On an October night 153 years ago, white abolitionist John Brown led an armed attack on the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va.
The event – which preceded Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and South Carolina’s secession from the Union – is viewed today as one of the catalysts of the American Civil War, said Tony Horwitz, author of “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” at a lecture yesterday in the Cape Cod Lounge.
And at the heart of the conflict was Brown, a figure often remembered today as a “wild-eyed, wild-haired fanatic … with a bible in one hand and a rifle in the other,” said Horwitz.
“John Brown is such a vivid and compelling figure and also one who is quite different from the way many Americans imagine,” he said. “He’s really an Ahab figure, this obsessive man whose white whale is the destruction of slavery and he will take everyone down with him if necessary.”
Horwitz knew that the Harpers Ferry story ended with the capture of Brown and his men and a subsequent trial which led to the abolitionist’s death by hanging.
But the author said yesterday that he was intrigued by the story’s journey. It’s a tale of a northerner who finally stood up to the South – a region that, at the time, “wasn’t an underdog [but] a top dog,” said Horwitz.
It’s a journey that involves a high-profile cast of characters, from Frederick Douglass to Robert E. Lee. Slaves took arms in an attempt to free family members, and there is romance in the story, something Horwitz said he never expected to find.
The 1859 raid took place at the dawn of the telegraph and the event “really becomes one of the first breaking news stories of the nation,” Horwitz said.
“This really hits the country like a thunderbolt,” he said. “A bi-racial band of abolitionists seizing a symbol of American power just 60 miles from the capital and vowing to free every slave in the South. It hit America in 1859 a little like 9/11 did us.”
“Midnight Rising” was released last October. The book is the latest by Horwitz, who has authored four New York Times bestsellers: “Baghdad Without a Map,” “Confederates in the Attic,” “Blue Latitudes” and “A Voyage Long and Strange.”
The author is visiting campus this week as the history department’s writer-in-residence, an honor given each spring to “an author whose work engages broad public audiences in the study of history,” said Marla Miller, a UMass history professor.
“The writer-in-residence spends a week with us visiting classes and meeting informally over lunches and dinners with students and faculty,” said Miller, in her introduction of Horwitz at yesterday’s lecture. “We talk together about what makes for good writing and good reading. We talk about the literary marketplace and share experiences … It’s a chance to reconnect to the writing process.”
Horwitz is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. As a journalist for the Wall Street Journal, he served as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East. He won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1995 for his series on low-wage working conditions in America.
He currently lives in Martha’s Vineyard with his wife, author Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons.
Chris Shores can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: A quote about Brown incorrectly said he held a bottle in one hand. Horwitz said depictions portrayed Brown as having a bible in one hand.