History Politics

Old John Brown…


The main (and possibly only) thing most people outside of the United States know about the historical figure of John Brown is the song which bears his name:

‘Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave,

While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save;

But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave,

His soul is marching on.’

I have a vague memory of seeing a children’s book in my local library (way back when) which featured Brown along with several others in an overview of early American history. It stuck in my memory because of the wonderful drawings in the book, comical but highly detailed, which left a great impression on me (even now, with closed eyes, thinking about that book I am taken back in time to a comfortingly small and quiet library the likes of which probably no longer exists in Ireland, a church of books where even adults spoke in hushed tones and where the female librarians were as respected as priests. My mother introduced me to the world of books – and libraries – and for that, as with much else, I am forever in her debt).

As I grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s John Brown occasionally popped up in American movies and TV shows, a vaguely outlined foreign ghost at a foreign feast, though I hadn’t heard or seen his name for many years until I came across this wonderful article in Salon by Glenn W. LaFantasie. Thoughtful, atmospheric, and perceptive, it as much about the American national soul as about poor old John Brown a-mouldering in his grave.

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