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the question of why is interesting and the question usually comes down to a windy decide to do it wasn't one of the korean chambers bird pennsylvania one that was made clear that day he wasn't going in with him and he thought i was walking into a steel trap as he put it we still when it was at their arm which would mean one thing was it that actually caught in the end and in the there was no great tide of of escaping slaves coming forward or when and i think that my own feeling is that it was a decision made on the ground at the time in much the same way probably made a decision about
pot water me out of despair and frustration i am a sense of hopelessness and the activity is current terms and so his only option as he saw it was to change the terms to up the ante as it were to allow him to go from being a year a guerilla warrior and terrorist into a martyr and i do think it probably was our felt like to have a kind of giving up i imagine the terrible despair and fatigue coming over him at that point that was his last role of the dice in a way and when it didn't work because it was clearly not working that i think he saw the only light you saw and it was the light of martyrdom and if he stayed it would mean more than if he'd
fled a failure at that point there was a glimmer of government inside the high say this partly because almost instantly as soon as he was captured he owned strikes a public pose which is so clear and sharp and eight and then his rhetoric becomes so elevated and memorable it's almost as if he goes through some kind of apotheosis of that moment and any truce figure into triumph and threw his coming an obvious martyred and it's it's extraordinary transformation this man who up to this point was not particularly known for his son gift of speech and his clarity of thought and public suddenly becomes absolutely memorably brilliant friend
and the other reporters are very busily writing down everything he says and down and uncaring his words a way to the northern press and uninspiring you know multitudes thousands upon thousands of people to own to move to the next step in the fight against slavery he he he took his own personal transformation and managed to extend that through language and truth the the occasion of his some of his trial and execution to a man transform the populace of the north really in a way that nothing else could have imagined could have that vote grasping at more than with the han and the transformation that that permits him is to me one of the great moments in american history is as dramatically interesting it's morally interesting it's it's a
fascinating media event and it has enormous historical and political implications his whole being generated by this one farmer in a cell in virginia and that's really quite extraordinary what he'd what he accomplished in those who asked the remaining weeks of his life after he was captured by robert e lee jeb stuart you seem so comfortable you get a sense of such cover such articulation is that everything is coming together for his man that's the moment when it's his life seems to be to find most of us feel that the origins of meaning for a lifeline in the beginning and he has almost a christian reversal of
that the meaning of his life lies in his hand and and i think he saw that with extraordinary clarity and that for him was saddam was probably i was probably a kind of relief that he hadn't been able to experience before but finally his life would have this whole his life would have greatly because of its of the terms of its of its of its end and i don't think he planted i don't think he set out for a point i think of it what he did do however was see that that was all that was all that remained for him once you get down into them to move that steel trap for another man i certainly would have turned in red laid out like a sullen into that and to the abolitionists in the ground and disappeared the state and it wasn't necessarily heroism but there was a kind of genius to it a cruel genius if you're the
parent of one of those boys who are following or the wife sister brother was when his children paris who's the father the scene in the four hours when the sun's going down around him sons along sun's going down around him and those other young men true love must have been ancient greek analysts say that means it's so powerful as shakespearean that's a crowded into that small structure when i finally went to harpers ferry and saw the firehouse in this actual size i was so shocked it seemed so small confining how did all those people get in there when they're loud you know it was to
get enough weapons firing and then screaming in pain shouting orders to each other so that must have been and political chaos and yet he seemed to have a kind of clarity and focus that four billion to comfort a sense of these young men around him that allowed him however to totally control those last few hours before he was captured and then to totally control how that event was perceived from there on out he sings and then at that moment can under control of his own destiny for perhaps the first and only time in his life and that time there is a comic genius to induce a service that you can't plant are anticipating he does have to be able to seize it when it occurs and he did
i think you know here we are a hundred and fifty years nearly later still puzzling over it and i think steele moved but we have moved anger moved to tears to wonder whether when that event known to me that that's a that's an extraordinary one said today's he also mr james yeah so again later he wasn't only up to a mother figure but there seems to be a transformation of the beginning of this transformation also the red well
let's say that the us senate is a media darling you know any any recognize that's the running and the other isn't a moment where brown's career i suppose you could call it has transformed and peanuts in kansas and it spits just before and through and then immediately following the pot a lot of a massacre where he goes from being a very minor figure in the abolitionist war against slavery to the emblematic figure of that tv the defining figures some ways and i think that part of it was simply on the fact of his energy and an and clarity and joe and his ability to attract other men to his records but most of that i
think is due to his students due to due to the nature of the press coverage in his ability to see that that would was capable of transforming i knew him and in so doing also transformed the anti slavery movement i am from a young the lobbying group today on today violent an activist group or enterprise and down analysts because of minute red path and others and in one could also linking up to the of the technology of corporate media to talk to their roots and telegraph without the telegraph and without the technology of the changing rapidly changing and technology of print the events that couldn't have been reported as quickly and the east was such immediacy a
number of newspapers from the period of my flow of accounts of brown in kansas and you know the great had lots of exclamation points in a sexist happen a few hours ago and there's a kind of immediacy and high drama to the event as it's being read you know and in living rooms across the north that was not available in the past and brown in a way was the first media darling and seized on it he saw it and so as a potential for him and for the movement generally and in and grab that it was with a certain kind of fun alacrity there think that's what we're going to sell you know it must've been such a real pacifist for the
effective the southern model of manhood was cnn and the cavalier gentleman for the north america he was crumb well you know warrior ants and brown fit that model perfectly eureka and they compared a muffin to grow so in a funny way we were re inventing a reinvigorated some of the vocabulary of the year of the year the seventeenth century british civil war and geography because those that the vocabulary fellow very quickly and very quickly to and to play the cavalier versus the crumbling figure and brown boy a bible thumping bible spouting warrior for christ fit right into that mode with his frock coat and is
supporting those looking for you know if as always it and think back in the sixties and how che guevara fit the sixties romantic imagination so neatly for a decade or so i know it's such a kind of a fifth i think brown fit preconceived romance an awakening i think he saw happening and exploited it as soon as he saw it happening there's a supreme irony what is very american and that respect that as soon as some good opening appeared it was not shy about moving towards more tradition bound or in that sense the oval office
it was very un american in his son an ability to him two seasoned exploited what by august we would have to report just this shifts in and in technology and and the flow of information and he understood it intuitively and quickly i think and i was able to utilize it in a very rapidly sometimes when it went out what would browse through have been like without the coverage of the press coverage of the leaking fifties and what would harpers ferry will be the meaning of harpers ferry without the telegraph and a missionary and the coverage of that event with an very different much less significant certainly unknown brown seems to know that
and an organized the summit has so most and defining acts around that circumstance that's a very american way to operate in the field of battle to keep your head just over his shoulder at the cameras so we couldn't be so close well i think in a city of him as rigid as is sung the city received view of him and the conventional commercially taught version of brown i just don't see him as having been that richard when i got close to him over a period of years he just seemed more and more complex more more filled with contradictions model for that and because of that more more human
so when a figure anyone character in fiction her an image showing and in our historical in our historical record finger no historical record is is viewed as being utterly of a peace and consistent and you can be pretty sure it's inaccurate and b it's just its own it's a manipulative image to serve some other political agendas as soon as long as we can think of thomas jefferson for instance as being untainted by racism pretty serious political purpose but as soon as so we accept the contradictions in his character regarding race as we recently begun to do he becomes more human for us
and i think that's sort of what happened when a new in a way and in the life of john brown i get so close to it is that i have to in order to write a novel was that he became more human became more country were full of contradictions and conflicts ambivalence is yet as a result he became more like me can you and the people i love when an interest of feeling a level of complexity that is do you really have to be all the greatest heroes villains it's important to humanize are heroes and are villains and it's because what it does is it reconnects them to our lives that makes them villainy in her it was impossible for us if thomas
jefferson it's all of a piece as no inconsistency similar contradictions then i can ever hope to be heroic like thomas jefferson or if john browne this is a villainous of a piece and with no inconsistency is the contradictions and i never have to to deal with him as a human being i never have to take seriously the meaning and shape of his life alone accepting these complexities and contradictions in our heroes is away and not as a set of humanizing them would've known for opening the possibilities in our lives for heroism it's a great sentence do just
so we think we are free of that kind of sin are potential evil one well i think he still important today for an area that is important to day for a young complex clutch of recent israeli gathering of reasons one certainly is because he is so revealing to anyone of us willing to look out of our ongoing racial divide the the leap opposing voice which is regarded by quite an american and a black americans but he also in his life raises very basic an ongoing questions about the political violence
which we live with deal with an unknown puzzle over an are tormented by today violence in the service of play an ideal of course a principled caucus and then this is a part of our lives today and in so many ways whether it's an abortion clinic in upstate new york are already a federal building in oklahoma city so it's something that that we deal with the movie after facing an encounter in a drought understand contemptuous of it and i think too as we come to the end of the century we are in a true love of song confusion and anxiety over what it is to be american wheat we really we understand that rather well i
think what it is to be it'll american irish american african american native american we know pretty much what that left side of that hyphenated word phrase that we don't know what it is that we share on the right side what makes us american together and and brown is one of the very few figures i think who can be shared and the boy across ellie stares at the racial divide because he stares at the racial divide is a figure who can be shared his ophelia get white and black americans whose families go back to the eighteenth century and families have just arrived here from asia to sit down over the figure brown and try to come to some agreement agreed understanding of the meaning of his life and death and so doing i think cut right to the heart of
american history and is is not a peculiar person he's not somebody who's inaccessible by virtue of his education or is refined mentors class or the weird there are strange circumstances of his birth is a typical american not just of his time for the whole time and i said this be i think for brown north of the was an almost paradoxical in some way hard to think of a hardscrabble a rocky mr paul clement providing of her days ago environment but i think for him it was it brought all the different elements of his life together one place and all the different ambitions of fantasies and so it together he was able i was the
one time when he was there started making forty eight for a few years able to come to be the patriarch of a father and his family the shepherd of his family he was able to enact it took two in a very active way his son to the altitude to work never active way for the overthrow of slavery because of the presence of the economy the families of the freed slaves and timbuktu as it was called and the underground railroad he was able also to play a role in the community of shepherd as well he was like oh he had that founding father fantasy analyst we saw earlier an engine is severely first attempts to settle in condoning richmond pennsylvania and he was able to preach in the church and to improve the stock of his neighbors' cattle
sheep and and show the end and teach animal husbandry at the fare things like that i think are incredibly important so it was a very brief moment a few years at most when he was able to have those three aspects of his life in place and working together without conflict and almost every other place every other time in his life they do seem to be at a grocery rules seem to be at war with one another that was the one place where it was all together operative and i think he felt he was as working on all cylinders it was physically beautiful to lose the men appreciated data had an eye for nature did he had affection for nature and commented on it and numerous times and letters and both
his family and others and it was remark about and others at them he loaned me love the view of of what we called ol mom marcy from the front of the house there and spoke about it with great fondness for it pin american appreciation love of nature that it and meyer unlike in and guess as he was he was no so he was a combat mission is oh i think he perhaps felt that this is a good forty eight when he'd been a good forty eight when he went there he was forty eight years old and i think he felt this may be calm it from a
slum and it looked as though it could possibly finishes life out there and and i think perhaps so would have had not about its financial problems worse and had not done the intensity of the iraq war against a slave so shifted had not his son's gone out to kansas a few years later i think you probably would've ended his life there are kansas city and the emptiness as kansas changed the equation for him and so determined to get his financial turmoil recently had to hit the road it was being sued and all over the country and turn was for struggling to try to guess the suits payoff is bad debts and clarifies his record and i think that that you know and one third of the college and meaningful life that he had imagined
American Experience
John Brown's Holy War
Raw Footage
Interview with author Russell Banks, 4 of 5
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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Martyr, madman, murderer, hero: John Brown remains one of history's most controversial and misunderstood figures. In the 1850s, he and his ragtag guerrilla group embarked on a righteous crusade against slavery that was based on religious faith -- yet carried out with shocking violence. His execution at Harpers Ferry sparked a chain of events that led to the Civil War. Banks talks about Frederick Douglass - said plan was steel trap, but John Brown went, Martyr - plan failing, despair, last roll of dice, Martyr - elevated rhetoric, becomes memorably brilliant, Press - John Brown's words transformed North like nothing else could've, Martyr - John Brown's transformation great moment in US history, Press - media event w/ huge historical & political implications, Martyr - meaning of John Brown's life lies in its end, relief, Martyr - didn't plan it, saw as only option, genius, H Ferry/Engine House - small, but John Brown had focus, control, H Ferry - can't plan it, must seize when occurs, still puzzles us, Press - transformation John Brown & antislavery movement as violent, Press - technology, first media darling, excitement in headlines, Press/Hero - John Brown knew he fit hero role, exploited it, Press - John Brown not shy, Press - American way to operate, look at cameras, Personality - John Brown not rigid, complex, human, Heroes - humanize them to make villainy/heroism possible for us, Personality - complex, if only a villain one can dismiss him, Pottawatomie - raises Qs for today, violence for principled cause, Icon - John Brown typical American of all time, figure who can be shared, North Elba - paradisiacal, father & fighte, North Elba - all aspects of his life working together, North Elba/Failure - had to settle debts, lost dream
Race and Ethnicity
American history, African Americans, civil rights, slavery, abolition
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Chicago: “American Experience; John Brown's Holy War; Interview with author Russell Banks, 4 of 5,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 30, 2020,
MLA: “American Experience; John Brown's Holy War; Interview with author Russell Banks, 4 of 5.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 30, 2020. <>.
APA: American Experience; John Brown's Holy War; Interview with author Russell Banks, 4 of 5. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from