For Chapter 16, Christopher Hebert interviewed Tony Horwitz about his book Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War.
Part of the Q & A:
Chapter 16: Midnight Rising is not your first book about the Civil War. You also wrote the bestselling Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (Pantheon, 1998), in which you explore the thrall in which Americans, especially in the South, continue to hold the war. I’m curious about how you developed your interest in this period. And what made you decide to pursue John Brown?--Marshal Zeringue
Tony Horwitz: I was a Civil War nerd almost from birth and rediscovered my boyhood obsession when my wife and I settled in rural Virginia in the 1990s. I felt surrounded by the War—battlefields, fights over memory, crazed reenactors—and that’s what led me to write Confederates in the Attic. While researching the book, I visited Harpers Ferry, only fifteen miles from my home, but it didn’t dawn on me to write about John Brown and his raid until I’d moved a decade later to New England. Go figure.
One reason I was drawn back to this period is that I’d always dwelled on the Civil War proper, from 1861 to 1865, without really understanding how and why the conflict came about. John Brown’s Raid seemed like a good place to start. Also, it’s a writer’s dream, a tense, sweaty drama with an unbelievable cast of characters—not just Brown but Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, the Transcendentalists, Frederick Douglass, John Wilkes Booth, and many others.
Chapter 16: In the popular imagination, the historical figure of John Brown has often been reduced to the heroic abolitionist that Henry David Thoreau exalted as Brown was being martyred in Harper’s Ferry. But as becomes painfully clear in your book, the real John Brown was far more complicated than the historical myth. How did the John Brown you discovered through your research compare to the Brown you thought you knew before you undertook the project? What surprised you most about the real John Brown?
Horwitz: Before writing this book, most of what I knew about Brown...[read on]