Over the course of last weekend I celebrated my birthday in bed—not, alas, for any of the numerous pleasant reasons one could imagine but because I managed somehow to throw my back out of alignment. It still isn’t quite back to its proper shape, which is why I’m composing this series of thoughts on my phone rather than at a computer (ain’t technology grand?)
As I noted in my post on television in 2020, I consider the Showtime adaptation of The Good Lord Bird to be, not just very good, but very possibly great. My perception may be skewed by how powerfully the last episode moved me; there were moments in there not unlike religious rapture. It’s a devastating production, and much of that power derives from Hawke’s blazing performance. And so, as all faithful readers must, I turned to the book to try to pick out exactly how much of the series’ power derived from the source material.
It is not, as it turns out, an easy question to answer. The miniseries does follow the novel with shocking precision—naturally, I suppose, given that both derive from real history. Still, given the habit of other recent television adaptations of taking the basic idea and broad plot beats and spinning an independent story (American Gods, for instance, or Lovecraft Country), it was a strange experience to realize that I was reading on the page scenes that I had already seen, more or less exactly, onscreen.
The difference turns out to be one of emphasis. The TV series presents a John Brown who is recognizably descended from Captain Ahab—driven by an inner light that seems mad to everyone around him, driven even to his own destruction and that of his followers. One can imagine Harold Bloom encountering this John Brown and expanding on his idea of the American religion as one that recognizes the hidden minder divinity.
In the novel, Brown is—not that. There are places, particularly toward the end, where something resembling the television version peeps through. But the John Brown of television is Ethan Hawke’s own creation; he warps the narrative around himself much as Brando warps the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
If anything, the true progenitor of The Good Lord Bird (and here I find myself talking like Bloom) is not Moby-Dick but Huckleberry Finn. Both novels are irreverent comedies about serious matters told from the perspective of an adult remembering his antebellum childhood. The Onion seems to derive from Huck Finn his self-awareness and wry eye for hypocrisy but he adds a crucial element of sexual confusion (or desire, which at thirteen or fourteen is the same thing.) The central gag of the novel—that Henry “the Onion” has been mistaken for a girl and chooses to continue as one to appease first John Brown and then various white pro-slavers—would seem to be a gloss on the episode in Twain where Huck disguises himself as a girl and is unable to pull it off. The Onion does pull it off, partly because (as the novel asserts) white people can’t tell the difference anyway.
But underneath his girls’ clothes the Onion is a straight man, or beginning to be one, and McBride is much more frank than the series in discussing exactly what that entails in the way of physiological responses. Here I might suggest that McBride missed a chance: the existence of “sissies” is known and discussed and even (barely) tolerated, but the Onion is resolutely not a sissy (and indeed the framing narrative suggests that he’s something of a scoundrel.) One might wonder how the narrative would play if he were; certainly, the implication is that John Brown would treat him no differently, but what about our perception of events?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter, because either option falls into a theme of hidden truth vs appearance. The Onion looks like a girl but is really a boy. John Brown looks like a madman but is really a saint (is really, even, in some strange way, God himself, if Onion’s late-novel revelation can be taken at face value.) The raid on Harper’s Ferry looks like a failure, but in its aftermath Brown is able to do more for the cause of abolition than ever before.
These tensions bring to mind a Pauline paradox: that strength is perfected in weakness. This inversion is central to certain forms of Christianity, though not exclusively. It’s also an inversion central to the novel’s conclusion. There is, after all, no way out of the historical fact that John Brown died and that his body, as the song informs us, lies a-mouldering in his grave. And yet there is the parable of the Good Lord Bird:
This faith of Brown’s is counterfactual and countercultural. It is a faith in a hidden truth that will at last be revealed (and has already been revealed to the mad prophet.)
This is where we get back to mad old Ahab and his search to uncover the hidden truths of creation. McBride’s Brown is not on the level of Melville’s Ahab, but both of them are driven not just by a desire for revelation but by a desire to reveal—to be the revelator. Guided by an inner voice (which Brown calls God and Ahab accepts as himself), both men rage against a world that is built on injustice and cruelty. Ahab rages and fails and is magnificent and godlike in his failure. McBride’s John Brown rages and succeeds, becoming at least (as W. E. B. DuBois suggested of the real John Brown) a kind of American Christ. He is transfigured from madman to messiah (the truest messiahs are the most mad) and converted in the final lines of the novel into the Good Lord Bird itself:
Somehow in the midst of all this I’ve come back to Brown, even though I started out insisting that he is not as central to the narrative as he is in the television series. Perhaps this says more about me than the book, since all criticism is a species of autobiography. In the novel, all of this is conveyed through the Onion’s voice, which takes the pretentiousness down a peg or two; Henry is (or, rather, Henry remembering himself is) a shrewd observer, locating weaknesses in Brown and in other figures such as Frederick Douglass (who, if anything, comes off rather worse than he does in the show.) It’s a voice that destabilizes judgment (like Huck Finn’s) and gropes its way to righteousness—assuming any of this is true, since McBride buries the whole thing under two layers of narration.
Perhaps, then, it is this voice that transfigures Brown and is the true agent of revelation. Another wheel inside of the wheel—another hidden truth: the voice of the people becomes the voice of God. It’s apocalypse all the way down.
At any rate, those are some rambling thoughts on The Good Lord Bird. I didn’t expect it to go that direction (I don’t plan these posts), so take it as one possible pathway rather than a detailed argument. I’m back to Vidal now, finishing up his final novel in the Narratives of Empire, and after that—I’m not sure, but I have The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. ready to go, so I’ll probably tuck into that.
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Nathanael T. Booth. All views are my own.