Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Living history: An object lesson in research as storytelling

Published in the Portland Phoenix

John Brown's body may now lie a-mouldering in his grave, as the song suggests, but in life the Connecticut-born Kansan settler who led an assault on a federal installation in Virginia almost never stopped moving in his passionate zeal to rid the United States of the scourge of slavery.

In Midnight Rising, historian and master narrator Tony Horwitz tracks Brown, who was the country's most famous domestic terrorist until Timothy McVeigh, on his tireless travels between the western frontier where he began his campaign, the northeastern cities from which he drew financial support, and finally to the all-out strike near the national capital that led to his hanging in 1859.
In a meticulously researched account, Horwitz demonstrates his first-rate ability to weave documents together to form a compelling, well-rounded picture of how Brown's life, actions, and legacy resonated such that two years after his execution, he achieved his goal: to spark an armed conflict that would sweep slavery from America's shores, an epic battle that ensures Brown's soul is indeed marching on, even up to the present.

MIDNIGHT RISING: JOHN BROWN AND THE RAID THAT SPARKED THE CIVIL WAR | by Tony Horwitz | Henry Holt and Company | 365 pages | $29