Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter is an epic novel that tells a familiar story, and the story sticks closely to the known facts. If it did not take much to retell the story of the novel, far more complex are the issues he raises in this novel.
Beginning around the mid-nineteenth century, and building on a Puritan and Transcendental tradition, American writers tended to espouse an extreme laissez-faire philosophy that surfaces in the figure of the lone hero, the competent man of so much American popular literature. This lone hero is Owen Wister’s Virginian, the lone force for law and honor, who is in reality the protector of vested interests and the abuse of power (and more recently incarnated in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry). This lone hero also is the more liberal adventurer facing himself and the wilderness in Jack London’s stories of Alaska, and is the rebellious vagabond of writers such as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac.
From the left and right of the political spectrum, the lone hero displays the virtue of going it alone; of not being dependent on government resources, on society, on anyone else, for one’s success. This staple of American fiction is a myth of the status quo, and much of American literature, of whatever stripe, has been a development of or an engagement with this myth. The novels that particularly address the American past, which remake its heroes and villains to suit a more modern mode, are among that form of American literature that is engaged in the business of mythologizing the United States.
Of all the heroes and villains who have emerged in this rethinking of the American past (and, hence, of the American present), one of the most ambiguous and most interesting is John Brown. Brown committed atrocities in Kansas yet pricked the conscience of the nation about slavery; he was foolhardy in his raid on Harpers Ferry, yet his foolhardiness, based on a belief in the rightness of his cause, in some way makes him admirable; he was a religious fanatic, yet he became a hero of the liberal cause; he was a failure at everything he did, yet he now stands for a people who worship success; and he was the trigger who would eventually unleash a cruel and divisive civil war, yet he wanted good. No wonder these contradictions have given rise to so many novels; John Brown is a perfect vehicle for mythologizing America.
In Cloudsplitter, Banks paints Brown’s portrait through the eyes of his son, Owen Brown. Owen is the one who is split; he cannot share his father’s beliefs but finds himself irresistibly drawn into all of his father’s actions. Banks has written something that is determinedly not a hagiography, yet it is the creation of a mythic hero. John Brown is not just a force of nature (the mountain), he also is the measure by which one’s own life must be judged. This, surely, is the role of the mythic hero, and although Owen himself does not believe the myth, he cannot help but witness it—and create it.
Like all mythic heroes, John Brown has his particular attributes; in Cloudsplitter (though it may seem paradoxical for one so closely associated with business failures and with the chaos of what is now called domestic terrorism), his attribute is order. He brings rightness to things. The Brown family, left to its own devices, sinks into apathy,...
(The entire section is 1369 words.)