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Book cover of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

by David S. Reynolds

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Pages: 592
Paperback
ISBN: 9780375726156






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Overview of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

An authoritative new examination of John Brown and his deep impact on American history.Bancroft Prize-winning cultural historian David S. Reynolds presents an informative and richly considered new exploration of the paradox of a man steeped in the Bible but more than willing to kill for his abolitionist cause. Reynolds locates Brown within the currents of nineteenth-century life and compares him to modern terrorists, civil-rights activists, and freedom fighters. Ultimately, he finds neither a wild-eyed fanatic nor a Christ-like martyr, but a passionate opponent of racism so dedicated to eradicating slavery that he realized only blood could scour it from the country he loved. By stiffening the backbone of Northerners and showing Southerners there were those who would fight for their cause, he hastened the coming of the Civil War. This is a vivid and startling story of a man and an age on the verge of calamity.

Synopsis of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

An authoritative new examination of John Brown and his deep impact on American history.Bancroft Prize-winning cultural historian David S. Reynolds presents an informative and richly considered new exploration of the paradox of a man steeped in the Bible but more than willing to kill for his abolitionist cause. Reynolds locates Brown within the currents of nineteenth-century life and compares him to modern terrorists, civil-rights activists, and freedom fighters. Ultimately, he finds neither a wild-eyed fanatic nor a Christ-like martyr, but a passionate opponent of racism so dedicated to eradicating slavery that he realized only blood could scour it from the country he loved. By stiffening the backbone of Northerners and showing Southerners there were those who would fight for their cause, he hastened the coming of the Civil War. This is a vivid and startling story of a man and an age on the verge of calamity.

The Washington Post - David W. Blight

John Brown, Abolitionist captures with arresting prose Brown's early life of poverty, his huge, tragic, rolling-stone family of 20 children with two wives, the business failures and bankruptcies in several states, the lasting influence of his staunchly Calvinist father and his genuine devotion to the human rights of African Americans. He also takes us deeper than any previous historian into Brown's exploits in the 1856-58 guerrilla war known as "Bleeding Kansas." In the murderous frontier struggle between pro-slavery and free-state advocates, Brown led a personal band of abolitionist warriors who fought pitched battles and executed some settlers. Moreover, the narratives of Brown's fascinating fund-raising tours of Eastern reform communities, the Harpers Ferry raid itself, his epic letter-writing from a jail cell while awaiting execution, and the hanging (with the whole world watching) are all beautifully executed.

About the Author, David S. Reynolds

David S. Reynolds is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the Graduate Center and Baruch College of the City University of New York. He received his B.A. from Amherst College and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He has taught at Rutgers University, New York University, Barnard College, and Northwestern University. His Walt Whitman's America won the Bancroft Prize, the Ambassador Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Beneath the American Renaissance won Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss.

Reviews of John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

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Editorials

Barbara Ehrenreich

How do we judge a man of such different times -- and temperament -- from our own? If the rule is that there must be some proportion between a violent act and its provocation, surely there could be no more monstrous provocation than slavery. In our own time, some may discern equivalent evils in continuing racial oppression, economic exploitation, environmental predation or widespread torture. To them, John Brown, Abolitionist, for all its wealth of detail and scrupulous attempts at balance, has a shockingly simple message: Far better to have future generations complain about your methods than condemn you for doing nothing.
— The New York Times

David W. Blight

John Brown, Abolitionist captures with arresting prose Brown's early life of poverty, his huge, tragic, rolling-stone family of 20 children with two wives, the business failures and bankruptcies in several states, the lasting influence of his staunchly Calvinist father and his genuine devotion to the human rights of African Americans. He also takes us deeper than any previous historian into Brown's exploits in the 1856-58 guerrilla war known as "Bleeding Kansas." In the murderous frontier struggle between pro-slavery and free-state advocates, Brown led a personal band of abolitionist warriors who fought pitched battles and executed some settlers. Moreover, the narratives of Brown's fascinating fund-raising tours of Eastern reform communities, the Harpers Ferry raid itself, his epic letter-writing from a jail cell while awaiting execution, and the hanging (with the whole world watching) are all beautifully executed.
— The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly

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) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

KLIATT

John Brown, with his bristling beard, fierce expression, and unyielding opposition to slavery, has always been the perfect icon of the nation's headlong rush into the abyss of the Civil War. After his gallant and completely foolhardy raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, virtually every person in the US lined up solidly on one side or another of the Great Question. By the time he was finally hanged, by the hand of Robert E. Lee, no less, there was no going back. Dealing with the man and his reputation, however, has always been something of a problem. Southerners at the time, horrified at the prospect of a massive slave uprising, immediately branded him as a terrorist, if not the Devil incarnate. The Transcendentalists and other anti-slavery groups in the North, in response, soon came to see him as a martyr for peace, nearly on the level of Jesus himself. As the Civil War finally receded into the past, most scholars eventually came to see Brown simply as some sort of crackpot, well-meaning perhaps, but always an unstable and colorful character who, much like his namesake John the Baptist, was a harbinger of colossal events to come. Now, with this book, author David Reynolds has portrayed what has come to be the modern view, seeing John Brown in the larger context of black emancipation and aligning him squarely alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and the modern civil rights era: all of which might (or might not) have astounded the bearded firebrand. Brown was both intelligent and complex, as Professor Reynolds skillfully brings out, and had one of history's more original personalities. Most YAs will find the entire book a large dose to swallow, but will find individual chaptersand episodes to be fascinating. The highly detailed text opens a fascinating window on the social turmoil of American society on the eve of the Civil War. Even if that war wasn't fought specifically to free the slaves, it was nevertheless all about slavery, and old Brown certainly played his part.

Kirkus Reviews

Cradle-to-moldering-grave biography of America's homegrown abolitionist terrorist. Was it John Brown's audacity that put the spark to the tinderbox of slavery in mid-19th-century America? The prize-winning Reynolds (Walt Whitman, 2004, etc.; English and American Studies/CUNY) makes the case that the Civil War and emancipation might well have been slower in coming had Brown (1800-59) not inflamed paranoia in the South by his murderous raids in Pottawatomie, Kan., and his seizure of the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va. The author argues that Brown was more of a Puritan pioneer than crazed fanatic, a patriarchal figure who "won the battle not with bullets but with words." Although the violence of Brown's anti-slavery raids was at first roundly denounced in the North, his calm and rational behavior after his capture, Reynolds emphasizes, eventually won admiration for his crusade, much thanks to Emerson, Thoreau and other transcendentalists who took up his banner. Though unabashedly hagiographic-the chapter on his execution is titled "The Passion"-the biography justifies its portrayal of Brown as an agent outside and above the norms of society. The author demonstrates that his nonracist behavior, for example, was startlingly original to Southerners and Northerners alike, albeit not anomalous vis-a-vis contemporary European attitudes. Reynolds takes great pains to cast a fair light on an exceptionally controversial figure who used brutally violent tactics to bring about the end of slavery and the beginning of racial equality. He states unequivocally that Brown's tactics were terrorist (and an inspiration to John Wilkes Booth), but in President Lincoln's own words, the Civil War itself was"a John Brown raid on a gigantic scale." Reynolds's conclusions are bold yet justified, and his analysis reflects a thorough understanding of the cultural environment of the time. Engrossing and timely, offering astute, thorough coverage of America's premier iconoclast and the cultural stage upon which he played his role.

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