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This was one of those I wrote for no reason other than that I loved Russell Banks’s novel, Cloudsplitter (1998) so much. I think I did try sending it out once, though without any great expectation, and I briefly considered including it in my first collection of essays, but in truth the only place this ever appeared previously was in an apa. It’s an essay that grows out of my interest in the American Civil War, so there’s no science fiction here, but there is philosophy, which suggests a sort of continuity.

I watched a man controlled by a vision that I, his son, was too roughly finished to share, a vision that he would be obliged, therefore, to come back and report to me, just as he reported back to me his vision of the Lord. I believed in his visions, that they had occurred, and that they were of the truth – the truth of warfare, the truth of religion. This was what I had learned the night I spoke with Miss Peabody aboard the Cumbria – her last night on earth and, in a sense, my first. I had changed my mind that night, as she had commanded, and forthwith had changed my self. In making my mind up, I had made my self up. [Cloudsplitter, 384]

cloudsplitterDuring the depression of 1893-7, President Grover Cleveland said: ‘The lesson should constantly be enforced that though the people support the Government, Government should not support the people.’ [quoted in Harold Evans, The American Century., p. 22] In other words: you’re on your own. It is this faith in an extreme laissez-faire philosophy, (the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner building on the earlier economic ideas of Adam Smith, Malthus et al), that is a constant theme underlying American political thought, at least from the middle years of the nineteenth century right up to the present. It also surfaces in America’s love of the lone hero, the competent man of so much American popular literature, from Owen Wister’s Virginian (the lone force for law and honour who is in reality the protector of vested interest and abuse of power, most recently incarnated in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) and the more liberal adventurer facing himself and the wilderness in Jack London’s stories of Alaska to the rebellious vagabond of Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, from Robert Heinlein’s sage to William Gibson’s hacker. These characters, from the left and right of the political spectrum, display the virtues of going it alone; of not being dependent on government resources, on society, on anyone else, for one’s success. This staple of all American fiction is a myth of the status quo, and practically all American literature, of whatever stripe, has been a development of or an engagement with this myth. Those novels which particularly address the American past, which remake its heroes and villains to suit a more modern mode are among the most obvious ways in which American literature is engaged in the business of mythologising America.

Of all the heroes and villains who have emerged in this rethinking of the American past (and hence of the American present) one of the most ambiguous and hence most interesting is John Brown. Brown committed atrocities in Kansas yet pricked the conscience of the nation over slavery; he was foolhardy in his raid on Harpers Ferry yet it was a foolhardiness based on a belief in the rightness of his cause that is in some way admirable; he was a religious fanatic yet he is a hero of the liberal cause par excellence; he was a failure at everything he ever did yet he stands for a people who worship success; he was the trigger that would eventually unleash the cruellest and most divisive war in American history yet he wanted good. No wonder these contradictions have given rise to so many novels; he is a perfect vehicle for mythologising America.

In recent years he has seen two significant fictional incarnations. In Raising Holy Hell (1995) Bruce Olds gives us Brown’s voice coming from beyond the grave to testify in a posthumous trial and present the rational and irrational forces that drove him. While in Cloudsplitter (1998), Russell Banks paints Brown’s portrait through the eyes of his son, Owen. Owen is the one who is split; he cannot share his father’s beliefs but finds himself irresistibly drawn into all of his father’s actions, he is writing something that is determinedly not a hagiography, yet it is willy-nilly the creation of a mythic hero.

I can’t go, Father! And I can’t stay! I can’t give myself over to the slaves, and I can’t leave them! I can’t pray, and yet I can’t cease trying to pray. I cannot believe in God, Father. But I can’t abandon my belief, either. What am I to do? Please, tell me. What am I to do? [196]

The title of Banks’s novel refers to Tahawus, the Indian name for a mountain near the Brown’s farm at North Elba, but it also refers to John Brown himself, a man of average height made a giant, a cloudsplitter, by his myth. Owen makes this identification specific when he says:

for I have come over the years so to associate the two, as if each, mountain and man, were a portrait of the other and the two, reduced to their simplest outlines, were a single, runic inscription which I must, before I die, decipher, or I will not know the meaning of my own existence or its worth. [689]

John Brown isn’t just a force of nature (the mountain), he is also the measure by which one’s own life must be judged. This, surely, is the role of the mythic hero. And though Owen himself does not believe the myth, he cannot help but witness it – and create it.

john brown

At one point Owen and John Brown attend a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson on heroism: ‘“Heroism seems not to know that other souls are of one texture with it. It has pride. It is the extreme of individual nature,” he declared. These words struck fire with me, for, of course, they described my father perfectly, and I wondered if the Old Man himself realised it. Or was that, too, characteristic of heroism – that the hero does not recognise himself as heroic.’ [312] This also refers obliquely to Owen, the hero of this novel, who does not realise he is heroic. But, far more, Owen is right to recognise his father, the man who’s larger than life and whose stature continues to grow throughout the novel – and beyond.

Before Kansas, the Old Man had always been larger than his reputation; after Kansas, he was smaller. Although, over time, he himself changed not a whit. I changed, certainly, and nearly everyone else changed. But not Father. Merely, his reputation caught up with the reality and then surpassed it. [514]

It is, of course, characteristic of the mythic hero that he does not change, that he is always the same. When Owen begins his account of the battle of Osawatomie in Kansas, which would give his father his nickname, his tone of voice distances him from this belief in his father as a supernatural figure – after all, he knows that the battle at Osawatomie was a defeat, that his father was a hopeless leader in war, that all his ideas come from a half-assed reading of the Bible – yet he cannot help believing that his father deserves this renown, that the role he occupies and deserves is something akin to a mythic hero.

On the day that he sacrificed his best son upon the stone altar of his belief, Father within hours was transformed from a mortal man – an extraordinary and famous man, to be sure, but, still, only a man – into a hero bathed in swirls of light. It mattered not whether they liked his ways or admired his courage or believed his words; the American people from then on viewed him as more and other than a man. [659]

And the novel is littered with instances in which a supernatural mantle is placed over John Brown’s shoulders. Just before the scene quoted here, for instance, John Brown and Owen see a mirage that allows them to witness the killing of Owen’s brother Fred (the ‘best son’ of that quotation). This is clearly not realism but an example of the way a mythological hero is supposed to be associated with signs from nature, with miracles.

It is also necessary that a mythic hero should be the lynchpin for great events, so we get Banks’s suggestion (not entirely far-fetched) that the anti-slavery forces in Kansas were heading towards compromise with the slavers before Brown committed his atrocity at Pottawatomie; thus, without these killings there would have been ‘no war at all in the Kansas Territory, which in ’58 would have come into the Union as a slave state instead of a free, an event surely to be followed by the secession of most of the northern states and their probable, eventual union with Canada. There would have been no debacle at Harpers Ferry. No Civil War.’ [677] And, of course, no end to slavery.

Thus we have John Brown associated with something supernatural if not outright miraculous, and we have him as the key to great events. Moreover, like any mythic hero, he has his particular attributes; in this case (though it may seem paradoxical for one so closely associated with the chaos of terrorism and with a constant succession of business failure) his attribute is order. He brings rightness to things. Time and time again throughout the novel the Brown family, left to its own devices, sinks into apathy, disease, disorder, until the Old Man arrives to set things straight. ‘It happened just as I imagined it would. Just as I hoped and dreaded it would,’ Owen says of one such occurrence, [555] emphasising his own human failure. Brown is being portrayed as more than a man; he is a force for order, for physical as well as social health. Again, this is made explicit:

Then, suddenly one morning, there was the Old Man, appearing in our midst like the missing main character in a play, taking over the stage and putting everyone else at once into a supporting role. Which was how we wanted it, of course. Without Father, we had no hero for our play, and whenever he was absent, we undertook our parts without purpose or understanding. We forgot our lines, positioned ourselves wrongly on the stage, confused friend with foe, and lost all sight of our desired end and its opposition. Without the Old Man, tragedy quickly became farce. [490]

More than that, there is a resonance with the future that is a key underlying thread throughout the whole novel. It is being written by Owen, ostensibly as a series of letters (never sent), assisting Oswald Garrison Villard in the research for his biography, John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After (published in 1910). Events are therefore always witnessed with hindsight, seen from the turning point of the new century, the birth of the American century, and are redolent with that sense of the future. There is a scene early in the book when Owen, in old age, hears that his companions from the Harpers Ferry raid are to be reburied at John Brown’s old farm at North Elba. He travels by train across country, then walks the long road from the station to the farm, then stands silently by throughout the ceremony and long after. And throughout that long walk and the subsequent ceremony he is alone and apparently unnoticed by anyone else, almost as if he were a ghost. It is a curiously haunted and haunting episode, loaded with significance. This is a supernatural visitation from America’s past to America’s future.

This sense of the future crops up repeatedly throughout the book. In a shipboard encounter, Owen meets the niece of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

She, on the other hand, having been encouraged by her elders since her nursery days to forsake the old Puritan forms of religion, had retained none of the Puritans’ moral uprightness and rigor. She was a sinner, she said. A sinner without the comfort of prayer and with no possibility of redemption. “I wonder, Owen Brown, do you think that this is what it means to be all modern and up-to-date?” [347]

It is yet another reference to the future, to the world that these mythic events are building. The modern age, the American Century that will follow of necessity upon these events, is perforce a lesser age, an Age of Shoddy, an age that cannot live up to its progenitors as Owen cannot live up to his father:

My heretical refusal to play Isaac to my father’s Abraham seemed not mine alone: it felt emblematic to me – as if an Age of Heroism had acceded to an Age of Cowardice. As if, in the context of those last days at Harpers Ferry and the one great moral issue of our time, I had become a man of another time: a man of the future, I suppose. A modern man. [740]

Heroes always belong to an earlier Golden Age, while we who recognise their heroism and follow in their wake inevitably find ourselves in, at best, a Bronze Age, an age that somehow lacks the necessary ingredients for pure heroism. But something more than this change in the times is represented in this novel. John Brown’s was indeed a time when everything changed, a time when compromise and a fitfully maintained peace changed to war, a time when the old social order changed forever. In Lincoln at Gettysburg Garry Wills identifies Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as marking a sea change in American culture, from transcendentalism to the new pragmatism that would later be represented by William James and Charles S. Peirce. Most of the fiction that returns to that ante-bellum world does so from a twentieth-century, and hence pragmatic, world-view, so Banks’s evocation of transcendentalism in the beliefs and attitudes of his characters is not only convincing period detail, it is also refreshing. Of course, the essence of transcendentalism is the quest for the greater beyond, the hunger for godhood, and that is precisely what this mythologising of America is all about. Which leads me to wonder whether other contemporary novelists concerned with mythologising America’s past (so many of the postmodernists, for instance, such as Doctorow in The Book of Daniel or Ragtime, Erickson in Leap Year or Arc d’X, Delillo in Libra or Underworld) are not best classified as new transcendentalists.

There is, of course, a connection between transcendentalism and puritanism (which, together with pragmatism, provide the three great intertwining philosophical strands in American culture) as we have seen in Owen’s shipboard encounter with Miss Peabody. The girl is unmarried and pregnant, and later throws herself into the sea. Now I have no idea if Hawthorne had a niece who committed suicide in this way, or if she ever met Brown, or even if Brown ever did sail to England as this book suggests; the whole episode feels too pat and melodramatic to be entirely true. But it is the personal revelations that come out of such encounters that prompt reviewers to talk of ‘reinventing’ someone for a new age: yet such ‘reinvention’ is precisely the process of mythologising that this article is all about. Owen, reinventing himself at Miss Peabody’s request, is leaving behind the puritan and the transcendental for a future that is pragmatic yet somehow less than the past. Throughout the book we are forced to compare Owen to his father, because that is something that Owen is constantly doing, and from such comparisons we see that John Brown is entirely of his age and yet is the greater man for it.

Not to struggle constantly to overthrow the system of slavery was to abandon our Republic, was to surrender our civic freedoms and responsibilities, was to give our mortal souls over to the rule of Satan. We were obliged to oppose slavery, then, not merely to preserve and perfect the Republic, although that alone was a worthy enough task, but to defeat Satan. It was our holy, our peculiarly American, obligation.

Simple. Or so it seemed. For even though I understood Father’s logic well enough, I didn’t always understand his applications of that logic to the specific circumstances, contingencies, and conditions that arose daily in our lives. Which meant that, on a day-to-day basis, I sometimes did not know right from wrong. [254-5]

John Brown’s moral certainty, of course, comes straight from the puritan strand of American thought; Owen’s more modern worries about their everyday application are a much more pragmatic concern.

Fitzgerald told us the rich are different; Hartley told us the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. The fiction of the first half of the last century seems to be full of differences: disparity, as in Forster’s Howard’s End (1910) or Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), where the old social order has started to break down in the wake of the First World War. The postmodernists, on the other hand, consistently tell us everything is the same, whether it is Barthelme saying the Second World War and King Arthur are cut from the same cloth or Auster saying our existential fears are the stuff of an archetypal detective story. This is a fiction of equality, even if the breaking down of divisions can lead to the dis-ease we see in, for instance, Coover’s The Public Burning or Delillo’s Mao II. Now we seem to be getting a new mythologising which is different again. Cloudsplitter is far from being the first in this tendency; a number of contemporary American writers have taken to mythologising their past: Coover in The Public Burning, DeLillo in Libra, Olds in Raising Holy Hell, Vollmann in The Ice-Shirt and its sequels, Jane Mendelsohn in I Was Amelia Earhart and perhaps most explicitly of all, Steven Millhauser who opens Martin Dressler as if New York at the turn of the century was a land of fable:

There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper’s son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune. This was toward the end of the nineteenth century, when on any streetcorner in America you might see some ordinary-looking citizen who was destined to invent a new kind of bottlecap or tin can, start a chain of five-cent stores, sell a faster and better elevator, or open a fabulous new department store with big display windows made possible by an improved process for manufacturing sheets of glass. Although Martin Dressler was a shopkeeper’s son, he too dreamed his dream, and at last he was lucky enough to do what few people even dare to imagine: he satisfied his heart’s desire. But this is a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealously, waiting for the flaw, the little flaw, that brings everything to ruin, in the end. [Martin Dressler  1-2]

This makes a transcendental hero, the archetypal tragic figure of myth, out of that traditional American figure the entrepreneur. Dressler is a man who would be perfectly at home in Cleveland’s world of self-sufficiency, the plain, pragmatic, competent man, the loner who asks nothing of his government, or of society in general, in order to achieve his aims. But in Dressler the puritanical pragmatist is turned back into the puritanical transcendentalist who inhabits the dreamworld of all heroes, the Golden Age when such entrepreneurial gods did stalk the land. And hero he most certainly is, as we learn a little later when Dressler feels: ‘a little sharp burst of restlessness, of dissatisfaction, as if he were supposed to be doing something else, something grander, higher, more difficult, more dangerous, more daring.’ [Martin Dressler, 129]

But for all that Martin Dressler represents the trend towards the mythic in contemporary American fiction, Cloudsplitter is perhaps the finest example of such transcendental literature at the moment, not only because of the sheer size of the hero – John Brown bestrode the history of his era like a hero from mythology – but because of the way Banks recognises the way any such figure from an Heroic Age must remain essentially incomprehensible to all us mortals who follow in lesser ages, however much he shapes us to his image:

Forgive the Old Man, I would say to myself. Come on, now, grow large, Owen, and be generous with understanding and compassion. Yes, understanding, especially that – for when one understands a human being, no matter how oppressive he has been, compassion inevitably follows. Yet there was so much that I could not understand about this man, my father, and the life we led because of him – my thoughts, my questions, were blocked, occluded: by the absolute rightness of his cause, which none of us could question, ever; and by the sheer power of Father’s personality, the relentlessness of it, how it wore us down, until we seemed to have no personalities of our own, even to each other. Certainly we spoke like him, but we could not hear it ourselves. We had to be told of it first by strangers. [251]