- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 3, 2002

Merrill D. Peterson's John Brown: The Legend Revisited (University of Virginia Press, $23.95, 192 pages, illus.) is an admirably brief, yet richly informative study of the reputation of John Brown (1800-1859), the militant abolitionist and agitator. The author, professor of history emeritus at the University of Virginia, has written what he calls "… an extended meditation on the life of John Brown and his place in American thought and imagination from the time of his death in 1859 to the near present."
Brown's raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 made him nationally famous or infamous depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line one was standing. The raid, the ostensible purpose of which to provide arms so that freed slaves would be able to defend themselves, was, in purely military terms, a disaster. Brown was captured, quickly put on trial and died on the gallows. In death, as in life, he generated strong passions, both for and against his "direct action" approach to the problem of slavery.
In the 143 years since his death scholars, novelists, playwrights, painters, poets (e.g., Stephen Vincent Benet), polemicists, states righters, leftist ideologues, and black militants (e.g., Malcolm X) have tried to use Brown for their own purposes. Mr. Peterson appears to have read every word, seen every painting, and listened to every argument.
Generally speaking black Americans and leftists have portrayed Brown as a noble patriarchal figure, transcendentally virtuous, whose willingness to die and to kill if necessary for the cause of black freedom transformed his faults into virtues. Southerners and scholars less convinced of Brown's moral rectitude focused on his responsibility for the Harpers Ferry raid and "the Pottawatomie Massacre," a particularly gruesome murder of five pro-slavery southerners in Kansas.
Although Mr. Peterson's style and approach are the very model of scholarly clarity and objectivity, it is clear (to me at least) that he sympathizes with those who, in balance, see Brown as admirable rather than despicable.In summing up, the author writes: "[Browns] creed, moral, political, and otherwise came down to two tenets: the biblical Golden Rule and the 'all men are created equal'" of the Declaration of Independence. Nothing could be more American than that.
Perhaps. But I wonder if the same words would be written by a distinguished historian about an anti-abortion militant who, after directing the murder of five abortion supporters in Kansas, drives to Virginia, forcibly occupies an abortion clinic, engages the police in a gunfight in which many are killed, and, as he goes to his death, states that abortion has made the United States a "guilty land" and that the crime of abortion must be purged away with "blood." Would a judicious, prudent, scholar conclude that the murderous pro-lifer's "creed" consisted of following the Golden Rule and believing in the Declaration of Independence?
I think not, and I certainly hope not, for such violence should be condemned. Yet what is the morally relevant difference between what Brown did in Kansas and Harpers Ferry and what the pro-lifer did in the hypothetical case I have presented?


Is there anything exciting or fresh or even interesting left to be said about Winston Churchill? For more than 60 years he has been idolized for his oratorical skills and his irreplaceable leadership in 1940, criticized for his strategic blind spots, made into a demigod by an Anglo-American Churchill cult, and, in recent decades, sniped at (and, for the most part, missed), by pesky revisionists. Above all, he is still quoted. As a congressional aide, I heard so many Churchill quotations on the floor of the House that I winced every time a congressman, seeking to gain dignity-by-association, arose and said, "As Winston Churchill once put it …"
In Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian. by John Lukacs (Yale University Press, $21.95, 202 pages) the author asks why, after all these decades, Churchill's reputation "is at its peak." His answer is contained in the title of his book. Churchill, according to Lukacs, saw Adolf Hitler's potential for evil long before any other leaders, had original insights into the nature of Soviet communism even in his declining years and was, all in all, not as bad a historian as his academic critics have said.
Admirers of Mr. Lukacs will find the author displays his usual breadth and depth of learning, still has theknack for choosing just the right obscure fact or quotation to drive home a point and the same ability to make small, but crucial, distinctions where others are content to see similarities.
But in his effort to portray Churchill as prescient, Mr. Lukacs goes a claim too far. In two places, he points out that Churchill, in 1930, told German officials he was "anxious about Hitler"at a time "when no one else in the world … would ever envision Hitler as a future leader of Germany."But in "The Gathering Storm," Churchill writes about his own view of Hitler in 1932:
"I had no national prejudices against Hitler at that time. I knew little of his doctrine or record and nothing of his character… [h]e had a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose …"
So, two years after Churchill was "anxious" about Hitler, according to Mr. Lukacs, the British statesman was, by his own estimate, still ignorant of Hitler and his doctrines. And, according to Churchill biographer, Roy Jenkins, Churchill was "far from being rampageously [sic] strong" against Hitler's daring occupation of the Rhineland in 1936. Some anxiety. Some prescience.
But Mr. Lukacs' major point cannot be denied: Winston Churchill saw the Hitlerian menace long before most political figures, and, by what at times appears to have been a sheer exercise of will, did not allow England to lose to Hitler in 1940. All his life he was a victim of dangerous, romantic enthusiasms in foreign policy, and he was wrong about a lot of things at one time he thought Joseph Stalin was "a great and good man" but he was magnificently, defiantly, eternally right about the only thing that truly mattered.


I have a tape recording of pianist Oscar Peterson's American debut at a Jazz at the Philharmonic performance in 1949. His breathtaking virtuosity, propulsive swinging style and the inventive exuberance of his performance are as stunning and breathtaking to hear today as they must have been to the JATP audience over 50 years ago.
In A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson by Oscar Peterson (Continuum, $29.95, 382 pages, illus.) the great musiciantells of his life in music, from his first piano lessons in Montreal to his apprenticeship years in Canadian jazz clubs, to innumerable tours as the "house pianist" for JATP, and then on to triumphs with various versions of his trio. In 92 brief chapters, he writes about the jazz giants he has known (his stories about the antics of the great, but eccentric, tenor saxophonist Lester Young are priceless), how he triumphed over personal and artistic challenges, and the difficulties and joys of life on the road.
I heartily recommend this book. It is as lively and here comes that word again, but when you write about Oscar Peterson, it can't be avoided exuberant as his inimitable playing.

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.


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