Law in Contemporary Society
Some thoughts on the John Brown/Thoreau reading for 2/23 prior to our class discussion: Having read through Henry David Thoreau’s “A Plea for Captain John Brown” a few times over, I have finally decided what to make of it in the context of our course. The piece reads foremost as an elegy, literally a poem in prose form.

Maybe that's right, but Thoreau says it isn't, and in fact gives it another genre definition altogether. If you're going to make genre assignment an important part of your approach, shouldn't you at least explain what the author says he's trying to do before discussing the text as though he meant to be doing something else? That there is elegiac prose here is clear, and if it is an elegy it is one of a specific type, which you don't describe.

It paints Brown and his exploits as deific in no uncertain terms. It laments his death (or metaphorical death as, of course, Brown is still alive) and celebrates his life, as a good elegy is wont. It also chides those who call Brown names (“insane,” “wild,” “misguided,” etc., p. 5), and finds evidence of Brown as a better “specimen” (“No, he was not our representative in any sense. He was too fair a specimen of a man to represent the like of us,” p.7 ). Thoreau’s argument appears to do, then, the work of Arnold’s “thinking man” - separating and elevating a figure in the right, against which all of the wrong elements of government pale. Of course, Arnold is critical of the thinking man, and claims that he is blind to the structures that evolve from hastily drawn lines in the sand. Thoreau’s elegy is similarly blind. It deifies a man but fails to consider the down side of worshiping absolutism.

I'm sorry, but this is in flat contradiction to the text. Have you not considered the passage on idolatry? The effort to fit Thoreau's plea into Arnold's mental framework feels forced to me. The two intellectual environments seem to me about as far apart as the views could get.

Beyond the elegy, however, the piece also does some prolific social critique, and it is in this context that I find its relation to the concerns of Cohen, Holmes and Arnold. I have identified four major themes: (1) Brown as simple man, (2) Brown as diety/Cromwellian figure, (3) Brown as progressive thinker and finally (4) Brown as a reflection on contemporary society. Themes 1 and 2 are likely reflections of Thoreau’s personal interests and politics. They are critical in the elegy context, less so in his social critique. Theme three is touched on infrequently – I found it addressed in only four points in the text:

"Only three points" but four examples?

1. “A man of rare common-sense and directness of speech, as of action; a transcendentalist above all, a man of ideas and principles,—that was what distinguished him. Not yielding to a whim or transient impulse, but carrying out the purpose of a life.” (p. 3)

2. “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. In that sense he was the most American of us all.” (p. 6)

3. “It was his peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. …I speak for the slave when I say that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me.” (p. 9)

4. “‘I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better, all you people at the South, prepare yourselves for a settlement of that question, that must come up for settlement sooner than your are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better. You may dispose of me very easily. I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled,—this negro question, I mean; the end of that is not yet.’” (p. 12)

The thrust of Thoreau’s social critique lies in the 4th theme, the comparison between Brown and society, which serves not (as it seems at first glance) to deify Brown but rather to illustrate where society has failed. It is though the many examples of his action (through his faith, his personal habits, his clarity of mind, etc), and the proactivity of abolitionists generally (eg. his underground railroad example), that the inaction and disease of the mid-nineteenth century government becomes glaring. Thoreau only hints at the steps needed to overcome such inaction. The many vivid examples of Brown’s devotion provide more of a road map. They suggest (that Thoreau suggests) that the key to reforming the system lies with physicality – that sitting back and analyzing the picture will get one nowhere if one is not also willing to pick up arms and start shooting. While Holmes, Cohen and Arnold ended their arguments with pleas for awareness and savvy about the system, Thoreau takes it one step further, and demands action.

This seems to me a peculiar way of describing Thoreau's effort, which he makes clear throughout is about doing justice to John Brown.

Note: All quotes are from “A Plea for Captain John Brown”:

-- AerinMiller - 23 Feb 2010


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r4 - 17 Apr 2010 - 14:58:42 - NonaFarahnik
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