Bookmarks Issue: 

The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

A-JohnBrownAbolitionistJohn Brown emerged as the most complicated figure amidst the divisive passions and politics of his era. Extolled by the Transcendentalists and vilified yet respected by southern slaveholders, Brown was relentless in his pursuit of equality for the races. He worked with the Underground Railroad and moved his family to live among African-Americans, treating them as his peers. Though Brown is best remembered for his failure to incite a slave revolt with the raid on Harpers Ferry and his death-day proclamations that foreshadowed the Civil War, his legacy is clouded by the violent tactics he employed. In this new cultural biography, Reynolds seeks to understand Brown by studying his actions against the civilization that spawned them.
Knopf. 592 pages. $35. ISBN: 0375411887

Atlanta Jrnl-Constitution 4 of 5 Stars
"For decades, historians have battled about Brown, with one side praising him and the other vilifying him. Reynolds succeeds for the most part in finding middle ground: seeing the good in Brown without excusing his bloody crimes." Cameron McWhirter

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Reynolds the social critic leaves unmentioned the fact that others may justify such individualism in the name of very different ideals than his own. Reynolds the cultural historian has provided an approach to make sense of those who do." Scott Casper

Providence Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"David Reynolds’s biography is the latest and in some ways the most complete word on Brown as man and myth, but its analytical perverseness means that it will be far from the last." Luther Spoehr

Baltimore Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Like the rest of us, Reynolds’ characters must live with their contradictions. His Brown is an egalitarian who got away with murder. His Thoreau is the father of peaceful civil disobedience who, on Brown’s behalf, sanctioned—and even sanctified—violence." Mike Pride

Oregonian 3 of 5 Stars
"Reynolds’s major contribution to Brown studies may be his careful examination of the underappreciated role Transcendentalists played in creating the Brown myth. … But cultural context fails to excuse something like Pottawatomie."
Michael McGregor

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[I]t takes courage, if not a touch of Brownian madness, to argue … that Brown was not the Unabomber of his time, but a reasonable man, well connected to his era’s intellectual currents and a salutary force for change. … On the other hand, there are points where Reynolds might have been stronger in Brown’s defense."
Barbara Ehrenreich

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, unlike the narrative of his life, the account of the ‘memory’ of John Brown is disjointed and repetitious. The excerpts from bad poetry about his deeds become tedious and the claims for influence are often speculative." Eric Foner

Wall Street Journal 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is flabby with repetitions, frustrating loose ends and even entire passages that appear to have been recycled by mistake." Lauren Weiner

Critical Summary

The claims of Reynolds’s subtitle strike many as inflated; while John Brown certainly grew into a towering folkloric figure after his death, the historians who review the book note that his actions were less a direct cause than an important symbolic precursor to the Civil War. Some critics believe Reynolds, winner of the Bancroft Prize for Walt Whitman’s America, is overly sympathetic to Brown’s use of violence. Though other reviewers counter that the author never turns full-scale apologist, the question of whether violence is an acceptable response to injustice—even one as grave as slavery—hangs over the text, especially as Reynolds examines the parallels between Brown’s actions and our current understanding of terrorism. One thing is certain: John Brown’s legacy is as unstable a part of our national history as ever.