Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown. Edited by Peggy A. Russo and Paul Finkelman. ( Athens , Ohio : Ohio University Press, 2005. 228 pp. Paper, $24.95. ISBN: 0821416316.)
This collection of twelve essays by scholars from various fields examines the legacy of John Brown, the abolitionist zealot whose raid in 1859 on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, further inflamed sectional hostility and helped ignite the Civil War. Drawn from a symposium on Brown at the Mont Alto campus of Pennsylvania State University in 1996, these essays focus for the most part on how people then and now have thought of Brown and how they have portrayed him—as a martyr, madman, criminal, or terrorist. The conference organizers and the editors sought multidisciplinary contributors in hopes of overcoming the “habit of specialization” among academics in an effort to garner fresh insights into Brown's legacy. These essays, for the most part, succeed in their goal.
The collection is organized into five sections. The first section includes essays that look at Brown's contemporaries and supporters, examining individuals such as Theodore Parker, the abolitionist clergyman who supported Brown as part of his own disillusionment with conservative Boston , and African-Americans in Virginia who also rallied to Brown at Harpers Ferry in far greater numbers than admitted by most historians. The fourth and fifth sections interrogate the representations of Brown in literature, film, and historical building preservation. They include thought-provoking essays from a variety of disciplines. Paul A. Shackel traces the vicissitudes of John Brown's Fort—the firehouse where Brown made his stand in Harpers Ferry that became a symbol for abolitionists and African-Americans. Peggy A. Russo deconstructs depictions of Brown in the films Santa Fe Trail and Seven Angry Men. William Keeney analyzes poetic descriptions of Brown. In an essay that seems somewhat dated in its post-modernist theorizing, Bruce Olds, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel based on Brown— Raising Holy Hell— defends historical fiction as a legitimate alternative to traditional history . All provide insight into the construction of historical memory and meaning about Brown and his war on slavery.
The second and third sections of the book, however, are the heart of the collection. The essays found here illustrate the advantages of a multidisciplinary approach and will probably interest readers most since they often provide conflicting answers to the question of how we should view Brown. Political philosopher John Scott Hammond, assessing the political content of Brown's rhetoric and actions, sees him as a Rousseauian founder of the American progressive tradition of civil rights and equality—a predecessor of Abraham Lincoln the emancipator and Martin Luther King, Jr.—who legitimately resorted violence to make a revolution. Eyal Naveh, a historian of political martyrdom at Tel Aviv University in Israel, points out that the “redemptive significance” of the Civil War helped fix Brown as an individual, social, and cosmic martyr for subsequent reformers from the left and the right. For white southerners in post-bellum America, writes intellectual historian Charles J. Holden, Brown remained a “murderous, lawless, Yankee zealot” (101). Holden demonstrates that post-bellum southern elites' depictions of Brown as a criminal madman who stirred up otherwise loyal, obedient, and docile slaves illuminated their own anti-democratic conservatism and their desire to maintain control of southern society.
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