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John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, & the Culture of War

by Nudelman, Franny
Publisher: North Carolina Press
Retail Price: $19.95 softcover;
$49.95 hardcover
Issue: Fall 2005
ISBN: 080785557X softcover;
0907828831 hardcover

Mouldering and mythical


A study of brutality and the John Brown legacy

Despite its title, John Brown's body is not the central focus of this volume. Indeed, Franny Nudelman examines many bodies herein: most of them black, but some white; most of them dead, but some alive; most of them marginalized, but some martyred; most of them buried, but some dissected and scattered. Many of these bodies, while alive, are shown to have been coerced, enslaved, brutalized, whipped, beaten, maimed, lynched, or executed by hanging or firing squad. Many of these bodies, after death, become memorialized and abstracted as sacrifices to a greater good and are then utilized to promote patriotism and to inspire the living to offer their bodies as potential sacrifices.

Chapter one analyzes the cultural effects of John Brown's hanging and martyrdom following his unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry. Just as his violent acts provided a catalyst for the Civil War, John Brown's dead body, a symbol of sacrifice in the cause of abolition, was soon celebrated in a catalyzing song: John Brown's Body. And as John Brown's body [lay] a-mouldering in the grave (in the words of the song as well as in reality), thousands of soldiers, inspired by his sacrificial example, felt compelled to follow his lead and marched off to war, singing his song and heading toward their own graves.

Following Brown's execution, Mary Ann Brown transported her husband's body to North Elba, New York, where family, friends, and supporters commemorated his Christ-like sacrifice, in effect justifying and commemorating his violent acts as well. But two of the black raiders who followed Brown into Harpers Ferry were not so commemorated. Since it was common practice to donate unclaimed bodies and those of criminals and marginalized people to medical schools for educational and research purposes, Virginia Governor Henry A. Wise, who had legal possession of the bodies of Shields Green and John Copeland, turned them over to students from the Winchester, Virginia medical school. Nudelman neglects to mention that the bodies of all the dead raiders, including Brown's sons Oliver and Watson, which had been buried in communal graves, were disinterred and removed by medical students. Nor does she point to the irony surrounding Virginia's treatment of Heyward Shepherd's body. The body of Shepherd, a free black killed by Brown's raiders, was buried with military honors. At first, these omissions appear to be an oversight, but on second thought, it is clear that Nudelman opted to focus on Green and Copeland for good reason. In chapter two, her purpose is to explore the evils of racial science and the use of punitive dissection, which she describes on page 41 as a form of racial violence used during the antebellum period to terrorize African and Native Americans and justify their continued subjugation. Green and Copeland are but two examples of the use of this practice. Green was a runaway slave with no family to claim his remains, but Copeland had been born free, was college-educated, and had a father who wished to bury his son's body. At first, Governor Wise promised that if the Copeland family sent a white man to claim the body, he would let him do so. But evidently, Wise changed his mind, and even the efforts of James Monroe, a white college professor from Oberlin College, failed to save Copeland's body from punitive dissection.

In chapter three, Nudelman provides a thought-provoking analysis of three different poetic responses to the Civil War. In his poem This Compost, Walt Whitman echoes Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and appears to be in league with the machine of State--at work in an effort to establish an organic metaphor or abstraction that would transfigure the bodies of war dead into countless bodies of living recruits committed to fight for the Union. In contrast, Nudelman points to occasional poems, the immediate and usually amateur responses of participants and witnesses of death who, when describing wartime death's reality, do not try to create an abstraction or claim that such a death is somehow redemptive. A third contrast is between the rhetorical purposes of Whitman and Herman Melville. Nudelman again claims that Whitman strove to sentimentalize death as an organic move toward unity of the nation. But on page 99, she asserts that Melville's Civil War poems, unlike Whitman's, show the fragmenting effect of violence on the survivor's consciousness.

In chapter three, Nudelman moves from literary analysis to visual interpretation of Civil War photographs. She first describes the mid-19th century custom of photographing dead family members (especially children) by dressing and posing them as if they were alive, thereby creating an enduring and realistic memory of them. She contrasts this with the practices of most official or government-sanctioned Civil War photographers who commonly objectified images of military executions and battlefields full of war dead by using panoramic shots and including disinterested bystanders, thereby distancing viewers from reality. She concludes that, like Whitman's Civil War poems, these photographers' images supported government efforts to make real dead bodies into abstractions. She contrasts these government-sanctioned photographers with Thomas Roche, a civilian war photographer, whose images provide close-ups of dead bodies revealing details of their wounds and final agonized facial expressions. Such images, rather than distancing the viewer, tend to create intimacy and discourage abstraction. Nudelman also points to the government's deliberate attempts to control and censor other technologically advanced forms of communication, such as newspapers and telegraphy, which could have provided uncensored and more immediate reality to the general public.

In chapter five, Nudelman segues into the 20th century and the field of film criticism. In analyzing Edward Zwick's Glory--the 1989 film which commemorates the contributions of the 54th Massachusetts, the first black regiment to fight for the Union, Nudelman admits that the film is historically accurate when it reveals the humiliations and inequities experienced by black troops. But on page 133, she insists that its premise, that black soldiers were ennobled and liberated through their military experience, is woefully inaccurate. In reality, according to Nudelman, the military's treatment of black recruits was far more harsh than that depicted in the film, and she argues that the soldier's relationship to the state appears structured not by participation but by the exercise of violence. She then draws an analogy between the acts of slaveholders and the military's ugly record of whippings and executions, thus undercutting the myth that emancipation and military service gave blacks true freedom and equality.

In the Epilogue, Nudelman returns to the song John Brown's Body, contrasting it with Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic, with lyrics written to fit the same tune. John Brown's Body narrates the Christ-like sacrifice of a single person on behalf of suffering slaves; Battle Hymn narrates the coming of the Lord to wreak retribution on the entire nation for the sin of slavery. The songs' themes echo two cultural narratives referenced by Nudelman throughout the book, and by framing the book with discussions of the songs, Nudelman unites the two narratives.

While this organizational framing provides overall unity, John Brown's Body suffers from a minor organizational weakness: repetition. The Introduction summarizes major points to be made (and read) throughout the book, and then, each chapter begins with a two or three-page summary of major points to be made (and read) throughout that chapter. The result: sometimes the same ideas, expressed in slightly different words, appear two, three, and possibly more times. While this organizational pattern works effectively in lectures during which repetition helps listeners remember major points, in the context of the written word, such repetition seems unnecessary and excessive. Happily, in chapter five and in the Epilogue, repetition is not as apparent, and in terms of style and coherence, these are two of the strongest parts of the book.

Examined with an eye to other rhetorical matters, the strengths of John Brown's Body are numerous. First, Nudelman's selective appropriation of 28 illustrations effectively exemplifies and supports her arguments. A second strength lies in Nudelman's eclectic methodology. Through the prisms of literary analysis, cultural studies, African-American Studies, history, and film studies, among others, she effectually explores the uses, misuses, and abuses of the bodies of marginalized Americans, black and white, before, during, and long after the Civil War. Third, in attempting to elucidate Nudelman's primary thesis, I find Nudelman's descriptions of Julia Ward Howe's views on wartime death telling. On page 170, Nudelman writes of Howe's desire to end war and Howe's belief that wartime death is the abhorrent consequence of institutional power. Since throughout John Brown's Body, Nudelman offers evidence to support this view, the phrase seems to encapsulate her own underlying thesis. Next, Nudelman's rhetorical purpose seems apparent in the final sentence of the Epilogue: a compulsion to draw peoples' attention to the effects of violence--pain, mutilation, and loss and a desire to bring about changes in cultural attitudes that promote violence. Clearly, Nudelman's thesis, rhetorical purpose, and use of eclectic methodology, situate this book solidly in the cultural studies sub-genre of violence studies--the interdisciplinary inquiry into the causes, effects, and prevention of violence. Finally, the most unique quality of John Brown's Body is the presence of a face and a voice. The face, as observer, maintains a certain objectivity, but the authorial voice speaks in tones of sympathetic response similar to those the author notes in John Brown. This response is most apparent when the voice describes the pain of a mother who has lost a child: all those mothers who were unable to retrieve the bodies of all those sons killed in war; Julia Ward Howe's grief over the death of her son; the mother of Emmett Till who, after retrieving her son's mutilated body, forced the world to look at it. Franny Nudelman speaks with the voice of a humane person who presents the facts as she sees them and as she feels them; this duality ensures that Nudelman will continue to have an impact on her students, her readers, and all who choose to listen.

Peggy A. Russo is assistant professor of English at the Mont Alto Campus of Pennsylvania State University. She has published articles in Shakespeare Bulletin, The Southern Literary Journal, Journal of American Culture, and Shakespeare in the Classroom. She is co-editor, with Paul Finkelman, of Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown, Ohio University Press (August 2005). She can be contacted at u7k@psu.edu.

Russo, Peggy A., review of John Brown's Body: Slavery, Violence, & the Culture of War, by Nudelman, Franny, Civil War Book Review, (Fall 2005).