In the book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, college history professor James Loewen tackles the subject of why nearly all high school students find history boring. One of his main conclusions is that textbooks place characters from history into one of two categories: Hero or Villain. There are no gray shadings, no nuance as to how nearly everyone, in both character and action, can be both good and bad, misguided and prophetic. Thus the blood is drained from our historical stories and so rather than galvanizing students, the past lies inert among the dusty bones of facts, dates, and mere good and evil.

It is within this framework that most students of history discover John Brown, the abolitionist leader who on Oct. 16, 1859, led a small band of insurrectionists in open rebellion against his government. Most often he is depicted as an insane lunatic, an Old Testament nightmare come to life, so one-dimensional that instead of wielding a full 10 commandments he carries just one — to end slavery at all costs.

But Tony Horwitz, Pulitzer prize winning journalist and author of five previous books, decided to give Mr. Brown and his story a proper retelling. Mr. Horwitz spent three years researching his book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, an amount of time which alone should put an end to the idea that the abolitionist was a one-note traitor who played little or no part in this country’s eventual course of action.

“There’s much more to the story of John Brown and his raid and what America was like in the 1850s than I think most of us realize,” Mr. Horwitz said in an interview with the Gazette at his home in West Tisbury this week. “Also that we view the pre-Civil War period in such a distorted way, one because we are looking back at it . . . and two because of all the romance and myth that has encrusted the antebellum South, in particular all those Gone with the Wind notions that have really poisoned our perspective of what the South was really like and what the North was really like.”

And what was America really like back then?

“This was a slave nation until the Civil War and we know that, but the depth of that tie between the nation politically and economically and the slave system really comes through when you read documents from that era,” the author said. “There’s this aura of lost cause to the pre-Civil War South, but cotton and slavery were not fading away . . . John Brown realized slavery wasn’t going to end unless someone went out and ended it, and that is what he tried to do.”

It was also a time of deep hatred and violence, and often gruesome consequences that viewed through our present day lens seem more medieval than a part of our not-too-distant heritage. Consider the fate of Nat Turner, a slave who preceded John Brown in an open act of rebellion, as written by Mr. Horwitz in his book.

“At his trial Turner pleaded not guilty, saying to his counsel that he did not feel so. Six days later, he was hanged and dismembered, his body parts distributed to family of the victims.”

Midnight Rising is a bit of a departure from Mr. Horwitz’s usual style, which is to blend travelogue, his own journey in the present, with whatever subject he is writing about — from the world of Baghdad just after the invasion of Kuwait, to the outback of Australia, or a literal retracing of the voyages of English explorer James Cook. All of his previous books are often very funny, too.

About this change of pace, he said: “At this stage in my life this felt like more of a challenge and to me, and the historical story is so good that I didn’t want to get in the way of it with my own antics in the present. It’s also not a whimsical story. I hope there is some humor in the book, but not of the belly-laugh variety.

tony hurwitz
Ivy Ashe

He had other personal reasons, too. “I have two kids and an aged mother-in-law next door and other factors that make it harder for me to take off on long open-ended journeys,” he said.

And yet he did travel far during the period writing this book, metaphorically at least. But instead of boots on the ground, he wandered through historical archives, sniffing out the trail of John Brown and his compatriots in old boxes of letters and historical documents holed up in universities and historical societies scattered about West Virginia, Kansas, Ohio and New York city.

“I found I really loved the deep-dish archival research,” he said of the experience. “It’s like a treasure hunt, you lose yourself in the archives for days at a time searching for nuggets that others have overlooked and then puzzling things together with other nuggets to tell a new story . . . And it’s lovely in this day and age to step into an archive and turn off your cell phone . . . They’ll let you take in your laptop but generally speaking you’re there with a pad and a pencil, sometimes white gloves.”

Along the way he discovered a wider world of coconspirators who sided with John Brown, such as Frederick Douglass, Henry David Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, plus a new take on some of the Civil War generals, and even Abraham Lincoln himself.

“Lincoln for instance comes out as quite a conservative figure in this story and a rather calculating politician,” Mr. Horwitz said. “No great liberal really on the subject of slavery.”

Tony Hurwitz
Ivy Ashe

He spent time with lesser known players too, often taking, as he said,“refuge in these characters because Brown can really wear you out. He’s an Ahab, he’s on his course and nothing will stop him.

“One of my favorites,” he continued, “is Brown’s teenage daughter, Annie, who accompanies him to his mountain hideout and who is this teenage farm girl from upstate New York who is having the experience of her lifetime concealing guerilla fighters in a southern mountain hideout and writes wonderful letters about this summer.”

It is this nod to the many figures who played parts, both large and small, in the story of John Brown as well as the multidimensional portrait of the man himself, that make Midnight Rising such a terrific read. It also gives the book a unique relevance, even in today’s seemingly much more modern world. After all, the desire to cast everyone in simplistic roles, bad or good, is not just a pastime of textbook writers. Turn on the news any night and see this cycle renewed.

The full story of John Brown in the hands of Tony Horwitz also offers the reader an opportunity to grapple with his or her own moral compass, a journey that can be taken only after truly weighing the many sides of the man and his actions.

“I think this story, not my book per se, but this moment in history is a great teaching tool, because Brown raises eternal prickly questions that are great to debate in a classroom. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is violence ever justified in the name of justice? When does an individual have the right to defy his or her government? And this subject tends to split people right down the middle, even school kids [visiting] at Harpers Ferry.”


Tony Horwitz will appear at readings and lectures throughout the next week, including Saturday, Dec. 10 at Edgartown Books; Sunday, Dec. 11 at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center, and Thursday, Dec. 14 at Vineyard Haven Public Library. For more details and exact times, visit the Vineyard Gazette calendar section.