Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Distance of History (or Not)

One of the problems with the 24-hour news cycle - and a blog in every pot, to be honest - is that we demand instant analysis of people and events as they take place. Often times we don't demur until we have some distance from the event. Distance tends to cool passions, allow factual disputes to sort themselves out, and generally let us figure out how something or someone actually impacted the world. A century and a half would seem to be enough distance, right?

Maybe not. A couple of weeks ago marked the 150th anniversary of one of the most galvanizing events in US history, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. Brown, already a star figure among abolitionists, and 20 of his followers stormed the United States armory in Harper's Ferry, hoping to incite a slave rebellion that would ultimately lead to the end of our "peculiar institution."

By the time Brown's raid was put down and he was hanged for various charges, the incident involved a plethora of famous or soon to be famous names. The US Marines who stormed the armory were led by Robert E. Lee, with J.E.B. Stuart among the junior officers. Virginia governor Henry Wise, who would lead a Confederate army in West Virginia in a few months time, personally led the criminal investigation. Cadets from Virginia Military Institute, including instructor soon-to-be Stonelwall Jackson, were brought in to provide security for the trial. Writers including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Victor Hugo took up Brown's cause. Even John Wilkes Booth was involved, posing as a militiaman so he could witness the execution.

Given all that I suppose it's not surprising that two separate exhibitions about Brown can yield such different perspectives:

The two exhibitions are also subtly different, reflecting in some respects contrasts that have their origins in the controversies of that earlier era. In New York 'John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy,' developed by James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and others, states its goal from the start: to examine 'John Brown’s beliefs and actions in the context of growing national divisions over slavery in the 1850s.'

* * *

In Richmond in 'The Portent: John Brown’s Raid in American Memory,' something quite different happens. In the South Brown was condemned not only for his abolitionist views but also because he tapped into latent fears of a slave rebellion. Now, of course, the curators, the historians William M. S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton, take the virtues of Brown’s abolitionist cause for granted; indeed, the last part of the exhibition is devoted to a series of 22 schematic, affecting prints of Brown’s life and his martyrdom by the artist Jacob Lawrence (based on his 1941 paintings). Melville’s 1859 poem 'The Portent,' about Brown’s hanging, gives the show its title, presciently calling Brown a metaphysical herald, a “meteor of the war” that was about to begin.

But in Richmond abolition is not the theme; Brown’s tactics are. And we can hear the clamor of the debate more clearly. As the show points out, Brown’s virtue was not always so transparent, even in the North.
Not that either perspective is "right" to the point of the other being "wrong." History is too complex to ignore either the world that gave rise to Brown or the methods he used in pursuit of his goal. Maybe even 150 years is too close.

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