I’ve made it a point of personal honor not to engage in arguments over lists, a lesson learned in high school when the radio stations would play their obligatory end-of-year “100 Greatest Rock and Roll Songs of All Time” segments.
And you’d sit around with a bunch of people in your friend’s basement having a meltdown that Stairway to Heaven placed ahead of Satisfaction.
The capper was when stations, looking to reintroduce some buzz into a growingly tired feature, would pick something like Rubberband Man by the Spinners as the No. 1 Rock and Roll Song of All Time, spurring a renewed burst of moral outrage that even weed couldn’t suppress. The Internet has made things far worse, as morons in search of clicks have ranked stuff like the Top 10 Grasshoppers and the 10 Best Places For Retirees to Buy Housing Shingles.
So I hate to be drawn into the Walk of Fame debate at the new Queensbury welcome center, which focuses on 21 of the Adirondacks’ most prominent citizens. Or semi-citizens. Or noncitizens who have at least stopped to clean the blackflies off their windshield on the side of the road.
Since the list-makers were obviously stretching to find candidates, it’s the more glaring omissions that rankle. If Bruce Springsteen’s drummer doesn’t yet have deep enough roots, fine. But whither Rockwell Kent, the greatest (sorry Georgia O’Keefe) Adirondack artist, who painted many iconic Adirondack scenes from his AuSable Forks farm, and whose rightful place in history was thwarted by McCarthyism?
But the most unthinkable snub is of a gaunt North Elba man who was known the world over and rocked our very nation to its core: John Brown. No one else in the Adirondacks comes close. This wasn’t just an oversight of whatever committee it was that came up with the list. Dozens of online posts that sought reader suggestions for additions and corrections ignored John Brown as well. The inescapable conclusion is that, even here in the North, even on the 160th anniversary of his greatest infamy, John Brown still scares us.
And he scares us, because we, collectively, still don’t know what to make of him. One person’s hero is another’s terrorist and vice versa. Our oversimplifications — his cause was just, but his his tactics were wrong — are as intellectually dishonest as contending that if he had just left well enough alone, all this slavery unpleasantness would have worked itself out just fine, and all it would have cost us was another generation or two, or six, of black lives — and then so many white people would never have had to die. Nor is it any more reasonable to suggest that taking up arms against countrymen and country is in any way a solution to what bothers you.
But the correct answers to these pickles are unknowable, just as Brown was unknowable, maybe even to himself. I have known fanatics, having been raised by one, and I know that no matter how intractable they might seem, doubt creeps in. Their drive, I believe, is fired to such extremities by fear, that nagging voice that says, “What if I’m wrong?”
Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast, was hiking in the Adirondacks in 1849 when his party became lost, with nothing to eat overnight but one four-inch trout. At last they stumbled onto a wagon road and into the path of John Brown, who was transporting two runaway slaves to his farm. Dana was struck by the gentleness of the stranger’s soul, as he referred to his black companions as “Mr. Jefferson” and “Mrs. Wait,” and in turn insisted they call him by his first name. He also insisted they ride up front and, later, eat at the same supper table as the whites. For the former slaves, his humble respect was almost too much, and Dana wrote about the obvious awkwardness they felt at being treated as equals. It is this John Brown that we don’t know.
Nor is his obscurity in this sense, or any sense, confined to state bureaucrats.
I was teaching a college level English Comp course in a Maryland state prison some years back, to a predominantly black class of Baltimore murderers and drug dealers, some of whom were achingly talented. From the prison yard, you could see the gap in the Blue Ridge where the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers gave rise to the armory town of Harpers Ferry.
They had never heard of John Brown, and further, were little inclined to believe that some white guy with fewer than two dozen men would take up arms against the entire United States Army for the benefit of the black race. Their overriding view was that John Brown, if he did indeed exist, was a loon. Until one young man sparked a spirited and colorful debate, with me furiously taking notes to be sure I got it down verbatim:
“I’da rolled with him.”
“What? He’s planning to go to war with 21 homies. Do what you want, but I ain’t signin’ on ’til I’ve sat down with the man and had a talk about the fundamentals.”
“No man, think about it, you got a deal goin’ down, you ain’t thinkin’ about the consequences, you thinking about the flip. Ain’t no different.”
This went on for the better part of the class, and all I could think about was how John Brown could be just as polarizing in this setting, in this demographic, as he could in a Mississippi parlor populated by unapologetic aristocrats plotting how the South might rise again.
A decade after stumbling upon the mild-mannered stranger in in the Adirondack wilderness, Richard Henry Dana was riding a train in Europe when he picked up a paper telling the story of John Brown of North Elba who had led a wild, bloody raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry. He sat stunned, as for the first time he put two and two together.
One hundred and sixty years later, we are still at a loss. But we should be unanimous on this: Love him or despise him, if you are drafting a fantasy team of famous Adirondackers, John Brown is your No. 1 pick.
Photo of John Brown by Southworth and Hawes, 1856.