John Brown's Body Analysis
by Stephen Vincent Benét

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The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The muse that is America is made of mountains and deserts, clipped velvet lawns and skyscrapers, buffalo and cowboys. It is also the place to which slave ships come. The captain of one of these ships tells the mate to get the captives on deck while the weather remains good. The mate reports that one of the black men claims to be a king, and the mate worries about losing more of the female slaves. As he walks into the hold with a lantern in his hand, the mate dreams of washing off the stench of the blackness of the ship.

Jack Ellyat, a Connecticut youth, has premonitions of trouble as he walks with his dog in the mellow New England Indian summer. He and his family are abolitionists, in favor of making slavery illegal in the United States. In Ellyat’s hometown of Concord, the people feel the influence of writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau as they talk about an ideal state. In Boston, Minister Higginson and Dr. Howe wait for reports of a project planned for Harpers Ferry. In Georgia, young Clay Wingate also receives a premonition of impending disaster and great change.

John Brown thinks he has been chosen by God to free slaves. He leads a force of his own sons, escaped slaves, and free blacks to seize the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. The first man killed in the fracas is Shepherd Heyward, a free black man. Dangerfield Newby, born a slave, becomes the next to fall. The townspeople later cut off his ears as souvenirs. The bullets continue to fly and men continue to die. As the grievously wounded Oliver Brown, one of John’s sons, begs for someone to put him out of his misery, his father tells him to die like a man. Federal troops under Robert E. Lee subdue the Brown party in fifteen minutes; all has ended but the slow, smoldering hatred and the deaths to come.

At Wingate Hall in Georgia, all is peaceful. Sally Dupré and Clay Wingate expect to marry. Meanwhile, Cudjo, the majordomo of the Wingate plantation, hears of the Harpers Ferry raid and of John Brown. He opines that the business of African Americans is not the business of white Americans. In Connecticut, Mrs. Ellyat prays for Brown.

Brown is tried at Charles Town, Virginia. During the trial, he denies the complicity of anyone but himself and his followers in the raid. He insists that he is God’s instrument and that he will forfeit his life to further the ends of justice. A legend grows around his name that mushrooms upon his execution. Brown’s body rests in its grave, but his spirit haunts the consciences of North and South alike.

There is a surrender of Fort Sumter. Representatives of the Confederate States of America elect gaunt, tired Jefferson Davis as their president. Lank, sad-faced Abraham Lincoln, the frontier wit and small-time politician, is president of the United States of America. He orders men to be drafted to fight. Wingate, loyal to the South, joins the Black Horse Troop and rides to the war as Ellyat marches off with the Connecticut volunteers.

Raw soldiers of North and South meet at the Battle of Bull Run under the direction of Generals McDowell, Johnston, and Beauregard. Congressmen and their ladies arrive from Washington, D.C., to watch the expected Union victory. While they watch, the Union lines break and men flee in panic. A movement to negotiate with the Confederacy for peace begins in the North. Lincoln is alarmed, but he remains steadfast.

Ellyat is discharged from service after Bull Run. Later he joins the Illinois volunteers in Chicago and acquires the nickname Bull Run Jack. Near Pittsburg Landing, in Tennessee, he runs during a surprise attack by the Confederates. He is captured but escapes again during a night march. Hungry and weary, Ellyat arrives at the Vilas farm, where he remains in hiding and falls in love with Melora Vilas. At last, he leaves the farm to seek the courage he had lost near Pittsburg Landing, but not before Melora becomes pregnant by him. He is recaptured soon afterward.


(The entire section is 2,262 words.)