Thursday, April 26, 2007

CWL ---- Meteor of the War: John Brown's Spin Doctors

'Meteor of the War': Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman Respond to John Brown, Ljungquist, Kent, American Literature, 61:4 9 (December 1989), 674-680.

The Portent, Herman Melville (1859)

Hanging from the beam,
Slowly swaying (such the law),
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo John Brown)
And the stabs shall heal no more.

Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.

Within The Portent, Melville uses several images: meteors harkening uncommon events, weirdness recalling the three Weird Sisters of Macbeth who are fate's instruments, and the veil covering faces of blind seers in classical tragedy.

These three descriptions of John Brown 'underscore his prophetic role in the conflict about to consume the nation.' (674) Between October 16th and December 2 1859, meteor showers were widely covered in the newspapers of New England; on October 16th Brown began his assault and on December 2nd, he was hung.

During Brown's trail Ralph Waldo Emerson, mentor to Henry David Thoreau, declared John Brown to be a 'saint, whose fate yet hangs in suspense, but whose martyrdom, if it shall be perfected, will make the gallows more glorious than the cross.' In his diary, Thoreau describes Brown's last six weeks on earth as 'meteor-like, flashing through the darkness in which we live. I know of nothing so miraculous in our history.' (675-676)

In a poem, Year of Meteors, Walt Whitman describes Brown's unhealed wounds while he climbs the scaffold. Whitman inserts himself into the poem by using the noun 'I' and asks 'What am I myself but one of your meteors?' (679-680) Most of the Northern and Southern press did not accept the view of Whitman, Melville and Thoreau and Emerson. In general newspapers declared Brown a fanatic or an insane man.

The best comprehensive treatment of Brown's life, and several historian's treament of it, is David Reynold's John Brown, Abolitionist. Reynold's begins his book with a question. Why have historians for the past 150 years viewed Brown as insane and treat him dismissively?

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