CLOUDSPLITTER: A Novel. By Russell Banks . HarperFlamingo: 758 pp., $27.50

Henry Mayer is the author of "A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic" and the forthcoming "All on Fire," a biography of William Lloyd Garrison

Of all the cultural puzzlements I encountered when moving as a seventh-grader from the Bronx to eastern North Carolina in 1953, the most curious was the way my new friends and neighbors would say that they couldn't get the "John Brown'd" thing to work or that they would be "John Brown'd" before they'd do something they didn't like. At first it seemed like gibberish; then I made the naive substitution of thinking they meant "hanged" and only gradually did it dawn on me that the expression was a grim and profane oath that meant, literally, damned by God and sent to roast in hell.

Nearly a century after the old soldier had risen up against slavery at Harpers Ferry, his very name remained a living curse in the South, and nearly half a century further on, his is still a name, like Lincoln's, permeated with the essence of the catastrophe we call the Civil War. Yet what is it about Brown's course of action--angry at the government for dishonoring its own principles, he formed a private militia and launched a violent attack upon federal property that left 17 people dead and ended with his execution after a highly publicized trial--that differentiates him from the convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh? What is the political and historical alchemy that converts terrorists into martyrs? At the intersection of ideology and violence, what distinguishes the route to fateful revolution from the dead-end of misguided, mad adventurism?

These questions have a foreign ring that may evoke in readers of a certain age memories of dormitory bull sessions about Che Guevara, the SDS Weathermen or the SLA gang that kidnapped Patricia Hearst. Yet they apply equally to the Stamp Act rioters, to partisans of slave revolt, to border warriors in "Bleeding Kansas" and, of course, to John Brown. Yet the sentimental strain in our culture--as manifested, say, in the work of Ken Burns or Shelby Foote or in the popularity of Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain"--has turned our thinking about the Civil War into a pageant of heroism and a threnody of grief that separates the act of sacrifice from the forces that ordained it. In "Cloudsplitter," a brooding and ambitious novel set in the 1840s and '50s and focused on Brown and "the war before the War," Russell Banks counters this indulgent view with a grim and compelling reminder that the Civil War was a tragedy rooted in slavery and race long before it became a calamity of flag and nationhood.

"Cloudsplitter" (the title refers to the mountain peak that dominates the landscape of Brown's homestead in a narrow valley of the Adirondacks, but the metaphor applies to the protagonist's titanic, heaven-storming ambition) is not a conventional historical novel of abundant atmosphere and little substance. It is instead a daring, though not entirely successful, blend of adventure and rumination that combines melodramatic fugitive slave chases in the stirring tradition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with the sullen father-son combat of "A Long Day's Journey Into Night."

As a novelist distinguished for his sympathetic portraits of the isolated and the disaffected ("Rule of the Bone," "Continental Drift") and communities bewildered by profound and fateful emotions ("The Sweet Hereafter"), Banks could be expected to bring scrupulous powers of observation and an abiding human sympathy to his story of an abolitionist family at war with a political culture that tolerates slaveholding. In this he does not disappoint. "Cloudsplitter" is a vibrant, out-sized, mesmerizing portrait of the mercurial Brown that reveals his charm as well as his piety, his compassion as well as his demonic wrath, his intellect as well as his willfulness. To watch Banks' John Brown stride across the Waterloo battlefield to discern the lessons of Napoleon's defeat, to stand with him as he reorganizes a faltering encampment in a whirlwind display of skilled craftsmanship and masterful direction, to listen to Brown read aloud the biblical account of Gideon's army as a series of tactical suggestions from the Lord himself is to immerse oneself in literary representation of the highest order.

In a prefatory note, however, Banks disavows any intention of revisionist biography or historical interpretation and insists that his book is "a work of the imagination" that must be read "solely as a work of fiction." To explore the meaning of this injunction, it is necessary therefore to set aside both one's admiration for the imaginative power Banks has applied to the known facts about Brown's life and one's quibbles about minor inaccuracies and the chronological liberties he has taken. One must concentrate instead upon the invented psychological drama he has made of the novel by telling the story as a series of flashbacks in the voice of the old warrior's aged son, Owen, a tormented hermit, awash in guilt and self-pity, who considers himself "a garrulous apparition" and pours out his "confessions" in a purported series of letters to a research assistant for Oswald Garrison Villard's 1910 biography. (Villard, who was the grandson of the abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison and later editor of "The Nation," did write such a book, but Owen Brown was no help in it; he died in 1891 on his sheep farm in Altadena.)

Owen's story is the sad one of a boy who loses his mother at the age of 8 and in his loneliness becomes an "incorrigible and incompetent liar," an upstart who permanently cripples his arm in a fall and considers it a punishment for Sabbath-breaking. He describes "a conscripted childhood," in which the large Brown family is bent to its patriarch's desire to destroy slavery, much as Captain Ahab forged the Pequod's crew into a single force against the whale or a cult leader dominates his "family" to serve an idiosyncratic obsession. Yet Owen cannot rebel, for his father is not a Satanic monster but the Lord's agent in a holy crusade against sin and, moreover, patient and loving enough to forgive Owen's loss of religious faith and accept his willingness to work for "Truth" alone. In the face of such suffocating virtue, Owen comes to feel like "a trapped animal," an Isaac who will be sacrificed to his father's implacable God.

But Owen never resolves his conflict, and this grows tedious in the course of hundreds of pages of contradictory assertion. Verging occasionally into grandiosity in which he fancies himself the secret mainspring--the Iago of Brown's actions, Owen more frequently lapses into convoluted emotional episodes of forbidden feelings: sibling rivalry, sexual confusion and, most alarming, racial hostility. His unresolved adolescent anxieties persist into a stunted manhood and maliciously explode when his love-hate object, a young free black man, "shrivels" Owen with the contemptuous appraisal that he "ain't half the man his father is." Frightened by his rage, Owen submits himself again to his father's control and becomes the Old Man's lieutenant in the cold-blooded massacre of slavery sympathizers in Kansas and the doomed fantasy of a slave revolt that turned into the botched raid at Harpers Ferry. These episodes are riveting as stories, but their dramaturgical power is blunted by their subordination to Owen's sorrowing lucubrations and a glowering pessimism about transcending the barriers of race even in a war against slavery.

In his previous books, Banks has revealed a large gift for first-person narrative, but Owen Brown is a muddled and unsympathetic creation whose voice is not adequate to his father's epic story. Adding the voices of the brothers who succeeded in establishing independent lives--John, who had a greater interest in the political middle-ground his father disdained, and Jason, who honored his ingrained pacifism and resisted the turn to violence--might have afforded a richer exploration of the issues of patrimony, of manhood, of vanguardism and the pace of social change than Owen's imagined travail allowed.

A historical novel should take us to the emotional core of an epoch that cannot be reached through empirical evidence alone, but it cannot do so by ignoring or distorting what is known, especially in this case, when the novel's psychodrama relies upon the borrowed cultural authority of the John Brown story to justify the reader's interest. Most fatally to the success of "Cloudsplitter" as a historical novel, however, Banks fails to distinguish the warped viewpoint that propels his protagonist to violence from the perspectives that determined other strategies of change. He has created in Owen Brown an unreliable historian who provides a very misleading picture of the abolitionist movement and gravely misstates the political nature of the Kansas crisis in order to justify the murders. The narrator, without demur from his creator, simplistically divides abolitionism into the macho, soldierly Brown and a bunch of pantywaist Quaker socialites, never acknowledging the heroic decades of courageous organizing that broke a long-sanctioned silence and made the abolition of slavery and the creation of black civil rights an urgent political issue long before John Brown became an activist in the late 1840s. It was the talking abolitionists, moreover, who transformed the executed John Brown, the failed leader of a sortie to establish a guerrilla republic of liberated slaves in the mountains of Virginia, into a Christ-figure whose sacrifice propelled public opinion into accepting the necessity of war against slavery.

As a narrator, Owen Brown misrepresents the underground work of rescuing fugitives as the only valid abolitionist work, greatly exaggerating in the process John Brown's actual participation as a "railroad" agent and unfairly making him out to be the only white abolitionist to retain the trust of black people. (At one point, the novel presents as authentic a tampered version of an actual Brown document, rewritten by Banks to make both the advocacy of violence and the alliance with black people more explicit than Brown's original.) Equally unfair is the insinuation that Frederick Douglass' 11th-hour refusal to join the revolt gave it the "Judas kiss" of doom and betrayal. As a set piece, however, the final discussion is a masterful scene in which the two men "wrestle like angels, as the one struggled to keep the other from martyrdom, and the other fought to convince the one to save him from martyrdom by joining him there."

What is missing, finally, in Owen Brown's treatment is any sense of the political context of these dark and troubling events. He ignores the intellectual tension within abolitionism between the "soul force" of the Golden Rule and the revolutionary mandate of the Declaration of Independence. He neglects the political tension between the moderate, non-extensionist Free Soilers, Republicans who sought merely to contain slavery, and radical abolitionists who agitated for the immediate abolition of slavery everywhere. He erroneously portrays John Brown as a celebrated advocate of revolutionary violence from the Kansas murders onward, when in reality he was a practitioner of covert action who raised money for the Virginia scheme under the pretense of aiding Kansas and publicly dissembled about his role in the massacre at Pottawatomie.

"Cloudsplitter" does not carry the story to its fateful climax, a failing in a father-son drama in which Abraham, as it were, sacrifices himself. Though two of his brothers and one brother-in-law were to die at Harpers Ferry, Owen Brown, like Isaac, was let off. His father ordered him to guard their base camp, from which Owen effected an escape, evaded service in the Civil War and disappeared into the territory, becoming an anonymous "white man . . . an American without a history . . ." until his remorseful burden grew too great and prompted the double-barreled narrative that comprises "Cloudsplitter." Like John Brown himself, this demanding and provocative novel is a protean, eloquent, fatalistic amalgam in which triumph and failure are hopelessly and forever entangled.

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