‘Fire on the Mountain’: John Brown’s story lies a-mouldering on the page
Harpers Ferry insurrection: Interior of the engine-house, just before the gate is broken down by the storming party—Col. Washington and his associates as captives, held by Brown as hostages. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Nov. 5, 1859. Public domain.

John Brown is one of American history’s most fascinating characters. The American Spartacus, Brown led an anti-slavery revolt in 1859 and has often been depicted as overzealous and even stark raving mad. After all, to racists, any white man who’d place himself in harm’s way by taking up arms in order to free Black slaves by definition had to be a lunatic. After his failed raid at Harpers Ferry, a crowd of Southerners questioned the militant firebrand while he was imprisoned at the armory and a bystander called Brown “fanatical.” Indeed, in the 1940 Hollywood movies Santa Fe Trail and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Raymond Massey and John Cromwell portrayed Brown as insane.

But those whom Brown defended—and their descendants—did not think the freedom fighter was crazy. During the Civil War, the Union hymn “John Brown’s Body” paid tribute to the bold abolitionist. And in 1965 Malcolm X told whites who were expressing solidarity with Blacks: “If you are for me and our people’s problems then you have to be willing to do as old John Brown did.”

More recently, Brown has been central to major novels. He is the title character in Russell Banks’s 1998 Cloudsplitter, a historical novel that weighs in at more than 750 pages and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. James McBride’s 2013 The Good Lord Bird was the National Book Award winner. There is even a sci-fi novel wherein Brown is one of the protagonists. Hugo Award-winning author Terry Bisson’s 1988 Fire on the Mountain imagines an alternative America, where Brown’s 1859 attack on Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia had succeeded.

PM Press republished Fire in 2009 with an introduction by political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, the first title printed by that lefty publishing house’s Spectacular Fiction imprint.

Bisson’s alternate history is complex and hard to follow, not least of all because it time travels across a century, from 1859 to 1959, and is told from a variety of sources and points of view, including a series of vintage letters. In Fire, Brown’s 19th-century assault on Harpers Ferry is actually victorious, in no small measure because Harriet Tubman joins the abolitionist band and helps to militarily lead the raid. The battle in what was then Virginia ignites slave rebellions and guerrilla warfare, and the Black majority nation of Nova Africa is established in the South.

By 1959, the rest of America has become the “U.S.S.A.”—presumably the United Socialist States of America. It is more technologically advanced than the actual U.S.A. was at that point in the 20th century, with space missions to Mars, shoes with magical attributes and more. But putatively historical events such as the “Independence War” and “Second Revolutionary War” are never spelled out and developed, merely obliquely alluded to, making Bisson’s overall story somewhat difficult to fully understand. In titillating tidbits, readers are told: “the war moves toward the West, with help from the Haitians and a brigade from England, raised by the communist Marx….” Would that there were more along these lines, more exposition of Bisson’s alternate history, that is thrilling to contemplate!

Fire on the Mountain’s main latter-day character is Yasmin Abraham Martin Odinga, a pregnant scientist in socialist Virginia descended from an ex-slave who fought with Brown’s band of guerrillas, and whose husband, an African astronaut, died during a perilous flight to the red planet. Yasmin has a strained relationship with her teenage daughter Harriet, presumably named after Brown’s comrade-in-arms—the woman billionaire Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin is elbowing off the $20 bill while the Trump regime is in power.

Bisson’s elliptical novel is thought-provoking, but readers must have their antennas up and remain alert while reading it. The enigmatic John Brown, who is fully fleshed out in Banks’s and McBride’s novels, is only sketched here and seen from afar. Yet it is this mid-19th-century revolutionary who sets the wheels into motion and the events in Bisson’s novel a-whirring. The abolitionist who made Kansas “bleed,” and in the process prevented it from entering the Union as a slave state, deserves a more complete portrait.

Although in Bisson’s revised history Brown is, with “General” Tubman’s help, triumphant at Harpers Ferry, in reality, he was defeated by, of all commanders, Col. Robert E. Lee, and captured and executed in October 1859. While he was their prisoner, astonished Southerners, suspicious of and curious about the radical’s motives, questioned the wounded Brown. According to an eyewitness account, this is how their encounter went:

Bystander: “Upon what principle do you justify your acts?”

Brown: “Upon the Golden Rule. I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here; not to gratify any personal animosity, revenge or vindictive spirit. It is my sympathy with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you and as precious in the sight of God….

“… I want you to understand that I respect the rights of the poorest and weakest of colored people, oppressed by the slave system, just as much as I do those of the most wealthy and powerful. That is the idea that has moved me, and that alone. We expected no reward except the satisfaction of endeavoring to do for those in distress and greatly oppressed as we would be done by. The cry of distress of the oppressed is my reason, and the only thing that prompted me to come here….

“… I agree with Mr. Smith that moral suasion is hopeless. I don’t think the people of the slave States will ever consider the subject of slavery in its true light till some other argument is resorted to than moral suasion.…”

Reporter: “…[I]f you have anything further you would like to say, I will report it.”

Brown: “I would have nothing to say, only that I claim to be here in carrying out a measure I believe perfectly justifiable, and not to act the part of an incendiary or a ruffian, but to aid those suffering great wrong. I wish to say, furthermore, that you had better—all you people at the South—prepare yourselves for a settlement of this question, that must come up for settlement sooner than you are prepared for it. The sooner you are prepared the better.

“You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of by now, but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question I mean; the end of that is not yet. These wounds were inflicted upon me—both saber cuts on my head and bayonet stabs in different parts of my body—some minutes after I had ceased fighting and had consented to surrender, for the benefit of others, not for my own…. We did kill some men in defending ourselves, but I saw no one fire except directly in self-defense. Our orders were strict not to harm anyone not in arms against us.”

Questioner: “Brown, suppose you had every n****r in the United States, what would you do with them?”

Brown: “Set them free.”

Bystander: “I know it. I think you are fanatical.”

Brown: “And I think you are fanatical. ‘Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad,’ and you are mad.”

Questioner: “Was it only your object to free the Negroes?”

Brown: “Absolutely our only object….”

As this incendiary exchange indicates, John Brown—a white man who fought to free Blacks and in so doing lost his own life—must have seemed like an alien from outer space to the pro-slavery racists. In using the idiom of science fiction in Fire on the Mountain, Terry Bisson—who has also written about Nat Turner and Paul Robeson—has artfully found a creative way to express the man who is arguably the greatest Caucasian in American history. And, as racism persists in Trump’s America, Bisson does us a great service by imaginatively exploring “what might have been” had Brown and his freedom fighters prevailed 160 years ago at Harpers Ferry.

For further information about Fire on the Mountain see here.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.