• John Brown, Abolitionist

  • The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights
  • By: David S. Reynolds
  • Narrated by: P.J. Ochlan
  • Length: 25 hrs and 14 mins
  • 4.8 out of 5 stars (136 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Few historical figures are as intriguing as John Brown, the controversial Abolitionist who used terrorist tactics against slavery and single-handedly changed the course of American history. This brilliant biography of Brown (1800-1859) by the prize-winning critic and cultural biographer David S. Reynolds brings to life the Puritan warrior who gripped slavery by the throat and triggered the Civil War. 

When does principled resistance become anarchic brutality? How can a murderer be viewed as a heroic freedom fighter? The case of John Brown opens windows on these timely issues. Was Brown an insane criminal or a Christ-like martyr? A forerunner of Osama bin Laden or of Martin Luther King, Jr.? David Reynolds sorts through the tangled evidence and makes some surprising findings. 

Reynolds demonstrates that Brown’s most violent acts - his slaughter of unarmed citizens in Kansas, his liberation of slaves in Missouri, and his dramatic raid, in October 1859, on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia - were inspired by the slave revolts, guerilla warfare, and revolutionary Christianity of the day. He shows us how Brown seized the nation’s attention, creating sudden unity in the North, where the Transcendentalists led the way in sanctifying Brown, and infuriating the South, where proslavery fire-eaters exploited the Harpers Ferry raid to whip up a secessionist frenzy. In fascinating detail, Reynolds recounts how Brown permeated politics and popular culture during the Civil War and beyond. He reveals the true depth of Brown’s achievement: not only did Brown spark the war that ended slavery, but he planted the seeds of the civil rights movement by making a pioneering demand for complete social and political equality for America’s ethnic minorities. 

A deeply researched and vividly written cultural biography - a revelation of John Brown and his meaning for America. 

“Absorbing.” (Barbara Ehrenreich, New York Times Book Review)  

“Almost every page forces you to think hard, and in new ways, about American violence, American history, and what used to be called the American character.” (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker)

©2004 David S. Reynolds (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“Splendidly written . . . the reader is led carefully by the author, who builds the story and lets the readers draw their own conclusions about Brown and his actions . . . Reynolds is that rarest of authors who knows how to write well and who successfully presents a life-size image of Brown, warts and all.” (Brian Richard Boylan, Denver Post

“This well-researched book . . . peels away some of the extreme interpretations of Brown and offers a generally balanced and objective assessment of why he should matter.” (Robert Joiner, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

“Great sensitivity, thorough research, and some marvelous narrative.” (David W. Blight, Washington Post Book World)

“A rich, nuanced and exhaustively researched ‘life and times’ that positions the abolitionist firmly in the context of 19th century American culture . . . impeccably written.” (Chuck Leddy, San Francisco Chronicle

What listeners say about John Brown, Abolitionist

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  • Overall
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The story of the man who saved America from itself

This extremely well crafted, researched and written book achieves the monumental task of enabling the reader to get to know the man as well as develop an appreciation for the complexities, emotions and personalities contributing to the build up to the Civil War and the titanic battle between the pro-slavery and abolitionist camps, while masterly and importantly addressing the racism which permeated society at the times as well as the Black experience and perspective.

This book should be a mandatory read for all Americans and is highly recommended to anyone seeking an understanding of the American experience and a historical context as a foundation to understand current events.

5 people found this helpful

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Maybe my favorite nonfiction book

This book changed me. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. Listen and be changed, too.

3 people found this helpful

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An Exhaustive Biography

This massive and meticulously researched biography examines every detail and aspect of John Brown’s life and legacy right down to the modern era in exhaustive, even excruciating detail. Anything known about John Brown and his legacy which is not covered must be minute to the point of microscopic. It is particularly useful for the way it examines the various ways he was perceived at the time and after his death and for the thoughtful and balanced consideration of the questions his life raises such as: was he insane? Was he a terrorist? If the book has any fault the analysis and speculations at the end of the book sometimes stretch too far. For instance speculation without any textual evidence of how Emily Dickinson may have felt or been influenced by Brown seems to be made out of whole cloth stretched very thin. This is minor, however. The book is a scholarly tour de force, well written and well narrated. It takes stamina and perseverance to get through it even on Audible, but is well worth the effort.

2 people found this helpful

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John Brown epitomizes a good white man....

It's no wonder his exploits have been delegated to brief passings over of his actions... America(s) still has a long way to go in terms of facing it's hurtstory/history.... I will listen to this book perhaps thrice...

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Repetitive and boring

As other reviewers have stated this book is extremely poorly written and unorganized. The author keeps repeating information over and over. It is difficult to follow because he jumps around with his facts.

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Excellent introduction to John Brown

Great chapters on Brown’s family of origin, early career, and times. The chapters about Kansas were compelling and horrifying. The lead up to Harpers Ferry, the raid, and the trial were very well done too. I particularly enjoyed chapters on his relationship to the Transcendentalists and other writers and abolitionists. It gave a good sense of his life and times, as well as his complicated legacy.

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Should have a trigger warning

I recognize that primary sources use language that was acceptable during the time they were written. But there are many ways to address these words in current works that don’t require egregious repetition of racial slurs. I highly recommend including a warning that this book does NOT attempt to moderate offensive language. Otherwise, it was a fascinating work shedding critical light on JB’s courageous life and actions.

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Absolutely fantastic!!

WOW, what a great book, essential reading. Brown’s story highlights the difference between him and the other abolitionist of his era in that be actually believed NOT just in the abolition of slavery but in real equality. Brown actually liked, admired and lived with black Americans. This makes him a singular figure in the history of that era.
The book is beautifully written and narrated, a must listen for all Americans to learn about this great American hero.

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John Brown was Right

The performer was okay, as I was able to finish it, but that's it. Holy cow there were a lot of N words.

I really like putting the man and his deeds in historical context, as no one is an island.

I think our country could be heading for trouble, but not under any single issue like slavery. Just the fact that half the people would rather live in delusion and believe lies than accept reality.

The freedom and rights of marginalized groups is still a question that needs to be settled. I for one am ready for the fight.

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Wonderful

The recent visit to Harpers Ferry by my wife and I exposed us to this great man, John Brown. I am not a great study of history but I found this to be a great history lesson and a wonderful story of a brave man. I cannot think of anything this book did not cover about the life of John Brown and the impact it had on the Civil War after his death.