James McBride's The Good Lord Bird
Most Americans have heard John Brown’s name or know something about the attack on Harper’s Ferry that made him famous. They may have seen John Steuart Curry’s mural “Tragic Prelude,” which Curry painted for the Kansas statehouse, in which a wild-eyed Brown with a flowing beard, arms outstretched, grasps a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other. Yet I think it is fair to say that even those quite familiar with Brown have never encountered him as he is portrayed in James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award in 2013. McBride’s historical and irreverently hilarious novel follows the adventures of Henry Shackleford, a twelve-year-old slave in the Kansas Territory when the novel begins, as he is sucked along in the wake of the abolitionist firebrand who invaded Virginia in 1859 in a failed attempt to end the institution of slavery. McBride’s novel is notable not only for its rollicking narrative and youthful black narrator, but also for its depictions of Brown and of slavery. To my knowledge, it is the only attempt by a novelist to portray Brown from the perspective of one of the people he tried to free.
McBride’s book is part of a larger resurgence of interest in Brown surrounding the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Civil War, and his image has been undergoing something of a renovation in recent years. In Midnight Rising (2011), Tony Horowitz argues that Brown never seriously thought he would succeed in sparking a slave rebellion, but planned his martyrdom with shrewd calculation to provoke the war he thought was necessary to end slavery.In 2006, David S. Reynolds published his massive biography of Brown, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Reynolds goes to great lengths to prove that Brown was not only sane, but morally justified in light of the atrocities committed by pro-slavery supporters and the atrocity of slavery itself. Just this year, after the publication of McBride’s novel, theologian Ted A. Smith proposed in Weird John Brown that Brown’s actions should be interpreted, and pardoned, as a singular act of “divine violence” that served to expose the evils of slavery in Brown’s time and still defies our attempts to pass moral judgement. Smith’s book is perhaps the most innovative and eloquent answer to the poet Stephen Vincent Benet’s question, posed in 1928, “You can weigh John Brown’s body well enough, But how and in what balance weigh John Brown?”
All of this hand wringing about Brown makes it a guilty pleasure to read McBride’s depiction of him, which reminds us that it may be easier to remember John Brown than it was to live with him. Henry Shackleford first meets John Brown in a barber shop in Osowatomie, a small town on the Kansas-Missouri Border. In 1856, the territory was descending into the chaos that would become known as “Bleeding Kansas,” an orgy of violence that was ostensibly about whether the territory would enter the Union as a slave or free state. According to Henry, his mother is half white. His father is an enslaved barber who belongs to the local merchant Dutch Henry. Brown enters the barbershop and summarily “frees” Henry and his father (when Henry’s father hesitates, Brown snaps, “We’ve no time to rationalize your thoughts of mental dependency, sir!”), kidnapping Henry and in the process mistaking him for a girl. Brown’s mistaking Henry for “Henrietta” sets up the central dynamic of the novel. The irony, of course, is that Brown is so set on freeing “the slaves” that he doesn’t bother with details such as whether Henry is a boy or girl or whether he wants to be free or not. In fact, Henry spends most of the rest of the novel dressed as a girl and trying to escape Brown, not slavery.
Through Henry’s eyes, we get to know John Brown as a wildly idealistic religious fanatic who could be both kind and brutal by turns. Brown spouts bible verses in all situations and at the most inopportune times. “In all my 111 years,” recalls Henry looking back, “I never knowed a man who could spout the Bible off better than old John Brown.” His prayers could go on for hours. Brown’s fanaticism is funny under normal circumstances, but McBride shows how the same abstract obsession with slavery and the obliviousness to particular details that caused Brown to mistake Henry for a girl could be terrifying as well. In the real-life 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas, Brown and his sons hacked five proslavery settlers to death with broadswords. In McBride’s novel, Henry tells how Brown and his followers are lost, wandering through the Kansas wilderness when they come upon a random cabin in a pro-slavery community. Brown decides that this is where they will strike a blow for freedom, and when asked why he replies, “I can smell slavery within it.” In an instant, and without changing a bit, the bumbling abolitionist is transformed into a brutal psychopath, a transition that shows the heart of our dilemma, and Henry’s, in trying to explain John Brown.
Henry’s view of slavery is one of the most interesting parts of McBride’s novel. Slavery is just a fact of life for Henry. He doesn’t think slaveholders are particularly bad or evil people. Certainly they are no worse than other people, white or black. During the fight in the barbershop between Brown and Dutch Henry, Henry says, “Now, I ought to say right here that my sympathies was with Dutch. He weren’t a bad feller. Fact is, he took good care of me, Pa, my aunt and uncle, and several Indian squaws, which he used for rootin’ tootin’ purpose.” After listing all the different things that Dutch had to take care of, Henry says, “Fact is, looking back, Dutch Henry was something of a slave himself.”
The institution of slavery is treated throughout the novel as a thoroughly human institution that could be brutal or relatively benign depending on the people involved. Black and white, slave and free are not the most meaningful divisions in Henry’s world. Instead, Henry narrates virtue and duplicity in both white and black characters, slaves and masters. This is perhaps the most subtle but central way in which the novel disagrees with John Brown himself, who thought the institution of slavery so evil that he devoted his life to ending it, and thought that slaveholders were so evil that God had appointed him as an instrument to punish them. In contrast, at one point Henry observes, “Colored turned tables on one another all the time in them days, just like white folks. What difference does it make? One treachery ain’t no bigger than the other. The white man put his treachery on paper. Niggers put theirs in their mouths. It’s still the same evil.” In an interview about the book, McBride described his novel’s humor as an “alternate way in” to talking about the historical reality of difficult topics like slavery, which he described as “a web of relationships, rather than the stereotypical thing of a white man whipping a slave to death” (PBS Newshour, December 2, 2013).
This is a provocative statement, but not a naïve one. McBride is no newcomer to the complexities of race in America. A previous memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (Penguin, 1995), told his story of growing up in the mid-twentieth-century United States as the child of an interracial marriage. McBride’s desire to capture the complexities of slavery is perhaps a reflection of this experience, and certainly the voice of Henry Shackleford allows him to say things that would be difficult to voice outside the pages of the novel. Without humor and the youthful innocence that Henry brings to his story, it is difficult to acknowledge, for instance, that there were conscientious slaveholders, that not all slaves were revolutionaries, or that, as Henry observes, he never really knew hardship and hunger until he was “freed” by John Brown.
At the same time, McBride’s novel appears at a moment when historians are reemphasizing the brutality of slavery in the United States. In his just-published The Half Has Never Been Told (Basic, 2014), historian Edward Baptist documents the massive increases in efficiency that masters wrung out of slaves in American cotton fields in the Deep South over the first half of the nineteenth century, mainly through methods that Baptist insists can only be called torture. Thus, while Henry’s experience of slavery is entirely plausible, other experiences of slavery are mostly off the page in McBride’s novel. Humor as an “alternate way in” to history has its limits.
In fact, McBride seems to realize those limits; there are one or two places in the novel where a darker vision of slavery shows through the cracks in Henry’s narrative. After escaping Brown for the first time and fleeing from Kansas to Missouri, a slave state, Henry encounters Sibonia, a female slave who seems to be modeled after the real-life slave rebel Nat Turner, who in 1831 led a failed insurrection in Virginia that led to the deaths of fifty-odd whites and hundreds of blacks. In contrast to Brown, Sibonia only pretends to be insane, and during their first meeting she drops her pretense with Henry. Henry recalls, “Her face was serious. Deadly. Her eyes glaring at me was strong and calm as the clean barrel of a double-barreled shotgun boring down at my face.” Sibonia is eventually found out and hung before she can put her plan into action, but she dies defiantly, telling the next slave in line to the gallows to “die like a man.” Sibonia’s desperation and grim resolve are evidence of a side of slavery that young Henry has not seen and that exists mostly offstage in McBride’s novel.
As he attempts to do with slavery, McBride also takes the flat historical figure of Brown and creates a full, rich, funny character that corresponds with the historical persona of America’s original terrorist in unexpected, irreverent, but delightfully believable ways. The descriptions often border on ridicule, but as the novel draws to a close there is also an affection for the “old man” that lies just beneath the surface. On the morning of the raid, as the wagons carrying Brown as his men roll toward Harper’s Ferry and into history, Henry delivers McBride’s best shot at explaining John Brown. Having spent most of the novel believing Brown is insane, in the climactic moment Henry is overawed by Brown’s commitment to his ideals. “The Old Man was a lunatic,” he recalls, “but he was a good, kind lunatic, and he couldn’t no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn’t speak their language. He was a Bible man. A God man. Crazy as a bedbug. Pure to the truth, which will drive any man off his rocker. But at least he knowed he was crazy. At least he knowed who he was. That’s more than I could say for myself.”
After reading this novel, it remains unclear whether humor is the best way to understand the historical John Brown, let alone slavery. Even as an “alternate way in,” humor can only be a beginning in the task of understanding the past. But this may not be what McBride was after in his retelling of Brown’s story. Humor and history are best understood as parallel ways of getting at the inexpressible complexity of the human condition. Humor may not be a great way to understand history, but it is often the only way to get at particular experiences of being human. As an attempt to understand the historical John Brown, The Good Lord Bird does not succeed any better than previous attempts, but by using Brown’s story to humorously explore the human condition, in which the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane, often exist in such close proximity, McBride succeeds wonderfully.
Robert Elder is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University.