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the idea though of the the hearing primarily the sound of an x and that's a very early nineteenth century rule image that probably is very accurate and of chief if you going to do wilderness today all grown backers say the adirondacks so we're where the north all this i realized that in order to live there they had the first trap all the trees down and by hand with an ax only recently burn the stumps of pull them out with horses in the clear the ground and it was a constant ongoing activity it's grueling hard work of the short growing season two the son of an x against a tree it's really got to be one of the most familiar sounds do have a boy growing up in the air and it a century wilderness since those
days and days of this whole long winters now i'm hearing the year illness the pervasiveness of silence i suppose would make a crack of an axe even louder in some way more memorable but living with the silas is something almost unimaginable to us today they play a central america when i had most of the year and in the adirondacks region close by and those letters or talk and the need and will and when i think of what the life of that family must have been in that house throughout the long winter the silence in the darkness darkness darkness three thirty in the afternoon and it stays dark until eight o'clock the next morning
and never mind the cold and the wind blowing hard just to that a pressure all of us that many people are living in such a small space confined to it to such a degree that survey which they have to be incredibly tough and resilient and aunts and they had to be saved in a way we can barely imagine the necessity for today describe them but i believe in one of the question is that drove me and i'm writing the novel is the question that the dr see the narrator own brown which is acceptable question of was my father matter that was john brown that or not as it so obviously it's an important question because if he was mad there no we think one way about his behavior and the context for that
behavior if he was not bad than we think another way about the context and the behavior in it i did come to the conclusion it was not what i necessarily tell when i began it was not there that he was he was some incredibly say it wasn't rational times by anybody and we might even if we were to examine that in a clinical mode today how he might of the diagnosis borderline manic depressive person thought that because he did seem to go through periods of mania alternating with periods of depression and withdrawal and you know had we had with the m o n e t fifties we might know at harpers ferry and had been at harpers ferry we might not have had a republican president and we can and have been a totally convinced republican party in power we might not have had a civil war although social history would have been re written entirely of but but i don't believe he was
out of touch with reality and there's been a sense that we would use to describe someone who is mad as especially when it began looking within that context right it was simply too tough to survive just you know as i was saying earlier too tough to survive a winter day year after year winter in the north country and to take care of a family and her neighbors and deal with animals and the exigencies the daily exigencies of life too tough to do that i wasn't sure where we are i've come to that feeling that he seems to be get you know i feel since the otherness and passion and your question is where does it come from some interesting things to cheat to say was you know i don't believe he
would he was anyone here is crazy as a lot of people who are regarded without question as great american heroes like davy crockett what it was probably absolutely bonkers or daniel boone a medieval most inclined to vote for some of those guys were really off their tree and in ways that brown was not brown many ways was i was a much steadier per person than any of those people we tend to often put up on the mountains is heroic in an intimate setting people think he is because of his religious speaking punjabi but yes i was harriet beecher stowe i think the reason people think why people think he was mad as because he was a white man and he was willing to sacrifice his life in order to liberate black americans know that it's as simple as that that's a crazy thing to do if you're a white person black people don't think he's crazy generally
very few african americans regard brown has this insane if you go out onto the street day with you at school kid or an elderly woman or a college professor if it's out for african american person you're talking to they will regard a bunch of erroneous start right out with the assumption well he's a hero because he was willing to sacrifice his life a white man to liberate a black americans if you speak to a white american but it probably the same proportion of them will say he was a madman and as for the same reason because he was a white man who was willing to sacrifice his life to every black americans they'll say he was mad because of little quote him as a bible thumper i mean if he's crazy then you know so is your roberts and i'm not willing to say that it's really that simple when it comes right down to the simple fact that he did something which for a white guy in a racist society
is crazy and in as what makes a hero to african americans the very thing that makes him cement white americans as a mason sr wrote black americans and that paradox to me concern goes to the heart of from the racial divide in american culture he stands astride the most fascinating and revealing way i think but the two largest segments of our population racially definable segments of our population due the same figure the same set of facts with them publicly oppose points of view and that means a completely different things depending upon your skin color and brown's life is his x mean completely different things to add two americans depending upon their skin color to me it makes him so tragically revealing an emblematic of our history and our culture and our nature today
here's why brown brown trousers to study for the ministry and you know what i think he ultimately chose not just ended up that enough to become a mess if it didn't become a minister that is to say didn't follow through a lengthy period study which it would've required for many of the same reasons so many young men that year and even today you know began to feel to study and then fall away from party was economic party it was so that preparation he was he he was in a position where he would have he had to make up for years of not being properly school uses what remedial mode an ally and as hard as hard a spirit especially for an egocentric an ambitious
young man hard to just in terms of time and energy frustrating i think he gave up not because of any great character flaw but simply because the circumstances he was not finally in the end i don't think a man was even as a young man i don't think he was i did see a logically subtle refined or even that curious i think he wanted to preach anyone to be the shepherd to a flock and being a minister was certainly one way to do it and was press the social world the mystery that he coveted more than the actual study of theology and religion and so on so i suspect it is rather quickly grew frustrated and unknown maybe even bored by the enterprise and maybe even a little bit humiliated by two because he was with the boys really people who are younger than me by a few years and who have probably
better read and a more on agile intellectually than hey sometimes we we we remember that brown was a farm boy after all and with very many years of public schooling and of schooling of any kind and i however intelligent he was so he was not an intellectual and nor was he a businessman as so many have pointed out the dream to succeed in and business so it was probably much more powerful and obsessive for him than the dream to become a minister and control his actions to a much greater degree but there was a much more widespread dream and that air after all in the forties thirties critic at and thirties and leading up to the crash ladies and thirty seven
and then afterwards a sissy year when every young man in america thirty could get rich like the eight nineteen eighties that way you know everyone thought they could get rich and speculation very very quickly and a unbranded as a reason why he couldn't to adjust as well and says he slits of these balls so we're surrounded him was seen to be growing very rich on real estate tender and canals and livestock young war and whatnot and they were doing a dishonest way he could do it and do it honestly country field and the obsessive we returned to that train it's very touching to me sometimes i want a full of it because of it and some accounts us about robert penn warren's and so forth for his desire to get rich but it was no different from mark twain's desire to get rich twain so fascination with also getting rich through technology if you know a generation later twenties is obsessed with andrews is a great deal of money
in now in trying to own and to have to make a million dollars from a typesetting machine that never quite works and yet nobody forced wait for this democrat is using the numbers of people who went bankrupt or was connected with it is a lot worse he's very much a man of his time and i think we sometimes fail to see that in any regards to his desires to get rich the easy way we're speculating on land or or or animals were commodities along and by his son in terms of his religious some enterprises application of religious law to his daily life he was very typical of most american cemetery especially as we say working class role americans and as it's
sometimes amusing for me to hear the first or second or third thing someone says about brenda say you know he fathered twenty children as if this was somehow offensive for sexually reckless or something i'm not sure that there is a server scandal was careless quality to it the aug twenty children he fathered only thirteen lived beyond early childhood and my grandparents were both members of families and eleven and twelve children it wasn't that unusual for a for a family to have ten eleven twelve children simply because of the introductory rate that is very typical of his erotic and so many ways they can fly anywhere they work as an economic factor in your life if you if you're living off the land if you if you have a farm and erasing your career food and you needed to clear the trees we're
talking about her finger in to the swing those x is an unknown and driving spots and spain card the wall urine in here you can't live without a smaller workforce and children were the easiest in the north there certainly and the non slaveholding rural america children were the cheapest form of labor you could get a rattling off early goes off and leaves his father in law wants to see the seeds of that right away it will and rallies and it cuts out to fit what is was new richmond pennsylvania ari start as ontario and builds and sell for joyce's neighbors to building a little school and essentially fans community in
the wilderness after a western pennsylvania then was witness that's a direct memories of twenty one point two years old is married got a complicated system business city started just harry and he's a leader in the community preaching on sunday in teaching evenings and sort of start a post office they don't have one and this is this is an interesting movies he's barely a mayonnaise just out of adolescence and he's already living are really carving out for himself a founding fathers kind of role gay not that different from me an old testament chief to take off into the wilderness and partly out of a community and that's it's quite striking actually to picture of the pope different his youth and childhood was a western it was compared to say ben franklin's
interesting sometimes to compare the child was r r r walt whitman's figures his job as we know wonderfully with the urban and eastern same class basically self educated toe and people who were practice youthful young age and so forth but brown brown's actions are reactions to solicit very western to me kind of of settling out and creating a community in the wilderness about that possibility that the siren and possibilities seemed so you'll see that much in the east along the coast even was born in torrington connecticut it's interesting an important thing to remember that his first memories and his childhood experiences were sent to you what would then be the west the western reserve unit was called ohio and done and what was
extreme wilderness time and matt wilderness league takes that herd of cattle at the age of twelve whole way up to i guess it's on lake huron to the wilderness adventure that a twelve year old boy it with us thirty head of the house of beef to provide the year of the american army would be funny war against the british carvings on in twenty something miles i think by ford as an extraordinary feat usually when you think of it is amazing as a western feet of jesus or that i associate with the history of the west the state physically almost unimaginable takes an extraordinary patience and an intolerance and disciplined to do that but since it's no
interviewer eastern notion this years probably not but he was not unusual well it hit this is a third of the one of the things about him which which is important to distinguish is that wall the shape of his daily life and the way which he engaged the world around him monday in ways which she and a shorter and was was very typical for a man with his backward but the inner foresee the emotional intensity and and moral ferocity that he brought to those activities was what set him apart he injures walk through these days the
way most men and women do of any year we boiled through his days abolitionists found that's when i first met him it exciting and thrilling and inspiring and two slivers from terrifying and on mad and say but but it was certainly there in the inner life of the man was was something to puncture behold one of the things that strikes me and mrs ma descriptions of brown physical descriptions of him remember him or describe him as having been a call may yet he was about five foot eight not at all unusual for a minute that you're probably of every tree just below average height
but w's remembered as cole and a big man he wasn't particularly with civilians relatively small i think he had a big head judging from photographs and like an actor or actress into big heads of a small bodies i think the depot where you have a large face and that perhaps reinforce the year the impression of intensity and focus that anybody made it is what it is getting close to in writing a novel on let me put this what approaching brown as anomalous i use mostly the same sources source material to jump off for historians biographers views letters and
journals and interviews with surviving children and so on and their qualities of mind in and temperament that never seemed to get into many of the road to the biographies generally that pile of that sadness and because because he was incredibly complex and interesting man personally much more interesting than they'd the portraits usually present just in terms of humor his children particularly khalifa accounts of avocado of a playfulness and then what bantering easygoing funny man around the house so he could be obviously a stern disciplinarian but oddly also they felt physically comfortable with and they all describe a person with whom they felt physically uncomfortable i mean this
is something you can pick up on very quickly won a child her and grown child is describing his or her childhood relation to a parent and reminiscence you can pick up very quickly whether or not that was a physically comfortable relationship and i think all of proust children the surreal because i read describe him that way they trusted him in an intimate way that that comes across very clearly today and i and i know you know you don't get that you have to earn that trust you don't get to be with me doesn't come with the job you have to earn that trust with humor and affectionate regard and that and a respect for your children i think brown had those children of his own and later life were really quite remarkable as that mr winters of achievement but just in terms of of clarity and emotional
stability much is made of the fact that one of his sons of fred that was certainly emotionally damaged in some ways and they're now and the lacy made a great wound upon himself which probably was a masculine giselle from escalation tortured soul but of for thirteen children he seems to have been the only one who was a seriously was maybe mentally ill and sobs in a recognizable way the others seem to be remarkable people that's not possible under the kind of stressful life that they led analysts at the center of that family that was somebody with great humility and then i'd really feel the domestic level brown had had great comanche and then commanded to the kind of respect or loyalty and affection from from his
family members that as i said doesn't go with that john burnett who has been surging issue of what life was like it's it's interesting to imagine the daily life of bustling large hardworking noisy articulate argumentative family who talk the day's news over every male intently and talk the bible over and and worried themselves over a moral conundrum soda with with great for energy and vigor of what it must've been like it must have been loud and dumb passionate and in using two hours a day in an outcome the houses when you physically enter the house of the one must say a prayer north all borrowers read the description of the house in springfield by young
but frederick douglass and little houses of a shotgun house a living and down there they get a sense of the actual physical dimensions of a rule in their working class house or four hours of that era you get them a clear sense of what it must've been like at night you know it's with the fire crackling and eight people in the small space at vocal people were particularly people in a small space age yammer in a way it must have been a very a remarkable environmental a linguistic environment what are the things that struck me on reading the young the letter's an occasional interviews and reminiscences of the family members says children as adults and later is how extraordinary articulate they
were these were people who knew how to use so american vernacular english and then the most remarkable way you do see it occasionally and journals and diaries and letters of that era more so than you certainly would today and journals and diaries letters but banned so was you know pretty much it wasn't unusual that people would be that articulate with no great education but they are remarkably articulate those children anything they're little journals describe the topic of discussion sometime soon it'll be very interesting new yorkers be about bunny and you know it'll be about questions of marriage are questions of the proper treatment of all out of the day's sentimental one one of alton brown's journals that he speaks about what base they talked about topic of conversation at
campfire kansas i think and one of the subjects was the origins of the american indians they stay up late arguing about this that i love to think about that you know if it was a grim in and two dimensional kind of life they were leaving it was a very complex and rich life and they did a way low for mentioning them add to that an unseen brown grow out of the john brown the historical figure the one that ends up as an icon an american icon growing up out of coming up our daily contacts the daily reality that time that isn't hate isn't too hard for for us to to imagine a way into it makes it so much more real to me it's much more makes also makes his
American Experience
John Brown's Holy War
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Interview with author Russell Banks, 2 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 Wilderness - chopping trees, sound of an ax familiar, Wilderness - silence, unimaginable to us today, Wilderness - imagine darkness, cold, wind, need for sanity, Sanity - John Brown mad? important question, Sanity - concluded John Brown incredibly sane, not always rational, Sanity - John Brown more sane than Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, etc, Sanity - whites think insane, blacks think sane, Sanity - acts were crazy in racist society, heroic to blacks, Sanity - white/black, John Brown emblematic of our history, culture, Seminary/Personality - wanted to preach, not intellectual, Business - obsessive dream to succeed, 1830s like 1980s, Business - he could do it honestly, Business/Man of Times - desire to get rich quick, Man of Times - working class, rural, typical # of kids, Family/Farming - needed children for labor, Tannery/Success - young "chieftain" carving out a community, Childhood (Ohio was "West") / Cattle drive extraordinary, Cattle drive - Western feat, physically unimaginable, Personality - emotional intensity, exciting/terrifying, Description of John Brown - tall, big man, though actually not that big, Personality - funny, playful, children felt comfortable w/him, John Brown as Father - kids trusted him, John Brown as Father - had great humanity, earned respect & loyalty, Family - bustling, loud, argumentative, news, Bible, morality, Family - small farmhouse w/ yammering kids, kids articulate, Family - campfire conversation origins of American Indians
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, 2 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, 2 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, 2 of 5. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from