For literally years (2007-2016), Joyce Dyer burrowed into John Brown’s mind and physically retraced the righteous but bloody trail he had left across troubled America. She went at the heart of John Brown, the causeof this abolitionist who spent much of his life in Hudson, where Dyer lives, and in Akron, where she grew up. She did everything imaginable to get close enough to John Brown to know him. She created a diorama in her head of old Hudson village. She carried flowers from her garden to the graves of John Brown’s parents. She talked more to John Brown, at least in her mind, than to husband Daniel, who partnered in the pursuit of this other man in her life.
As always, Daniel proved invaluable. Her opinion of her cause fluctuated from John Brown’s good intent to end enslavement to his malicious misdeeds that were part and parcel of his path into history. Daniel became her compass, her course-correction. He “never veered, even when I did.” This is critical, because her book, Pursuing John Brown: On the Trail of a Radical Abolitionist (The University of Akron Press) is as much about her critical thinking and moral decisions as it is Brown’s own life and death. Readers will be forced to face who they are as much as who John Brown was.
Beginning with his pledge at the First Congregation Church] in 1837 “to destroy slavery,” she followed his bloody footsteps alongside a Kansas creek, Pottawatomie. Brown and his raiders made infamous when they turned it pink from the diluted blood of five pro-slavers they murdered and mutilated. She haunted his steps all the way to the gallows after he and his raiders unsuccessfully attacked Harpers Ferry, a federal arsenal in Virginia—now West Virginia. He intended to arm Blacks for insurrection.
Along her way through the years, Joyce Dyer made a cautious, sometimes waffling case that his violence was an instructive prelude to the savagery that was to come from the Civil War. To John Brown his stand for equal-treatment-for-all went beyond his father’s lip service. He acted. Destroying slavery was his cause and passion. If this required using a terrible swift sword, so be it. This was personal. This was John Brown.
If Joyce Dyer waivered on the battlefield of her mind in equating John Brown’s noble cause—his figure is in Baltimore’s National Great Blacks in Wax Museum—with the depraved acts he felt necessary to boost his cause; it was personal for Dyer as well. She was doing more than writing a history of a man who was the tip of the sword for abolition and no doubt would have been standing alongside Blacks and a growing number of other races that support today’s Black Lives Matter movement.
Though Dyer’s John Brown story crosses numerous lines—history, biography, travelogue, religion, culture—more than anything it is her memoirist/personal essayist’s touch that makes unique her analysis of the well-explored John Brown. Specifically, her reveries interspersed between chapters are rich with personal observation that make this a story only Dyer could have written. (Full disclosure: I once worked with Joyce Dyer at Hiram College, and she was one of two advisors for my Masters of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies thesis or capstone, as it is referred to at Hiram.)
Just as I know Joyce Dyer, so too was I familiar with John Brown before Dyer furthered my education. During a period when I wrote books columns—among other types of columns—for the Akron Beacon Journal, one in 1998 featured Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter. It spins together fact and fiction well enough that it earned a place in Dyer’s bibliography. Banks interest in John Brown grew from his physical proximity to North Elba, N.Y., where John Brown once lived and was buried after being hanged. Though nonfiction rather than fiction, parts of Dyer’s Brown book also are imagined.
Such devices are not only valid in creative nonfiction but also separates Dyer’s book from others about John Brown. She built a relationship across the centuries, though at times it seems to drive her as crazy as some people considered John Brown. She saw Brown as a Hudson neighbor, only one separated by the centuries. In his day he lived across the street from where Dyer lives now. She argues with herself whether or not they might be more than “neighbors,” perhaps friends. She isn’t the type to befriend killers. As she considers the answer, it weighs heavy on her yet uplifts her book.
Readers of Dyer’s viewpoint will be elevated—even if they may not want to be. Her approach not only covers the key moments in Browns life but also uses them to pose and repose the question: Is he admirable or despicable? The temptation may be to equivocate but Dyer seems to be taking us all by the hand and leading us to make a choice. In this way, she turns John Brown into an interactive exercise. Perhaps it could be considered, in today’s parlance, a virtual reality video game. It would fit right in with blood-and-gore offerings and is cleansed only partially by the thought required to choose your side—Big Bad John or Good Little John (he wasn’t as imposing physically).
I knew Joyce Dyer would not leave us hanging—no bad pun intended—in her final judgment of those John Browns. It’s a subject that has been hotly debated over time in his Northeast Ohio. He may have borne a resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, another key figure in Brown’s troubled times. But Lincoln was no John Brown. He could not match the sternness of Brown’s look. The president had the nation’s future on his shoulders, but his family problems paled next to Brown’s.
A most troubling fact that it is impossible to ignore is the fact that John Brown’s cause took him away from his family and, in the end, his decision to raid Harpers Ferry removed him permanently. He was a figure on pages of his prolific correspondence, a paper-and-pen husband and father. He was wed to his cause of equal treatment but it is difficult to feel his family got that from him. Dyer struggled mightily with this.
Writers can be notoriously blind to anything but their work, their cause—getting those words on the page. It is work that can endanger the mind, if nothing else. Joyce Dyer felt it but it is nothing compared to what John Brown’s sons felt. Either they shared their father’s beliefs and cause—some more than others—or at least supported him with their presence by his side, for better or worse. They would have understood the conflict that John Brown created in Joyce Dyer’s mind and heart. Some even died for it.
John Brown’s life was a “series of disasters”—business, personal, even his cause, since equality for all remains elusive—but Joyce Dyer concluded, “John Brown never abandoned hope.” Neither did she. For John Brown had given her “a different imagination, and a better conscience.” Yet she feared she had given him nothing. “All I really had was my book.” Perfect. It’s all she need
She had given great and deep thought and much effort to reaching a comprehensive, fair judgment. “I sometimes hid from John Brown,” Dyer admitted, “but he would always find me. He knew I had work to do, and he wouldn’t let me rest.”
John Brown must have not realized that Joyce Dyer wouldn’t rest. The woman never rests. She is the best, most relentless “neighbor” a radical abolitionist could have.