H. Addington Bruce (review date 15 October 1910)
SOURCE: Bruce, H. Addington. “John Brown of Osawatomie.” New York Times Book Review 15, no. 42 (15 October 1910): 567.
[In the following review, Bruce praises Villard's biography of John Brown as a thorough and conscientious, if controversial, work.]
Mr. Villard's John Brown is a capital example of the thorough, the conscientious and the candidly critical in historical writing. It may well be described as the first really adequate biography of a man who, whatever one may think of the chief acts of his life, has won a conspicuous place among American immortals. In its preparation no available source of information seems to have been neglected. Original documents, contemporary letters and living witnesses have been examined in all parts of the country. Materials never before utilized have been drawn upon, and use has been made of others whose existence has hitherto been unknown. There is a constant citation of authorities, the note references running far into the hundreds, together with an excellent bibliography. The result is a work that not only meets the demands of the modern scientific school but is of a high literary quality. Perhaps the criticism should be made that there is an obvious tendency to go too minutely into detail, but in view of the importance of the subject this fault may readily be condoned.
Like all other students who have given the matter thoughtful consideration, Mr. Villard is hard put to it to account for John Brown's militant and uncompromising hatred for slavery. He sees clearly enough that Brown's autobiographical statement describing incidents of slavery which he observed in boyhood, is quite futile as an explanatory hypothesis. Why should one who so hated the profession of arms, Mr. Villard pertinently inquires, be the first to take up arms in order to free the slave from his chains? What was there in the humdrum life of an Ohio farmer to cause him to espouse the rôle of a border chieftain in the middle of the nineteenth century? The answer apparently is to be sought in Brown's innate love of freedom, his strenuousness and his proneness to violence. The theory, however, that he was insane, and that his bloody doings in Kansas and Virginia were the frenzied work of a monomaniac, finds no favor with Mr. Villard. Says he, emphatically:
If it could be reasonably declared that he was partially or wholly deranged, it would be easy to explain away those of his acts which at times baffle an interpreter of this remarkable personality—the Pottawatomie murders, for instance. But this cannot be done. Gov. Wise was correct in his estimate of John Brown's mentality; the final proof is the extraordinary series of letters written by him in jail after his doom was pronounced. No lunatic ever penned such elevated and highminded, and such consistent epistles. If to be devoted to one idea, or to a single cause, is to be a monomaniac, then the world owes much of its progress toward individual and racial freedom to lunacy of this variety. If John Brown was insane on the subject of slavery, so were Lucretia Mott and Lydia Maria Child, while Garrison and Phillips and Horace Greeley should never have been allowed to go at large. That their methods of advancing their joint cause differed from John Brown's violent ones, in no wise argues that he...
(The entire section is 1380 words.)