Pursuing John Brown

On the Trail of a Radical Abolitionist

by Joyce Dyer


The idea for Pursuing John Brown began in Hudson, Ohio, where John Brown grew up and where Joyce Dyer has lived for forty years. In 2007, a chance occurrence started her off on the pursuit of her controversial neighbor, a quest that simultaneously pulled Dyer into his century, and John Brown into hers.

In this work of hybrid creative nonfiction, Dyer retraces John Brown’s steps across the country, occasionally taking roads that lead to tangential sites. Along the way, intimate questions form about John Brown’s personal life-his role as son, husband, father, friend. Her pursuit forces her to confront hard questions about slavery, race, violence, and American democracy and brings her closer to understanding John Brown, herself, and us.

About the Author

Joyce Dyer is Professor Emerita of English at Hiram College. She was the first director of the Lindsay-Crane Center for Writing and Literature at Hiram, where she held the John S. Kenyon Chair in English. She’s taught nonfiction in residencies and workshops across the region. Before Hiram, she taught twelve years at Western Reserve Academy.

Her essays have appeared in magazines such as North American Review, Writer’s Chronicle, and the New York Times, as well as numerous anthologies. Dyer is the author of four books, The Awakening: A Novel of Beginnings (Twain/Macmillan, 1993), In a Tangled Wood: An Alzheimer’s Journey (Southern Methodist University Press, 1996), Gum-Dipped: A Daughter Remembers Rubber Town (The University of Akron Press, 2003), and Goosetown: Reconstructing an Akron Neighborhood (The University of Akron Press, 2010), and the editor of two others, Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers (University Press of Kentucky, 1998) and From Curlers to Chainsaws: Women and Their Machines (Michigan State University Press, co-editor, 2016).

She received the 1998 Appalachian Book of the Year Award, the 2009 David B. Saunders Award in Creative Nonfiction, Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards, and Gold Medal in the category of anthology in the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards contest.

Reviews, Interviews, Awards

“This is a beautiful, sprawling, odd bird of a book.” Echoes Magazine, Ohio History Connection

“A thoughtful, elegantly written contribution to American studies.” Kirkus Reviews

Honorable Mention, Civil War Monitor- Best Civil War Books of 2022

“Dyer’s book may best be described as a work of literary public history. In a wholly creative, compulsively readable, fiercely original, and deeply contemplative way, she invites her reader to reckon with the uneasy questions raised by John Brown.” Indiana Magazine of History

“In detailing her gradual process of understanding the [Pottawatomie] attack in the context of slavery, Dyer provides a narrative of intellectual and ethical reflection and growth . . .  Further, in a climate that prioritizes the alleviation of supposed white discomfort over the instruction of history, this work will have particular personal value to educators.”  — The Journal of Southern History

Finalist, Foreword Reviews Indies Book of the Year Award in biography

Finalist, Ohioana Book Award in the category of book about Ohio or an Ohioan


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John Brown; abolition; American democracy; memoir; slavery; race; American violence; Ohio and Western Reserve history; Harpers Ferry; Pottawatomie; Hudson; literary journalism; creative nonfiction; Abraham Lincoln; Frederick Douglass; fugitives; Akron; meditation; letters and interviews; David Ruggles; Western Reserve Academy; the Secret Six; James W. Ellsworth; Nat Turner; terrorism; the Secret Six; Robert Sullivan; Oberlin; Cleveland; Underground Railroad; Iowa; Kansas; Timbucto; Chambersburg

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