Writing John Brown
“Brown was an inept businessman who failed twenty times in six states and defaulted on his debts.” – David McCullough
“John Brown…John Brown. A very important person in history. Important though for only one episode. Failure in everything in life.” – Ed Bearss
For some 40 million people in 1990–including me–this was their first introduction to John Brown. This portrait of Brown became (and remains) something of a fad. We pile on Brown as a failed businessman. A poor strategist. A lunatic. A terrorist. How could someone seemingly fail so spectacularly on so many fronts and still command this kind of attention 130 years after his death? I had to know more.
I spent the next three decades digesting everything I could find relating to Brown. I made countless trips to Harpers Ferry, even proposing to my wife on Maryland Heights. I found neighborhood and even familial connections to the raid. When I began my association with ECW some six years ago and the opportunity arose to contribute a book to the Emerging Civil War Series, I knew right away what it would be. I was lucky and remain thankful for having an outstanding coauthor and friend in Kevin Pawlak who helped to shepherd our book through the publishing process.
Our fearless editor, Chris Mackowski, recently asked that I consider a blog post here unpacking my experience as a first-time author. Among the questions he posed were what challenges I ran into while writing the book. This one stuck out.
We started writing in early 2020, only weeks before the world shut down during the COVID pandemic. My office closed, as did my children’s school. While my wife continued working throughout the pandemic, I had to adjust to a “new normal” of navigating virtual schoolwork and entertaining two young children who didn’t understand why they couldn’t go see their friends at school or go to the playground. As someone who thrives on schedules, work, and activities, I suddenly had a lot of downtime—but that downtime didn’t always equate to writing time.
I began to wake up early to get in a few hours of writing before my girls woke up, or stayed up late after their bedtime, trying to knock out several hundred words here and there. I had to find windows of time in which I could operate. I’d feel good about myself if I was seated at my desk to start writing at 5:00 a.m., only to open our shared documents and find that Kevin had been up working since 4:00 a.m. His time management skills and work ethic are unmatched.
It was also challenging locating or accessing sources during the pandemic. COVID had indefinitely closed many research repositories. Archivists (like me!) and vendors were staying home, leaving me unsure when the new sources I ordered would arrive on my doorstep. Thankfully, we still had access to a wealth of digitized resources ranging from Google Books to West Virginia Archives & History’s Boyd B. Stutler database. While it took some patience, we were eventually able to find what we needed.
Finally, as I imagine many first-time authors struggle with, it was challenging for me to not insert myself into this book. After all, it’s not just my name on the cover. I imagine my ideas and opinions of John Brown vary from many of our readers, perhaps even from my coauthor. Instead, I sought to frame Brown within his own times. It’s easy for us to attach labels like “failure” and “terrorist” because it’s terminology we’re familiar with in our own world. But no matter how many books we’ve read, we’re less familiar with John Brown’s world than we are with our own.
When you look at the panics and volatile financial uncertainty of the mid-19th century –a period fraught with peril for both debtors and creditors–it helps us understand why people like Abraham Lincoln, Matthew Brady, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, and John Brown all struggled with personal finances and bankruptcy. When you look at the violence inflicted on both sides of the Kansas conflict, as well as on Brown’s own family, it helps to frame (read: “not condone”) his actions against the savage backdrop of Bleeding Kansas. And when you look at the varying assaults on federal installations in the run-up to the Civil War–including the 1855 proslavery sacking of a Federal arsenal in Missouri–we realize that perhaps Brown’s capture of the armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry wasn’t quite as unprecedented as we may have thought.
While others may have appropriated John Brown over the years to fit their own narratives, I didn’t seek to change any hearts or minds. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wants to call Brown a murderer, a terrorist, or a saint. He was and he remains open for interpretation. But placing Brown within his own times and experiences may help to better understand such a complex and polarizing figure. And if our book is the first one you read on John Brown, I earnestly hope it’s not the last. There’s so much more to discover…
And here’s hoping that a global pandemic doesn’t disrupt my second book….