John Brown's Letters
These two letters, the one by John Brown to his family in North Elba and the other by Brown's son Frederick to Frederick's sister Ruth, also in North Elba, are rare. Though Brown's life was a public life, especially after the guerilla war in Kansas, he was not a literary man or a statesman.
His letters are essentially private communiques posted home to his family or pleas sent to real or potential allies for money and support in his war against slavery. And thanks both to the Kansas War and his raid on Harpers Ferry, he was very famous at the time of his death. Beyond that, he used with utter brilliance the very occasion of his death, his execution by the state of Virginia, as a stage for all the world to view the final act of the great drama of his life. Which, as it happened, was the great drama of American life and remains so. Therefore, few letters or other papers written by Brown or members of his immediate family are not held today in one of the major institutional collections, such as the Houghton Library at Harvard, the Henry E. Huntington Library, the Kansas State Historical Society, and the Library of Congress.
As a novelist, my personal use for the letters was not scholarly or even literary, so much as totemic. They made physical what would otherwise have existed only in my imagination--the actual, literal, daily lives led by Brown and his family. They took me behind the historical icon, the myth, the larger-than-life figure of Brown, to the man himself, a passionate, deeply principled man as harried and conflicted and as fearful as any of us, who, as his and his son's letters make perfectly clear, was no more insane or fanatical (whatever that means) than any of us who try to lead moral lives in a world that seems to function without value or reason. It's one thing to intuit or imagine this about Brown; it's another to hold in your hand the sheet of paper with the handwriting that proves it.
For me, these two letters contextualize Brown's life and work. They personalize what he saw as his holy mission in a way that nothing else does. Not years of study of the historical context, not all those biographies, poems, novels, plays, and films made of Brown's life that have appeared with regularity since the afternoon in December 1859, when he was hung in Virginia and Emerson, Whittier, and Thoreau sat down to write about him, followed within days by Victor Hugo and hundreds of other foreign poets and writers, until the whole world seemed to be writing and singing about John Brown's body. His dead body. His corpse, and then his ghost.
What I wanted to sing was his living body, the body of the man who got out of bed every morning for nearly sixty years and, like me, like everyone I love and trust, tried to begin his life anew and to live it in a better way than he had the day before. These two letters connected me to that John Brown, the ordinary working American man whose sense of moral outrage and personal courage, because they came from his deep sense of himself as an American, were so exemplary to his contemporaries that they collected his letters and journals and notes to himself and wrote poems and plays about him, and that are so necessary to our lives today, one hundred forty years later, that we have been similarly moved, both to collect whatever we can find that was touched by his mind and hand, and to write yet another story about him.