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First edition
AuthorRussell Banks
Cover artistMarc Cohen
CountryUnited States
GenreHistorical novel
PublisherHarper Flamingo
Publication date
March 1998
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages768 pp (first edition, hardcover)
ISBN0-06-016860-9 (first edition, hardcover)
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3552.A49 C57 1998
Preceded byRule of the Bone 
Followed byInvisible Stranger 

Cloudsplitter is a 1998 historical novel by Russell Banks relating the story of abolitionist John Brown.

The novel is narrated as a retrospective by John Brown's son, Owen Brown, from his hermitage in the San Gabriel Mountains of California. His reminiscences are triggered by the reception of an invitation from a Miss Mayo, assistant to Oswald Garrison Villard, then researching his book John Brown: A Biography Fifty Years After (Boston, 1910).

Major themes

Banks raises a number of thematic questions during the lengthy portrayal of his subject matter. Notable among them are:

The narrative style employed by Banks is introspective and apologetic where each character's moral compass is seen as through the microscope of Owen Brown's telling; detailed and larger than life. Bank's prose uses language that registers on the psyche: evoking the conviction that redemption can be gained by an Augustinian confession. And yet the reader is goaded into sympathy with these characters by their sheer persistence in the face of seemingly insurmountable daily travails - evoking the innocence of a new-born country.

Literary license

Banks takes great license with some of the historical figures in his narrative and very clearly states in his preface that his book is a work of fiction and not to be substituted for a work of biography or history. Perhaps most significant is the later life of Owen Brown; the historical Owen Brown died in 1889 at the age of 64 while his literary counterpart lives for decades longer.


The novel was reviewed positively in a number of places—

"Russell Banks has created in Cloudsplitter an immediate landmark in American fiction" BookPage[1]
"Masterly... a furious, sprawling drama that commands attention like thunder heard from just over the horizon." Time Magazine (quoted in:)[2]
"...a novel of near-biblical proportions about the abolitionist freedom fighter John Brown, is shaped like an explosive with an exceedingly long and winding fuse." New York Times [3]

In 2011, The Guardian's Tom Cox selected Cloudsplitter as one of his "overlooked classics of American literature".[4]

Awards and nominations

  • PEN/Faulkner finalist
  • Pulitzer Prize finalist


In 2002, it was reported that Martin Scorsese was to produce a film adaptation of Cloudsplitter, to be directed by Raoul Peck, for the film production company HBO.[5][6]


  1. ^ Flowers, Charles (1998). "Book Page Fiction Review : Cloudsplitter". Book Page Fiction Reviews. Archived from the original on 2006-11-25. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  2. ^ "Russell Banks New York State Author 2004-2006". New York State Writers Institute. Archived from the original on 2007-02-09. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  3. ^ Kirn, Walter (1998-02-22). "The Wages of Righteousness - New York Times". New York Times reviews. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  4. ^ Cox, Tom (10 November 2011). "Overlooked classics of American literature: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  5. ^ Bing, Jonathan (21 October 2002). "Scorsese to produce HBO's 'Cloudsplitter'". Daily Variety. p. 4. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  6. ^ "Scorsese, Peck seeding HBO's 'Cloudsplitter'". The Hollywood Reporter. 21 October 2002. Retrieved 15 June 2013.

Alastair Moock has a song called "Cloudsplitter" based on the book. It is on his album, "Fortune Street."


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