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John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights

4.30  ·  Rating details ·  623 ratings  ·  80 reviews
An authoritative new examination of John Brown and his deep impact on American history.Bancroft Prize-winning cultural historian David S. Reynolds presents an informative and richly considered new exploration of the paradox of a man steeped in the Bible but more than willing to kill for his abolitionist cause. Reynolds locates Brown within the currents of nineteenth-centur ...more
Paperback, 594 pages
Published November 14th 2006 by Vintage (first published 2005)
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Average rating 4.30  · 
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 ·  623 ratings  ·  80 reviews

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Dec 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everybody
Recommended to Tyler by: Other GR Reviews
The postmodern critique has brought us the "cultural biography," which in this work aims to show three things: 1) how John Brown was a part of the culture he lived in; 2) how he transcended that culture; and 3) how he transformed it. This new approach may sound faddish or obstruse. But David Reynolds makes the final product an astounding account of John Brown's place in history.

I took up the book because I knew so little about Harper's Ferry, even though it had been a watershed in American hist
Feb 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
John Brown was the most famous, and polarizing, figure to emerge in America in the 1850's, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln. Brown came to personalize the violence which was overcoming the national dialogue over slavery at the time. Many interpretations of Brown have been presented by critics and historians since he died in 1859. Depending on your point of view, he was a villain who incited the North and South to open warfare; to others, he was the avenging angel of abolition. David Reynold ...more
Theo Logos
John Brown is an American enigma. His life presents a serious challenge to a simple black and white interpretation of ethics, history, and by extrapolation, even current events. He was a man a hundred years ahead of his time in racial ethics - not only opposed to slavery, but unlike almost all other abolitionist of his time, actually a believer in the equality of the races. He was praised honestly by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote of him that he "believed in two articles - the golden rule and th ...more
Jul 27, 2008 rated it liked it
David Reynolds sympathetic yet critical and probing treatment of John Brown -- once among the most polarizing figures in America history -- is an amazing and thought-provoking book. I use John Brown, and the events surrounding the Kansas "civil war" ("Bleeding Kansas," 1856), along with the events of the raid on Harper's Ferry (October 1859), as part of my freshman seminar on social criticism at the University of Michigan. Brown is an excellent figure to include in such a course for two reasons. ...more
Being born and raised in Kansas, it is perhaps no surprise that I've always thought the struggle for Kansas's status as a free or slave state was a significant part of what brought about the Civil War. But in an era when Confederate flag enthusiasts are suddenly insisting that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery, it was high time I finally read this book my father had lent me about Brown, and the events sparking the Civil War.

(Spoiler alert: My dad isn't getting this book back.)

I loved this
Porter Broyles
There is an old adage, “Show, don’t tell.”

Basically, the idea is that in good writing that it is better to for the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author's exposition, summarization, and description. Set the scene and let the reader reach their own conclusions. Show, don’t tell.

We have all seen examples in movies, TV, or books wherein a character is introduced and from their first appearance on screen you know if the ch
Johnny D
Jul 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
"Bones in a grave,
Cover them as they will with choking earth,
May shout the truth to men who put them there,
More than all orators."

- Edwin Arlington Robinson, John Brown.

This is the first book that I've read on John Brown, so I really do not have a whole lot of previous knowledge to compare it to. Nevertheless, it seems to me that David S. Reynolds' treatment of John Brown is well-crafted. Reynolds does a good job of shredding the repeated contention that John Brown was a madman. He also does ver
May 07, 2017 rated it it was amazing
John Brown was unique.

A "cultural biography," this book places John Brown within the context of the society he was living in at the time. Through that lens, we see just how much he differed from his contemporaries. He wasn't just a free-stater, wanting to stop the spread of slavery. And he wasn't just an abolitionist, wanting to eradicate slavery where it currently existed. Unlike both groups, John Brown believed in racial equality. While most abolitionists of his day believed blacks were inferi
Aug 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
I turned to this book as I was reading Cloudsplitter a novel about John Brown by Russell Banks. The novel provided an interesting perspective on the life and family of Brown, but ultimately left me wanting more. Thus to my unexpected relief this enlightened and enlightening cultural biography was able to impress me in several ways, filling in some missing details about John Brown. In it Reynolds thoroughly explores the connection between the leading Transcendentalists of New England and John Bro ...more
Oct 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
I read the Arthur Penn Waren John Brown book and came away thinking of the man as crazy, this book is much better and has totally changed my view. Brown is certainly intense, but not crazy. During his trial a constitution he wrote for his proposed new community was entered into evidence to prove he was crazy. The constitution called for equality of all people blacks, Indians and women. A certain sign of insanity.

It may be that reading this today in the day of Obama is different than thinking of
Apr 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
It only took me two months and three library renewals to get through this one, with a myocardial infarction occurring within the first couple of days. Reading it was worth the effort, though. Not light entertainment, this one, for sure. It has given me much to ponder. Brown was a complicated, multi-dimensional man -- but singularly courageous and ahead of his time, especially in terms of racial attitudes. The depth of the author's research is astounding as well.
Joe Rodeck
Feb 25, 2019 rated it it was ok
Unfinished.* Suffers from a professorial need to tell you everything he knows. What should be exciting is boring.

*2 stars meaning I gave up.
R.K. Byers
Oct 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
absolutely tremendous.
Michael T.
Aug 02, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very informative. John Brown was even more interesting than I had imagined. He was, for instance, not just an opponent of slavery, but an opponent of racism in any form during an era when that was very VERY unusual. Even the major Abolitionists of the day clung to a very condescending, paternalistic kind of racism. Not so Captain Brown. I didn't know either that it was the Transcendentalists, Thoreau, Emerson, etc. who rescued Brown from relative obscurity by championing the man and his cause af ...more
Roger Bailey
Feb 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: today's progressive militants.
I learned quite a lot from this book. I have heard of John Brown all my life and, of course, I knew about the massacre of slavers in Kansas and the raid on the arsenal in Harper's Ferry and bits and pieces of his life, but there were a lot of details that I was unaware of. This book fills in a lot of the gaps. The details on the Harper's ferry raid were especially illuminating. John Brown was about as racism and sexism free as anyone could be. This was at a time that even the most ardent aboliti ...more
Sep 24, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is powerful. I had to stop and ponder things so many times while reading this book. John Brown is singular in the history of America. Here was a man in the 1850's who saw great evil which the laws of the nation supported and each day strengthened. The law becoming a perversion of justice. John Brown must be understood in the context of his time. Slavery, the murder of abolitionists (Elijah Lovejoy) going unpunished, the Fugitive Slave Act, Compromise of 1850 (repealing the Missouri Com ...more
Schlow Library
Feb 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"John Brown remains a controversial figure in U.S. history. The abolitionist who embraced violence as a means to end slavery, and whose efforts to provoke a widespread slave revolt faltered at Harper's Ferry in 1859, has been portrayed both as a hero and a devil. In David Reynold's book 'John Brown, Abolitionist,' the author places him firmly in the context of his own time. Far from being a one-dimensional figure, Reynolds portrays him in all his complexity. A deeply religious man, Brown nonethe ...more
Dec 28, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Fascinating biography of Brown from early childhood through his death. The examination of public reaction after the raid on Harper's Ferry and Brown's death is a thorough and engaging overview. Reynolds takes considerable time connecting Brown to the Transcendentalist movement and does so with great effectiveness.

More a social history than a fact by fact telling. That's probably why I enjoyed it. Reynolds did such a great job of connecting Brown to his times, to his unique family upbringing - an
Ian Weaver
Oct 01, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Tori, Ann-Maree
David S. Reynold's biography on abolitionist John Brown is well written and thoroughly researched. He paints a picture of a man morally and spiritually driven to end the institution of slavery. Interestingly, Reynolds also compares and contrasts John Brown's zealotry with modern-day terrorists who have also killed in the name of faith.
Finally managed to plow my way through this. It's a little dry at first and at other times, but definitely an incredibly thorough examination of John Brown's life, his impact on society in his lifetime, and the way he echoed down the ages. If you have any interest in the Civil War at all, this book should be required reading.
Aug 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Excellent and thorough account of John Brown's life... debunks some of the myths about him (he wasn't crazy!) and points out some of the amazing things about him -- he was one of the only anti-racist white abolitionists. Loved it.
May 12, 2019 rated it liked it
Less Proust and more Hemingway. If I were David S. Reynold's editor that is what I would tell him. The story of John Brown is interesting enough on its own to carry this book. Reynolds sets out to not only tell his story but also to explain the context as well. Sometimes he takes the context too far.

John Brown's life is well-documented here. We learn of his childhood, socializing with Native American and African American slave children, his failed business ventures, religious fanaticism, his uto
Sarah Rigg
Nov 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
I'd wanted to read more about John Brown and saw this book was well-regarded. It was described in a blurb as one of the most comprehensive treatments of Brown's life, and it certainly was very detailed, but, luckily, the style is also quite readable, and it's full of photos and illustrations that make the various players feel more real.

The author calls it a "cultural biography," because he looks at the historical and cultural atmosphere in which John Brown's fight against slavery took place. Br
Tom Walsh
Jun 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Long before trump tainted America with his corporate evil, we, as a nation, I feel, were punished. We were punished by the forces of nature because a humanistic nod to slavery was not part of the Declaration of Independence. So, from 1776 to 1863, the blight of cruelty existed in our nation, hell-bent to enforce its lucrative and soiled properties, even through Supreme Court Rulings (Dredd Scott, e.g.) This inspired bio by David S. Reynolds, unfolds, for me, the very exhale of 19th century count ...more
May 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Given my public school glossing over of John Brown's role in history, this book has given me a greater understanding and appreciation of what he believed and of what he tried to accomplish. I've never been impressed by the moral absolutism of religious convictions, but reading this book has revealed a man who was a century ahead of his time in terms of racial attitudes, a devout Calvinist who was tolerant enough to associate with those who disagreed with his views, excepting slavery. Brown actu ...more
Aug 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018-reads
Excellent! To my recollection, John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry got a sentence or two back in my high school history book, and that sums up what I knew about the man going in. From this book, I learned how influential he and the event really were. I absorbed a lot about the cultural and historical context, about other notable figures of the day, and about the “universal racism” of both context and figures — a picture so unlike the Hollywoodized versions of our national heroes that we wou ...more
Wils Cain
Nov 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I'd been meaning to read this since attending a Lincoln exhibit several years ago where I heard about John Brown for the first time. I was intrigued by a white man sacrificing everything to stand against slavery and equal rights for blacks and women. And further intrigued that this one man was seen by some as a civil rights hero and by others as a terrorist. I was expecting a dry read too. What I got was an amazing parallel story to what is happening in the states right now with the presidential ...more
Jan 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Interesting read that really sets Brown up as a unique character in American history, Reynolds goes to great lengths to contrast with contemporaries including Thoreau, Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and Abolitionists, instead seeing parallels with Oliver Cromwell. Lots of history on Kansas as a kind of "last frontier" for slaveowners of the south and northerners hoping to end the expansion of slavery. Showed how many of the most progressive voices of this era, despite being for the abolition of sl ...more
T.l. Harris
Aug 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A powerful and thorough biography of one of America's most controversial revolutionaries. David S. Reynolds doesn't fully open for us John Brown's mindset but then who could? Brown as a wholly unique figure in American history and the abolition movement: a white, fiercely Puritanical abolitionist and racial egalitarian who advocated the end of slavery through violence and warfare? We have seen no one like him before or since. Reynolds does, however, place Brown in detailed context, and allows us ...more
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David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the City University of New York. His works include the award-winning Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, Walt Whitman's America, and John Brown, Abolitionist. He lives on Long Island in New York.
“The Richmond Enquirer, the South's leading paper, called antislavery senators “a pack of curs” who “have become saucy, and dare to be impudent to gentlemen” and thus “must be lashed into submission…. Let them understand, that for every vile word spoken against the South, they will suffer so many stripes, and they will soon learn to behave themselves like decent dogs—they never can be gentlemen.” 0 likes
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