Just finished, after several months of intermittent reading, Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks. It’s “about” John Brown the abolitionist but it’s told through the perspective of Brown’s third son, Owen, who was overwhelmed by his father and unable to seize his own life. The portrait of John Brown is fascinating, detailing a deeply accomplished man intoxicated by religion and passionate about ending slavery. The novel suggests, however, that John Brown lacked what it takes to push a man into violence. That push comes from his son Owen, the narrator. Or so he says. Owen is so crippled by his father’s will, by his own inchoate sexual desires, and an unholy anger, that he appears a monster, for all that one might sympathize with his misfortunes and losses on the way to becoming a monster.
He’s not an altogether unfamiliar monster. Like young people everywhere, he struggles to craft an identity and make meaning of his miserable life. Unable to strike out on his own, Owen becomes essentially enslaved to his father, and although he transforms himself into a hard man hungry to shed blood, his violence is in the name of his father’s cause. To be sure, he is a willful terrorist, and something of a coward and perhaps most damningly, he acts out the violence his father only preaches. Owen’s violence is born more of self-hatred than noble purpose.
After the Harper’s Ferry debacle, Owen sees himself as having stood at a hinge of history. What if had left his father and gone out farming on his own, he wonders. Convinced that his father could not have taken the final step toward violence, Owen imagines a history without the Kansas massacres or the Harper’s Ferry debacle. And yet, how would slavery have ended, without the war John Brown nudged into being? Would we be one nation or two?
It’s impossible not to hear echoes of contemporary terrorist reasoning in this novel. Nor it is possible to find a comfortable perch from which to regard, much less act against, evil.