Published on November 14th, 2006 | by Hans Fruck


Cloudsplitter — Russell Banks

In 1859 John Brown and 21 other abolitionists, including three of his sons, raided the munitions factory at Harper’s Ferry. Brown intended Harper’s Ferry to be the first salvo in a slave insurrection that would destroy the slaveholding American South. In the minds of many, Harper’s Ferry precipitated the great conflagration that was the American Civil War.

In Cloudsplitter the story of John Brown is told by his third son, Owen Brown—the self-confessed betrayer of his father, his brothers, and his companions on that day in 1859. Cloudsplitter is Owen Brown’s account of his father’s implacable war against slavery; it is also Owen’s expiation, his admission of guilt, and a document of his twisted love for his father.

As a narrator, Owen Brown is problematic, because by his own admission he had as a child ‘already begun to manifest the habit of lying to an exceeding degree, even for a child. I seemed to take sensual pleasure in it and almost sought out occasions for lying, making up tales, entire adventures, elaborate encounters, and so on, which had never taken place’. Establishing Owen as an unreliable narrator allows the author, Russell Banks, to side-step questions as to the accuracy of his reconstruction of John Brown, the events leading up to the raid on Harper’s Ferry, and the infamous Pottawatomie killings.

The John Brown that Banks conjures up is an extraordinary figure. Brown is famed for his rectitude, yet involves himself and his associates in dubious business dealings. He is a sheep farmer who learns military strategy by reading the Bible. He is a family man whose business dealings send his family into near destitution—harried by creditors, and dragged through courts. Banks’ John Brown is prophet-like yet also faintly absurd, a figure whose fulminations against slavery are not taken seriously, even by other abolitionists. He is a combustible man, whose violence, in the greatest contradiction of all, is fuelled by compassion and rectitude.

The heart of Cloudsplitter is the grotesque love Owen Brown bears his father and the slaves his father strives to liberate—a love envenomed by Owen’s sense of isolation and inferiority. Owen’s own self-estimation is put into words by one of his companions, who says, ‘You ain’t half the man your father is’. Owen himself observes that it was his father’s ‘rightness that so oppressed me’. Yet Banks seems to suggest that Owen’s self-excoriation is glib and evasive, a means for Owen to finally claim centre-stage — if only by the magnitude of his betrayal.

Indeed, at one stage, with breathtaking vanity, Owen confers on himself a pivotal role in Harper’s Ferry and the Civil war that followed on its heels. By Owen’s account, it’s he who incites his father into insurrection. First into the armed conflict between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas in the 1850s and, finally, into the ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry.

His mind charged with love and resentment, guilt and self-loathing, Owen incites his father’s military campaign only to turn his back and head westward when his father, brothers, and companions stand surrounded at Harper’s Ferry. This betrayal, which haunts Owen, is culmination of his scheming. It is an act of retribution and liberation by a son stultified by his father, a son who has become so manipulative that he labels himself Iago to his father’s ‘white skinned Othello’.

Banks—perhaps best known in this country for the film adaptations of his novels Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter—has apparently played fast and loose with the historical record to accommodate his retelling of the life of John Brown and his family. While Banks has taken liberties with the story of Brown, he has also gone to great lengths to set his fictional conceits against an authentic historical backdrop, which, surprisingly, turns out to be one of the novel’s weaknesses.

The length at which Owen Brown expounds on the pre-Pottawatomie lives of John Brown and family comes at the expense of narrative pace and dramatic effect. The reader is supplied with interminable accounts of Brown’s financial troubles, his entrepreneurial attempt to sell American wool in Britain, and the daily round of farm life in the Adirondack Mountains.

It seems as if the self-castigation and brocaded meanderings of Owen Brown have wrested control of Cloudsplitter from Banks, much to the novel’s detriment. Where the story demands economy and forward movement there’s too much of Owen Brown’s overheated recapitulation. With deadening regularity Banks applies a literary zoom lens when his story would be better served by a panorama.

It’s ironic, then, that Banks deals so perfunctorily with what ought to be the climactic raid on Harper’s Ferry. There’s no sense of resolution or closure. Cloudsplitter grinds to a halt and has little to say about the very thing for which Brown is (in)famous, and which is the object of interest for readers and novelists alike.

Banks, it seems, documents the progress of a lit fuse at elephantine length, only to record the explosion in a footnote.

-HS Fruck

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