Monday, October 17, 2011

Hitchens on John Brown

Some essay collections seem to have a loose coherence.  Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, is an example.  Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably, has no such coherence.  One needs to be in an appropriate mood to skip from subject to subject as one wends his way through this 749-page collection.

Hitchens is touted by some as the greatest modern essayist.  Perhaps he is.  On pages 28 through 33 he reviews John Brown, Abolitionist, by David Reynolds.  He quotes Reynolds to say, “The officer who supervised the capture of Brown was Robert E. Lee . . . Lee’s retreat from the decisive battle of Gettysburg would pass over the same road that Brown took to Harpers Ferry on the night of his attack.  The lieutenant who demanded Brown’s surrender was J. E. B. Stuart, later Lee’s celebrated cavalry officer.  Among the officers who supervised at Brown’s hanging was Thomas Jackson, soon to become the renowned ‘Stonewall.’  Among the soldiers at Brown’s execution was a dashing Southern actor, John Wilkes Booth.”

Hitchens writes, “If this does not vindicate Brown’s view that all had been predestined by the Almighty before the world was made, it nonetheless does something to the hair on the back of one’s neck. . . .”

Hitchens can be heavy handed when setting about him toppling religious icons, but here he has a lighter touch, doing justice to the astonishing collection of people present at Brown’s hanging and ironically tipping his hat to Brown’s belief that God was working through him to free the slaves.  Hitchens has the admirable trait of not bypassing matters he finds difficult.    He doesn’t credit God’s existence let alone his hand on the matters Brown was concerned with.  One can infer that Hitchens credits coincidence as causing the excitement on the back of his neck.  And here at least one can smile and draw a different conclusion

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