There are few contemporary novelists who have explored the dark undercurrents of American society with more insight and pathos than Russell Banks, who died earlier this month.
I read Cloudsplitter last year on your recommendation. So many things started to make sense about your nation’s recent history. It led me to read Slavery by Another Name. These two books are an excellent introduction to American culture. God bless your work, Brother Chris.
Note to self: steal these books.
Beautifully reviewed - a tribute to a great writer - Russell Banks. Thanks, Chris.
I would add to that original sin the genocide of our indigenous people. Lovely intriguing piece and yet another addition to the long list of the many books Chris writes about with such adore.
"Cloudsplitter" sounds very contemporary , as Right Wing militias ( terrorist groups) abound across the nation and the zeal of their members, and the mostly voluntary enslavement of our political class to wealth and the military drive this country to ruin.
A great percentage of my reading (then shared works in Little Free Libraries) now comes from works cited in the CHR. Grateful.
From Democracy Now today : ....his 1998 historical novel “Cloudsplitter” focuses on the revolutionary abolitionist John Brown. Russell Banks spoke to Democracy Now! in 2011 about John Brown’s life and legacy.
Russell Banks: “Brown sort of stood at that crossroads of religion and violence in the American imagination, and righteous wrath, if you will, or principled violence. And he was our homegrown terrorist, but he was a terrorist for a cause that certainly today we’re universally in support of, which is the ending of slavery. And so, his story is still a very complicated one for most Americans.”
Click here to see our full interview with Russell Banks in 2011.
Thanks Chris for a fine review of the works of Russel Banks. I read Cloudsplitter years ago and several of the other books. I plan on reading others in the future. I lent my copy of Cloudsplitter to a friend, who, went to a Banks reading and got it autographed.
“Of all the animals on this planet, we are surely the nastiest, the most deceitful, the most murderous and vile,” he writes.“Despite our God, or because of him. Both.” Mr. Banks shows his wisdom here. Thank Mr. Hedges for this introduction, I had no heard of him.
A well written, outstanding tribute to a great writer. I read Cloudsplitter many years ago. I plan to read “Affliction” and other Russell Banks novels in the near future.
Thank you, Chris. This is a lovely tribute to Banks.
I recently wrote a tribute to his enduring work after his passing as well, very much influenced by the interviews you conducted with him. It's a short piece, and can be read here: https://weirdcatastrophe.substack.com/p/the-memory-of-great-american-writer
Thank you, again.
Thanks for acknowledging russell banks contribution to writing to this day affliction is one of the best novels written
This review concentrates on "Cloudsplitter" for good reason and for rhetorical reason, but I read many other of Banks's novels over the years. Chris mentions them, before concentrating on the John Brown story. I strongly urge that the earlier novels be read for their portraits of men struggling with the injuries of abuse, loneliness, and class for a full experience of Banks's genius.
I read "Cloudsplitter" out loud to a Vietnam Veteran who was dying. It gave comfort and understanding.
Very interesting that this book review, and indeed the author, continues to fallaciously paint John Brown as a martyr. He was anything but. This myth appears to have been created by Frederic Douglas for good reason; he was out to cover his ass. Further, it is a wonder that Frederic Douglas was not arrested after the Harpers Ferry Raid and charged for insurrection (indeed many historians consider the Pottawatomie Massacre --which included Doyle murders- "the opening shots of the Civil War" nor was he tried for conspiracy to commit treason, or even conspiracy to commit murder by harboring John Brown at his home in Rochester N.Y. in between the Pottawatomie Massacre and Harpers Ferry raid. It should be noted that Douglas met John Brown at a Pennsylvania Quarry in August of 1859 in which Brown laid out to Douglas his full plan for his raid on Harrpers Ferry (which Douglas was allegedly supposed to join). No wonder, also, Frederic Douglas quickly fleed to England in November of 1859 shortly after John Brown was convicted for treason and murder in a Charles Town, VA courtroom on Oct. 22, 1859. In my opinion John Brown was a crazed, murderous physcopath who turned to terrorism when he couldn't legally get his way--and Douglas knew it. Frederic Douglas came (not surprisingly given his complicity) to characterize him as a recruiting tool (ironically) for the Union Army in the build of the U.S. Civil War the following summer--and repeated the myth long after. It appears that if John Brown was a martyr, then no less was Frederic Douglas a fellow insurrectionist, not to mention a coward. As for John Browns true character, one history book (published by Time LIfe in 1983 titled "Brother against Brother; The War Begins) succinctly put it:
"As a man [John Brown] was a chronic failure. He failed at farming, tanning, land speculation and stock breeding. In all, he suffered 15 business failures in four states and weathered numerous lawsuits and accusations of dishonesty".
On the night of May 24th, 1856 John Brown and his homicidal posse who not only murdered James Doyle and his two eldest sons by splitting their skulls like melons after raiding their remote Kansas prairie home around midnight. They also continued to hack the bodies to pieces after they were dead. Not sure how these actions (amongst other murders) qualifies him to be discussed in such terms as a martyr. He continued his murderous spree at Harpers Ferry in 1859; most importantly it was perpetrated against his own government.
It is also interesting that John Brown's attack on the Federal Armory and Rifle works at Harpers Ferry on October 16th, 1859 is never currently discussed in the true criminal terms it really was, Contrast this with the relatively recent Jan. 6th, 2020 election fraud protestors who have all been rounded up and deemed criminals (without due process and the benefit of their constitutional rights) rather than martyrs. It should be noted that none of the Jan. 6th protestors were bearing arms. Funny how the tables are turned by erroneously re-imagining history. Anyhow, the real history is that Brown triumphantly exclaimed, after easily taking the Federal Arsenal in 1859:
" I came here from Kansas, and this is a slave State: I want to free all the Negroes in this States; I have possession now of the United States armory, and if the citizens interfere with me I must only burn the town and have blood".
Ironically, the first blood he and his men would have there was shooting a railroad baggageman near the railroad bridge after an eastbound train was stopped there. The mortally wounded baggageman was a free black.
I wii read Cloudsplitter. Thanks for the prompt.