Saturday, October 9, 2010

John Brown's Body

One week from today is the 151st anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry led by one of the great heroes of U.S. history, the anti-slavery warrior John Brown. I've written about Brown before here at Read Red. I've also written about him for Workers World newspaper, a 2006 piece about his great military campaigns in Kansas and one last year about Harper's Ferry. You'll find several books about Brown in my list of recommended titles at right, and this is a good moment to mention again some of the best: A Voice From Harper's Ferry by Osborne P. Anderson, John Brown by W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown, Abolitionist by David Reynolds, and the novel Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks.

So yeah, you get it: I've got a thing for John Brown. Now I've got a brand new thing, about John Brown, new to me, that is, and my favorite kind of thing at that.

 A book! Not just any book. A beautiful book, a kind, generous and unexpected gift from a friend of Read Red. This is John Brown's Body, a book-length poem by Stephen Vincent Benet. Originally published to great acclaim in 1928, this edition was issued by the Book of the Month Club in 1954, and it's in excellent condition, a tiny tad tattered but basically well preserved (a fair description of book and me, both the same age).

This is an epic of the Civil War. It ranges widely over it and deeply into it, or at least this is my impression from a couple weeks of sort of sniffing my way around it. Its politics won't come clear for me, I don't think, until I can actually sit down and read through the whole thing, but I'm guessing Benet's take won't entirely please me; he was on the right side, it seems, but it also seems that he tried in the poem to be "fair" to the wrong side too, not a stance with which I sympathize.

The main thing, though, is Brown. I can't wait to see his treatment of Brown. The poem is not "about" John Brown--it's about the big issue, about slavery, about the war it took to end the system of human chattel labor--but the title Benet gave it shows that he saw the giant shadow Brown cast. I'm eager to see what he has to say about that, and about him.

I have snuck some peeks at the end, which do come back to Brown, and more, and will close with a bit of it:
He was a stone, this man who lies so still,
A stone flung from a sling against a wall,
A sacrificial instrument of kill,
A cold prayer hardened to a musket-ball;
And yet, he knew the uses of a hill,
And he must have his justice, after all.
He was a lover of certain pastoral things,
He had the shepherd's gift.
When he walked at peace, when he drank from the watersprings,
His eyes would lift
To see God, robed in a glory, but sometimes, too
Merely the sky,
Untroubled by wrath or angels, vacant and blue,
Vacant and high.
He knew not only doom but the shape of the land,
Reaping and sowing,
He could take a lump of any earth in his hand
And feel the growing.
He was a farmer, he didn't think much of towns,
The wheels, the vastness.
He liked the wide fields, the yellows, the lonely browns,
The black ewe's fastness.
Out of his body grows revolving steel,
Out of his body grows the spinning wheel
Made up of wheels, the new, mechanic birth,
No longer bound by toil
To the unsparing soil
Or the old furrow-line,
The great, metallic beast
Expanding Westg and East,
His heart a spinning coil,
His juice burning oil,
His body serpentine.
Out of John Brown's strong sinews the tall skyscrapers grew,
Out of his heart the chanting buildings rise,
River and girder, motor and dynamo,
Pillar of smoke by day and fire by night,
The steel-faced cities reaching at the skies,
The whole enormous and rotating cage
Hung with hard jewels of electric light,
Smoky with sorrow, black with splendor, dyed
Whiter than damask for a crystal bride
With metal suns, the engine-handed Age,
The genie we have raised to rule the earth,
Obsequious to our will
But servant-master still,
The tireless serf already half a god