What if John Brown won?

A timely alternative history thought experiment turned novel.

By Andrea Peterson
Plain Great Productions
May 15th, 2020

I recently thought I had a brilliant idea for a utopian alternative history story: What if radical abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry hadn’t failed? What if instead of just being a spiritual catalyst for a Civil War, he was the direct military catalyst—helping lead an organized guerilla campaign of armed freed people to create a more just America than the one we live in now?

But it turns out Hugo and Nebula-award winning author  Terry Bisson  had the idea first—and published a book about it a year before I was born. 
Bisson’s 1988 novel  Fire On The Mountain  is a masterful piece of alternative history fiction, one that weaves timelines to allow the reader to bear witness not only to the successful insurrection, but also the Marxist Afro-future that results. (Kudos to my friend Renée for pointing me in its direction as soon as I tried to pitch her my version.)

And Bisson was gracious enough to talk via phone with me about how the book was inspired by his own involvement and admiration for leftist movements as well as Brown’s enduring legacy in our cultural memory.
But before digging in too deep, I’ll take a step back here an introduce Brown—since I know not everyone grew up surrounded by his mythos. In my home state of Kansas, Brown literally looms over our origin myth: He stands above Kansas free soilers and Missouri border ruffians battling on the prairie, Tornado at his back, in John Steuart Curry’s  Tragic Prelude  mural in the State Capitol. (Seen at the top of this post.)

The modern state of Kansas was born out of the blood of abolitionists who settled stolen land in an attempt to at least stop the spread of slavery further west, in a conflict known as the Border War or Bleeding Kansas. But Brown was more radical than most, advocating for a militant response to the injustice of slavery. 

He led an attack on a pro-slavery settlers in 1856 generally known as the “Pottawatomie Massacre,” taking revenge for the sacking of freestate stronghold Lawrence (where I went to college) and the nearly fatal caning of Massachusetts abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner by pro-slavery opponents on the Congressional floor by executing several men. Skirmishes continued on what was then the frontier and Brown carried on underground: A hero celebrated as “Captain Brown” by those ultimately on the right side of history, but living essentially the life of a fugitive terrorist until he was captured and executed for treason after the failed Harpers Ferry raid. 

That raid was his most daring maneuver yet: an attack on a federal arsena at a strategic choke-point in what was then Virginia—attempting to spur a second American Revolution to end slavery and rebirth the nation while relying on the tenets of racial equality laid out in a  Constitution  drafted at the 1858 Chatham Convention in Canada. 

It failed, and most who participated died during the fighting or were executed afterwards — including Brown, who was hanged on December 2, 1859.

Yet in death, Brown lived on as a martyr—and the central figure of the Union marching tune “John Brown’s Body,” which makes a Philip K. Dick-esque cameo in Bisson’s novel which I won’t spoil further.

The Fire On The Mountain was influenced, the author told me, by his own involvement at the time with the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, part of the anti-racist movement that evolved out the New Left. That work, along with trips to places connected with Brown including visiting a friend in Lawrence and many drives down the Blue Ridge mountains to visit family in the south, where Bisson and his wife are from, while the pair lived in New York led Bisson to dig into Brown’s story and imagine a world where he won.

Bisson credits much of the revived public interest and scholarly re-interpretation of Brown with radical civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, which he was just a little too young to fully participate in.
“John Brown was considered kind of a nut for many years, he was vilified in American history,” he said. “One of the things the Weather Underground did was change that,” Bisson added, noting that they group named their current events magazine  Osawatomie—one of many nicknames Brown, derived from the site of a Bleeding Kansas battle where one of his sons who also joined the anti-slavery cause was killed.

My decade of escaping my adopted hometown of Washington, DC to the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia certainly taught me that even today Brown’s legacy is debated and colored by Lost Cause revisionism. Those visiting the  John Brown Wax Museum  in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia—where he is essentially hanged in effigy—get a much different version of his story than the people who visit the preserved  Brown family cabin  in Osawatomie, Kansas.

That is, of course, the way stories—including history—goes: everyone gets their own interpretation. But one of the powerful things for me about the practice of history and re-examining it through science fiction forms like alternative histories is thinking critically about stories we perpetuate and who gets to star in them.

In  Fire On The Mountain, as Bisson and I discussed, Brown isn’t really a character in the book: he’s central to the narrative, but largely referenced at a distance—looming over the story much like he looms over the plains in the  Tragic Prelude.

Fire on the Mountain

Back to Terry Bisson’s Author Page