Corrections or additions?
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
The author reads from "Cloudsplitter." Free. Tuesday,
March 3, 7 p.m.
Routes 206 and 518, 609-924-7444. $7.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.