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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.[1]

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.[citation needed] 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"[2]
  • "Masterly... a furious, sprawling drama that commands attention like thunder heard from just over the horizon." Time Magazine (quoted in:)[3]
  • "...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."[4]

In 2011, The Guardian's Tom Cox selected Cloudsplitter as one of his "overlooked classics of American literature".[5]

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.[6][7]


  1. ^ Banks, Russell (February 1998). Cloudsplitter (1st ed.). New York: Harper Flamingo. ISBN 0-06-016860-9.
  2. ^ Flowers, Charles (1998). "Book Page Fiction Review: Cloudsplitter". Book Page Fiction Reviews. Archived from the original on 2006-11-25. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  3. ^ "Russell Banks New York State Author 2004-2006". New York State Writers Institute. SUNY-Albany. Archived from the original on 2007-02-09. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  4. ^ Kirn, Walter (1998-02-22). "The Wages of Righteousness". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  5. ^ Cox, Tom (10 November 2011). "Overlooked classics of American literature: Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  6. ^ Bing, Jonathan (21 October 2002). "Scorsese to produce HBO's 'Cloudsplitter'". Daily Variety. p. 4. Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  7. ^ "Scorsese, Peck seeding HBO's 'Cloudsplitter'". The Hollywood Reporter. 21 October 2002. Retrieved 15 June 2013.

Further reading

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