History Remembered: Religion, Violence, and “the War Against Slavery”*

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  • ABSTRACT

    This article analyzes the notion of historical truth in two contemporary American novels, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004) and Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter (1998). Both novels re-tell the American past, focusing on the time period leading up to the American Civil War. They each include characters modeled after historical figures who are involved in the abolitionist movement, men belonging to John Brown’s inner circle who believe that slavery needs to be abolished by means of violence and blood sacrifice, and who consider this feat to be God’s divine calling for them, which they mean to fulfill at all cost. These men are resurrected in the stories their descendants choose to tell years later, providing a unique and personal narrative window into abolitionist history. Robinson and Banks create narrators who are extremely biased in their portrayal of the past. Unable, and perhaps also unwilling, to emotionally detach themselves from the accounts of their ancestors they seek to communicate, they tell obviously subjective stories despite their claims of objectivity. Thus, in their own ways, Gilead and Cloudsplitter question the existence of what we may call true history, History with a capital H. Moreover, through this process of undermining the concept of historical truth, they also raise the same questions regarding the justification of violence to achieve a greater good, and the sacrifice of family for the sake of the larger community.


  • KEYWORD

    Marilynne Robinson , Gilead , Russel Banks , Cloudsplitter , History , Abolition , Slavery

  • Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004) and Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter (1998) are confessional narratives which re-tell the American past. These two contemporary novels introduce characters modeled after historical figures, as the respective protagonists each engage with an ancestor who was involved in the abolitionist movement. Facing death in their old age, two men communicate their very personal understanding of American history. In Gilead, Reverend John Ames narrates his grandfather’s1 life as part of a memoir, which he hopes his young son will read as an adult. In Cloudsplitter, Owen Brown retells the story of his father for the sake of an academic who is writing John Brown’s biography, which Owen sees as an opportunity to appease the ghosts of Harpers Ferry that continue to haunt him in his silence. Out of their descendants’ accounts, both Ames’s grandfather and John Brown emerge as men of controversial religious conviction who believe that slavery needs to be abolished by means of violence and blood sacrifice.

    Robinson and Banks create narrators who are clearly unable, and perhaps also unwilling, to emotionally detach themselves as they tell obviously subjective stories despite their claims of objectivity. Thus, Gilead and Cloudsplitter may be called examples of the confessional narrative, which is said to be rooted in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, “though there was religious confessional literature long before Rousseau” (Herman 82). In the confessional narrative, something formerly disguised is revealed and the account is marked by “self-awareness and the search for self-knowledge” (Herman 82). John Ames and Owen Brown reveal the painful and shameful secrets of their pasts, creating fic-tional versions of themselves. Comparing Gilead and Cloudsplitter, I examine whether narratives that trouble the notion of historical truth necessarily also undermine the concept of truth itself, as the grandfather and John Brown firmly cling to religious truth and use it to justify violence against the self, against the enemy, and against the family.

    The two novels I discuss here may, in one way or another, be considered historical. They engage with the time period surrounding the American Civil War, more exactly the abolitionist movement. Specifically, they focus on a historical figure, John Brown (1800-1859), for whom, as his biographers note, religion was the motivation and justification for the abolition of slavery (McGlone 322). The abolitionist Brown remains a paradox, as few biographers and historians have been able to “present information about Brown’s life factually, unfiltered by partisan bias” (Reynolds 8). The leading question biographers continue to debate is whether Brown was a hero or a killer, a saint or a self-centered madman (Reynolds 8). The man who is responsible for the brutal Pottawatomie massacre in 1856 and the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which “is widely acknowledged as a major event leading to the Civil War” (Reynolds 10), and who was tried and hanged for his crimes, “conspiracy to incite a slave insurrection, treason against the State of Virginia, and first-degree murder” (Reynolds 348), is a mystery in many ways. Brown has come to be seen as a prophet because he foretold accurately that slavery would not be abolished without much bloodshed (Reynolds 480). History has proved him right and in some ways justified him, one might say; however, Gilead and Cloudsplitter raise the question of whether there is such a thing as “true history” at all. How accurately are the things that happened, which we may call reality, represented in historical writings? Can we even speak of reality if each person experiences historical events differently?

    Robinson and Banks write at a time in which the concepts of truth and history as absolute have come to be questioned thoroughly, as they are considered to be subjective and perhaps even, as twentieth-century philosopher C.S. Lewis puts it, irrelevant (1). This understanding of truth as relative is characteristic of modern thinking and the process of secularization (Gillespie 270-71). One truth that has explicitly been questioned is that of historical knowledge2—there is now no longer “a singlenarrative” of history, but rather “an increasing emphasis on the diversity of . . . experience” (Appleby 3).

    In her collection of essays, The Death of Adam (1998), Robinson herself uncovers the concept of history to be extremely unstable. She finds the term itself to be very imprecise, arguing that “[t]he English Language should provide us with a way of distinguishing among the very different things we call ‘history’—the temporal past, the past inherited as culture, the recorded past, the past interpreted” (Adam 126). According to Robinson, what we might consider the “true past” is completely mysterious from the point of view of the present (Adam 126). Historical records, Robinson suggests, are always shaped by “the motives, enthusiasms, sensibilities, talents, and scruples of interpreters” (Adam 126). Robinson eclares that especially a group such as the abolitionists would be likely to create, and shape, their own history, since they “were profoundly selfaware” (Adam 126-27). The reader senses this self-awareness in Gilead and Cloudsplitter, as the narrators of both novels constantly feel the need to justify their positions and describe the abolitionist movement from various, very personal, points of view.

    1John Ames’s father and grandfather share his name, thus I refer to them as “the father” and “the grandfather.”  2My interest is not in the critique of the Hegelian notion of history as a coherent process; rather, I focus on the concept of multiple perspectives on history, many of which remain unheard while a privileged few write capital H-History.

    1. Visions of Freedom in Gilead

    Critics have noted how deeply Robinson’s Gilead is rooted in American history. Touching on specific events like “the Civil War, John Brown’s uprising, the Abolitionist movement, the underground railroad, [and] the battle to situate Kansas as a free or slave state” (Weele 231), Robinson creates a character who is modeled after one of John Brown’s supporters, a man who shares John Brown’s philosophy of violence and his religious convictions: “The grandfather is modeled on John Todd from Tabor, Iowa, who came west with his friends from Oberlin College. Characteristically, these abolitionists were scholars. Many of them knew Hebrew and Greek” (Montgomery-Fate). Ames’s grandfather is a passionate abolitionist and a passionate pastor who is serious about his Greek and Hebrew. He is directly involved with John Brown, who makes only a brief appearance in Gilead. Robinson states: “I try to be discreet in my use of historical figures. My John Brown is only a voice heard in the darkness” (Robinson Paris Review). The abolitionists have done much good, Robinson believes, and they deserve to be acknowledged rather than simply being considered “all violent crazy people” (Bendis 34). Nonetheless, Gilead asks if violence is ever justified, even in the fight against a tremendous societal wrong, and if a notion of truth can be upheld in a subjective narrative.

    Gilead illustrates Robinson’s understanding of history as dependent upon the point of view of the historian. The very fact that Gilead has a companion novel, Home (2008), in which Robinson re-tells some of the events which John Ames narrates in Gilead, focusing heavily on Jack Boughton and his sister Glory, underlines that there are several sides to every story. The author herself takes advantage of this format to subtly undermine the proclamations of her protagonist, John Ames, by creating an alternative point of view. In Home, the reader gains a different perspective of Ames, but he or she also comes to appreciate the intimate insight into Ames’s mind that Gilead provides.

    Gilead is a confessional novel, a father’s letters to his young son, whose adulthood he fears he will not witness because his death of heart failure seems near and unavoidable: “If you’re a grown man when you read this—it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then—I’ll have been gone a long time” (3). Ames’s voice in Gilead is at times that of a dead man, addressing his son in a future Ames will not experience: “That is the main thing I want to tell you, that I regret very deeply the hard times I know you and your mother must have gone through, with no real help from me at all, except my prayers, and I pray all the time. I did while I lived, and I do now, too, if that is how things are in the next life” (4). At other times, he speaks of the present, describing his experience: “I see you standing up on your swing, watching some boys about your age out in the road” (30), and of the past, narrating his memories: “You know, I suppose, that I married a girl when I was young” (17). Thus, the past, the present, and the future are always in dialogue in Gilead, shaping each other. Ames himself frequently reminds his son, the intended reader of his narrative, that he is highly subjective in his musings. At other times, when Ames claims objectivity, the reader notes the opposite to be true, sensing that Ames desperately desires to paint a positive image of himself for his young son, or that Ames is simply unaware of some of his own struggles and shortcomings.

    In its approach to the times and events surrounding the American Civil War, Gilead asks whether Christianity and violent reactions to social injustice are compatible. Ames’s father and grandfather represent two contradicting positions. Robinson shows how the father and the grandfather miss out on grace as they both practice idolatry while preaching Christianity, each pursuing their goals at any cost. In his narrative, Ames describes how these two men who have shaped him so profoundly live in a continued state of disharmony; in fact one may say there is a “chasmbetween” them (Bailey 277).

    Ames’s grandfather, a passionate abolitionist, believes that it is necessary to fight violently against injustice, and he has lost an eye in the Civil War (31), where he served as a Chaplain in the Union Army (75). Prior to the war, he moved to Kansas “just to help Free Soilers establish the right to vote, because the constitution was going to be voted on that would decide whether Kansas entered the Union slave or free” (75-76) and is closely associated with John Brown (47), at one point helping him to flee, perhaps shooting a man, and leaving his son, Ames’s father, in fear and confusion (105-09). The grandfather dies a lonely death having returned to Kansas in his old age, away from his family. Ames’s father, taking Ames with him, embarks on a journey to find the grandfather’s grave, a journey through the past, where stories once again write history as Ames’s father reminisces on the grandfather’s life (104).

    Ames’s grandfather’s justification for using violence in his battle against slavery is a vision he received of Christ before he was sixteen, a vision that shaped his life: “[W]hen he looked up, there was the Lord, holding out His arms to him, which were bound in chains. My grandfather said, ‘Those irons had rankled right down to His bones.’ . . . He said he knew then that he had to come to Kansas and make himself useful to the cause of abolition” (49). Thus, the grandfather believes it to be his divine calling to fight slavery, whatever sacrifice it may take. Ames’s father is sceptical towards claims of present day miracles and does not believe in visions outside of the Bible (48). He limits the grandfather’s experience to “the times,” reassuring young Ames that he “need not fear that the Lord would come to [Ames] with His sorrows” (49). This speaks volumes about the father’s personal faith, Ames contends, who continuously describes his father as a man without passion.

    Preaching peace at all times, Ames’s father believes that violence “has nothing to do with Jesus” (85), no matter what the circumstances may be. Ames’s father is very critical of the events in Kansas, especially in light of the fact that Ames’s grandfather brought home a pistol from that time (78). Upon notice of the grandfather’s death, Ames’s father goes through great trouble to destroy that pistol as if it were possible to erase the violence of the past (79). Ames’s mother equally contributes to the cleansing of what they believe to be the grandfather’s sins after his death, literally History Remembered: Religion, Violence, and “the War Against Slavery” 417 trying to wash them away through the laundering, starching, ironing and folding his blood-stained, formerly white, shirts (80-81). There seems to be a general consensus in the Ames family that “[t]he Good Lord will judge” the grandfather’s violent actions (81).

    Interpreting the past for his own son, Ames states: “I believe that the old man did indeed have far too narrow an idea of what a vision might be. He may, so to speak, have been too dazzled by the great light of this experience to realize that an impressive sun shines on us all” (91). That is, while Ames clearly admires his grandfather as a man of conviction, he also sees very clearly that the grand vision of the grandfather has indeed come at a cost, that of his family, which he sacrifices for his ambitions, making his children feel “fatherless” even as their mother is dying (89). The value of family in Gilead is highlighted through the novel’s female characters, especially Ames’s mother and Ames’s wife. Ames’s mother often pays the price for the grandfather’s radical generosity and his very literal interpretation of the Bible, and nonetheless remains very respectful of him (33-34). She is portrayed as a caring woman who “took a great deal of pride in caring for her family” (33). Ames’s wife, for whom he waited so long and whom he considers to be “a miracle” (55), has provided him “something more than a miracle,” the son he had so late in life, “God’s grace to me” (52). Ames’s wife is very pragmatic, simple, and sincere in her desire to grow and improve herself (55; 77) and strong and wise in her care for the family (51). Unlike these women, the grandfather, Ames suggests, may have gotten too lost in what he considered to be greatness, and he may have abandoned the beauty of the present for the sake of a bloody glory that, even in its willingness to give to others, ultimately became selfish.

    2. The Bloody Work of the Lord in Cloudsplitter

    While Gilead is both free and subtle in its use of characters that are modelled after historical figures, Cloudsplitter aims to retell the life of John Brown from the perspective of his third-born son, Owen, as historically accurate as possible3. Researching Brown’s life, Banks was inspired to choose Owen’s point of view by material he found in the Rare Books Room at Columbia University:

    Owen, whom Banks calls “the perfect witness” of Brown’s life (Banks Time), was a part of all the significant events thereof, but remained silent about them for his entire life, being quite reluctant to speak even about his own escape from Harpers Ferry (Keeler) and therefore makes an ideal narrator for Banks’s purposes. Owen seems to have been especially close to his father, more so than his siblings. Oswald Villard, the academic whom Banks fictionalizes in Cloudsplitter, quotes Jason Brown, Owen’s older brother, as follows: “Owen, as always, stuck with father” (262).

    Banks states that he has been faithful to all known facts about Brown and his family in Cloudsplitter, but that his primary purpose was to write fiction, not history (Banks Time). When we give up on the notion of history as absolutely true and thus consider it to be partly “fictional,” there is only a fine line that separates literature and history: “History, like literature, speaks directly to curiosity about human experience, but it takes concrete details to open the door into an imaginative recreation of the past” (Appleby 152). Gilead and Cloudsplitter are both based on historical figures from the abolitionist circle, but Robinson and Banks write literature, not history. Their narrators, however, each in their own fictional universes, mean to write history.

    Cloudsplitter is incredibly self-conscious in its understanding of itself as a narrative that makes truth claims and re-writes history. Owen decides to grant a request he has previously declined: to write down his father’s story. There is a duality to this account of John Brown’s life: “For [Miss Mayo] and . . . professor [Villard], it is told to present and future generations of students of the history of nineteenth-century America; for [Owen], it is being told to the dead, the long dead and buried companions of my past. And told especially to my dead father” (678-79). Owen chooses to provide his story because he needs to speak the truth, not to correct the historical record, as he repeatedly insists (620), but to appease those who died during the Harpers Ferry raid (28). That is, the reader senses that Owen in fact would like “to impinge uponthe public reality, on history” (674); however, he cannot get himself to do so because even years after Brown’s death, he is still controlled by his father.

    Owen describes Brown as a man who sees violence in the fight against slavery to be not only justified, but in fact ordained by God. His hatred of slavery originates in the belief that God is the Father of all people, regardless of race (420). Thus, Brown considers the violent battle against slavery, which he calls a “satanic institution” (208), to be his divine mission. Abolitionism is “[t]he bloody work of the Lord” (451), and the Bible is his “military manual” (340). Like Ames’s grandfather in Gilead, Brown receives “visions” from God that call him to fight for the abolition of slavery (384) and he spends much time in prayer and meditation (635). Throughout the novel, Brown is driven by “his two great, permanent, ongoing obsessions—religion and the war against slavery” (379). These are the two passions of his life, and while Brown is certainly a family man who adores his wife and children, they always come second.

    One of the reasons why his sons cannot believe in the God of the Bible (104) may be the fact that Brown has made himself to be god to his family, thus in effect encouraging idolatry rather than faith. Owen writes: “we who fell away from belief in Father’s God were able to do so, perhaps were invited to do so, because we were stuck with Father himself for a God, and try as we might, we could no more escape our god than he could his” (105). The man Owen refers to as capital F-Father is the center of the Brown family’s universe, and Owen especially sees himself as constantly living in his father’s shadow, even pretending to be a Christian to please Brown (348-49). While he cannot believe in God, Owen can believe in his father’s visions (384). Brown finds greatness in loving God and Owen finds greatness in loving Brown (432). Owen is reduced to reflecting Brown’s light because he has none of his own (447). Brown is the master puppeteer, “the author of the play and its stage-manager and master of costumes and scenery and all our properties, and he is the lead actor as well . . .” (701).

    Owen is very aware of his father’s willingness to pay his children’s lives as a price for the freedom of the slaves. This is most explicit in the death of Fred, Brown’s mentally ill son who is “incapable of lying” (35) and ends up being “sacrificed . . . upon the stone altar of [Brown’s] belief” (659). Owen compares their situation to the biblical account of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22):

    Owen explains that the account of Abraham and Isaac is once again all about perspectives. To Brown, the story is focused on Abraham, while Owen would have put Isaac in the center of the narrative (494). In fact, “put[ting] Isaac in the center” is precisely what Owen does through writing down the story of his life from his own perspective. The novel Cloudsplitter thus becomes “the story of Abraham and Isaac, from Isaac’s point of view,” as Banks himself notes (Banks Time). Owen is the Isaac who has finally found a voice, while his fellow Isaacs, his brothers and Brown’s other faithful followers, marched into death with their Abraham. Owen calls his resistance a “heretical refusal to play Isaac to my father’s Abraham . . .” (740).

    In Cloudsplitter, Owen describes his loss of faith in the god who his father has become to him. The novel is the declaration of independence of a man who considers himself to be deeply lost: “I am a Christian without a God, a fallen man without a Savior. I am a believer without belief” (693). He says he is “secular” (678), “an assassin with no principle or ideology and with no apparent religion, save one: death to slavery” (586). Ironically, Owen is enslaved by his father, a man who calls himself slavery’s worst enemy.

    Escaping Harpers Ferry and observing his father’s certain death, Owen proclaims in his narrative that he has broken free: “As if, after a lifetime bound to my father’s fierce will and companionship by heavy steel manacles and chains, I had watched them come suddenly unlocked . . .” (746). In fact, over the course of the narrative of Cloudsplitter, the reader notices how Owen makes small steps towards independence. He slowly learns to manipulate Brown by appealing to his religious sense and using Brown’s language of faith even though Owen himself does not believe Christianity to be true. At first, Brown can detect Owen’s disbelief despite the fact that he uses religious language (143), but eventually, Owen is able to control his father through the jargon of faith. He does this to encourage Brown (574), to push him to action (397-98), and to distract him (370). Owen presents himself as the man who pulls the strings, and the one through whom others, even his brothers, address Brown (626), but it is clear to the reader that Owen cannot flee from the bondage of slavery. In one sense, Owen escapes from the events at Harpers Ferry as a free man, both because he is not captured and because he is now physically removed from Brown. However, he soon realizes that, in his mind, he is nonetheless bound to his dead father, for whose sake he now tells his story. He cannot break free but remains enslaved by Brown until the end of his life, threatening to commit suicide once he has written his narrative, wanting to be “at my father’s side, where I have always properly belonged” (756). The reader is left with the image of a broken man, the recipient of great violation at the hands of a father hecannot help but worship.

    3In what follows, I refer to John Brown as “Brown” and Owen Brown as “Owen.”

    3. The Ultimate Sacrifice

    Gilead and Cloudsplitter fictionalize the fact that history is shaped by the person who tells or writes it. A major difference between the two narrators is that, while Ames is in a place of contentment except for the mournful anticipation of his own death, Owen writes from a situation of isolation and guilt, longing for death. In some ways, their journeys are opposite: Ames’s is one from loneliness into a family, and Owen’s is one from being part of a family to loneliness. Ames writes to his son, who will live when he is dead. Owen writes to strangers, but also to appease those who did not survive the raid on Harpers Ferry, “not so much revising history as making a confession . . .” (29). However, both narratives are written in a tone of regret, as Ames will never see his child grow up and Owen feels that he has failed his father.

    The two novels, which suggest that historical truth is not absolute, nonetheless introduce a truth that, according to the novels’ respective abolitionist characters, is worth dying for, and, more controversially, worth sacrificing one’s family for. This higher truth is the equality of human beings regardless of race and the individual right for dignity and freedom, as all human beings are made in the image of their Creator (Genesis 1:26-27), and all are unified by Christ’s sacrifice (Colossians 3:11). Gilead and Cloudsplitter raise a serious question: Is there ever justification for violence against others for the sake of Christ? How does violence, even for a just cause, relate to the meekness of Christ, of whom was foretold that He would be crucified “though he had done no violence” (Isaiah 53:9), who is “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29) and who asked His followers to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39; Luke 6:29)?

    Both Robinson and Banks describe their abolitionists as men who sacrifice their own families for the greater good of the community. Like Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22), they give up their children, alienating them in the case of Gilead and leading them into certain death in the case of Cloudsplitter, for something that to them is infinitely more important. Both writers suggest that any good sentiment, such as hatred of slavery, can become idolatry when it takes on the place of God. Both the grandfather and Brown err, these narratives suggest, when they see themselves as supremely chosen and consider their visions to be more important than those of others, overlooking the simple visions of every day, as Ames points out, and failing to love those around them. There is room for violence in Christianity, but it is the violence of the cross, which God directed at Himself, not against others, to redeem humanity. The men portrayed in Gilead and Cloudsplitter abandoned their families and sacrificed them for a vision of glory, and perhaps the notion of personal greatness. Robinson and Banks, both holding up the supreme value of the slaves’ lives and their freedom, leave it up to their readers to decide whether the painful sacrifices these men made were a price worth paying for their contributions to the abolition of slavery.

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