret Six are, indeed, fascinating. They're tortured idealists who try and, generally, fail to live up to their convictions. But they're her story, not mine.
I found myself more drawn to Brown, this man of action, and started doing more research on him. That really led me to this book. The Secret Six are certainly in there, but the focus is not on them. It's on Brown and his raid.
Farley: What about him, in particular, began to fascinate you?
Horwitz: He's just a tremendously compelling figure and very different from the myths about him. Also, he was not a lone gunman, and I was very intrigued by those who fought alongside him. I felt it was more than just his story. I wanted to do more a biography of an event, really, this raid and everything that led to it and flowed from it. So, he's the protagonist, but he's by no means the whole story.
Farley: You refer to "myths" about him. Was one of your purposes in writing this book to correct the record?
Horwitz: Yes, but also to try and approach John Brown in as dispassionate a way as possible. What struck me, when I read what others have done on Brown, is that he seems to drive even veteran historians crackers. Almost every book ends up portraying him either as a hero and martyr and freedom fighter, or as a monster and murderer. I just didn't feel those labels fit. He's more complicated than that. He's a deeply troubling figure, and I think we need to embrace him in all his complexity rather than try and fit him into some preconceived mold.
Farley: I thought you showed a great deal of restraint in the book. It's pretty easy to project one's own prejudices, one's own agenda, onto a man like John Brown. Was it difficult for you, while writing, to hold back your own views?
Horwitz: This book is different from my others in that I'm really not in it as a character, or as a loud commentator. I really wanted to present the facts as best I could determine them and tell the story in all its drama and leave it to the reader to decide. I hope part of the suspense of reading the book is figuring out how you feel about this complicated and often confounding man. I didn't want to tell the reader what to think.
Farley: You usually write about history by kind of bopping back and forth between the past and the present and between your own story and that of your subject. Why did you choose to write this book so differently?
Horwitz: It was a mix of things. First, this is not a whimsical story. I felt including my usual antics would create a confusion in tone, perhaps. Also, I just thought the historical story is so good and so little known that I didn't want to get in the way of it with my own story and adventures. I wanted to see if I could keep things in the past and really not break the spell of the narrative by leaping forward out of history as I've done previously.
And, partly, it was just personal. I'm now in my 50s and have two school-aged boys. It's not quite as easy or as appealing as it once was to disappear for weeks or even months at a time on open-ended adventures.
Writing a book like this was more compatible with my current life situation, and I really enjoyed this kind of full immersion in history for a change.
Farley: Your adventures these days take place more in libraries than they do in the field?
Horwitz: Yes. I did go to the places where the history happened — in Kansas, in and around Harpers Ferry, in Connecticut and Ohio where Brown was raised — and tried to weave that into my writing, but I didn't make that a main focus. Most of my research was in the archives.
Farley: In your prologue, you bring up 9/11 and outline a few obvious similarities between John Brown and Osama bin Laden — then proceed to debunk them. Did you feel that you needed to address the issue of contemporary terrorism in order to put what John Brown did in the 19th century into context?
Horwitz: Yes. I didn't write this book because of the shadow of 9/11, but it was impossible to delve into what happened in 1859 without being struck by the obvious parallels.
I guess I wanted readers to look beyond what seems, to us, an act of terrorism and try and understand why it happened and why we should think hard about the violence that Brown committed in the name of justice. He raises eternal and difficult questions about race, obviously, but also about violence and terrorism, and about when individuals have the right to defy their government. I think all of this makes him very relevant to today and worthy of continued discussion.
Farley: A more apt contemporary parallel might be those anti-abortion extremists who assassinate abortion doctors as a political tactic. Like John Brown, they are advocating one side of an issue that the country as a whole is deeply divided about. And they believe that the moral righteousness of their cause justifies their violence.
Horwitz: Yes.One of the things that's most striking about Brown is that he's been so embraced by extremes, both right and left. He's cited by anarchists, Black Panthers, Weathermen, but also by anti-abortion activists and shooters, as you mentioned, and even by Timothy McVeigh. I think it's hard to put him easily into one mold or another, be it right or left, or right or wrong.
He speaks most powerfully, I think, to people who feel radical individual action is needed, and I think he'll continue to do so. I think there are some parallels even in nonviolent movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. At a time when government seems incapable of compromise and doesn't have any solutions, people on the extremes rise up to fill that void. That's what Brown did in 1859, and, to a degree, that's what certain groups are doing today, albeit not in a violent fashion.
Farley: In addition to the issues of moral action and political tactics raised by John Brown's raid, I also just thought it was a fascinating window into 19th-century America in the decades just before the Civil War.
Horwitz: In part, this book is a primer on the first half of the 19th century in America. I think, largely because of Gone with the Wind, Americans today tend to misremember the pre-Civil War period. The South was not an underdog, or a lost cause. Politically, it was in the driver's seat for almost the entire period between the nation's founding and the Civil War. Slavery and the cotton economy weren't dying a natural death, as I think many Americans today imagine. They were booming.
Cotton and slavery were on the march, and anti-slavery Northerners felt beaten up and bullied, a little the way many liberals do today. I think it's important to remember that cotton was king. It was three quarters of the nation's exports in the 1850s and a driver of the national and global economy. It's only because we look back at the South through the prism of its loss in the Civil War that we imagine it to have been doomed.
Farley: And didn't the South manhandle the North for much of the war, once it got started?
Horwitz: Yes, for the first two years of the war, the South was winning the fight, militarily. We have to somehow put ourselves in the heads of Americans then, which is what I wanted to do in this book, rather than see it all retrospectively.
Farley:One thing I particularly enjoyed in your portrayal of the 19th century was your liberal use of quotations. The way people used language was so rich. For example, one gentleman described John Brown as "a volcano beneath a covering of snow." Perfect! I'm curious if, as a writer, you had any comments about language, as it was used then and now?
Horwitz: The single greatest joy of doing this book was reading through the letters and diaries and other documents from this era, which are filled with the most wonderful, expressive language. I have a friend who read the first draft, I guess about six months ago, and said, "They all talk like characters in the Coen brothers' movie True Grit." There's a truth to that.
There's a sort of formality, yet plainness to the way they spoke that feels quite foreign and colorful to us. They weren't sending tweets. They were writing long, considered letters filled with biblical and agricultural allusions.
Brown, himself, is a little like Abraham Lincoln. He's not as eloquent as Lincoln, but his style has that same force and metaphor and really jumps off the page.
Also, because this is such a major event, every writer of the day chimed in, so you have Thoreau, Emerson, Melville, Longfellow, Frederick Douglass and many others writing these wonderful essays, poems, and letters about Brown and what was happening at the time.
With books, you always end up throwing away 90 percent of your material. With this book, sometimes it was difficult. I had almost too much to work with in terms of material to quote.
Farley: It made me think of the HBO series Deadwood, which was set in roughly the same time period. The language in that show was always so oddly formal and informal at the same time. Both flowery and earthy. I always wondered how true to life that was.
Horwitz: It really was like that, because it's not just the letters, which were obviously more considered, but the court testimony and the news reports when they quote people. They spoke in full sentences in this wonderful and very literate way.
Farley: In his blurb for Midnight Rising, Erik Larson compared it to In Cold Blood. I don't want to ask you to comment on whether or not you think your book compares to In Cold Blood, but I found the comparison interesting. Capote called his book a "nonfiction novel," and it was one of a handful of works that inspired the "New Journalism." I'm curious if you as a writer and journalist feel that you have been influenced by that tradition.
Horwitz: Well, I'm happy to be likened to Capote and In Cold Blood. But that style, frankly, also makes me queasy because it mixed fact and fiction. I don't remember precisely the ways in which Capote did that. I'm right, though, that some of what he did was not strictly factual?
I really think there should be a firewall between fact and fiction when you're writing history. Everything I state in the book and every quote is, to the best of my knowledge, what really happened based on the available sources. I'm all for using fictional technique in terms of how you draw characters and create narratives, and most of what I read is fiction, but I don't believe in blending the two when it comes to the accuracy of your material.
Farley: I guess that's what struck true to me in that comparison, how you took a complicated, nonfiction narrative and shaped it less like a dry history than like a compelling novel.
Horwitz: Well, I'm delighted by the comparison. I obviously hope this is a gripping, suspenseful read, and it was one reason the story attracted me in the first place; the drama is almost laid out for you on a plate, you know? You have this long buildup, with Brown's life and the tension building in the nation over slavery. You have this dramatic climax with the raid itself, and then the wonderful denouement, with the prison and court drama that follows.
Books mentioned in this post