May 23, 2013
Emerson, Brown, Russell Banks
On this day in 1856 Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke "On the Affairs in Kansas" at a Kansas Relief Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. Two years earlier, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had repealed the Missouri Compromise banning slavery in the new territories and granted residents the right to choose for themselves on the issue. Pro-slavery gangs had been shooting and even scalping Abolitionists, and the Cambridge Relief Meeting was one of many such, as was Emerson's appeal: "The people of Kansas ask for bread, clothes, arms, and men, to save them alive, and enable them to stand against these enemies of the human race." The Relief movement generated money and support for John Brown when he came east from Kansas the following January. When Brown was hanged for the events at Harper's Ferry, Emerson allegorized him in tones designed to keep him from "a-mouldering in the grave": "For the arch-abolitionist, older than Brown, and older than the Shenandoah Mountains, is Love, whose other name is Justice, which was before Alfred, before Lycurgus, before slavery, and will be after it." While Emerson did not become one of the "Secret Six" - those Boston-Concord citizens who actively supported Brown's violent plans - some of his biographers regard his idealized support for the "Kansas Cid" as his most extreme venture into radical politics, perhaps his most misguided and naive.
Emerson thought Brown himself a pretty fair speaker, ranking his trial speech in a league with the Gettsyburg Address for passages such as this:
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done -- as I have always freely admitted I have done -- in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments -- I submit; so let it be done!
In Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks's historical novel on these events (1998, finalist for Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner), Brown is more interested in the mighty sword than the ringing word. After listening with his son, Owen, to one of Emerson's talks in Boston, Brown walks out on the Sage of Concord while the sophisticated crowd applauds wildly:
"That man's truly a boob!" Father blurted. "For the life of me, I can't understand his fame. Unless the whole world is just as foolish as he is. Godless? He's not even rational! You'd think, given his godlessness, his sec-u-laahr-ity, he'd be at least rational," he said, and gave a sardonic laugh.
When Owen offers that Emerson's language was thrilling, whatever it meant, Brown gives notice that he's interested in more than talk: "His language? Come on, Owen. Airy nonsense, that's all it is. For substance, the man offers us clouds, fogs, mists of words...."