A friend of mine reminds me that today, October 16, is the 155th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. My friend says he’s the greatest white guy ever, which is maybe a stretch, depending on how you define ‘white’. But there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s the greatest American white guy ever. No contest. Nobody else even close.
Whenever I’m in the Adirondacks I make a point of detouring to North Elba and laying some flowers on Old Osawatomie’s grave, in the farmstead where he lived before he went to join the immortals. It’s an evocative place: rather bare and windswept, with a distant prospect of the ancient High Peaks. Though it’s quite near horrible touristy Lake Placid, you can still get a sense of what it must have been like in his day — that hard denuded historyless American landscape, the fruit of a recent genocide. God’s unwinking eye above, and a blank slate all around. And yet beneath your feet the lifegiving earth and the sense it imparts that history isn’t over; that seeds are germinating under the windswayed grass, and old moles are digging, unimpaired by age. It’s a haunted spot — haunted in the best possible way, by a ghost who wishes only to introduce us to our better selves.
By force, if necessary. And it probably is necessary. We’re creatures of darkness, and we hate the light even as we desire it.
Thoreau had some eloquent words to say about him:
For once we are lifted out of the trivialness and dust of politics into the region of truth and manhood. No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. He needed no babbling lawyer, making false issues, to defend him. He was more than a match for all the judges that American voters, or office-holders of whatever grade, can create. He could not have been tried by a jury of his peers, because his peers did not exist.
Interesting, innit, that the greatest American white guy — the guy who does us more credit than all the sorry figures on our coinage — has no public buildings, or highways, or naval vessels named after him. The fact is, we still haven’t caught up with him. Will we ever?