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Voix afro-américaines : négritude et identité

More Heat than Light: The Legacy of John Brown as Portrayed in Cloudsplitter

More Heat than Light : l’héritage de John Brown tel qu’il est présenté dans Cloudsplitter
Kimberly Rae Connor
p. 69-93


Russell Banks prit une voie nouvelle lorsqu’il publia Cloudsplitter, un roman à propos de John Brown et ce, principalement parce qu’il s’agissait d’un roman historique avec des implications dans le présent. Il commença le roman avec les faits tels qu’ils furent établis par les deux parties. Mais il comprit qu’en tant qu’écrivain il fallait partir des faits et écrire sur ce que l’on ne savait pas. Le personnage d’Owen peut alors faire pour John Brown ce que l’histoire n’a pas su faire. C’est cet homme moderne qui parle d’un autre siècle qui est créé par Banks pour répondre aux questions posées par les expériences comparées de Clinton et de Brown. Pourquoi seul un homme blanc moderne semble-t-il digne d’être reçu au panthéon des Noirs et comment se fait-il que les critères de la négritude restent inchangés ?

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“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light”.—John 1:6-8

“His zeal for the cause was far greater than mine—it was the burning sun to my taper light”.—Frederick Douglass

“You can’t stand too near the heat of a character like John Brown. It scalds you”.—Russell Banks

  • 1  Toni Morrison, “Talk of the Town”. The New Yorker, October 5, 1998 v.74 n.30, 32.

1In 2002, President Bill Clinton was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, the first non-black recognized in the hall’s 10-year history. His election was not surprising to those familiar with Toni Morrison’s claim in a 1998 New Yorker piece—at the height of the former President’s scandal—that “white skin not withstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime”. Morrison’s criteria for designating Clinton as black include the fact that he “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and junk food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all of the African American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: ‘No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved […]. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us’”1.

2Morrison’s description of Clinton’s blackness does not valorize it as an achievement; rather her nod to black tropes of deprivation and victimization demonstrates how limited our cultural view of blackness remains. His election to the Black Hall of Fame is a singular achievement only because he is white. In a reversal of standards that merit hall of fame recognition, what makes Clinton black in public consciousness are stereotypical qualities that promote the most pathological associations with black life and reinscribe the privileges and power of whiteness.

  • 2  Christine Benvenuto, “Mapping the Imagination: A Profile of Russell Banks”. Poets and Writers Maga (...)

3The only other white person in history who might, like Clinton, be elected to a Black Hall of Fame is John Brown. Brown, like Clinton, “stands right there where all those fractures in society cross: the racial fracture, class fracture, religious fracture, they all cross right under his feet”2. Criteria for Brown’s selection, therefore, would be similar to Clinton’s, although more dramatically exemplary.

  • 3  Robert Faggen, “Russell Banks: The Art of Fiction CLII”. The Paris Review. Summer 1998, 40:56.

4John Brown, too, came from a poor, working-class population and struggled all his life for stability and recognition. Although Clinton’s Ivy League education made him a policy wonk and gave him access to elite circles of power, it did not prevent him from playing Elvis tunes on his saxophone or telling his debate opponent, “Bob, that dog won’t hunt”. So too were the distinctions between high and low culture irrelevant to Brown. John Brown was as comfortable in an abolitionist’s Beacon Hill sitting room as he was in an ex-slave’s rustic cabin and he “thought that Milton and Jonathan Edwards were as available to him as penny broadsides”3.

5However, this kind of transgression between race and class lines effected by Clinton and Brown, as Morrison’s comments make clear, is threatening to those in the dominant culture who wish to maintain their place in the social hierarchy. It often leads to persecution of those who would blur the lines as Clinton and Brown did. While Clinton endured humiliating legal scrutiny for his transgressions, Brown’s victimization came at a price even more extreme; Brown actually died as a kind of victim of racism, as a martyr to the cause of abolitionism.

  • 4  Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter. New York: Harper Flamingo, 1998, 620.
  • 5  Russell Banks, “On Research”. In Wyatt Prunty (ed.). Sewanee Writers on Writing. Baton Rouge, LA: (...)

6In both instances, the power of the dominant culture in determining these men’s fate, whatever their individual accomplishments and achievements, is dramatically demonstrated by the fact that both Clinton and Brown inspire in the American public a polarity of opinion. Much of this polarity falls along racial lines, as in both instances the black community has supported each man while the white population is much more divided about their individual merits or the value of their enduring legacies. They are loved or hated, esteemed or ridiculed, extolled or excoriated, held up as role models or denigrated as aberrations because, “truth is strictly shaped by the needs of those who wish to receive it”4. Seldom does anyone take a middle road when it comes to Clinton and Brown and the moral ambiguity they represent, while at the same time they presume that their position is, in fact, correct, a phenomenon novelist Russell Banks describes as “an especially American hierarchy of value, I think—the predilection for ‘Just the facts, ma’am’”5.

  • 6 Ibid., 7.
  • 7  R. Faggen, op.cit., 80.
  • 8 Ibid, 81.
  • 9 Ibid, 80.
  • 10  Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter, op.cit., 740.

7That same Russell Banks, however, is one who took up a middle road when he published Cloudsplitter, a novel about John Brown and much more because it is a historical novel with resonance in the present. Banks began the novel with “just the facts”, as established by constituents on both sides of the Brown issue. But he understood that his role as a novelist was to “Start with what you know, maybe, but use it to let you write about what you don’t know”6. In writing the novel Banks was all too aware of the mountain of material on Brown but also of its insufficiency. He also appreciated that “you can’t stand too near the heat of a character like John Brown. It scalds you. To see him as other than an icon, you need the distancing that a weaker character provides”7. So Banks invented Owen Brown as “the perfect narrator”8. Because he was the only Brown son at Harper’s Ferry to escape but had never told his story, and because he saved his father’s papers, rather than burning them as he was instructed, Owen can do what history has not done for John Brown. He can do what the title of the novel announces in its allusion to the Adirondack Mountain in full view from John Brown’s farm—“clear away, or split, the clouds that surround his father’s actions and character”9. In the novel Banks shows us how Brown engendered, through his son Owen, “a man of another time: a man of the future […] a modern man”10.

  • 11  Scott L. Malcomson, “The Color Line”. The New Yorker. April 6, 1998, v.74, n° 7, 100.

8It is this modern man speaking in period voice of another century who is created by Banks to address the questions begged by the examples of Clinton and Brown. Why is it that only one modern white man enjoys the distinction of being Black Hall of Fame worthy and why is it that the criteria for blackness remain the same? Or as one reviewer observed of Cloudsplitter, “Banks is after something more morally severe than historical re-creation. He wants to grasp how one might be a good white man in America”11, and maybe how he might become black.

9Provisional answers to these questions are provided by the trinity of quotes that begin this essay and establish the progression of Russell Banks’s literary logic in Cloudsplitter. In history and in the novel, John Brown moves from being a witness to light to becoming a light that burns so bright his heat scalds. As Owen explains his father’s movement, John Brown went from being a “principled, religious-minded young Northern man agitated by Negro slavery in the South and racialism everywhere” to middle-age activist, to an old-age “free-booting guerilla, when he moved swiftly on to become a terrorist and finally, astonishingly, a martyr” (674). This movement is moral, racial, and ultimately for Banks, narrative.

  • 12  Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford U (...)

10The moral and racial contours that shape any understanding of John Brown include the cultural discourse and social forces of the time. Biblical comparisons and religious mythmaking contributed towards portraying Brown as a prophetic martyr. Abolitionism and minstrelsy, the two dominant social forms of racial intercourse “merged with and repelled each other”12 in ways that defined the historical moment in which John Brown appeared. Banks’s narrative method for addressing this moral and racial complexity represented by biblical, abolitionist, and minstrel discourse is to turn to the original form of black literary expression in America as his model: the slave narrative. Banks resolves his narrative dilemma by extending the slave narrative tradition to include the voice of a white man as narrator.

  • 13  Merrill D. Peterson, John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Vi (...)
  • 14 Ibid, 152.

11As Merrill Peterson’s comprehensive and compact book, John Brown: A Legend Revisited, makes clear, almost without exception John Brown has been held up as a hero for the black community ever since he was hanged for treason at Harper’s Ferry. Peterson explains: “In the course of working out their own black history, they seized upon Brown as a symbol of their rights and their humanity”13. Even among African American leaders where one would expect a more qualified assessment of Brown, as in the case of Malcolm X, one hears such a claim: “If you are for me—when I say me I mean us, our people—then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did”. Yet Malcolm X’s comment is instructive because it points to the very reason why Brown “is the blackest white man anyone had ever known”14.

12Although Brown was known as one who engaged African Americans on a personal level, who was so utterly at ease among blacks that his son Owen observes that “[i]t was as if he secretly believed that at bottom he himself was Negro” (Cloudsplitter 415), it was the extremity—the heat—of Brown’s example, his willingness to take up arms and to die, that makes him so important. As Peterson observes at the conclusion of his study, Brown “would come to be defined by his martyrdom. The manner of his death was infinitely more important that his life” (171). Indeed, this identification of his martyrdom as the most significant aspect of his identity is a trope that was established well before Malcolm X and most memorably promoted by W.E.B. DuBois in his biography of John Brown.

  • 15  A.O. Scott, “Abraham and Oedipus”. The Nation. March 16, 1998, v.266, n° 10, 27.
  • 16  William E. Cain, “Violence, Revolution, and the Cost of Freedom: John Brown and W.E.B. DuBois”. In (...)

13Brown’s religious fervor—and the setting of his times—naturally invites biblical comparisons like the one made by DuBois. As Alfred Kazin wrote in God and the American Writer: “One cannot think of the long, long story of black bondage and the war that ended it without a shiver of awe. It is the one chapter in American life that brings us back to biblical history”15. William Cain particularizes Kazin’s generalization in his study of DuBois’s biography, “Violence, Revolution, and the Cost of Freedom: John Brown and W.E.B. DuBois”, when he observes that “DuBois’s insight into the literary and religious contexts within which Brown lived, and according to which he was interpreted, rightly accents the symbolic dimension of the slavery crisis of the 1850s. It was a period when persons saw themselves as historical agents who performed destined roles and who naturally turned to fatefully momentous events and hugely significant characters in classic texts in order better to enrich and emblazon their conduct”16.

14In other words, Brown’s contemporaries found in the Bible a narrative truth around which they shaped his identity, one that DuBois later recasts in his own recitation of Brown’s life, and which Russell Banks extends in his novel, illustrating how Brown himself used similar strategies to shape his own identity. As Owen explains, even as his own faith faded, he was aware of “the unusual degree to which our lives as a family and as individuals were described, prescribed, and subscribed by the Bible […] as understood, interpreted, and applied by our father, John Brown. It was almost as if we were characters in the Good Book and had no other lives or destinies than what Father said had been given to us” (32-3).

15Before DuBois, Brown had been compared with Samson, Moses, Joshua, David, Gideon, Job, Abraham, and John the Baptist, (as well as many secular heroes). In the novel, Brown actually compares himself to Aaron as he attempts to persuade Frederick Douglass to play Moses: “I would have you be the Moses of your people, sire. Not me, and not any other white man. No, Mister Douglass, I would be Aaron unto thee, anointed and consecrated by thee, and then I would go forth and make the blood sacrifice for both our peoples. The crime against one is the sin of the other, and to avenge the crime is to expunge the sin” (408).

  • 17  M. D. Peterson, op.cit., 49.

16Aaron, of course, was Moses’ brother who despite his backsliding was spared to continue God’s work in liberating the people of Israel and with whom God established his blessing on the people (Numbers 6:27). Douglass, however, does not anoint Brown in his lifetime. Twice in the novel, Douglass distances himself from Brown’s liberation schemes. Just before Harper’s Ferry, Owen describes how “for an entire day [Douglass] and Father wrestled like angels, as the one struggled to keep the other from martyrdom, and the other fought to convince the one to save him from martyrdom by joining him there. And that both men lost the fight” (727). Only later in an 1881 address would Douglass claim: “[John Brown’s] zeal for the cause was far greater than mine—it was the burning sun to my taper light”17. In the Hebrew Bible, Brown, as Aaron, would have fulfilled the role later played by John the Baptist, as one who testifies to but is not the light. But in DuBois’s recreation, anticipated by Douglass, Brown becomes the light himself.

  • 18  Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harv (...)
  • 19  W. E. Cain, op.cit., 307.
  • 20  W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown. Millwood: Kraus-Thomson, 1973, 46.

17Others had linked Brown to Jesus tangentially, but it was DuBois who made the comparison explicit and took the prophetic voice of John Brown to its incarnational limit when he said John Brown is “fit to be named with Jesus Christ”18. As Cain explains, DuBois probes “the basis in black experience for the heroism that the white crusader Brown displayed. In John Brown, DuBois meditates upon his subject and reinterprets it so that it symbolizes black rather than white achievement”19. One of the ways DuBois effects this reinterpretation is by turning Brown into a black Christ, a familiar image from the spirituals (a form DuBois had previously honored in Souls of Black Folk). DuBois observed that to Brown, “The world was a mighty drama. God was an actor in the play and so was John Brown”20.

  • 21  W.E. Cain, op.cit., 321.
  • 22  W.E.B. DuBois, op.cit., 7.

18DuBois specifies the role Brown would act in a piece he wrote for The Horizon, a 1909 essay that prepared the way for the biography he would publish the same year: “This is Christmas time and the time of John Brown. On the second of this month he was crucified, on the 8th he was buried and on the 25th, fifty years later let him rise from the dead in every Negro-American home. Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword. So did John Brown. Jesus Christ gave his life as a sacrifice for the lowly. So did John Brown”21. In making such a claim for Brown here and later when he links him in a litany of black achievement—“Of all inspiration which America owes to Africa, however, the greatest by far is the score of heroic men whom the sorrows of these dark children called to unselfish devotion and heroic self-realization […] above all, John Brown”22—DuBois exchanges whiteness as the measure of a man with blackness. In effect, DuBois Africanizes American history and white Americans.  

  • 23  W.E. Cain, op.cit., 325.

19Russell Banks accomplishes something similar in Cloudsplitter, but with a modern spin. He argues as DuBois did, how “blacks showed the way to whites, directed the thoughts of white men such as Brown, and supplied the energizing motive for white abolitionism”23. Abolitionism, then becomes about black initiative that moved whites to help them, about blacks being Moses, and whites their Aaron, just as Banks recreates Brown in his novel, up to a point. Eventually Banks shifts the focus from what is the measure of a man’s virtue to what is the measure of his vice. He investigates not what is pathological in blackness as most social critics do but explores what is pathological in whiteness. He shows us how Brown failed to stay in his role as Aaron, and further, how he consciously contributed to the creation of his own myth with himself as Christ. In his attempt to transgress racial boundaries Brown became “a man who, neither white nor Negro”, was therefore “dangerous” (Cloudsplitter 433). His racial confusion combined with his own sense of his religious destiny led him to become “a man of God who would lead God’s chosen people out of Egypt into the promised land, and who would do it even as he denied he was doing it, who would be Moses while claiming merely to be Aaron” (Cloudsplitter 432).

  • 24  E.J. Sundquist, op.cit., 598.

20The riddle that John Brown poses for DuBois and that remains our problem Eric Sundquist casts in the following way: “How can subsequent generations discover a similar compelling righteousness in their own day?”24. But it was DuBois’s reconfiguration—as well as Brown’s own righteous hubris in leaving his role as Aaron to become not just Moses but Christ—that contributed to the riddle’s perplexity. This recasting of John Brown does not address the fundamental problems that arise when equating Brown with Christ, when he ceases to be the testimony to and becomes the light itself, when one ignores the apostle John’s distinction between John the Baptist and Christ. When John Brown is perceived as he perceived himself, “transformed from a mortal man—an extraordinary and famous man, to be sure, but still, only a man—into a hero bathed in swirls of light”, who uses such a characterization “for his own secret purposes” (Cloudsplitter 659), his light becomes heat. The problem with linking Brown with Jesus, therefore, becomes two-fold.

21For one, it reinscribes a concept of redemptive suffering as an appropriate and necessary theological interpretation and response to racism, a position that Anthony Pinn, Victor Anderson, and others have shown to be not just flawed, but damaging when applied to African American experience. Pinn, for example, takes strong exception to the notion of redemptive suffering, regarding it as a roadblock to liberation. And Anderson challenges us to ask: “At what point do thriving and flourishing enter the equation of suffering and resistance? An existence that is bound existentially only by the dimensions of struggle and resistance or survival, it seems to me, constitutes a less than fulfilling human existence” (112).

22For another, offering up Jesus as a model, while certainly a Christian ideal (in current Christian-speak, John Brown probably would have asked himself “What Would Jesus Do?”) is one that most, including most Christians, are unlikely to emulate, especially when the emphasis is placed, as DuBois does, on the avenging and sacrificial Christ, not the peaceful and merciful Christ. Few can assume the religious character of John Brown as assessed by Owen: “Father believed in the incomparable reality of Christ, after all, not the incorporeal idea. Father’s cross was a neatly carpentered scaffold in Virginia, not a spiked pair of rough timbers in Jerusalem” (5).

23So as a model for how we deal with concrete instances of racism, how we develop modes of interracial relationship, how we challenge hegemony and how we promote positive images of both blackness and whiteness, John Brown doesn’t take us very far. It is this aspect of his legend that Russell Banks so powerfully conveys in Cloudsplitter. By choosing to narrate his story through Brown’s son, Owen, Banks creates a method for exploring simultaneously the personal and historical implications of Brown’s legacy of providing more heat than light. Banks reveals how Brown’s legacy left very little for his heirs, either his actual heirs like Owen, or generations of Americans who would try to follow Brown’s injunction to his own son: “I sometimes believe that you must become a hotter man than you are” (Cloudsplitter 277).

24The novel makes us appreciate the consequences of this kind of heat, the combustible dynamic between the personal and the political, the public and the private, and the costs and causes of commitment to a cause for a family that “lived every single day in the full glare of his light […] for, compared to the rest of us, no matter how hotly burned our individual flame, Father’s was a conflagration. He burned and burned, ceaselessly, it seemed, and though we were sometimes scorched by his flame, we were seldom warmed by it” (Cloudsplitter 103-4).  

25It was not just the immediate Brown family that was scorched by Brown’s righteous heat. Apart from the abolitionists he eventually inspired from a distance, Brown is portrayed as unsuccessful in his attempts to communicate his abolitionist message to his own community. In one scene in the novel, after a fugitive slave family the community has rescued has been exposed as murderers and slave catchers appear to bring them to justice, Brown’s response to his frightened neighbors is a rambling biblical discourse that does little to enlighten them on interracial relations or the moral complexity of the situation. Rather Brown chastises them and asserts his own righteousness: “We shall live by our principles. You, my good neighbors, may do as you wish” (267).

  • 25  S.L. Malcomson, op.cit., 100.

26John Brown’s righteousness, therefore, is not one everyone can follow and in Owen’s predicament is not just a case study of a father-son conflict; it is an example of the struggle with the societal conditions and conventions that make a just and decent form of racial transgression impossible. Because John Brown’s “own light burned so brightly that it eclipsed the Sun that shone on him”, his son “received only reflected light” (105) that did little to illuminate the path he should take in life. Or as one reviewer observed of Cloudsplitter, “[the novel] gnaws at the moral impossibilities of being white”25, an image Owen recreates when he describes his relationship to his father: “[…] anyone who opposes Father as Satan opposes God, could, if I merely questioned Father, prove me a hypocrite. That answer turned me into a trapped animal, a fox with a paw clamped in an iron-toothed jaw; to escape it I would be obliged to gnaw at my own flesh and separate my body from itself. Freed I would be a crippled little beast unable to care for himself, unable even to flee. I would have obtained freedom, yes, but freedom for what?” (268).

27The problems attendant to Brown’s inability to leave a functional legacy of interracial cooperation do not lie entirely with his character flaws or his subsequent mythic characterization by others. Historical contingencies and context also set forth very mixed messages about how blacks and whites should or could relate, making it very complicated for Brown himself to communicate a coherent message to his sons and daughters. For the antebellum structure of racial feeling in which John Brown moved was characterized by two polar modes of representing and responding to racial feeling: blackface minstrelsy and abolitionism.

28As Eric Lott has demonstrated in Love and Theft, minstrelsy is an important index of popular white racial feeling in the U.S. in the nineteenth century because blackface performance was the first formal public acknowledgement by whites of black culture. Furthermore, “it was based on small but significant crimes against settled ideas of racial demarcation, which indeed appear to be inevitable when white Americans enter the haunted realm of racial fantasy” (4). Minstrelsy, therefore, “brought to public form racialized elements of thought and feeling, tone and impulse, residing at the very edge of semantic availability, which Americans only dimly realized they felt, let alone understood” (6).

  • 26  E. Lott, op.cit., 6.

29What performers and audiences did not understand, or chose not to acknowledge was the erotic tension between “love and theft” that characterized white attraction to black culture and led them to simultaneously draw up and cross over racial boundaries. Minstrel performers often attempted to repress through ridicule their real interest in black cultural practices that they nonetheless betrayed in minstrelsy’s “mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation”. Thus, “the very form of blackface acts—an investiture in black bodies—seems a manifestation of the particular desire to try on the accents of ‘blackness’ and demonstrates the permeability of the color line”26.

30In a slightly disturbing scene in Cloudsplitter, Banks shows that even John Brown was vulnerable to a minstrel mode of racial discourse. Owen Brown recalls for the reader a time when his father “corked his face, as it were, and actually tried to pass himself off as a Negro” (116) in an essay that he wrote—but was never successful publishing—called “Sambo’s Mistakes”. Brown’s purpose was to “instruct and warn” African Americans on how to lead a good life, but to Owen it was “a white man in blackface telling Negroes how to behave” (116). Brown, however, chose to create a black persona because he believed that if he spoke as white he would not be heard. “Racialism infects everybody’s ears, Negro ears as much as white” (116), he explains to Owen.

  • 27  Although Owen’s life dramatizes the mixed messages he received from his father in the most extende (...)

31While this observation may be true, Brown’s patronizing attempt to cast himself in blackface demonstrates how he was a man of his time who was unable to find a dignified and effective mode of cross-racial discourse. But it also points, in its arrogance, to how John Brown would eventually find a more resonant form of cross-racial discourse when he abandoned language altogether and took up abolitionist violence as the only form of discourse that whites would hear and blacks would appreciate27.

  • 28  E. Lott, op.cit., 190.

32Thus it was unexplored desire coupled with religiously righteous conviction that led John Brown to blackface, a form he believed would render permissible topics that otherwise might be taboo, and that in the next generation of Owen combines with a violent subtext passed on by his father that sabotages any constructive or generative cross-racial discourse. But this “mapping of white desire in dark skin”28, also took other forms of expression in the antebellum period and influenced the Brown family. The violent message that Brown conveyed to his children was inspired, in part, by the social discourse on the other side of minstrelsy: abolitionism. Abolitionism, of course, did not promote violence as a means to redress the injustices of slavery, but its timidity to use more than reason and moral suasion provoked John Brown to a more extreme position. Even as he mimics abolitionist high-mindedness, Brown extends it in righteous superiority because he believed that “under his leadership our work was more crucial to the movement than any other and that it was more rigorous and disciplined, morally clearer, better planned, and more efficiently executed than the work of everyone else—beliefs dangerously close to arrogance and pride” (Cloudsplitter 273).

33In the novel, Brown characterizes the abolitionists as talkers, not doers. All they have is “talk driven and framed by reckless passion, as if being right or wrong on the subject were more important to the debaters than saving people’s lives, not to mention their soul” (307). Moreover, the Browns are aware that ”while the majority did not exactly approve of the enslavement of Negroes, they deeply resented their white neighbors who had chosen to make an issue of it” (320). Whereas whites who enjoyed minstrelsy might tolerate individual blacks but disavow ideologically modes of interracial intercourse, many abolitionists operated in the reverse.  

  • 29  George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-America Character an (...)

34George Frederickson in The Black Image in the White Mind explains this kind of contradiction in abolitionism. He demonstrates how abolitionists’ notions of reform rested on their moral fervor and humanitarian sentiment, their belief that slaveholding was an individual sin that could be redressed by slave owners’ repentance. Thus reform “became individualized, a matter primarily of personal decision and moral example”29. Yet when this same principle is extended to black behavior—as John Brown attempted to do in “Sambo’s Mistake”—black behavior becomes judged not as a result of circumstances but of individual responsibility, carrying with it a kind of moral disapproval of blacks and also casting “doubts on [abolitionists’] basic view of human nature as self-regenerating” (35).

35Abolitionists’ ambivalence and forms of white outrage Owen characterizes as mostly “spent on stoking their own righteousness and warming themselves before its fire” (425). But because John Brown wants heat, not light—“Action, Action, action, Owen! That’s what I want! Enough of this talk, talk, talk” (Cloudsplitter 320)—he encourages his son to exploit the weaknesses in abolitionist thought to support his own campaign of fire. As Owen explains, this suited both the abolitionists and the Browns for as “terrorists, we found ourselves almost overnight made emblematic to those remaining white activists who mostly sat in their parlors or at their desks grieving over the loss of their nation. We inspired them, and they encouraged us” (621).

  • 30  E. Lott, op.cit., 111.
  • 31 Ibid, 29.

36Abolitionism, therefore, was the middle class white racial discourse; it was minstrelsy’s twin. Abolitionism and minstrelsy became “dialectical partners not only in their literal coincidence but also in their shared ambivalences”30. Because abolitionism was marred by paternalistic condescension toward the people it wished to liberate, like minstrelsy it evoked ambivalence. Together these two modes of interracial social discourse attempted to negotiate contradictions in the culture of antebellum America, providing “imaginary resolutions to intractable social conflicts”31. Minstrelsy brought heat to racial interpretation and abolitionism brought light. What Owen and future generations needed was warmth, the functional blend of heat and light, as a model for racial understanding; but as Cloudsplitter demonstrates, John Brown had his own method for racial transgression and containment to coexist.

37Brown knew, along with Frederick Douglass, that a war over slavery “could never be won by white or Negro people alone” (Cloudsplitter 727), but according to the novel, he could never quite understand why others did not see the world as he did. As Owen describes him, “To Father, white and black Americans alike were bound by slavery: the physical condition of the enslaved, he insisted, was the moral condition of the free. This was not some vague, safely abstract principle […]. No, for Father, quite literally, we Americans, white as much as black, Northern as much as Southern, anti-slave as much as pro-, we were, all of us, presently living under the rule of Satan” (254). Yet despite his ability to “make Negro people believe that their struggle against the evils of slavery and the daily pain and suffering imposed on them by racial prejudice were his as well”, Brown remained, nonetheless, “a white man in a preacher’s suit sitting up on a very tall horse”. (Cloudsplitter 190). The kind of gap that inevitably existed between Brown and Negroes was also evident in his relationships with whites because the Browns “would not allow [themselves] to be like other white people” (Cloudsplitter 414) in racial or religious sentiment. Brown, therefore, had little to pass on to his son, Owen, who feels as a Brown that “we were becoming like Negroes, or wanted to become like them. Or, to be honest and exact, we were becoming the kind of men and women that we wanted Negroes themselves to be” (414).

38This comment reveals the combined influences of Owen’s time that shaped him along with his father’s influence: minstrelsy’s erotic ambition to become the other and abolitionism’s moral imperative to make the other like oneself. Hence, Owen wishes to transcend his whiteness and like his father to enter into the soul of blackness, but in the presence of blacks, he cannot forget his color or its entitlements. Facing a racist crowd in Boston, Owen realizes: “Our pale complexions protected us […] caused me to realize anew that white is as much a color as black. Our flag, our uniform, was our white skin, and while it provoked this attack from our fellow whites, it also shielded us from serious harm” (322). As he repeats several times in the novel, this kind of feeling “angered me in a way that left me secretly ashamed” (6).

39Owen’s shame is especially amplified in his relationship with Lyman Epps, a freedman associate of John Brown. His attempt to cross-racial boundaries with Lyman gets twisted and complicated and redirected in inappropriate ways that neither satisfy him nor lead to any meaningful recovery.

I didn’t know how to see around or through a black person’s race, and thus I could not see around or through my own. And whenever I became aware of my whiteness, I was ashamed. Not just because of the horrors of slavery, although that surely provided plenty of reason for any white American to feel ashamed of his race, but because, in the eyes of the God of my father, and most importantly, in the eyes of my father himself, race-consciousness was wrong. Just as wrong as not being able to forget, whenever I found myself in the presence of a woman, that I was a man and not just a fellow human being. It was as if race-consciousness, like sex-consciousness, were some kind of uncontrollable lust that left a white man with no regard for the deep, personal relations of friendship and family (181).

40Owen reveals the guilty pleasure one derives from racial transgression when it is cast as righteousness, in his own particular case and through his reflection on his father’s life and legacy. But Owen, without the religious faith that sustained his father—“I am a Christian without a God, a fallen man without a Saviour. I am a believer without belief” (693)—replaces that faith with more unstable impulses of violence, love, and the need for acceptance that he also acquired from his father and they are most memorably personified in his relationship with Epps.

  • 32  T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, op.cit., 17.

41Early in the novel, Owen is guilt-ridden after visiting a prostitute and wanders in a “wilderness of tangled desire and rage” (134). Unlike his brother Fred who secluded himself from women and blacks to keep his passions in check, Owen stays with his father and does his duty and becomes what his father wishes, “more lion…than lamb” (330). But eventually, Owen’s repressed sexuality interacts with the mixed messages about violence he has received, and along with his racial confusion—like his father “he begins dreaming himself as a Negro man” (418)—leads to his attraction to Epps and a disastrous conclusion. The disastrous nature of this conclusion is almost inevitable when one considers Toni Morrison’s observation that, “the subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist persona is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity”32.

42As Owen’s wish to be loved and accepted by Epps slowly becomes more than brotherly, Owen is filled with fear, not of homosexuality, but a fear of the impossibility of love that crosses the races in a more sustained and engaged way than John Brown’s martyrdom. Owen wants warmth, but all he knows is heat. So although he begins his association with Epps feeling brotherly attraction, his racial guilt intensifies along with his feelings for which he has no model for expression other than violence. When circumstances require they share sleeping quarters—a conventional arrangement in nineteenth century America—Owen is “rapt with pleasure”, by Lyman’s proximity, but also by his descriptions of what it is like to be Negro, “a remnant people settled in the wilderness” (179). Owen’s gentle effort to reach out to Lyman and take his hand leads to a change, to Owen going back to “being white” (184) and acting before Lyman like “a spurned lover” (190).

43As his relationship with Lyman develops, Owen is unable to direct his feelings of “pride, lust, and envy” (181) in a meaningful way, so he does what a typical white man of his time would do: “I directed my anger not at myself, as I should have, but against the person whose race had made me conscious of my own race or the person whose sex had enflamed me” (182). An argument over farm responsibilities leads to Owen striking Lyman, releasing in himself “something dark and wonderfully satisfying” (467) because he had “done the forbidden thing. I had struck a black man” (468). This event leads to a “particular loss of intimacy” (478) not because there is no physical contact but because an awareness of racial distance has come between them.

44Owen attempts to deal with his conflicted feelings about Lyman by redirecting his feelings towards Susan, Lyman’s wife. When he tries to confess his love to her she gently chastises him, reminding him that they would not be having this conversation if “my husband and I was white people”. She continues: “I know you want to be natural and peaceful and respectful with colored folks. But if you can’t well, maybe you should stick to your own kind” (513). Owen’s attempt to “neutralize” his powerful feelings for Lyman in his patronizing confession to Susan recalls his father’s bungled attempts to do what he thinks is best for Negroes. Without belonging to any kind and feeling “a strange kind of loneliness, and perhaps a peculiarly American one, to feel cut off from your own race” (422), Owen’s feelings have no conventional model for expression and he is led to utter frustration over “a manly love finding itself locked inside a white man’s racialist guilt” (519).

45When reminded by Lyman that he “ain’t half the man that your father is” (524), Owen’s guilt, shame, and envy all combine to lead to a situation where he inadvertently kills Lyman. When he looks upon Lyman’s dead body, Owen observes that “Lyman could have been a white man or a black—there was no way to tell which. Blood is red […] but I was the man who had never been able to forget that Lyman, while he lived, was black. Thus, until this moment, I had never truly loved him. He was a dead man now—finally, a man of no race” (529). John Brown’s ideal of living in a world where black and white could freely relate becomes possible for Owen only through Lyman’s death. When Owen observes that “[i]t was as if there had been no other way for me to love him” (529), he eerily recalls the final act of his father whose own love of Negroes was “something deep within his soul, regardless of his own skin color, something at the very bottom of his sense of who he was” (416). It could only be demonstrated in his martyrdom.

46Yet it is not the glory of John Brown’s martyrdom that Russell Banks depicts in Cloudsplitter. Indeed, the novel is distinguished by the absence of detail about events in Harper’s Ferry and the exclusion of Brown’s imprisonment and trial. Banks does not recreate Brown’s legendary farewell testament when he consciously accepts the responsibility to “forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions of this Slave-country […]” (Peterson 14). What the novel provides, rather, is a narrative resolution, set forth by an admittedly unreliable narrator whose story risks becoming “a lie itself” (Cloudsplitter 5), but in the complicated context of a society that was called to resolve a paradox: “More than the facts of my father’s hectic life, people do need to know if he was sane or not. For if he was sane, then terrible things about race and human nature, especially here in North American, are true” (Cloudsplitter 7).

  • 33  T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, op.cit., xiii.
  • 34  In counterpoise to what Banks accomplishes in Cloudsplitter is what William Styron did not accompl (...)

47Thus, the characterization of John Brown in Cloudsplitter is more than a moral and racial problem that brings only heat. The mythmaking about Brown also becomes for the writer Banks a narrative problem when the heat of Brown’s character prevents illumination. Banks is aware that “[l]iving in a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression presents a singular landscape for a writer”33. So Banks attempts to create a narrative truth out of a very complicated historical truth that most historians and biographers had avoided because he explores the exoticism and self-indulgence that attends a holy struggle like Brown’s. He strips Brown’s cause of its impenetrable righteousness and reveals the costs and consequences of a revolutionary life. He recasts Brown’s narrative not as the epic by which it is traditionally read and substitutes a tale of everyday lives where people live, love, and sin, even if they do so under extraordinary circumstances with huge influences and consequences34.

  • 35  R. Faggen, op.cit., 82.

48Banks’s novel, therefore, is not so much about what John Brown did, but what he didn’t do. The novel does not fall into the conventional trap of trying to resolve the saint/sinner, genius/lunatic question about Brown. For Brown, in Banks’s words “is the last Puritan and the first modern terrorist—it’s the terrible logic of that transition that fascinates me”35. Rather Banks reveals to us, through Owen’s attempt to narrate the logic of Brown’s transformation, the subsequent condition Brown left behind after he climbed on the cross. For while Owen “understood Father’s logic well enough”, he “didn’t always understand his applications of that logic to the specific circumstances, contingencies, and conditions that arose daily in our lives” (255).

  • 36  Mark C. Carnes (ed.), Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Ot (...)
  • 37 Idem.

49Owen speaks in nineteenth century vernacular, but his ambivalent rehearsal of his story displays a modern consciousness of racial issues never resolved by Harper’s Ferry, or the subsequent war, and that still haunt us today. This voice, as Banks describes recreating it, was modeled, in part, on ex-slave narratives and possesses a “simplicity and directness, a precision and eloquence”, whereby one is able to say “exactly what they meant, thought, felt, and had personally experienced”36. The criteria that establish this voice Banks identifies as believing that one has something important to say, that one already has the linguistic skills to articulate what is important, and that one would be understood by his reader37. Owen possesses these traits, but in a qualified way that reflects both the particularities of his personal experience and the contingency of his times. When he eventually tells his story he is alone, having lost his “own history without gaining another” (Cloudsplitter 424).

50Without a history, Owen cannot end his story in a conventional nineteenth century mode, with the wedding of his sister. Owen acknowledges that it would be “a wonderful way to end this story”. He even goes so far as to imagine himself marrying Lyman Epps’s widow, creating “one small family free of all the cruel symbolism of race and the ancient curse of slavery, a white man and a Negro woman and child held dear by a family and community that see them and deal with them solely as family and friends and fellow citizens” (696). But a recognition of his own displaced self forces him to conclude that it is but “fantasy, delusion, dream!” Moreover, it is “A guilty white man’s chimera”, whose spell is broken by the very man who presumed to create such a tableau for America, John Brown, who puts his hands on his son’s shoulders, settles a yoke upon his son, and makes him fulfill his “covenant with the Lord” and “commence the great and terrible work that He hath ordained for us” (696), the violent raid on Harper’s Ferry.

  • 38  For a more complete discussion of the slave narrative tradition and the ways in which it has been (...)

51One could argue that Russell Banks has created, through Owen’s voice, a new genre: the white slave narrative that tries to tell us how to be a good white man in America. In other words, Banks extends the slave narrative tradition to include a white voice amplifying concerns similar to those explored in slave narratives38. Like a slave narrative, Owen’s tale is told at the end of a long and painful journey. His story is an extended suicide note, prompted by the inquiries of Miss Mayo, a research assistant for a Professor Oswald Garrison Villard, who is writing what will be the first comprehensive biography of Brown. In his self-imposed retreat to California where he spends the years following Harper’s Ferry alone, Owen is an exile in a racial society who has no meaningful way to embody the beliefs his father instilled in him. At first reluctant to revisit his painful and confusing past, Owen finds himself increasingly compelled to reveal the secrets that underlie his obscure and persistent feelings of guilt.

52So Banks takes the great literary tool of abolitionism—the slave narrative—and adapts it to amplify the voice of the sympathetic white man on the other side of the experience. Indeed, an important scene in the novel that establishes the Brown family’s commitment to abolishing slavery occurs when the family assembles to read from a text of slave testimony. As Owen relates to Miss Mayo: “And there is a particular, important book in our life as a family […]. The book is called American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses” (67). Owen proceeds to describe how his father would initiate reading from the text and pass it around so that everyone in the family had to read a portion, creating amongst the family the feeling that “we were together very like a single person—Father, Mary, John, Jason, and I bound together by a vision of the charnel house of Negro slavery” (72).

53This text, however, was not a crafted narrative like those of Frederick Douglass or Harriet Jacobs. Rather it was a fragmented “litany of suffering”, a recitation of atrocities rendered as news items, that united the family in a shared vision of “the fate of our Negro brethren” (73). American Slavery as It Is provided Owen access to his father’s “private obsession” to overthrow slavery, making it Owen’s obsession as well (77). Yet the fragmented documentation of slave, indeed black, life that Owen receives from this text points to the fragmented way Owen’s own life would unfold and how at the end of his life, he would struggle to flesh out a narrative that made sense of his experience.

54Fragmentation is also evident in the pattern of family life established by Owen’s father. Because of John Brown’s business failures and obsession with fighting slavery, “he would have to slog and thrash his way forward, a blind man in a blizzard. And he did so for the rest of his life, dragging us along behind” (89). As the family is being dragged along they are always occupying a kind of liminal zone more abstract than their poverty-stricken lives. Combined with this actual state was the family’s feeling “as if the white man’s history were separate from ours” (8), further amplifying their displacement. But the Browns have no other meaningful history to supplant what they lack. So Owen’s fragmented experience is represented in his text as the same way he moved through life: “Thus I was an ordinary fellow struggling with a tangled, profoundly conflicted set of views and feelings, and I came late, slowly, and only partially, and in fits and starts, to a clear understanding of the true nature of my relation to Father and to the family as a whole, and just as often lost my grasp on the subject as I discovered it” (105).

  • 39  T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, op.cit., 6.

55While Owen’s racial confusion also contributes to the ambiguity of his narrative—he knew that amongst white people he would have to “hide [his] true self” (418)—Owen also faces historical contingencies, that the “formation of the nation necessitated coded language and purposeful restrictions to deal with racial disingenuousness and moral frailty at its heart”39. In slave narratives, however, the technique of hiding one’s true self or using coded language, what Robert Stepto in From Behind the Veil calls “dropping a veil”, served several functions that were entirely dissimilar from the coded language Morrison describes and the alienation Owen feels. One was to protect the identity of the author (who was often a fugitive living in fear) and the other was to protect the sensibilities of readers for whom the shocking reality of slavery was deemed too excruciating to provide in detail.

56Banks, therefore, functions like an abolitionist amanuensis when he employs the conventions of the classic slave narrative form as outlined by Stepto; but he is an amanuensis with a twist. Unlike distinguished white people who would assist with the composition of or testify to the veracity of a slave narrative, Banks brings neither editorial clarity nor factual verification to his project. The truth he provides is strictly narrative as demonstrated in his adaptation of the slave narrative form to shape Owen’s testimony. For in addition to dropping a veil, motifs or traits of slave narratives identified by Stepto that Banks exploits in his novel include: a vision of the trajectory of one’s life as pointing towards freedom; an identification one’s self as an autodidact whose life did not lead in a specific direction but was shaped by random choices that led to liberation; a textual emphasis on episodes of violence, and physical and social deprivations that lead to isolation; portraits of families attempting to maintain unity; and a quest for literacy or a mode of creative self-expression.

57These traits also apply to Owen’s narrative and in so doing tell another part of the story of slavery and freedom, showing how each defines the other, embodies the other, and how often one can be free in slavery or enslaved in freedom. For as the son of John Brown who “always insisted that we think for ourselves in every way”, Owen also knew that this freedom of thought was permissible “except when we disagreed with him, and that we hold ourselves independent of every man’s will, except his” (Cloudsplitter 493).

58Like a slave narrative, Banks primarily tells the story not of freedom, but of bondage, but this time it is a self-imposed bondage. For Owen was tied to John Brown “like a wife, a child, a slave, it seemed, although, of course, I well knew that the chains that bound me to him were entirely of my own making” (307). Owen is a fugitive, trying to escape his past and a chosen form of enslavement and the consequences of a revolutionary life. “After Harper’s Ferry, I went away; I ran as far as the continent ran, to where there was nothing further than the endless, blue Pacific; and climbed a mountain there and built a cabin; and said nothing” (432). In preparing to write the text he makes actual the ironic move ex-slave narrators made through memory, going back to the site of conflict, from California “where there are no ears to listen, there is no story to tell”, to return to the mountain Cloudsplitter, where his father and others who died at Harper’s Ferry are buried and where he can imagine and come into speech (26).

59Like ex-slave narrators, Owen’s vision points towards freedom, but of a very qualified sort. He has abandoned notions of social and earthly liberation—the cause to which he dedicated his life with his father—and instead seeks only the freedom to die in peace that will come not when he exposes a crime, as ex-slave narrators did, but when he confesses a crime: “But now it seems that I am not so much revising history as making a confession of a crime, a terrible, secret crime which—if I had been able to keep to my original intentions and long-nurtured desires and had not been obliged to pass beyond them there to discover strange, unexpected new intentions and desires—would have remained safely hidden. A crime still known by me alone” (29).

60His life, too, was one in which he was not conventionally educated but trained only as his father wished him to be, shaped by random events of misfortune and fate but also bearing the mark of his father’s will who in exhorting Owen to do his duty reminds his son: “Think like a slave, and you are one. A free man doesn’t flee his duty, unless he’s able to do it better someplace else” (196). But Owen has nowhere better to do his duty than to join his father’s violent campaign. So like slave narratives, his text emphasizes the violence, deprivation, and isolation of his life, yet apart from the deprivations of poverty and its consequences, Owen himself manufactures the violence and isolation he experiences; they are not imposed by an unjust system. He also shows his family trying to maintain unity as slave families did, but only up to a point as they all surrender the concept of family to the higher ideal of the fight for slavery as Brown “gave to the family as a whole its character, its defining nature” based on their “difference from other families”(43).

  • 40  R. Faggen, op.cit., 82.

61And finally, Owen’s quest for self-expression is not an announcement of his arrival, or an activity he willingly engages in to give his life meaning and structure as it was for ex-slave narrators. His self-expression comes only as he seeks to depart, at the invitation of someone else, and for purposes other than effecting social change. As Banks explains, Owen “realizes that it’s not the writing itself that is important to him and that he is not so much interested in setting the public record straight as he is in telling, and in that way learning, the truth—the personal, private truth of who and what his father was and who, in turn, he is himself”40.

62The truth Owen seeks to reveal is what his father was and what Owen let himself become as a disbeliever who nonetheless was “struck with Father himself for a God” (105). As Owen explains, ”there was so much that I could not understand about this man, my father, and the life we led because of him—my thoughts, my questions, were blocked, occluded: by the absolute rightness of his cause, which none of us could question, ever; and by the sheer power of Father’s personality, the relentlessness of it, how it wore us down, until we seemed to have no personalities of our own, even to each other” (251).

  • 41  M.D. Peterson, op.cit., 167.

63Thus the novel becomes, as Merrill Peterson describes it, “about the wrenching moral and psychological difficulties of interracial relations”41 when one confronts the heat of John Brown that scalds the personality of those who try to follow in his vision and who are left only with a consciousness of the “difference between the faces of the oppressors and the oppressed, or the faces of my white-skinned brethren and my black [...] [and] my own bewildering difference from both” (Cloudsplitter 332).

64John Brown’s extraordinary identification with Negroes, as the novel demonstrates, leads him to lose a sense of proportion about how races can reasonably coexist while also maintaining their difference. At one point in the novel when he is trying to rouse Negroes to action, Brown demands of Negroes that they speak for themselves but betrays through his unconscious grammar his own arrogance and over-identification that would lead him to martyrdom when Owen hears him “substituting the word ‘we’ for the ‘you’ and ‘I’ of his previous harangue” (429).

65Ultimately what Brown may not have been able to do that Owen recognizes, but is also unsuccessful in accomplishing, is to resist “the privilege of turning colorless”. Only then can a white person free himself, “at least partially, from the sickness of racialism. It’s the only way for a white man finally to clamber up and out of the pit of Negro slavery wherein this nation was unnaturally conceived and born […] he has to separate himself from the luxurious unconsciousness that characterizes his own race, without claiming as his own the historical experience of the other” (424).

  • 42  R. Faggen, op.cit., 60.

66It is in these mysteries of racial identity exposed in Cloudsplitter that Banks suggests that no one can be known to satisfaction. What matters is the paradoxical quest for self through passionate involvement in something other than self. As a writer, Banks is conflicted about and confused by John Brown. But as a white American, Banks shares one uncontestable characteristic with John Brown: the basic belief that “I was obliged to address, deliberately, the overlapping social and racial contexts of my life. I’m a white man in a white-dominated, racialized society, therefore, if I want to, I can live my whole life in a racial fantasy. Most white Americans do just that. Because we can. In a color-defined society we are invited to think that white is not a color. We are invited to fantasize, and we act accordingly”42.

  • 43 Ibid, 79.
  • 44  M.C. Carnes, op.cit., 69.

67So in the story of John Brown, a figure who “haunted” Banks because he “significantly figures in the old American weave of violence, politics, religion, race”43, Banks addresses both his existential and writerly concerns. He confronts the overlapping moral and racial contexts of life by going beyond customary historical accounts in Cloudsplitter where a story is, “simply told, and having been told, if it is vivid enough and plausible enough and if its imagery has evoked powerful feelings from deep, previously unplumbed zones of our inner selves, the story has a chance to be absorbed into our imaginative lives sufficiently, one hopes, to change our actual lives”44. The implications of John Brown’s story, therefore, are literal and moral, but they are also literary and aesthetic: how to tell a good story that tells us what is good? How to tell us how to be a good white man?

  • 45  Trish Reeves, “The Search for Clarity: An Interview with Russell Banks”. New Letters, Spring 1978, (...)
  • 46  Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Peng (...)

68There are only provisional answers to these questions, but as an author Banks has “faith in humanity that if we only open our eyes and see, then we will alter how we treat people. If we can only imagine what it’s like to be somebody else, then we will treat others better. I really believe that”45. This is the same kind of effort that motivated ex-slaves to write their narratives and is supported by Frederick Douglass’s assertion that: “to understand it one must experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances”46. Although slave narratives did not completely rewrite the “master” narrative and John Brown, in trying to be the light rather than leading us to light, burned up much of what his legacy could have contributed, his son, Owen, by not burning his father’s papers, leaves us a place to start imagining John Brown’s great cause all over again.

  • 47  M.D. Peterson, op.cit., 171-172.
  • 48  T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, op.cit., 4, emphasis min (...)
  • 49  Ibid, 15.

69Any biography of John Brown, as Merrill Peterson concludes, is “less an existential thing than a work of intelligence and imagination, ever changing in answer to new questions and purposes” that “remains malleable, still open to contingency and challenge” and still answers “some of the most enduring moral quandaries and dilemmas of our national life […]”47. Russell Banks’s own reconfiguration of John Brown’s biography suggests we consider the possibility of imagining, an act “not merely looking or looking at; nor is it taking oneself intact into the other. It is, for the purposes of the work, becoming48. As such, that imaginative work can be a way to begin to change our actual lives. But to create that kind of work is the task not of historians looking for “just the fact, ma’am”, but fiction writers who can “imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, [as] the test of their power”49.

70Cloudsplitter tells us not what we should know, but how we should imagine. It instructs us not to be the other, but to become the other by way of imagination. The novel gives us a light-infused characterization of John Brown so that we can begin to understand the heat of John Brown’s character. Cloudsplitter reminds us to keep slavery and freedom, Owen and John Brown, and heat and light in tension and in just proportion. It is then that we might be both illuminated and warmed rather than blinded and scalded.

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Works Cited

Anderson, Victor, Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Aptheker, Herbert, Abolitionism: A Revolutionary Movement. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1989.

Banks, Russell, Cloudsplitter. New York: Harper Flamingo, 1998.

Banks, Russell, “On Research”, in Wyatt Prunty (ed.), Sewanee Writers on Writing. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2000, 1-12.

Benvenuto, Christine, “Mapping the Imagination: A Profile of Russell Banks”. Poets and Writers Magazine. March/April 1998, v.26, n° 2, 20-27.

Cain, William E., “Violence, Revolution, and the Cost of Freedom: John Brown and W.E.B. DuBois”, in Donald E. Pease (ed.), Revisionary Interventions into the American Canon. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994, 305-330.

Carnes, Mark C. (ed.), Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other). New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.

Connor, Kimberly Rae, Imagining Grace: Liberating Theologies in the Slave Narrative Tradition. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Douglass, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1981.

DuBois, W.E.B., John Brown. Millwood: Kraus-Thomson, 1973.

Faggen, Robert, “Russell Banks: The Art of Fiction CLII”. The Paris Review. Summer 1998. 40:50-88.

Frederickson, George M., The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-America Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Kakutani, Michiko, “Books of the Times: What Abolitionism Cost John Brown’s Family”. New York Times. Feb 17, 1998. v.147, p.B7.

Lott, Eric, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Malcomson, Scott L., “The Color Line”. The New Yorker. April 6, 1998, v.74, n° 7, 100-104.

Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Morrison, Toni, “Talk of the Town”. The New Yorker, Oct 5, 1998 v.74 n.30, 32.

Peterson, Merrill D., John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2002.

Pinn, Anthony B., Why, Lord? Suffering and Evil in Black Theology. New York: Continuum, 1995.

Postlethwaite, Diana, “Fiction in Review”, Yale Review. Jan. 1999. v. 87, 139-148.

Reeves, Trish, “The Search for Clarity: An Interview with Russell Banks”. New Letters, Spring 1978, 53.3: 44-59.

“Russell Banks”, Literature Resource Center. <> (12/2/02)

Scott, A.O., “Abraham and Oedipus”. The Nation. March 16, 1998, v.266, n° 10, 27.

Stepto, Robert B., From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Sundquist, Eric J., To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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1  Toni Morrison, “Talk of the Town”. The New Yorker, October 5, 1998 v.74 n.30, 32.

2  Christine Benvenuto, “Mapping the Imagination: A Profile of Russell Banks”. Poets and Writers Magazine. March/April 1998, v.26, n° 2, 26.

3  Robert Faggen, “Russell Banks: The Art of Fiction CLII”. The Paris Review. Summer 1998, 40:56.

4  Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter. New York: Harper Flamingo, 1998, 620.

5  Russell Banks, “On Research”. In Wyatt Prunty (ed.). Sewanee Writers on Writing. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2000, 3.

6 Ibid., 7.

7  R. Faggen, op.cit., 80.

8 Ibid, 81.

9 Ibid, 80.

10  Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter, op.cit., 740.

11  Scott L. Malcomson, “The Color Line”. The New Yorker. April 6, 1998, v.74, n° 7, 100.

12  Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 111.

13  Merrill D. Peterson, John Brown: The Legend Revisited. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2002, 153-154.

14 Ibid, 152.

15  A.O. Scott, “Abraham and Oedipus”. The Nation. March 16, 1998, v.266, n° 10, 27.

16  William E. Cain, “Violence, Revolution, and the Cost of Freedom: John Brown and W.E.B. DuBois”. In Donald E. Pease (ed.). Revisionary Interventions into the American Canon. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994, 312.

17  M. D. Peterson, op.cit., 49.

18  Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, 598.

19  W. E. Cain, op.cit., 307.

20  W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown. Millwood: Kraus-Thomson, 1973, 46.

21  W.E. Cain, op.cit., 321.

22  W.E.B. DuBois, op.cit., 7.

23  W.E. Cain, op.cit., 325.

24  E.J. Sundquist, op.cit., 598.

25  S.L. Malcomson, op.cit., 100.

26  E. Lott, op.cit., 6.

27  Although Owen’s life dramatizes the mixed messages he received from his father in the most extended and dramatic fashion, one other event in the novel underscores what can happen when suppressed desire and admiration are channeled through violent discourse. Owen’s brother Fred, an “innocent”, (35) is so afraid of the lusts he carried that he actually castrates himself when Owen comes to take him from a secluded life as a shepherd. As Owen observes this act of self-mutilation, he sees Fred go from a “wild, proud expression” to “sudden placidity—a great calm” (547). What follows is crucial, for Owen then decides to take Fred not home but to Kansas where they both will transfer all their confused feelings into anti-slavery violence and where they become men of action like their father.

28  E. Lott, op.cit., 190.

29  George M. Frederickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-America Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. New York: Harper and Row, 1971, 33.

30  E. Lott, op.cit., 111.

31 Ibid, 29.

32  T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, op.cit., 17.

33  T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, op.cit., xiii.

34  In counterpoise to what Banks accomplishes in Cloudsplitter is what William Styron did not accomplish in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Styron’s novel veers towards minstrelsy even as the author makes abolitionist claims for it in “More Confessions”, one of the contributions to Novel History. Styron has repeatedly discussed the negative reception his novel received from black academics and continues to feel “resigned contempt”. While he shares with Banks the same racial orientation and novelizes the life of a man who was dangerously split in his personality but whom many African Americans revere, Styron differs from Banks in that his historical protagonist is black. Like Banks he eroticizes aspects of his protagonist’s identity, yet he links Turner with a white woman, thereby exploiting a troubling trope in American culture. It is therefore ironic that in his defense of his book’s resonance with contemporary racial issues Styron cites all the numerous articles and books that explore the “controversy” of the novel whereas Banks’s novel so far has generated only commentary about the novel itself and no ensuing controversy.

35  R. Faggen, op.cit., 82.

36  Mark C. Carnes (ed.), Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (and Each Other). New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001, 74.

37 Idem.

38  For a more complete discussion of the slave narrative tradition and the ways in which it has been extended, elaborated, and refined over time, even so far as to include the voices of non-blacks, see my earlier work on the slave narrative tradition: Imagining Grace: Liberating Theologies in the Slave Narrative Tradition.

39  T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, op.cit., 6.

40  R. Faggen, op.cit., 82.

41  M.D. Peterson, op.cit., 167.

42  R. Faggen, op.cit., 60.

43 Ibid, 79.

44  M.C. Carnes, op.cit., 69.

45  Trish Reeves, “The Search for Clarity: An Interview with Russell Banks”. New Letters, Spring 1978, 53.3: 47.

46  Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1981, 144.

47  M.D. Peterson, op.cit., 171-172.

48  T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, op.cit., 4, emphasis mine.

49  Ibid, 15.

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Kimberly Rae Connor, « More Heat than Light: The Legacy of John Brown as Portrayed in Cloudsplitter »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, 69-93.

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Kimberly Rae Connor, « More Heat than Light: The Legacy of John Brown as Portrayed in Cloudsplitter »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 01 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Kimberly Rae Connor

Professor (San Francisco, USA)
Kimberly Rae Connor earned a PhD in religion and literature at the University of Virginia. She is on the faculty of the University of San Francisco. She is author of two books—Conversions and Visions in the Writings of African American Women (Tennessee 1994) and Imagining Grace: Liberating Theologies in the Slave Narrative Tradition (Illinois 2000) as well as many articles on African American religion and culture and multicultural pedagogy.

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