Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks

by Robert A. Parker

While Banks is one of my favorite authors, I had put off reading this 1998 novel. Who wants to read about John Brown and his violent end? Who wants to relive that history? But I finally picked up this novel, perhaps out of a sense of dedication to Banks, and I was immediately hooked.

Because the work begins with a point of view!

Now, Banks makes clear before the reader begins this work that he has written a novel, not history. So the point of view is that of the narrator created by Banks, which is Owen Brown, one of John Brown’s sons. Owen narrates this story, he says, because he is old and near death, and because he wants the truth to be finally told about his father.

The first truth the narrator establishes is Brown’s commitment to religion, and to the Protestant Bible. Which re-enforces his commitment to honesty, which, in turn, is re-enforced by his strict discipline. The second truth is his blend of ambition and economic incompetence, as both Banks and the narrator seek to firm up the complexity of Brown’s personal, social, and religious convictions.

Frustratingly for Brown, he is too poor to devote all his time to ending slavery. He must first support his family of thirteen. Which leads him into land speculation, at which he is a complete failure and ends deeply in debt. And yet this sympathetic man, who loves his family, and is kind when dealing with others, will completely lose his temper when he feels victimized.

To implement his business ventures, Brown moves from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Massachusetts, a loving but desperate father. Finally, he is given the job of training city Negroes to become farmers; and his two missions come together. This sends him to the Adirondack Mountains, and there is a marvelous description of a long uphill trek with his family and their animals through rain and snow into their new home.

Once in the Adirondacks, Owen moves the emphasis from narrative movement to character, to Brown’s commitment to the Negroes. We see the father’s good heart, with little reference to the violence to come. Meanwhile, Owen reveals a little of himself. Such as what he sees as his weaknesses: that, unlike his father, he has difficulty in seeing black people as human beings, the same as him, and, even more, a difficulty in regarding women as human beings, rather than mysterious persons of the opposite sex. And he also notes that, unlike his father, he does not believe in God.

Which raises a question. Why is Owen the narrator? At first blush, it legitimizes Brown’s portrait by offering a contrast in character. Indeed, after Brown transports one black couple on the Underground Railroad, he thanks Owen for making him aware that he should not kill a bounty hunter. Which is followed by Brown himself defending accusations by the locals against his helping the Negroes. He gives a lengthy church sermon in which he compares himself to a Job who refuses to deny God, despite the evils imposed on him. He will endure, like Faulkner’s Dilsey does.

Gradually, Banks introduces the potential for violence. Brown and his son rescue the newly arrested black couple, and in the process two white men are wounded and a Negro killed. Mercy and justice have their price. Then, Brown and Owen stop in Boston on the way to sell wool in England, and a resentful Owen is beaten by anti-abolitionists he challenges.

But he has acted on his own, and a change comes over him. Then, on the boat to Liverpool, he encounters a girl in despair, and their brief but fascinating conversation awakens him further to his potential, to being independent from his father, even as he continues to believe in him and to support him. And when the father’s strategy to auction his wool in England fails, Owen convinces him to forget his efforts to recoup his wealth and to concentrate instead on his life ambition of freeing the slaves.

The Fugitive Slave Act upset many abolitionists, because any Negro could be arrested and sent South on suspicion of having escaped its owner. Owen (or is it Banks?) speculates that this is what turned his family more radical, more violent, convincing it that it needed to be more active, to stay ahead of the abolitionist curve. Which suggests a rationalization. In any event, Brown sends Owen back to the Adirondacks to run his farm, which is now disorganized.

Owen manages the farm well enough, but then becomes involved with the wife of his father’s black aide, Lyman Epps, a development that is initially not convincing. For it seems to set the stage for some later melodrama. But when Brown, the father, arrives on the scene, he takes over, and the melodrama does not develop. I should have known Banks better.

Instead, there is a dramatic development in a cave that plumbs Owen’s own sense of guilt and sets him on a violent path. Sent to Ohio to forget that guilt, he encounters his brother Fred who, out of his own guilt, commits further violence, this time on himself. With such violence in the family, Owen turns his path west, toward Kansas, where that new territory is a battleground between abolitionists and slave-holders.

Eventually, Brown, the father, also arrives, and the family begins to confront the anti-abolitionists, the Border Ruffians. While the father plans in the name of God, it is Owen who instigates the actual violence, leading their forces through a drunken enemy army and later shooting an enemy sheriff. But his father decides they need to instigate true terror, to show the enemy they mean business. Which Owen, now a changed man, endorses, and leads.

The result is a massacre of five pro-slavery men in Kansas. It is Brown’s conviction that they are about the Lord’s business, while Owen convinces himself that it is to save the Union. That otherwise, the pro-slavery forces will take over Kansas, and their representatives will tip the political balance in Washington to the South, resulting in the North seceding from the Union, the nation split in two, and slavery made permanent.

Yet even as Owen rationalizes the murders as political acts, he compares it to the death he caused in the Adirondacks. He realizes that he intended that death to happen but for it to resemble an accident, and that he later convinced himself that it was. He will also say, in a casual but provocative passage, that the reason he felt love for the Negro’s wife was in order not to love the Negro himself. And since he remains unmarried, we do wonder about his relationship to the Negro cause.

Owen also here addresses his father’s fictional biographer (and the reader), seemingly to emphasize the politics behind the Kansas massacre, and at the same time to explain that his interest here is the internal story of the Browns, not the historic record of the uprising they fomented among the abolitionists in order to preserve Kansas as a free state for the Negroes.

It now becomes clear why Banks wrote this book, through a further rationalizing by Owen, who concludes that because of him the Civil War was fought and the Union saved. This has happened because Owen first went to the Adirondacks to implement the Underground Railroad, then is sent by his father to Ohio, from which, on a whim, he goes to his brothers in Kansas —where his father follows and exerts Biblical authority to free the slaves but where it is Owen who actually leads the family troupe into battle. Therefore, but for Owen, the Union would have dissolved and Negroes remained slaves.

This is a huge conceit on which to build this novel. But it works. And justifies the novel‘s 700+ pages. For this is the personal story. This is where the truth lies, says Banks. Not on the historic record. Of course, I am not the historian to know how much is historically accurate here, and how much Banks has imagined this personal story to substantiate his thesis. Is Owen truly the terrorist behind his father’s violence?

Before the climactic battle at Harper’s Ferry, Banks obviously wants to establish the theme, the meaning, of this novel. With a quote by Owen, he establishes the dual perspective of father and son: “Father’s God-fearing typological vision of the events that surrounded us then was not so different from mine. My vision may have been secular and his Biblical, but neither was materialistic.” That is, both held to the ideal of eliminating slavery.

But son Owen is clearly the main character, and it is his confession we are reading. He has earlier said that one reason he is making the confession is to free the dead from the purgatory he has sent them to by fomenting the violence of their rebellion. In researching his records fifty years later, he has now encountered an old pistol, and he says that after he has completed his confession, “I will, at last, have no longer a reason to live. I will be ready to become a ghost myself, so as to replace in purgatory the long-suffering ghosts this confession has been designed expressly to release.”

And then begins the attack on Harpers Ferry. It has been carefully planned, and seems to begin perfectly, as Brown’s forces occupy the arsenal, the armory, and the rifle factory. But what does not happen is the expected rising up of the Negroes in the area to join forces with the 15 whites and 5 Negroes on the assault. Meanwhile, Southern re-enforcements are heading to Harper’s Ferry from three directions—tragedy advancing from the wings.

Banks ends his long novel on the right note. After Owen imagines the initial assault on Harpers Ferry that he had overheard, he and the author take us back to a climactic meeting in which Frederick Douglass refuses to support Brown’s plea for Negroes to revolt and join the 20-man raiding force.

Owen then climbs the tallest tree, from where he witnesses the arrival of Southern forces, and watches them gradually kill or capture all of Brown’s men. What is less clear is how Owen escapes from that tree. For he is suddenly spotted, and, with bullets striking all around him, he falls to the ground. But apparently the Southerners have been firing from the town, not from beneath his tree, and so when he falls he falls into darkness, picks himself up, and escapes.

The novel also closes with Owen’s speculation of whether he will actually join his father in death these 50 years later, now that his confession is complete. Or whether there is no light, nothing, after death. That his father’s Biblical belief and exhortations were in vain

To sum up, this is not an unusual subject for Banks. Many of his novels have included life not only in upper New York State but also in the South, in the Caribbean, and even in Africa. And it is the relationships between the black and white races that are often the key in those stories. Moreover, Banks himself is from New York State, where John Brown had his base and is buried, and from where he led his assault on the evils of slavery.

The title, Cloudsplitter, also comes from this area. It is a translation of the Indian name for a local mountain, and is turned into a symbol of John Brown himself. For just as the mountain breaks through the clouds, so John Brown broke through the social norms of his era, first by espousing the anti-slavery movement and then by resorting to violence to enforce his reform.

This novel is about history, yes, but it is also about fathers and sons, idealism and reality, clear consciences and guilt, retribution and justice, ends and means, goodness and evil, the devil and God, man’s fate and man’s hopes, and about eternity and an empty future. It is about absolutism, loss, obsession, and about violence as a tool of justice and self-righteousness.

I now read that little is known about the real Owen, making him the ideal person to tell this story, a character that Banks can flesh out to achieve his purpose. Owen loves his father but resents him, believes in him in one moment then steps away, resists his plans then embraces them, claims he wishes to tell his father’s true story but always has himself at center stage, and ranges from a man of action in his youth to a philosopher in old age.

This is a great novel. It is about 19th century America before the Civil War. It is about a family of that era. It is about secular politics against a backdrop of religious zealotry. It is a blend of history and philosophy and human emotions. It is a work of literature whose subject exists on an immense scale, and yet is recreated on a human scale.

I have not read such an important novel as this in many, many years. And to think I almost did not pick it up. (June, 2015)

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