JOHN BROWN, ABOLITIONIST: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

David S. Reynolds, Author . Knopf $30 (592p) ISBN 978-0-375-41188-5

In the very first paragraphs of this biography, Bancroft Prize–winner Reynolds (Walt Whitman's America ) steps back a bit from the grandiose claims of his subtitle. Nevertheless, his book as a whole paints a positive portrait of the Calvinist terrorist Brown (1800–1859)—contrary to virtually all recent scholarship (by Stephen B. Oates and Robert Boyer, among others), which tends to depict Brown as a bloodthirsty zealot and madman who briefly stepped into history but did little to influence it. Reynolds's approach harks back to the hero-worship apparent in earlier books by W.E.B. Du Bois and Brown's surviving associates. John Brown waged a campaign so bloody during the Kansas Civil War—in 1856 he chased men and elder sons from their beds in cabins along the Pottawatomie Creek, and then lopped off their heads with broadswords as sobbing wives and younger children looked on—that fellow Kansas antislavery settlers rebuked him. Even the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison condemned Brown and his methods. After taking the federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, Brown intended (had he not been swatted like a fly within hours) to raise and arm a large force of blacks capable of wreaking a terrible vengeance across Virginia. Yet Reynolds insists that "it is misleading to identify Brown with modern terrorists." Really? 25 b&w illus. (Apr. 21)

Reviewed on: 02/07/2005
Release date: 04/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 578 pages - 978-0-375-72615-6
Open Ebook - 443 pages - 978-0-307-48666-0
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Audio book sample courtesy of Penguin Random House Audio
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