Book Cover with image of John Brown

The Legend of John Brown: A Biography and a History by Richard Owen Boyer

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From The New York Times:
“Boyer’s book is more than a life of John Brown. It is a tapestry of the whole of American life in the generation that slid into civil war. It is a rich weave. Here is old John Quincy Adams, in his seventies, cured of his psychosomatic carbuncles by the sheer exhilaration of the struggle against the slaveowners in Congress. Here is the pro-slavery mob at Alton on the Mississippi, weeping at the sheer eloquence of the abolitionist editor, Elijah Lovejoy, but shooting him down just the same. Here is the slave rebel, Nat Turner, taunted by a Tidewater planter about his approaching execution, and answering, as John Brown himself would have answered, “Was not Christ crucified?”

More from the New York Times:
The Legend of John Brown
by Godfrey Hodgson
January 21, 1973
The accepted view of historians has dismissed Brown as a violent and unstable fanatic, thrust into symbolic prominence by the accident of approaching civil war. Richard Boyer, who has been a New Yorker writer and co-author of Labor’s Untold Story (1955), has foraged in the sources as diligently as any professional historian. But the great merit of this first volume of his biography is that it restores Brown as what he was: an archetypal hero of the epic of 19th-century America, which was both pilgrimage and enterprise….
Boyer’s first volume leaves Brown, four years from Harper’s Ferry, arriving in Kansas resolved “not to die alone.” He did not. He took with half million Union and Confederate dead, and the “accursed thing,” slavery, as well. It is one of the great stories…I look forward to its climax in his second volume.

 

The Washington Post:
“In Boyer’s words, written with a brilliant blend of passion and objectivity, a vanished America comes alive again, the passions of the day boil anew, and we are made to understand how it was that a failed tanner, sheep raiser and wool dealer named John Brown became a man possessed.”

More from the Washington Post:
His Truth Goes Marching On
By Jonathan Yardley
January 28, 1973

HERE IS A book of surprising breadth, insight, compassion and historical vision—the first of what is to be a two-volume study of John Brown and his times. It recreates the whole fabric of our period of greatest national crisis, and it persuasively argues that the much maligned and misunderstood John Brown was the “central figure” of his age—the man who is “transformed and shaped by the experiences of his generation and in turn transforms it.”
That is a considerable assertion, and Richard O. Boyer has written a considerable book to investigate it. The Legend of John Brown is not merely the story of the first 55 years of its subject’s life—though merely as that it is excellent—but a panoramic view of the nation as it plunged toward civil war, and a series of incisive sketches of men and women on both sides of the conflict who at one time or another touched the life of John Brown.

Up to now, Boyer contends, Brown’s biographers have found it “enough to tell of Kansas and Harper’s Ferry.” Boyer’s purpose is to locate the “genesis” of those traumatic events, the tangled process by which Brown resolved the conflict between his business ambitions and his opposition to slavery, and be- came the fiery-eyed zealot who lives now in American legend.

John Brown—the very name was made for legend—has usually been portrayed in stark, absolute terms: he is seen either as a devil, a psychotic whose mad vision led himself, his sons and other men to death in the bizarre folly of Harper’s Ferry; or as a saint, an angel of God whose divinely ordained mission touched the conscience of the nation. Boyer sees him differently: as a human being. In Boyer’s masterly portrait, Brown emerges as a troubled, indecisive man who was at last touched by the greatest moral issue in our history.

As we see him through Boyer’s eyes, he is in many respects an archetypal American, a man of the land:
“This land, to the discerning, accounts for much of John Brown, his urge for wealth, his hymn-singing, and his praying, his homely understated attitude with its echoes of defiance and boasting, his restlessness, the covered wagon that he knew, the posture which combined distinction with rusticity and both with an everlasting search for something perhaps finally found. But so complete was his identification with the large and violent land, so thoroughly was he its product, that the Ohio farmer who was John Brown found no difficulty in communicating with Parker or Higginson, Emerson, Thoreau, or the black man fighting slavery, all of whom were as American and perhaps as permanent, while there is an American consciousness, as the land itself.”

….We encounter other men—Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Frederick Douglass, among the abolitionists; William Walker, Henry Wise, Edmund Ruffin, among the Southerners—who were likewise seized and transformed by the historical moment, and the story of their metamorphosis makes Brown’s more understandable. We encounter, too, the great events that built inexorably toward the shuddering climax of national cataclysm: the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Underground Railroad, the harsh debates on the floors of Congress, the murderous violence that accompanied the settlement of Kansas. In Boyer’s words, written with a brilliant blend of passion and objectivity, a vanished America comes alive again, the passions of the day boil anew, and we are made to understand how it was that a failed tanner, sheep raiser and wool dealer named John Brown became a man possessed.

Legend, Boyer reminds us as the book begins, is “often defined as the popular if unverifiable story of a hero coming down from the past.” In this book, however, we are given legend as it was envisioned by John Jay Chapman, the estimable 19th-century journalist who wrote with much feeling and perception about John Brown’s life. Brown’s life, Chapman said, is an example of “an immortal legend—perhaps the only one in our history.”
Richard O. Boyer has taken Chapman’s words and built an extraordinary book around them, one that affirms and enlarges them…

 

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