(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Known primarily as a writer of contemporary working-class fiction, Russell Banks seems to have departed from his established metier by producing a prodigious work of historical fiction. Actually, Banks’s change of subject and genre is more apparent than real. Along with an abiding interest in questions of social class, Banks has been equally fascinated by America’s tortured racial politics. Thus, John Brown is a natural choice of topic. Beyond his iconic status as an enduring and still highly controversial bellwether of race relations, Brown attracted Banks’s attention for more personal reasons. The fiery abolitionist once lived and is now buried close to Banks’s home in Keene, New York, near Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, which the Indians called “Cloudsplitter.” Banks’s focus on Brown also represents a continuation of his decades-long inquiry into troubled families ruled and riven by obsessional, violence- prone patriarchs, a theme manifest in numerous Banks short stories and several novels, particularly Affliction (1989).

Undoubtedly another reason that Banks chose to write about Brown is that Brown constitutes a figure of sufficient historical importance to power the proverbial “big book.” Although a respected writer with an impressive track record, Banks has never quite achieved the literary status accorded to such contemporaries as Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, or Thomas Pynchon. Over six years in the making—and some quarter million words in length—Cloudsplitter is far and away Banks’s most ambitious work; it gives every indication of being a calculated bid for the literary home run that would propel the author to the coveted first rank of “serious” writers.

In an important “Author’s Note” that prefaces the novel, Banks emphatically and repeatedly warns readers that although his account of John Brown’s life has some basis in historical fact, it “is a work of the imagination” and should “be read solely as a work of fiction, not as a version or interpretation of history.” Such a disclaimer is, of course, meant to neutralize objections from historians to the book’s deliberate factual inaccuracies, distortions, and wholesale fabrications. Still, a troubling question remains about the hybrid genre of fictionalized biography (or quasi-biographical fiction) exemplified by Cloudsplitter: Is such massive poetic license really warranted or even necessary, especially in the case of a life history that is more gripping and dramatic than most fiction? Banks’s implicit answer is that his novel supplements, enhances, perhaps exceeds strictly factual accounts by giving us thehuman, familial side of a story that is usually encoded in the somewhat impersonal, externalized terms of a political narrative. More specifically,Cloudsplitter centers on the effects that John Brown’s fanaticism had on the material and psychological health of his immediate family—an issue marginalized in most accounts.

In keeping with these unusually subjective aims, Banks tells his story through the voice and viewpoint of Owen Brown, John Brown’s third son, who was at his side during all the crucial battles. A somewhat shadowy personage in the historical accounts, Owen Brown provided Banks with the perfect narrator, one whose relative anonymity allowed Banks unlimited leeway in developing his characters. Mediating his story through Owen Brown’s subjectivity also allowed Banks a plausible way to rationalize the novel’s historical inaccuracies as merely symptomatic of Owen’s psychological projections and needs. Indeed, Banks goes out of his way to make Owen an eccentric, unreliable narrator who admits “the habit of lying to an exceeding degree.” At the same time, the Conradian device of using Owen Brown as narrator lends the novel verisimilitude; however self-serving and deluded Owen’s story might be, it is still the purported account of an eyewitness very close to the actual events. To get around the fact that Owen has been dead for a century, Banks has him writing at the turn of the century to Miss Katherine Mayo, research assistant to Oswald Garrison Villard, John Brown’s 1910 biographer.

Cloudsplitter starts on a ponderous note, with Owen delivering a long and rather tortured apologia to Miss Mayo for offering his version of the events that led up to Harpers Ferry. The reader gathers that Owen Brown is an intelligent introvert who has led a virtually posthumous existence in the forty years since his father’s execution, slowly going mad from loneliness, political alienation, and survivor’s guilt. He claims to want to relate his “confession” as a means of spiritual catharsis and expiation so that he can die in peace. An equally important motive—one he shares with Banks—is to correct the received version of “an American history that at bottom is alien to [him],” a history that has caricatured John Brown as simply a religious fanatic or...

(The entire section is 2027 words.)