Previewing the 2006 Texas Book Festival


THE WAR AT HOME: Evan Carton on John Brown

Though armed with one of the more confrontational titles of any biography this year, Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America (Free Press, $30) is less an argument than the story of a remarkable interracial family, according to author and University of Texas faculty member Evan Carton. That's certainly true, and one of the book's greatest strengths, but if there ever were a figure in American history who could start an argument, it would be Brown, the fiery abolitionist whose doomed attack on Harper's Ferry can't help but overflow with contemporary relevance and tough questions about our democracy.

Austin Chronicle: So what would you think to have your book sit cheek-by-jowl on the same shelf as Ann Coulter's [Treason]?

Evan Carton: In that sense, it is meant to be the strongest possible response to a very dangerous way of thinking. So much tragedy and waste of life in the past 50 years has been buttressed by the idea that if we critique military action at all, we're helping the enemy.

So, clearly the title is meant to be resonant in contemporary terms as well as 19th-century terms. I draw a great deal from the work of Thoreau's writings about democracy. It's always by one measure a system in which the majority rules, but also as Thoreau sees it, one in which every member of the polity has responsibility for actions taken by the nation.

AC: In a lot of histories, Brown seems to rate as an odd, colorful footnote.

EC: He's a major figure in American history, who is maybe the most badly represented in the mainstream historical tradition. There's traditionally a side to [Civil War] history of trying to be evenhanded in dealing with a divided white constituency. You often find there's a need to avoid the very fact that the war was actually fought over slavery.

It's also difficult for the modern historian to write about him because of worry about falling into a "Great Man School of History," when we're supposed to be looking at larger social and economic forces. But the fact is that Brown is a very vital, causal link in these events. Among other things, the incredibly tight-knit, interracial family he formed to attack slavery created new imaginative possibilities for crossing racial lines. This was not a way that anyone was thinking in the North or South in the 19th century. Few abolitionists were the racial egalitarians that John Brown was.

AC: And often you find him presented as being crazy.

EC: Terms like that – crazy – are meant to bracket off any serious consideration from the conditions in which Brown acted. He was not a figure who relished in taking human life or taking it wantonly. ... But if you consider this as a terrorist situation, and slavery as a war of the strong against the weak, against women and children and against people who could never sue for peace, that gives you a very different perspective on whether violent action against a violent system is justified. And one function of the John Brown-as-terrorist label is not to ask hard questions about the state terrorism of slavery. ... His raid on Harper's Ferry failed in a military sense, but in other senses, he knew that that wasn't the most important thing and that there were other ways in which the event itself could have an impact.

Saturday, Oct. 28, 10am

Capitol E2.026

American History

Evan Carton, Candice Millard; Moderator: H.W. Brands

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Spencer Parsons
Bela Tarr's marathon exploration of evil and inertia in a small town, gorgeously restored

April 24, 2020

The Cutting Edge
The Cutting Edge
Trailer-maker Mark Woollen talks shop

March 13, 2009

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle