Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly placed the Harpers Ferry arsenal seized by Brown’s party in Maryland. Harpers Ferry is in West Virginia, which was part of Virginia when the raid took place in 1859.
The abolitionist John Brown launched his raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859, when 20 men seized an arsenal and held it for 36 hours. Brown was captured and tried, and on the morning of Dec. 2, he wrote a note reading, “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” Then he was escorted from the county jail to a nearby field and hanged.
Earlier this year, the author James McBride published “The Good Lord Bird,” a fictionalized account of the years leading up to the raid. Two weeks ago, it won the National Book Award. On the 154th anniversary of John Brown’s death, McBride came to Washington to talk about the book and the man, which was really a way to talk about the way we talk about history — the mythmaking and muckraking of heroes and villains.
“Oh, wow. Look at this. I always thought his eyes were gray.”
There’s a portrait of Brown hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, 55 miles from the site of the raid, and McBride is seeing it for the first time. He leans in to examine Brown’s oil-painted eyes, which are a blistering blue and gazing upward, as if to heaven. “He looks — ” McBride, 56, searches for the right word. “Consumed.”
He’s glad that he didn’t see this painting while writing “The Good Lord Bird.” It might have dimpled his own depiction of John Brown, the Calvinist northerner and failed businessman who dedicated his life to ending slavery.
In McBride’s novel, told from the perspective of Onion, a black boy passing as a girl, Brown is a windmill-tilting zealot, prone to prayer marathons and grandiose declarations, brave and fearsome and toothless all at once. He’s a caricature more than a character, a man whose heart is in the right place, Onion believes, but whose “peanut had poked out the shell all the way.”
“Historians will tell you that they deal with fact and empirical evidence,” says McBride (tall, goateed, earring and porkpie hat). “But that doesn’t really help me understand a person. What kind of person was he really? What kind of coffee would he drink? What would he be like to have a cup of coffee with?”
Insufferable, from the looks of it. McBride’s Brown marauds about the United States, losing money, trying to rouse slaves who don’t particularly want his help. Other historical figures receive similarly withering treatment at McBride’s hand: Harriet Tubman is a no-show when it counts, and Frederick Douglass is a pompous lecher.
Some of it is true but not real, or real but not true; the difference between the historical and fictional Browns is like the difference between the grim sepia photographs of John Brown and the evocative painting in the Portrait Gallery. One is accurate. One makes you feel.
McBride, who lives in New York and New Jersey, landed on the John Brown narrative while researching another project in this area. He came across references to Harpers Ferry, about which he’d previously known little. Onion’s voice was appropriated from a failed short story about the National Zoo. The story was no good, but McBride loved the narrative voice of its grizzled, brash lion, which he transformed into an elderly man recounting his younger adventures with Brown.
“I didn’t want it to be serious,” McBride says, of his absurdist take on this patch of American history. “You’re stripping things to the essentials. The world is nude, and you can either make fun of it, or you can act like you’re at a nudist beach, and every once in a while look up and go, what the heck is that?”
As we mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, America is still figuring out how to tell its story of slavery. Last year’s “Django Unchained” used the institution as the backdrop for a bloody revenge fantasy; this year’s “12 Years a Slave” is an unflinching look at its brutality. “The Good Lord Bird” might be the first lauded artwork (with the possible exception of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”) to deal with slavery in a way that is . . . funny.
“When we’re talking about slavery . . . we’re really talking about the web of relationships that exists between whites and blacks from 1619 to 1865 to now,” he says. It’s a complex web, with affection and dependence running parallel to violence and oppression. It’s never an easy story to tell; we may never get it right.
McBride knows about complexities. A former Washington Post journalist, he was best known before the publication of “The Good Lord Bird” for his 1995 memoir, “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” in which McBride meshed his own story with that of his mother, a tiny white Jewish woman who raised 12 mixed-race children.
At an evening performance/reading at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington — McBride is musically trained and travels on his book tour with a gospel group called the Good Lord Bird Band — he slyly welcomes the audience: “It’s so nice to see so many white peop — I mean nice people.” The audience, mostly white, laughed at him laughing at them and clapped along with the series of spirituals. The finale was “John Brown’s Body,” the pew-rousing march whose tune was later repurposed with dignity as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Over the course of 154 years, history’s perception of John Brown has shifted with the times. He has been re-shellacked and varnished: Early accounts positioned him as the nation’s first domestic terrorist; later analyses saw him as a noble hero. His actions were the emotional catalyst for the Civil War, which, as he’d predicted on the day of his death, purged slavery from the nation, but at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
Brown’s followers at Harpers Ferry — all but a few of whom were killed during the raid or captured and executed later — “are Americans we should be proud of,” McBride says. “People call him a terrorist, but you can use language to do many things and say many things about people, but John Brown was a hero.” He believes that of the man and of the character he created.
Brown is buried not at Harpers Ferry but on his family homestead in Upstate New York.
His soul goes marching on.