Monday, April 1st, 2013...9:30 am

Auspicious Debuts: “A captive, but a lion yet”

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John Brown’s raid against the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on October 16th, 1859, and his subsequent martyrdom elicited an immediate outpouring of abolitionist sentiment across the Northern states. In Columbus, Ohio, twenty-two-year-old William Dean Howells responded with “Old Brown,” his first separately printed work; the poem was soon reprinted in the Ashtabula Sentinel, an abolitionist newspaper edited by his father. In the poem Howells anticipates Brown’s redemption when some “fearless, future Man, / Shall wash the blot and stain away, / We fix upon thy name to-day.” A unique survival, this broadside version of “Old Brown” varies slightly from the text used by James Redpath in Echoes of Harpers Ferry (1860), an important anthology of writings about Brown. Howells soon afterward wrote a campaign biography for the Republican candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln, and would later serve as Lincoln’s consul to Venice before becoming the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, a successful realist author, and the undisputed “Dean of American Letters.”

William Dean Howells, "Old Brown" (1859) *AC85 H8395 859o

Brown’s place in American and world history has been well documented in The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid, edited by John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd for the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press in 2012. Brown is also a central figure in “Boston’s Crusade Against Slavery,” a major Houghton Library exhibition curated by Stauffer and nine students to mark the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Over 90 books, manuscripts, photographs, broadsides, and prints tracing Boston’s crucial role in the struggle for emancipation will be exhibited in the library’s Edison and Newman Room from May 1st through August 23rd, 2013.

This post is part of a series called “Auspicious Debuts.” On the first of each month, Houghton staff members will feature “firsts” from the Library’s collections ranging from first editions and first appearances in print and on stage to novelties, innovations, and the unprecedented. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the AuspiciousDebuts tag.

[Thanks to Peter Accardo, Coordinator of Programs, for contributing this post.]

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