John Brown's body is a-surfing on the wave

William Bostwick '07, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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In A Plea for Captain John Brown, Thoreau appears much like Tom Wolfe in both structure and content. Both writers' prose have similar oral qualities: run-on sentences, straightforward imagery and attention-grabbing emphases (marked in the text by exclamation points). Moreover, Thoreau and Wolfe share a subject, a target and a message. Within a discussion of a their contemporary culture, each argues that newspapers mislead their readers by misusing important terminology. Both claim that only they, and not the newspapers, know the true meaning of "sanity" and "the life."

Insane! A father and six sons, and one son-in-law, and several more men besides, -- as many at least as twelve disciples, -- all struck with insanity at once; while the same tyrant holds with a firmer gripe than ever his four millions of slaves, and a thousand sane editors, his abettors, are saving their country and their bacon! Just as insane were his efforts in Kansas. Ask the tyrant who is his most dangerous foe, the sane man or the insane? Do the thousands who know him best, who have rejoiced at his deeds in Kansas, and have afforded him material aid there, think him insane? Such a use of this word is a mere trope with most who persist in using it, and I have no doubt that many of the rest have already in silence retracted their words. [p. 7]

But exactly! Watts just happened to be what was going on at the time, as far as the netherworld of La Jolla surfing was concerned, and so one goes there and sees what is happening and comes back and tells everybody about it and laughs at the L.A. Times. That is what makes it so weird when all these black pan-thuhs come around to pick up "surfing styles," like the clothing manufacturers. They don't know what any of it means. It's like archeologists discovering hieroglyphics or something, and they say, god, that's neat -- Egypt! -- but they don't know what the hell it is. They don't know anything aboutÉThe Life. [pp. 32-33]

John Brown, then, is Wolfe's surfer, Watts is Thoreau's Bloody Kansas, and the L.A. Times is the New York Herald.


Keeping in mind the oral quality of each passage, what is the significance of "Insane!" and "But exactly!"? Are there any other stylistic comparisons that can be made between the two writers?

We have seen criticism of printed media before in Carlyle, who calls magazines and newspapers machines and claims that editors' material interests are overpowering the morals of the Church. How are Thoreau's and Wolfe's arguments against newspapers similar?

In the above passage, Wolfe describes the importance of verbally sharing first-hand experiences. He writes about someone who "goes there and sees what is happening and comes back and tells everyone about itÉ" (p. 32). We have already discussed how Wolfe proves his credibility and convinces his readers that they should pay attention to his definitions and not those of the papers, but how does Thoreau show this? In other words, what techniques does Thoreau use to show us that he has "[gone] there and [seen] what is happening?"


Text of "A Plea for Captain John Brown."

Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses H. D. Thoreau

Last modified 22 March 2005