four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
56-Jan-Feb-2012
By: 
Tony Horwitz
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John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

A-Midnight RisingA Pulitzer Prizeā€“winning journalist, Tony Horwitz has worked as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and as a staff writer for the New Yorker. Among his best-selling works of popular history are Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998) and Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2003). Also reviewed: A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World (3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008).

The Topic: Concerned that John Brown's infamous attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, had become little more than "a speed bump for students racing ahead to Fort Sumter and the Gettysburg Address," Tony Horwitz reexamines this pivotal story and its enduring legacy in American history. A vehement abolitionist, Brown conducted guerilla-style campaigns against slavery, attacking individual slaveholders and freeing slaves, until October 16, 1859, when, as part of a larger scheme to invade the South, he led 18 recruits to seize the federal armory in Harpers Ferry. Captured, tried for treason, convicted, and sentenced to hang, Brown was reviled by Southerners as a demented extremist, while Northerners hailed him as a martyr and a hero. The animosity provoked by Brown's raid and his trial and execution set the stage for the war that followed.
Henry Holt. 365 pages. $29. ISBN: 9780805091533

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"Tony Horwitz provides much-needed context to an event often eclipsed by the magnitude of the war that followed. ... Horwitz has humanized Brown to an extent that had been previously difficult." Sam Shapiro

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"His careful recreation of the bloody events of October 16, 1859, the day of Brown's disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry, is both suspenseful and heartwrenching. ... Horwitz's compelling account holds this flawed hero up high, offering him to us in all his odd fanaticism--and his soul-stirring rigor." Marjorie Kehe

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Horwitz has done an outstanding job re-creating the historical drama of the midnight raid at Harpers Ferry and, more important, taking readers inside the monomaniacal, Ahab-like mind of John Brown, a man so committed to his cause that even death couldn't halt him." Chuck Leddy

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Gone are the quirky travelogues, the blending of past and present, the self-bloating soldiers and ersatz commanders. In their place Horwitz has given us a hard-driving narrative of one of America's most troubling historical figures." Kevin Boyle

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Horwitz's moment-by-moment account of the doomed raid unfolds with such immediacy that he reintroduces suspense to a story we all know from textbooks. ... Midnight Rising is a richly detailed and engaging history." Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Midnight Rising is smoothly written, thoroughly researched, places Brown within the context of his time and place, and treats him sensitively but scarcely adoringly. ... Without sentimentalizing him, Tony Horwitz has given him his due." Jonathan Yardley

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"In Midnight Rising, Mr. Horwitz corrects a fact here and there, adds some human anecdotes and local history, and records such details as the degree to which the various hanged bodies quivered after the noose had done its work. But much of his book is a gloss of what is already known. As for the figure at the center of the story, Mr. Horwitz sees him too often as the grim Old Man of long-ago histories: bold, arrogant, sly, fanatical, murderous, muddle-headed and possibly insane." David S. Reynolds

Critical Summary

So was Brown a hero or a madman? Historians may not yet have reached a consensus, but Horwitz does a remarkable job of advancing readers' understanding of his enigmatic subject, who was both a conscientious and loving father and a murderer. Horwitz succinctly sketches Brown's early life and grippingly re-creates the attack on Harpers Ferry and the ensuing trial, separating truth from fabrication and uncovering new information culled from primary sources. Most reviewers, like the critic from the New York Times, preferred Midnight Rising, a straightforward historical account, over Horwitz's previous books, which interweave past and present by blending history with first person travelogue. Indeed, except for the Wall Street Journal, they praised his latest foray into the past. A vivid and surprisingly suspenseful account of a seminal moment, Midnight Rising establishes John Brown's rightful place in American history.