(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

As the twentieth century dawns, Owen Brown, the last survivor of the raid on Harpers Ferry, begins writing a series of letters to Oswald Garrison Villard, intended to help Villard with research for his biography of Brown’s father, abolitionist John Brown. Owen never sends the letters.

John Brown is a sheep farmer in Ohio, where he has a reputation as an expert in fine wools, but he is a poor businessman, struggling to make ends meet by operating a tannery. At one point Brown and son Owen sail to England to try to negotiate a better deal from English wool merchants, but the trip is an expensive disaster. It is, however, a formative experience for Owen. On the boat, father and son meet Miss Peabody, who is the niece of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. She is pregnant and unmarried. She urges Owen to reconsider his life by embracing a pragmatic philosophy rather than Puritan or Transcendentalist philosophies.

After his return from England, Brown moves his extensive family (he has seven children with his first wife and thirteen with his second) to a farm outside North Elba, New York. Tahawus Mountain overlooks the farm. Brown has been a passionate supporter of the abolitionist cause, and he makes his North Elba farm a stop on the Underground Railway for escaping slaves from the South. He soon becomes more actively involved in abolitionist politics, and when conflict flares in Kansas, he gathers several of his sons and sets out to fight.

At Pottawatomie, Brown is indecisive; son Owen instigates a massacre. Once again, at the Battle of Osawatomie, Brown proves to be an...

(The entire section is 645 words.)