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Tim Stafford

The Puzzle of John Brown

by Russell Banks
758 pp.; $27.50

I have tried to think of a parallel figure in American history, and failed. Militarily, Harpers Ferry was smaller than any number of violent events we ourselves have seen in the past decade. Waco comes to mind. Yet John Brown was not a nut, like David Koresh—his beliefs were stern but well within the purview of orthodox faith.

He was a Christian who cared so deeply about a moral issue that he determined to take violent means to oppose it. He had what is sometimes called, not quite accurately, an Old Testament faith, in which God may call the righteous to uproot and destroy the unrighteous.

I imagine that whoever plants bombs in abortion clinics thinks of himself as Brown did. The differences, however, are striking. If one of our abortion clinic bombers got himself caught, and broadcast from his jail cell powerful statements of God's judgment on America for its abortion sins, he would not grip the nation as John Brown did. The bomber would be denounced and dismissed from every side as a dangerous fanatic, and that would be that. We have not reached the pitch of anguish that Americans then had over slavery. Perhaps we lack the moral framework of justice they had. At any rate, an anti-abortion John Brown is unthinkable today.

Cloudsplitterdoes not capture the white-hot fervor of John Brown's time, nor the way in which this strange, misshapen individual could wrestle a whole country into a terrible war. The novel focuses, not on the nation, but on how John Brown affected his family, particularly Owen, who does not believe in God but cannot get free of his father.

It happens to be true that John Brown's sons did not all stick to the faith he taught them, but they largely stuck to the morals that went with the faith. Thus they followed the old man into battle, even murdering at his command, though they could not trust (as he did) that they did God's will. This, as Banks portrays the family, is the real mystery. John Brown's fervor makes a kind of sense, once you grant him his religion, but what about his descendants who do not believe? What causes them to act? There is a hint here, if I read Banks correctly, of a parable.

For the Brown family, and for Owen in particular, John Brown has to serve as a substitute God. "I needed Father to arrive home," Owen says of one confused, turbulent period.

Only he, I believed, could provide me with the order and structure of thought capable of leading me out of this wilderness of tangled desire and rage. Come home, Father, I began to say to myself, as I raced uphill and down. Come home and control me, Old Man. Bring me back to myself. Come and deliver me over to a thing larger than these strangely disordered longings. Tell me what it is I must do, and I will do it.

Brown's moral passion makes him like a god to his son, but not a good god. He is an overwhelming figure, a flame so hot that he left no oxygen for anyone else. "Despite his intelligence and his gifts of language and his mastery of stratagem," Owen says, "he possessed a rare and dangerous kind of stupidity—a stupidity of the heart. … His stupid heart … made him dangerous, fatally dangerous, to anyone who loved him and to anyone whom he loved back." Old Man Brown embodied justice, in all its splendor and passion, and though he would gladly give his life for justice, Brown (in Banks's portrayal) did not know how to give his life for others. "He burned and burned, ceaselessly, it seemed, and though we were sometimes scorched by his flame, we were seldom warmed by it." Those who grew up with one version or another of fundamentalism may find this a compellingly personal tale.

But the meaning of Cloudsplitterhas to be larger than that; why go back to John Brown to tell a story of an overbearing father? We have plenty of more contemporary examples. John Brown's story is fundamentally an American myth, and the tortured and unbelieving Owen, who does terrible deeds out of a misplaced and conflicted faith in his father, is a fair stand-in for modern-day America. For despite no longer believing in God, many Americans cannot stop acting with the moral passion of believers.

If Cloudsplitteris to be read as a parable, it suggests that unbelieving children become more dangerous as they pursue moral passion without faith:

I am still that same, half-cracked man, Owen Brown, lurching forward into history on the heels of his father, resolving all his private, warring emotions and conflicted passions in the larger, public war against slavery, making the miserable, inescapable violence of his temperament appear useful and principled by aiming it, not at himself, where perhaps it properly belonged, but at his father's demonized opponents. For otherwise, how would I have turned out but as a suicide?

At one point, Owen imagines the bliss of being a "Hindoo"—floating in the belief that life is an illusion,

with no stern, bearded God lording it over me, enticing me with guilt and shame and principles and duty, and making goodness an irrestistible obligation, impossible to meet, and not simply man's natural condition.

Ah, but I was born and raised a Christian, not a Hindoo! … Worse, I am a Christian without a God, a fallen man without a Savior.

The only help for Owen, it seems, is represented by the words of a black woman: "You should pray, Owen, that's what. You should pray for forgiveness, and to obtain peace of mind. You're too much alone, the way you've fallen from belief. … Only the Lord can give you what you need."

Tim Staffordis senior writer for Christianity Today.

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