Race, Religion and Terror: Anti-Slavery Activist John Brown Studied in New Book by Colorado State English Professor

Colorado State University English Professor Bruce Ronda employs the lenses of terrorism and race in his new book, "Reading the Old Man," as he studies how several generations of artists and writers were drawn to anti-slavery activist John Brown.

Brown was an American abolitionist in the 19th century who advocated and practiced armed insurrection as a means to abolish slavery in the United States. His most famous deed was his attempt to start a slave rebellion in the 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry in present-day West Virginia. Brown was tried, convicted of treason and executed.  

Brown has been the object of much commentary and debate throughout history, but Ronda, CSU’s English department chair, brings to readers’ attention a handful of writers and artists among the hundreds who were intrigued and even obsessed by Brown.

"Every piece of work that I highlight in this book has its own story and offers its own reading of John Brown, and each springs from a writer or artist struggling with his or her own particular issues that may help explain why each was drawn to Brown," Ronda said. "While each piece represents a unique perception or understanding of Brown, they do have this in common: the power to disturb conventional understandings of John Brown and therefore of race, religion, violence, revolution and the United States."  

Ronda uses a literary and historical approach to understand how Brown influenced novelists, poets, dramatists, essayists and visual artists. He also argues that Brown is a vital and dynamically relevant figure in today’s society because Brown continues to be implicated in the two unavoidable issues people face now: terror and race.

"Reading Brown through the lens of terrorism has particular relevance at a moment in world history when the end of the Cold War has led to both resurgent nationalism and a rise in acts of terror – bombings, hijackings, and aerial assaults – directed primarily against Western nations and their global outposts," Ronda said.

In the wake of September 11, commentators are seeing a striking parallel between John Brown and modern terrorism, and Ronda explores the notion in his book.

"Reading the Old Man," published by the University of Tennessee Press, is available at the CSU Bookstore, Tattered Cover Book Store and Amazon.com.