John Brown, Bleeding Kansas, and The Day After

“John Brown was one of the first Kansas heroes—or at least he was for me,” writes Steven Church in his book The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst.

Last October, we offered a little ditty about John Brown’s beard as it appears in John Steuart Curry’s mural Tragic Prelude. I recently came across a more serious reference to the painting, and to Brown, I thought worth sharing.

Brown plays a small but important thematic role in Church’s book, and Church offers a particularly interesting description of the painting, which always captivated him, he says. “It’s a terrifyingly beautiful image of the iconic man. It shows him as I want to imagine him.”

As a child on field trips to the state house, Church would “stand agog before the image of Brown, absolutely mesmerized by his fury.”

I’d always fixated on Brown’s eye, peeled wide and shocking white, his tiny hard pupils burning with insanity. He knee-length black jacket hangs down like a priest’s cassock. Behind him a tornado spins on the horizon. Fires burn, smoke rolling over his shoulder. His hair stands on end. His beard blows back as if some unseen force, some tide, is pushing against him. He appears larger than life, nearly twice as tall as the other men around him, and undeniably mythic. He looks like the sort of man capable of a massacre or a miracle. His anger was his power.

While Brown might not seem like a character you’d naturally think of when reading a book about Cold War fears, Church does a fantastic job of using Brown as an important and effective metaphor for the book’s other themes. It’s definitely worth checking out.

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