Writing a “response paper” on James McBride’s novel about the famous militant Abolitionist John Brown, The Good Lord Bird, should focus on the author’s irreverent style of writing about a figure from American history whose actions were instrumental in moving the nation closer to the full-scale conflagration that would be the Civil War. McBride’s narrative is as comical as it is serious in portraying the kind of individual – a white man fighting violently on behalf of black slaves – who would undertake such a suicidal mission. Like many abolitionists, Brown was deeply religious, and his religious fervor would fuel his militant approach to slavery. Brown has been called a fanatic, and it is entirely possible he was, as one can logically question the mental stability of someone willing to rebel against as powerful an institution as slavery was. The convergence of political and religious zealotry that defined this individual is what made him such a good subject for a writer of McBride’s temperament. McBride is a humorist of sorts, and his depiction of Brown’s activities are intended to evoke a humorous reaction on the part of the reader, as in the following passage in which the narrator, Henry/Henrietta “the Onion” Shackleford, describes the scene during one of the battles instigated by Brown’s innate need to employ violence in furtherance of his cause:
“That is a good thing, Little Onion,” he said. “The Good Book says in Ezekiel sixteen, eight: ‘When I passed by thee and looked upon thee behold, that was the time of love and the Lord spread his skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness.’ You has kept your nakedness covered?”
“Much as possible, Captain.”
“Been reading the Bible?”
“Not too much, Captain. But I been thinking in a godly way.”
“Well, that’s something at least,” he said. “For if you stand to the Lord’s willingness, He will stand for you. Did I ever tell you the story of King Solomon and the two mothers with one baby? I will tell you that one, for you ought to know it.” I was aching for him to move, for the firing had ramped up even more.
This passage, in which Brown proselytizes amidst the firing of guns and cannon seemingly oblivious to the very real dangers to which he has subjected himself and his followers, is reminiscent of Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel Little Big Man, in which the narrator, Jack Crabb, describes the messianic figure of General George Armstrong Custer (“I expect Custer was crazy enough to believe he would win, being the type of man who carries the whole world within his own head and thus when his passion is aroused and floods his mind, reality is utterly drowned”). Such is the case with McBride’s John Brown. That scene from Chapter 16 is followed by the following in which McBride continues to depict imagery evocative of a truly unique personality characterized by an advanced case of megolamania:
The Old Man looked down the alley as bullets whizzed past his head and at the lit cannon over his shoulder, then down at the rebels firing and cussing at the other end of the alley gathered behind the slave pen, trying to mount up the nerve to charge. Behind him, the fuse of Broadnax’s cannon was lit and was kicking out thick smoke as it headed home. The Negroes backed away from it in awe, watching the fuse burn. The Old Man, watching them, seemed straight-out irritated that they was taking the fight from him, for he wanted the glory. He stepped out in the clear, right in the middle of the alley, and shouted to the rebels who was shooting at us from the slave pen. “I’m Captain John Brown! Now in the name of the Holy Redeemer, the King of Kings, the Man of Trinity, I hereby orders you to git. Git in His holy name! Git! For He is always on the right side of justice!”
If McBride’s depiction of John Brown is intended to ridicule, it is born of the occasional resentments of the dispossessed towards those of other, more fortunate categories of individual who seek to speak and fight on their behalf. Brown, after all, was a white man, and his zealotry in opposing slavery exceeded even that of many slaves. It’s not that those slaves didn’t seriously desire freedom; on the contrary, slavery’s brutality and its dehumanizing treatment of its subjects were widely loathed among those so victimized. The notion of the white man as caretaker of the black man’s fate, for good or evil, however, is a constant source of resentment among the latter, and McBride’s African American followers of Brown are constantly subjected to their leader’s arrogant, messianic tantrums issued ostensibly on their behalf. McBride does not diminish Brown’s role in facilitating the abolition of slavery; he merely places it in a particular context as viewed by those the late militant sought to "save," physically and spiritually.