John Brown’s Body

Matthew Karp

John Wilkes Booth and Eugene Victor Debs did not agree about much, but they agreed about John Brown. Booth, of course, loathed nearly everything about Northern abolitionism, but as a man of the stage he could not escape the sheer theatrical power of Brown’s performance in public life. Brown, he told his sister in 1864, was “a man inspired, the grandest character of the century.” The socialist Debs admired Brown’s crusade against slavery, but his 1907 tribute to the old hero began not with politics but personality: Brown, he declared, was “the most picturesque character, the bravest man and most self-sacrificing soul in American history.”

James McBride’s National Book Award–winning novel The Good Lord Bird, which offers a nimble and spirited retelling of the Brown legend, begins from a roughly similar premise. John Brown the historical agent, whose furious struggle against slavery helped make Kansas bleed, and whose raid on Harpers Ferry pushed the nation one step closer to Civil War—that figure remains on the margins of McBride’s narrative. John Brown the theatrical “character,” on the other hand, emerges in the fullness of his grandeur and idiosyncrasy.

John Brown, three-quarter length portrait, facing left, holding New York Tribune (1859) / Library of Congress

In McBride’s hands, the picturesque comes by way of the picaresque—the novel’s narrator is a fictionalized scamp who follows Brown’s adventures from the prairie to the scaffold, and speaks in a folksy drawl that cloaks high reverence in low comedy. When the “Old Man,” as Brown is always called in The Good Lord Bird, walks into the story, he smells like buffalo dung and looks as ancient as his name suggests: “His face had so many lines and wrinkles running between his mouth and eyes that if you bundled ’em up, you could make ’em a canal.” The absurd eccentricities mount. McBride’s Brown bites into raw onions like apples, greets a hailstorm of bullets with a lecture about King Solomon, and refers to God as “the Great Haymaker.” When Brown bumps into the narrator after two years’ absence, his clothes appear to be “dying of thirst,” while “he himself was about to keel over out of plain ugliness.” The narrator adds, “In other words, he looked normal.”

The originator of these homespun zingers is Henry Shackleford, a 12-year-old slave who Brown clumsily liberates from a Kansas saloon in the mid-1850s. The Old Man nicknames his new charge “Little Onion,” in honor of his favorite snack and good luck charm, but mistakes the slender, curly-haired Henry for a girl. Onion is shortly thereafter outfitted with a dress and bonnet, which he wears for the rest of the novel. It is from the perspective of this wise-cracking, cross-dressing urchin that The Good Lord Bird unfolds its tale of Brown’s historic deeds, from his 1856 murder of five pro-slavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek to his doomed raid on Harpers Ferry three years later.

A classic picaro and trickster figure, Little Onion seems to live for sensual delights alone. He accepts his new gender role chiefly because it comes with less manual labor and bonus opportunities to glimpse female “love knobs” and “inner packages” in the bathtub. Even slavery “ain’t too troublesome when you’re in the doing of it”—after all, “your meals is free.” By his own confession, he will break any law and tell any lie to make sure that fresh johnnycakes and hasty pudding continue to pour down his “little red lane.”

Such cheerful cynicism tugs playfully, but purposefully, against the moral weight of McBride’s subject. The Good Lord Bird joins a rich tradition of African American absurdist fiction about slavery, which extends back at least as far as the era of John Brown himself. Martin Delany’s Blake, written in the same year as the raid on Harpers Ferry, was not exactly a comic novel, but amid his deadly serious plot of slave insurrection, Delany found room for plenty of wisecracks and ludicrous anecdotes, including one about an armless slave forced to pick 36 pounds of cotton a day with his toes. Contemporary novels like Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Mat Johnson’s Pym have continued to resist the notion that stories about slavery’s crooked past must always be told straight.

We are accustomed to thinking of Brown in the roles of Old Testament patriarch, Puritan general, radical revolutionary, or even deranged maniac, but was he not also something of a hustler?

Onion’s humor, too, comes in layers. While his selfishness provides an obvious comic foil for John Brown’s martyrdom, McBride has crafted a complex relationship between the two. The Old Man, reports Onion, “stole more wagons, horses, mules, shovels, knives, guns, and plows than any man I ever knowed.” Onion finds this “ironical,” since Brown stole to help the cause, not to help himself. Nevertheless the Captain’s relentless and sometimes peculiar thievery—of fiddles, salt-shakers, playthings, dead men’s clothes—is an ongoing refrain in the novel. The Old Man’s nickname for “walking,” says Onion, is “tricking.” The Old Man introduces himself as John Brown one day, and “Shubel Morgan” the next. We are accustomed to thinking of Brown in the roles of Old Testament patriarch, Puritan general, radical revolutionary, or even deranged maniac, but was he not also something of a hustler?

The Good Lord Bird does not resuscitate the old Jim Crow–era interpretation of John Brown as an opportunistic horse thief—not by a long stretch—but it does suggest that the Old Man understood all his roles, and that property and identity alike were instrumental, not fundamental, to his cause. Both could be twisted and appropriated to serve the larger end. “God,” as he tells Onion more than once, “is no respecter of persons.”

It is precisely on this question of identity and personhood that The Good Lord Bird is most acute. Traveling while disguised as a woman, “incog-Negro”—a reference, we can only hope, to Frank Wilderson, Mat Johnson, and Ludacris all at once—Onion is forced constantly to reevaluate the relationship between his outer and inner selves. Here McBride’s tale echoes the gender deceptions of many a 19th-century slave narrative, from Ellen Craft passing as a white man to Harriet Jacobs rubbing her face with charcoal, donning sailor’s clothes, and miming the rickety swagger of the maritime black jack. Onion’s sham identity, with the constraints and confusions it imposes on him, becomes a metaphor for the experience of enslavement: “A body can’t prosper if a person don’t know who they are … if you can’t be your own self, how can you love somebody? How can you be free?”

“[W]as I not, as a Negro in the New World, born to be a thief?” So Charles Johnson’s puckish narrator wonders aloud in Middle Passage. Onion’s stab at the same question cuts even deeper: “Being a Negro’s a lie, anyway. Nobody sees the real you.” Like the Old Man, Onion understands identity as essentially malleable and capable of all manner of social and individual constructions. The critical difference, however, is that Onion sees how this malleability enlarges the opportunities of the powerful while constricting the sphere of the powerless. “Whatever he believed, he believed,” Onion says of Brown. “It didn’t matter to him whether it was really true or not. He just changed the truth till it fit him. He was a real white man.” The words of Onion’s black friend Bob provide a bitter corollary. “We’ll be colored when the day’s done, no matter how the cut comes or goes,” he says, declining to join Brown’s crusade in Kansas. “These fellers can go back to being Pro Slavers anytime they want.”

In the social imagination of The Good Lord Bird—much like that of the antebellum Republican Party—the crux of freedom is self-ownership.

In the social imagination of The Good Lord Bird—much like that of the antebellum Republican Party—the crux of freedom is self-ownership. The Old Man’s consummate command and manipulation of his person, and Onion’s less successful struggle to do the same, lie at the heart of the novel. “If you can’t be your own self … how can you be free?,” he asks. The result is a powerful fable and a shrewd psychological portrait of John Brown as a “character,” in that potent theatrical sense that awed both John Wilkes Booth and Eugene Debs.

Yet there are deficits to this quality. McBride’s turn inward, toward personal relationships instead of public politics, produces a somewhat distorted image of pre–Civil War America. Creative distortion of the past, of course, is what historical fiction should aim for, but some of The Good Lord Bird’s revisions seem dismayingly familiar. Onion’s talk of pro-slavery “rebels” in 1850s Kansas, who sing the Confederate anthem “Maryland, My Maryland,” extends the famous Civil War divide between a free nation and an enslaved section, rather than exploring the richer and more interesting ways that slavery’s champions construed themselves as national guardians, not regional dissidents. When Robert E. Lee arrested John Brown at the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, it’s worth remembering that Lee was a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army.

More important, the novel’s preference for theatrical character over political context tends to present a John Brown who exists outside of history—a heroic but isolated individual, as rare and strange as the woodpecker species whose nickname gives the book its title. Certainly, John Brown was an exceptional figure. But he was also a product of and a participant in his time, a man whose achievements and legacy depended not only on individual heroism but collective struggle. Brown’s intensely close partnerships with other abolitionists, both black and white, were what gave his career its own singular shape, from its beginning in Kansas to its end in West Virginia.

Viewing Brown and his associates through the prism of personality, The Good Lord Bird tends to find the rest of the abolitionists wanting. An antislavery convention in Boston, reports Onion, is full of “high-siddity white folks,” passionate but cowardly and self-aggrandizing. “It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.” Black abolitionists fare little better. “Uppity, long-breathed niggers,” a black rail porter calls them. “They talk a whole heap, them stuffed-shirt, tidy-looking, tea-drinking, gizzard lickers, running around New England in their fine silk shirts.” Only Harriet Tubman, a doer and not a talker, with eyes “tight as balled fists,” seems to possess the necessary character to serve the cause.

John Brown (1800-1859) by Tony Fischer Photography / Flickr

McBride’s satire reaches its crescendo with a gleefully irreverent sendup of Frederick Douglass, a fat-fingered “king in pantaloons” who boasts about visiting Paris, gorges himself on boiled pigeon, and damningly fails to join the Old Man at Harpers Ferry. “Mr. Douglass weren’t up to it,” Onion concludes. “He was a man of words and speeches.” Such heresy recalls Gore Vidal’s historical hatchet work in Lincoln and Burr—where George Washington, memorably, had “the hips, buttocks, and bosom of a woman”—and earns McBride points for chutzpah.

But the novel’s larger jab at abolitionism misses its mark. Isolating John Brown from the political movement that sustained him conjures the idea of what C. Vann Woodward—no friend to the Old Man—once called “John Brown’s private war.” But of course there was nothing private about it. The origins, the premises, and the consequences of Brown’s struggle all lay firmly in the public realm. At Harpers Ferry he sought not simply to follow his inner daemon but to make a social revolution and to found a government. He brought with him a provisional constitution—written with the help of other abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany—and a “Declaration of Liberty,” which adapted from Locke the new republic’s fundamental creed: “‘The welfare of the people is the first Great Law.’ We hold these to be self evident truths, That any Tribe, Rulers or People, who rob and cruelly oppress their faithful Laboring citizens have within themselves the Germ of their certain overthrow.”

If at Harpers Ferry and afterward the Old Man indulged himself in a bit of theater, it was because he hoped to reach an audience. In prison and on the gallows, his masterly performance of martyrdom was not as an end itself, but a means to foment political outrage and achieve political change. In fact it was not long before the American Civil War itself, as one proslavery journalist complained, evolved into a “stupendous John Brown raid” on the slave South.

In his 1909 biography, W. E. B. DuBois distilled the Old Man’s essence in a single terse sentence: John Brown “did not use argument, he was himself an argument.” The Good Lord Bird, perhaps, does not unravel each strand of that argument with the historical sensitivity to please every scholar. But the argument itself comes through, with wit, energy, and pathos. “We are going east to fight the war against slavery,” the Old Man tells Little Onion, who is understandably daunted: “Well, there is a lot of east. And there is a lot of slavery.” The forces lined up against John Brown were impossibly vast. But The Good Lord Bird captures something of the spirit that determined to overthrow them, anyway.