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Suffocating Virtue

CLOUDSPLITTER: A Novel. By Russell Banks . HarperFlamingo: 758 pp., $27.50

March 08, 1998|HENRY MAYER | Henry Mayer is the author of "A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic" and the forthcoming "All on Fire," a biography of William Lloyd Garrison

Of all the cultural puzzlements I encountered when moving as a seventh-grader from the Bronx to eastern North Carolina in 1953, the most curious was the way my new friends and neighbors would say that they couldn't get the "John Brown'd" thing to work or that they would be "John Brown'd" before they'd do something they didn't like. At first it seemed like gibberish; then I made the naive substitution of thinking they meant "hanged" and only gradually did it dawn on me that the expression was a grim and profane oath that meant, literally, damned by God and sent to roast in hell.

Nearly a century after the old soldier had risen up against slavery at Harpers Ferry, his very name remained a living curse in the South, and nearly half a century further on, his is still a name, like Lincoln's, permeated with the essence of the catastrophe we call the Civil War. Yet what is it about Brown's course of action--angry at the government for dishonoring its own principles, he formed a private militia and launched a violent attack upon federal property that left 17 people dead and ended with his execution after a highly publicized trial--that differentiates him from the convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh? What is the political and historical alchemy that converts terrorists into martyrs? At the intersection of ideology and violence, what distinguishes the route to fateful revolution from the dead-end of misguided, mad adventurism?

These questions have a foreign ring that may evoke in readers of a certain age memories of dormitory bull sessions about Che Guevara, the SDS Weathermen or the SLA gang that kidnapped Patricia Hearst. Yet they apply equally to the Stamp Act rioters, to partisans of slave revolt, to border warriors in "Bleeding Kansas" and, of course, to John Brown. Yet the sentimental strain in our culture--as manifested, say, in the work of Ken Burns or Shelby Foote or in the popularity of Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain"--has turned our thinking about the Civil War into a pageant of heroism and a threnody of grief that separates the act of sacrifice from the forces that ordained it. In "Cloudsplitter," a brooding and ambitious novel set in the 1840s and '50s and focused on Brown and "the war before the War," Russell Banks counters this indulgent view with a grim and compelling reminder that the Civil War was a tragedy rooted in slavery and race long before it became a calamity of flag and nationhood.

"Cloudsplitter" (the title refers to the mountain peak that dominates the landscape of Brown's homestead in a narrow valley of the Adirondacks, but the metaphor applies to the protagonist's titanic, heaven-storming ambition) is not a conventional historical novel of abundant atmosphere and little substance. It is instead a daring, though not entirely successful, blend of adventure and rumination that combines melodramatic fugitive slave chases in the stirring tradition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" with the sullen father-son combat of "A Long Day's Journey Into Night."

As a novelist distinguished for his sympathetic portraits of the isolated and the disaffected ("Rule of the Bone," "Continental Drift") and communities bewildered by profound and fateful emotions ("The Sweet Hereafter"), Banks could be expected to bring scrupulous powers of observation and an abiding human sympathy to his story of an abolitionist family at war with a political culture that tolerates slaveholding. In this he does not disappoint. "Cloudsplitter" is a vibrant, out-sized, mesmerizing portrait of the mercurial Brown that reveals his charm as well as his piety, his compassion as well as his demonic wrath, his intellect as well as his willfulness. To watch Banks' John Brown stride across the Waterloo battlefield to discern the lessons of Napoleon's defeat, to stand with him as he reorganizes a faltering encampment in a whirlwind display of skilled craftsmanship and masterful direction, to listen to Brown read aloud the biblical account of Gideon's army as a series of tactical suggestions from the Lord himself is to immerse oneself in literary representation of the highest order.

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