Dissertation – Abstract



“John Brown: Cultural Icon in American Mythos”

State University of New York at Buffalo

©Ann Arbor: UMI, 1996


The first chapter of my dissertation discusses the biography of John Brown, and the literature and iconography of his legendary status as an abolitionist martyr, with particular emphasis on psychoanalytic and cultural issues. Chapter Two reviews Brown metaliterature — the academic scholarship of this field. Chapter Three elaborates the intersection of the Brown myth with the mythic status of Kansas as microcosm of the American experience. Chapter Four recounts the Harpers Ferry Raid, explores John Brown’s Jungian undertones, and examines visual, musical, and talismanic representations of Brown.

These chapters, all together, demonstrate that John Brown (1800-1859), one of the most provocative, if ambiguous, emblems in American culture, embodies a Puritan teleology of “righteous” purpose, a teleology that continues to shape and vex this country. Brown is here posited as a compelling incarnation of “higher lawism”: the clash between sacred and secular, Christianity and democracy, a conflict that often privileges radical individualism over majority rule. Enthralled by “sacred violence,” Brown invoked the Bible and the Declaration of Independence as justification for his actions, a tortured justification of religious vision opposed to democratic consensus, a justification which this thesis questions, suggesting Albert Camus as an alternative moral touchstone.

This study includes a discussion of Brown’s linkage to Abraham Lincoln and looks at Brown’s biblical language and his mythic legacy as it has appeared pervasively on America’s cultural map from the time of the “martyrdom” to the present. My fifth chapter, an Epilogue, discusses the continuing and dramatic resonances of Brown, highlighting juvenile literature, and closes by drawing contemporary analogues to John Brown.

The dissection of John Brown as a cultural icon may help to shed light upon an American predisposition to sanction, and even sanctify, violence in the name of Noble Causes, notably racial equality, class struggle, and antiwar activism, to name but three. This study posits that the degree to which apparently dissimilar ideologies of civil disobedience claim John Brown as a symbolic figurehead may illuminate an underlying commonality of our national life. In all likelihood, this paradoxical individual will continue to hypostatize an ongoing cultural problematic that can be understood but never laid to rest completely.