Cloudsplitter – Russell Banks

Harper’s Ferry

Cloudsplitter is the fictional autobiography of Owen Brown, son of the anti-slavery hero John Brown, who is famous for his assault on Harper’s Ferry munitions factory.  This raid was one of the factors that contributed to the start of the American Civil War.

As an English reader this book presents some difficulties.  Issues and events that are perhaps common knowledge in the USA are little known here, and whilst I knew the famous song about Brown’s body, I knew little else about the life and impact of John Brown before starting this book.  This despite a visit to Gettysburg in 2014, and a tour of the battlefield and museum, and despite watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War.  In both these the role of John Brown is explored, but Cloudsplitter goes much further.  Banks begins by explaining that it is a work of fiction, but that doesn’t help as much as it should: I imagine most well informed Americans would have more idea than I did about exactly where fiction took over from fact.

Cloudsplitter offers a comprehensive life story told by Owen Brown from his vantage point in California years after the war.  By this point in reality Brown was something of a hero, and Owen’s death was accompanied by some public ceremony.  Nevertheless in the novel we see an Owen Brown racked by guilt and a sense of failure – physically crippled by a fall as a child, and emotionally crippled by his upbringing and experiences.

Banks tells the story of Owen’s early life, of course focusing on his father and his father’s role in supporting and running the Underground Railroad – a safe escape route for runaway slaves – and in promoting abolitionist views.  We travel to Boston and hear Emerson speak.  We travel to Europe where John Brown tours Waterloo, considering the reasons that Napoleon lost the battle.  We hear of the strong Christian ethic in the Brown household, and of Brown’s use of the Bible as military textbook! We meet Brown’s family and the colleagues who help him in Ohio and North Elba and at Harper’s Ferry itself.

Owen gives what seems a fairly objective view of John Brown.  He is clearly under the influence of his father, whilst unable to share his father’s faith, and we see how Owen reconciles himself to his father’s radical approach to the abolition of slavery.  In the end Owen sees himself as the one who pushes his father over into violence in the Battle of Osawatomie. Perhaps here is where the fiction most clearly differs from the fact: at least in Wiki there is no mention of Owen’s role, and the implication is that it was the defence of the town, and the death of his son Frederick that prompted John Brown to resort to violence.

Banks gives several examples of Owen’s own weaknesses – his sexual guilt after an incident with a prostitute, his sexual jealousy for a black partner’s wife, his own acknowledged racism.  In the end he observes the incident at Harper’s Ferry from the opposite bank of the river, where he has been asked to look after the rifles put aside for the uprising slaves.  Finally he escapes to California.

I found this book quite hard work.  It’s told with what seems the authentic voice of a nineteenth century American, imbued with formal vocabulary and laced with Biblical references and language.  That in itself is quite hard going.  The character of Owen himself is really quite depressing.  He is racked with guilt, sees himself as a failure, is emotionally and physically crippled.  At times I just wanted the book to finish.  And it’s over 700 pages long!

Towards the end the tension did build.  The Harper’s Ferry incident was dramatic and exciting.  Other sections were interesting too: I could believe in this character. By blaming Owen, the book also makes quite a good fist of explaining why someone with the strong biblical beliefs of John Brown could bring himself to adopt such violent measures.

Would I recommend it?  Not really.  You’d need stamina and determination, it’s quite depressing and dark, and in the end I’m not sure what I learnt.


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