To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel

 

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The Tie That Bound Us: The Women of John Brown's Family and the Legacy of Radical Abolitionism - Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz John Brown's violent battle against slavery in the US, his 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry, and his subsequent execution are well-documented in American history texts, although he remains a complicated figure, whose considerable mythology threatens to overshadow the man. Some of his sons are referenced in survey history texts because of their role in the Harper's Ferry raid. However, Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz noted that his second wife, Mary, and his daughters and daughters-in-law got little recognition from historians. In this collective biography, The Tie That Bound Us , she combs the historical record, reading letters and news accounts, and poring over photographs in the attempt to understand these women. Did they share John Brown's beliefs? How did they cope with his execution and the unwanted fame that followed? Is it possible to restore them to the historical record?

Unfortunately, primary source challenges pose some serious difficulties for Laughlin-Schultz, especially as she tries to discover Mary Brown's beliefs about abolition, and about her husband's decision to turn to violence in support of abolition. She was a quiet, stoic figure, who, with only a handful of exceptions, kept her beliefs and views to herself in the letters that she wrote, both to her husband and children, and later to abolitionists who vied for her agreeing to let them use her husband's memory, and her surviving children, to further their cause. What to do with John Brown's body, how their daughters should be educated, how to disburse the funds donated to the family -- abolitionists fought each other to gain influence over Mary, and were frustrated when she did not accede to their will. Laughlin-Schulz does her due diligence, and is especially adept at describing the celebrity that attached itself to Mary Brown and her family after the Harper's Ferry executions. She tells a story that is reminiscent of contemporary media feeding frenzies. In some cases, though, she is forced to speculate about what Mary Brown must have felt, or might have believed, without having real evidence for her suppositions.

Laughlin-Schulz also faces some difficulty in understanding Browns' daughters beliefs, also due to primary source challenges. Brown's daughter Annie, who kept house for her father and his raiders, in part to try to keep neighbors from becoming suspicious, lived a complicated life. She was proud of her role in the raid, but frustrated that she never seemed to get her due from journalists, abolitionists, and politicians writing about it later. According to Laughlin-Schulz, Annie showed some signs of trauma after the raid from the pain of hearing about the execution of the raiders with whom she lived for weeks. Throughout her life, Annie lived in extreme poverty, and her later writings and comments about the raid and her beliefs are difficult sources to interpret, both because of their retrospective nature and because of her bitterness after a lifetime of being overlooked. To her credit, Laughlin-Schulz describes the uncertainties about Annie, and the pressures on her life. The portrait of her that emerges is obscured by time, but reflects some of the intense pressures she faced throughout her life as a result of her relationship with her father.

In spite of the source challenges that Laughlin-Schultz faces, The Tie That Bound Us kept my attention. Laughlin-Schultz writes with sympathy for the Brown women, and her ability to recreate the political and cultural context surrounding the Browns makes this a good book to read to learn more about the complicated atmosphere around abolition in the US in the mid to late 19th century.

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