Journey back in time to the brink of the Civil War, when a 59-year-old abolitionist took the fight against slavery into his own hands in hopes of ending human bondage forever. On Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown led a raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in what was then Virginia, while some of his men captured local slave owners and freed their slaves. Quickly and violently quashed, the rebellion was brief, but its effects would prove eternal.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Horwitz takes us into the mind of Brown, using letters and interviews to perch us on Brown's shoulder. It is a thrilling vantage point, allowing us to watch the failed businessman as he plotted battle plans and recruited coconspirators for his attack.
AARP Bulletin talked to Horwitz, 53, about this anti-hero, the enduring attraction of the Civil War and how his life as a writer has evolved over time.
Q. What fascinated you about John Brown?
A. Brown raises uncomfortable questions about whether violence and defying your government are ever justified. We Americans like to see our stories in black and white, hero and villain. It is difficult to do that with Brown — he's hard to either love or hate. He led a home-grown attack against the U.S., but today everyone would agree that slavery was a terrible wrong that needed to end. One of my hopes for the book is that my readers have a feeling of suspense, figuring out how to feel about this man.
Q. Unlike your past books, you're not a character in this narrative. Why did John Brown's raid call for a different treatment?
A. I definitely had my temptations: I went to Harpers Ferry for research and the ranger told me that a John Brown beard-growing contest was going on in town. In my former incarnation I would have made a beeline there. But this story was so good, I really wanted to get out of John Brown's way. I felt it would be jarring to interrupt the historical narrative with my own antics.
Q. What did it feel like to be so close to a zealot for so long?
A. As one historian said, researching John Brown can be a bit like getting stuck in the Old Testament and being unable to get out.
Q. Do you empathize with him?
A. Brown is not a warm and cuddly figure. But I grew to admire aspects of his character. I am in my 50s now, and here is a man who, in his mid-50s after a long and ugly career as a businessman and farmer, remakes himself as an abolitionist. He redefines his life around a new task and really triumphs. However you feel about him, I took some inspiration from that.