James McBride’s third novel, Good Lord Bird, is a retelling of Bleeding Kansas and the Harpers Ferry raid from the perspective of a young black man who gets swept up in the currents of history when John Brown mistakes him for a girl, incites a shootout in which his father is killed, and “saves” him from enslavement by taking him to live with his posse.
The novel won the National Book Award for 2013. The judging committee called McBride “a voice as comic and original as any we have heard since Mark Twain.” It was neither the first nor the last time he would be subjected to that comparison.
Twain was fascinated by John Brown and by the broader, complex activist networks of which Brown was a part, as we have discussed in previous episodes. He never met Brown, but he did meet Frederick Douglass, a major character in Good Lord Bird, and many of Brown’s other co-conspirators, holding them in high regard.
This episode of The American Vandal features a discussion of McBride’s novel and the Showtime adaptation directed by Ethan Hawke, as well as the period in antebellum history which these narratives represent.
Jeffrey Insko is Professor of English and Director of American Studies at Oakland University. His book, History, Abolition, & The Ever-Present Now (2019), examines the “fierce urgency” of works by Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and others involved in forwarding and imagining anti-slavery causes. Other recent work can be found in Leviathan, American Literary History, & ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance.
Ashley Rattner is Assistant Professor of English at Tusculum University. She has written about the mythologizing of early American political radicals and is working on a book centered around lesser-know reformists and Utopians like Benjamin Lundy and Fanny Wright.
Dr. Rattner is also one of the producers of the C19: America in the Nineteenth Century Podcast. They are currently seeking proposals for new episodes!