Books: Tony Horwitz on complicated legacy of abolitionist John Brown

Monday, October 1, 2012 at 12:48am
By Christopher Hebert

Tony Horwitz’s Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War tells the gripping story of John Brown, the abolitionist who in 1859 organized and led a raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, W.V., in an attempt to further the cause of emancipation of the American slave population. Although Brown’s attack was a failure, his actions did succeed in widening the schism between North and South that would lead to the outbreak of Civil War. In Horwitz’s telling, the figure of John Brown is as fascinating as his deeds. Brown was a deeply religious man for whom abolition, even by violent means, was a moral imperative.

Tony Horwitz is the best-selling author of A Voyage Long and Strange, Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic and Baghdad Without a Map. He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. Horwitz lives in Martha’s Vineyard with his wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons. In advance of his appearance at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books, he recently answered questions from Chapter 16:


Midnight Rising is not your first book about the Civil War. You also wrote the bestselling Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. I’m curious about how you developed your interest in this period. And what made you decide to pursue John Brown?

I was a Civil War nerd almost from birth and rediscovered my boyhood obsession when my wife and I settled in rural Virginia in the 1990s. I felt surrounded by the War — battlefields, fights over memory, crazed re-enactors — and that’s what led me to write Confederates in the Attic. While researching the book, I visited Harpers Ferry, only 15 miles from my home, but it didn’t dawn on me to write about Brown and his raid until I’d moved a decade later to New England. Go figure.

One reason I was drawn back to this period is that I’d always dwelled on the Civil War proper, from 1861 to 1865, without really understanding how and why the conflict came about. John Brown’s Raid seemed like a good place to start. Also, it’s a writer’s dream, a tense, sweaty drama with an unbelievable cast of characters — not just Brown but Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, the Transcendentalists, Frederick Douglass, John Wilkes Booth and many others.


How did the John Brown you discovered through your research compare to the Brown you thought you knew before you undertook the project? What surprised you most about the real John Brown?

Before writing this book, most of what I knew about Brown came from the little I’d learned in junior high. I also knew the songs about him and recalled my childhood visit to the John Brown Wax Museum in Harpers Ferry. He seemed a spooky figure, and I imagined him as a crazed and alienated man, a lone gunman. So it surprised me to learn that he was actually part of a full-blown conspiracy that drew support from prominent, wealthy Northerners and included dozens of young fighters who weren’t much different from men who later fought in the Civil War. Also, for an insurrectionist, he was surprisingly conventional in many respects: a family man, devout Christian and American on the make who had a long career as a farmer, tanner and wool merchant before he took up arms.


Brown’s influence doesn’t end with the emancipation of slaves and the growth of civil rights. One later group that paradoxically traced its lineage to John Brown — and even farther back to the Sons of Liberty — was the Black Legion, a paramilitary offshoot of the KKK based in the Midwest in the 1930s. The Black Legion drew inspiration from John Brown’s use of political violence, even though the group was itself pursuing a white supremacist agenda completely contrary to everything Brown stood for.

I can’t think of another figure in our history that has spawned such a diverse group of admirers. Brown was embraced by late- 19th century anarchists, by early civil rights activists, by Black Panthers and by the Weathermen. Yet he was also cited as a model by Timothy McVeigh and by anti-abortion bombers. Brown speaks to militants of all stripes and eras who believe that God, individual conscience or their urgent quest for justice trumps man-made law. So he set a powerful, if potentially dangerous, precedent. That’s one reason I’m so fascinated by the man. There’s no easy way to feel about him. The novelist Truman Nelson called Brown the stone in the shoe of American history, this troubling presence we can’t shake or ever feel comfortable with. I think we should embrace that discomfort and explore the hard questions that Brown and his actions raise.


Part of what makes Harpers Ferry so fascinating is the uncomfortable contradictions it raises. On the one hand, we can admire the resolve and dedication of Brown and his followers to die for a cause that we now consider to have been honorable. Yet even at the time, many of his fellow abolitionists disapproved of Brown’s recourse to violence.

I do think Brown reminds us that violence is indeed as American as apple pie. He was the grandson of Revolutionary War officers and felt strongly that he was continuing their fight against injustice and tyranny — in essence, completing their mission. Brown repeatedly said that his guideposts were the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule. So in his fundamental beliefs he wasn’t from another planet, which is one reason he spoke so powerfully to other Americans in his court speeches and prison letters.


Do you have any plans for future books related to the Civil War?

Not currently. There’s no shortage of books on the subject, so I’d only write one if I felt I had something fresh to say. And each of my books tends to be a departure from the last. But I’ll never say never to the Civil War era.


To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

For more local book coverage, please visit, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.