Sunday, October 16, 2005

Harper's Ferry, 1859

On October 16, 1959, John Brown launched a rebellion to free the slaves in Harper's Ferry. It didn't succeed. But neither did he die in the effort. Rather, he lived to be tried and sentenced to death, all the while writing himself into American history as a romantic martyr to the abolitionist cause.

John Brown

In Robert Ferguson's analysis, John Brown

roused visions in the American psyche of both cultural fulfillment and purification. These visions in turn competed with nightmares of armed invasion and racial warfare in simultaneous and compelled narratives that made Brown both hero and villain. None of these narratives had much to do with the facts of Harper's Ferry. The narratives conflated political, religious, legal, and racial perceptions in formulaic patterns that, in turn, exaggerated every possibility--and especially exaggerated the character of Brown. This strategy of exaggeration transfigured Brown from lifelong bungler, bankrupt, narrow extremist, murderer, and border fugitive into a cultural icon.

John Brown's capture
Marines storming the engine-house. (Historic photo collection, Harper's Ferry NHP.)

Such was the staying power of the romantic narrative of John Brown's life that the true origin of the famous song about him has been lost. It was actually written as a joke on a Union soldier who happened to share Brown's name.

"Lost entirely is the low humor and comic incongruity, hero against anti-hero, that gave birth to the jingle," writes Ferguson. "[This John Brown] would, in fact, die pathetically rather than in pathos, drowning by accident while crossing the Rappahannock River with his regiment on June 6, 1862."

Meanwhile in December 1861, Julia Ward Howe took history by the hands: she grabbed hold of this undignified ditty and turned it into "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

No comments: