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This article by Joan Crespi was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 25, 1998. All rights reserved.

John Brown’s Body Revisited

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

His soul goes marching on." And so does the life of John Brown

the man, as Russell Banks, one of the nation’s outstanding novelists,

imagines it. Banks has made John Brown, the white abolitionist who

believed with Old Testament fury that slavery was an absolute evil,

a man who was willing to risk white lives for black — the focus

of his new and monumental novel, "Cloudsplitter."

Banks is the author of 13 books of fiction. His novel "Continental

Drift " (1985) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; his novel

"Affliction," was short listed for both the PEN/Faulkner


Prize and the Irish International Prize. "Cloudsplitter"


the events surrounding John Brown’s legendary 1859 raid on the armory

at Harpers Ferry. Featured on the cover of this week’s New York Times

Book Review, Walter Kirn calls this "a novel of near biblical

proportions." It is widely viewed as the author’s most ambitious

work to date.

Banks, a Princeton University professor in creative writing, in recent

years has lived in Princeton four months of the year, teaching during

the spring semester. The remainder of the year he lives in Keene,

New York, in the Adirondacks. He will be reading from


at Barnes & Noble on Tuesday, March 3, at 7 p.m.

Cloudsplitter is the name of an Adirondacks mountain (the Iroquois

named it "Tahawus"), Cloudsplitter is also the name Banks

bestows on John Brown, the leader of a raid meant to spark a guerrilla

war that would force the South to free the slaves. This was, in


the first salvo of the Civil War, Banks says, in a telephone interview

from his home in Princeton.

Banks, 57, dates his interest in Brown back to his


student days in the 1960s at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, when John

Brown was a mythic figure supported by Emerson and Thoreau, whom Banks

admired. As the ’60s faded, so did his interest in Brown. However,

it was revived in the late ’80s when he and his wife bought their

house in the Adirondacks, and Banks learned that Brown’s mythic grave

and his farm were only five miles down the road in North Elba. (North

Elba is near the original small black colony of Timbuctoo.)

After the bloody, abortive raid on Harpers Ferry that took place


16 to 18, 1859, Brown was captured and, on December 2, 1859, hanged.

Two of Brown’s sons were killed in the raid. A third son, Owen Brown,

escaped. It is Owen that Banks has chosen to make the voice and


character in "Cloudsplitter." Banks found in Owen, who lived

the rest of his life as a recluse in California, "the perfect

witness," he says, to the varied and complex aspects of his


private life with his family, his public life, and the way into the


"To whites, John Brown is a madman; to African-Americans he is

a hero," says Banks. "Our view of him is determined by the

color of our skin." He sees a recent parallel to the O.J. Simpson

trial as an illustration of how "we [Americans] have two opposing

views of history."

"Brown is central to the American experience," Banks


"Race in America shapes our consciousness. It shapes our ideas

about class, violence, and sexuality."

Brown is particularly American, says Banks, because unlike other


with racial conflicts, such as South Africa, ours is a country born

in "a conscious and deliberate political act, born in


(the American Revolution), settled and taken over by violence (against

native tribes), settled by white Puritans (with fundamentalists


beliefs). And then Americans forcibly imported black slaves.


our history, you mix religion, politics, and race and you’re going

to come up with violence," Banks says.

At the outset, Banks makes doubly clear that "Cloudsplitter"

is a novel, a work of the imagination. There are several excellent

biographies of Brown, which Banks consulted; he did not set out to

write a new version of history. He wrote of Brown, he says, because

he wanted "to write the story from inside;" because he was

"interested in John Brown up close." "This is not a


he says. "I had to shape and rearrange and manipulate and


Banks so adroitly interweaves fiction and fact that a reader cannot

decipher which is which.

Banks says he was at first uncertain how to organize the mass of


Then he discovered Katherine Mayo’s letters. In 1905 Mayo interviewed

Brown’s surviving children, part of her work for Columbia professor

Oswald Garrison Villard, who wrote a 1910 biography of John Brown.

Over the course of two marriages, Brown had 20 children; the youngest

were in their 80s when Mayo interviewed them. Banks uses the real

Miss Mayo as the floodgate to release the fictionalized Owen Brown’s

extensive and detailed "recollections."

In the 19th century, Brown was a mythic figure to leftists, committed

to the abolitionist cause. By the early 20th century, he had become

an icon of the right. "How could one person be emblematic of both

left and right?" Banks asked himself.

Today the militant figure of Brown is still invoked by the right,

terrorists and abortionists and extreme rightists militias, to justify

their use of violence in what they see as a just cause. (Is then


McVeigh’s bombing justified by Waco? Banks’ voice is adamant:


a pathological act.")

Seen through Banks and Owen’s eyes, here is Brown as husband, loving

yet harsh father, strict disciplinarian, settler, tanner, land


debtor, sheep herder, land surveyor, wholly dedicated to the struggle

against slavery, and "engineer" on the Underground Railroad

(which was, for runaway slaves, the escape route to Canada).

But Owen is no mere convenient mouthpiece. "Cloudsplitter"

imagines a fictionalized, turbulent Owen’s own personal struggle —

with his father and with himself.

Although Owen Brown, born in 1824, died before the turn of the


when Banks sets his novel of remembered events, Banks took a fiction

writer’s liberty and gave him 14 more years of life. Banks chose to

set his story at the turn of the century, so that it could be more

than an anti-slavery story, "a story that could cast light forward

and backward," Banks says. "All good stories, historical


even science fiction, are about the present."

Banks has written about male violence upon wives and children before

and, in 1992, told U.S. 1 that he was working on a book about John

Brown, "New England Presbyterian, old-time Calvinist" to


the relation between religion and violence." But it was not only

his fundamentalist religion that drove Brown — "people aren’t

motivated only by one thing," Banks says — it was also other

things including his belief in the evil of slavery, the death of his

mother when he was very young.

Banks was born in Eastern Massachusetts and grew up in Barnstead,

New Hampshire, the eldest of four children. When he was 12 his father,

a plumber and construction worker, deserted, and he moved with the

rest of his family to Wakefield, Massachusetts. He was an excellent

student but had a checkered school attendance record. Offered a full

scholarship to Phillips Andover, he missed the acceptance deadline

because he had run away with a friend, first to Texas, then to


He won a full scholarship to Colgate but felt so isolated and socially

inadequate among his preppy classmates that, after eight weeks, he

dropped out and went south, hoping to join Castro in Cuba. He only

got as far as Florida where he married and had a daughter. Then, with

tuition paid by the mother of his second wife, he entered the


of North Carolina in 1964 and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2-1/2 years.

His third marriage, like the first two, ended in divorce. He is


married to the poet Chase Twichell. He is the father of four grown


Before he could support himself as a writer, Banks tried being a


shoe salesman, and window dresser. He has taught at a number of


and universities, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and

New York University. His works have been widely translated in Europe

and Asia. His awards for his work including a Guggenheim Fellowship

and a National Endowment Creative Writing Fellowships.

For a novel based on a historical figure, Banks had to know how


worked and the difference between them and what people then wore and

what they ate for dinner. His book is full of research — of life

lived in the mid 19th century — and detail of timeless natural

phenomena of sun and shadow, snow and rain. There’s the freezing cold

of the Adirondacks’ dawn, the vast sweep of the Kansas prairie, and

the hideous, mesmerizing descriptions of human slaughter. Banks says

he has a 10-foot high bookshelf of books that he used for research.

Foremost among these was the Bible.

"Cloudsplitter" is more than the imaginative study of John

Brown. Owen Brown’s story "is the Abraham and Isaac story told

from the kid’s point of view," Banks says. The Bible’s


story has always chilled him, he says. He identified with Isaac.


father is willing to martyr his son for God." So Brown "was

willing to risk his sons’ lives," says Banks.

"Cloudsplitter" is unlike any of Banks’ previous novels and

collections of short stories, and is the first that is not


Banks began it in 1991. "I began to hear the voice of this


mall rat in my head." And "Cloudsplitter" was bogged down.

"Three years into the book, I parked it and began to write `Rule

of the Bone,’" published in 1995. He returned to the John Brown

novel, and Owen’s voice, with renewed vigor.

The mammoth 758-page novel went through six drafts and took six years

to write. Had he known at the outset how long it would be and how

much time this novel would take, "I wouldn’t have done it,"

Banks says. He adds immediately, "But it was great fun." The

book is twice as long as anything he’s ever written, "but it


my limits, and it gave me a chance to look at the world through the

eyes of John Brown." Sometime in the future, he says, he may write

a novel on another historical figure

But Russell Banks is not simply a novelist. Right now he’s at work

on a libretto for an opera on Mark Twain and Charles Ives. Two of

his novels, "Affliction" (1989) and "The Sweet


(1991), have been made into films. Three more of his novels are in

various stages of metamorphosis into films. Banks wrote the screenplay

for "Continental Drift," he is the producer for "The Book

of Jamaica;" "Rule of the Bone" is being developed by

20th Century Fox.

"The Sweet Hereafter," a dark and tragic story of a school

bus accident, has made this past year for Banks especially sweet.

The novel was made into a film by Toronto director Atom Egoyan. It

won the Canadian film industry’s Genie awards in eight categories,

including best picture and best director. It was the grand prize


at the Cannes Film Festival. (Banks is also an actor in the film:

he plays the doctor and has one line.) And just this month it was

nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.

Like a puppet-master holding a fistful of strings, so Banks, a mature

novelist at the height of his power, has, in "Cloudsplitter,"

this massive, leisurely, mighty novel, pulled together multiple


of the American experience.

— Joan Crespi

Russell Banks, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,


The author reads from "Cloudsplitter." Free. Tuesday,

March 3, 7 p.m.

The Sweet Hereafter, Montgomery Center Theater,

Routes 206 and 518, 609-924-7444. $7.

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