Sunday, November 18, 2007

John Brown Abolitionist: David S Reynolds

This book starts out strong. So strong, it was a biography of a dead white man that I couldn't put down! By the end, it was a biography that I couldn't wait to get rid of. David Reynolds has written a "cultural biography": "based on the idea that human beings have a dynamic, dialogical relationship to many aspects of their historical surroundings, such as politics, society, literature, and religion." He questions how John Brown was a reflection of his society, beyond his society, and impacted his era and beyond.

Great premise, and for the first half of the book, great execution. Reynolds rescues Brown from haters who think he was "just a terrorist" and from idolizers who think he saved the union and ended slavery (the subtitle is semi-ironic). Reynolds narrates Brown's unprecedented family life, his financial woes, his adventures in wild Kansas and eventually his plans to attack Harper's Ferry.

It is here that Reynolds gets off track. As Brown becomes famous, the book becomes a catalogue of every mention of Brown, pro, con, and indifferent in every newspaper in every state in the Union. In order for Reynolds to remind the reader what is actually going on in the book, he's forced to repeat himself after each chunk of what amounts to newspaper clippings. This reader remembered that Reynolds had already mentioned how Emerson had affected the North's view of Brown, for example. Three times.

The book drags on, and the ultimate historical and cultural points that Reynolds makes about Brown are lost in 500 underedited pages. Reynolds attempts to rescue Brown from obscurity and bad historians. He even claims that John Brown was an "influential individual," and without him, the Civil War would have been delayed, and much worse. Brown, and Reynolds' book would have been much better with a better editor.