Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Representing the Irish in Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter. Swift's American Resonances?

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Representing the Irish in Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter. Swift's American Resonances?

Article excerpt

Introducing Cloudsplitter, the novel

Race is at the centre of Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks's award winning grand scale novel (1) that that tackles the issue of slavery in the troublesome years before the American Civil War. The life and strife of the abolitionist--hero or villain--John Brown constitutes the leitmotif of this epic narration, which spellbindingly reveals his religious and ethical motivations that eventually resulted in actual confrontation. As Anthony Hutchison states: "Aside from

William Faulkner it is difficult to think of a white twentieth-century American writer who has negotiated the issue of race in as sustained, unflinching and intelligent a fashion as Russell Banks" (2007: 67). While the author is, indeed, fully sympathetic with the blacks as an oppressed and outcast community, and while his work pivots on them, the sometimes critical stance when dealing with other social and ethnic groups, such as American Indians and the Irish, offers insight into the racial and cultural complexity of the United States.

The historic figure of the radical abolitionist John Brown looms large throughout the 750 pages of this work, written in the mode of neo-or postmodernist realism. (2) In response to the challenge the reader is confronted with at the blurred line between fiction and reality, Banks insists: "It's a novel, not a trial transcript; and Brown is a fictional character in the novel, not a real person. I wasn't trying to write his biography" (Faggen 1998: 50-88). In the narrative voice of Brown's third son Owen, the story presents the protagonist's and his family's life between the 1830s and the 1850s, focusing on his character and motivations. Monomaniacal, obsessed with the idea to eradicate slavery, driven by what nowadays would be considered religious fundamentalism, not unlike Melville's captain Ahab, John Brown's "all-consuming idea, of course, is the destruction of the 'white whale' of slavery" (Hutchison 2007: 68). Owen had been his father's right hand in the Kansas Wars of the 1850s, and was also involved in the raid on Harpers Ferry (1859), in which several of his brothers were killed. The failure of this action resulted moreover in his father's execution, thus marking the beginning of the legend around his figure.

It is around fifty years later, towards the end of the nineteenth century, that Banks's metafictional narrative unfolds in form of a supposed memoir. The now elderly Owen is urged by Katherine Mayo, a researcher for the editor of The Nation, Oswald Garrison Villard, (3) to reveal his recollections and thus to help shed further light on his father's character. Though initially adamant in his refusal, Owen eventually warms up to the project, seizing the opportunity to contribute to correcting the image biased by a blend of myth and imagination that has been built up around his father. However, this will also entail a tortuous process of introspection for Owen, as he tries to come to moral terms with his past. Emotionally distant and spiritually bereft, by then he considers himself rather a ghost of himself. Like Thoreau in Walden, Owen seeks solace in retirement, in his case in a cottage in an isolated area of California. In this self-imposed spiritual exile, the survivor not only of the Harpers Ferry debacle but also of the massive imprint of his father's overpowering personality, spends his days tending a flock of sheep and a couple of cows. His new pastime consists in gathering his memories in form of letters, which are presented in linear narrative, intertwined with professions of his awe at his father, whom he loves and admires, (4) but also detests, for his "rightness," thus mirroring in his person the public opinion of this dichotomic figure. In Owen's words:

... during his lifetime, like all abolitionists, Father was a much despised man, and that not just slaveholders hated him, but Whigs as much as Democrats; that he was hated by white people generally; and then, after Kansas and Harpers Ferry and during the Civil War years and beyond, even to today, that he was reviled by Southerners and Copperheads and even by many who had long supported the abolitionist cause, Republicans and the such. …

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