Friday, September 10, 2010

Abolitionist Novel

by Russell Banks

"It was no longer clear to me: were we doing this for them, the Negroes; or were we simply using them as an excuse to commit vile crimes against one another? Was our true nature that of the man who sacrifices himself and others for his principles; or was it that of the criminal?" (Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks)

This novel is a historical novel in sheep's clothing. What, you may ask, do I mean by that? The title of the novel, Cloudsplitter(1998, finalist for Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner), suggests that this may well be a biographical novel depicting the life of John Brown, and to a certain extent it is just that; but it is primarily a historical novel about the the antebellum period in America focusing on the Abolitionist movement and John Brown's role in that movement. The insights into the different aspects of abolitionism provide fascinating reading. For example, in his portrayal of Brown in Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks shows how Brown is more interested in the mighty sword than the ringing word. After listening with his son, Owen, to one of Emerson's talks in Boston, Brown walks out on the Sage of Concord while the sophisticated crowd applauds wildly:

"That man's truly a boob!" Father blurted. "For the life of me, I can't understand his fame. Unless the whole world is just as foolish as he is. Godless? He's not even rational! You'd think, given his godlessness, his sec-u-laahr-ity, he'd be at least rational," he said, and gave a sardonic laugh."

The book is filled with such detail about abolitionism and this makes it a worthwhile read. However, I found that, in spite of its length, the novel ultimately disappointed in its limited portrayal of the most famous episode in Brown's life, the raid on Harper's Ferry. Thus the reader who picks up Cloudsplitter expecting all the details of the life of the eponymous historical figure may be, as I was, somewhat disappointed by the end of the book.

Cloudsplitter: A Novel by Russell Banks. Harper Perennial, New York. 1999 (1998).

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