John Brown: The Legend Revisited Essay

John Brown: The Legend Revisited

History 2010-Shell-Lee Clark

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     History contains some strange paradoxes; with the passage of time, there is a tendency for figures in history to either be viewed as larger than life, denied credit for things which they rightfully should have credit for, or are simply misrepresented.  Such is the case, on all counts, for John Brown, the anti-slavery activist who gave his life for the cause of abolition and served as a martyr for the cause.  In an effort to add depth to the study of Brown, and to try to clarify some of the finer points of his background, Merrill D. Peterson published “John Brown-The Legend Revisited” in 2004.  Using Peterson’s book, this research will not only study the book itself, but will also present some peripheral information that will add to the work that Peterson originally published.

A Summary of the Book

     Peterson’s book, overall, is a combination of an historic review of the facts of John Brown’s anti-slavery activities, culminating with his coordination of the raid on the United States Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia and Brown’s subsequent hanging for the crime, an occurrence which fed the legend of John Brown and elevated him to martyr status.  First, Peterson presents the historic facts of Brown and his activities, and from there, Peterson ventures into scholarship by taking the factual information that he first presented and then putting forth his own personal thesis, which will be discussed in more detail in the next section of this research.

Thesis of the Book

     The thesis of Peterson’s book is that through the distortion that is usually par for the course in the presentation of historical events, the deep emotional bias that could cloud the documentation of a controversial event like slavery and the fight against it, and the larger than life status that John Brown assumed in American mythology after his death, John Brown has not always been assigned his proper place in history.  As an example of the myth that is far different from the man, the author makes the point that the timeless legend of Brown kissing an African-American baby on his way to the gallows, which showed his unconditional love for racially diverse people, never happened (Peterson, 2004).  This is not to say, Peterson maintains, that John Brown did not believe in his cause, but that he was given a higher status in death than he actually had in life.  Also, Peterson makes the argument that Brown was far from the extremist zealot that he is often depicted to be, but is actually in some ways a sympathetic figure, entitled to his rightful place in history.

Was the Thesis Proven?

     Peterson proved his thesis that while Brown is an impressive figure of history, and his deeds are noteworthy, that he has been given an inflated status in some ways and was maligned as an unstable vigilante in others.  To Peterson’s credit, he is able to prove his thesis through solid scholarship more than by merely presenting his own opinions that cannot be proven.  In doing this, the author added weight to the assertion that history is best served without artificial ingredients.

Sources the Author Used in Writing the Book

     In the preparation of his book, Merrill Peterson travelled across several states and sought information from the halls of academia to collections of archival material about John Brown.  Originally, the author was inspired by his own readings of books that other authors had written about Brown over the years.

     What Peterson has done in the gathering of the sources for his book is to take the factual information available in the archives of libraries of material devoted to John Brown, from historians and universities and use it not only to provide historical research, but to also put forth his own observations about this controversial figure of American history.

Personal Reactions to the Book

     In conclusion, the researcher will offer some personal reactions to the book.  As an observational statement, the depiction of the historic events in the beginning of the book were captivating and interesting, with the pacing of well constructed fiction.  This is not to say that the later portions of the book, which Peterson’s scholarly conclusions were based on his studies, seemed to be fabricated or false.  However, as was covered earlier, it does appear that the author deviated from objectivity by depicting John Brown as more of a misunderstood character who had a noble goal and gave his life for it than as someone who teetered on the edge of vigilantism.  Perhaps, as a final thought, this is something that is noteworthy and was the point that began this research- history is a topic that will always be open to interpretation.

Works Cited

Peterson, MD (2004). John Brown: The Legend Revisited. University of Virginia Press. 176 pp.