RECAP: “Teacher, Preacher, Soldier, Spy,” Colloquium with Brown University Historian Christopher Grasso

In the introduction to his 2021 biography of John R. Kelso, Brown University historian Christopher Grasso describes his subject as possessing Whitman-like multiplicity. As Prof. Grasso’s March 11 talk at the Kinder Institute made abundantly clear, as capacious as Whitman was, this introduction might still be an understatement. Born in a backwoods cabin in Southwest Missouri in 1831, Kelso became a teacher and evangelical preacher in 1850, only to lose his faith upon the collapse of his first marriage. It was around this time that Missouri was becoming a hotly contested Civil War borderland, and after hopping on the stage at an 1861 pro-secessionist rally to declare his Union ties, Kelso entered the war’s murderous fray. A “ghost in the night,” whose supporters described him as “brave to the point of recklessness” and whose foes described him as a “remorseless, ferocious, inhuman rebel killer,” Kelso spent the war years cutting across Missouri, spying on enemy encampments and seeking revenge on the faceless Confederate guerillas who drove residents out of his hometown of Buffalo, MO, to their snowy deaths and burned Kelso’s house and barn on their way out (he made good, by all accounts, on his pledge to kill 25 guerillas).

The legend of his battlefield exploits—immortalized, if also embellished, in papers from New York to Springfield—led to his election to the Reconstruction Congress, where he aligned with radical Republicans to promote universal political rights, universal equality before the law, and severe punishment of the Confederate States (he, along with a Missouri colleague, were the first to call for the impeachment of Andrew Johnson). He ran again on a platform of African American political equality and lost deeply, a sobering result that he saw as an affront to his fanatical belief in a union perfectible through politics. And as Prof. Grasso explained, his commitment to equality—political and legal, though not social equality, it must be added—in a time of hardening conservatism might account for why fellow Missourians like Jesse James and fellow Bushwhacker foils like Wild Bill Hickok became folk heroes while Kelso’s star faded.

After the death of two of his sons, Kelso left Missouri in 1872 and headed west to Modesto, CA. It was during this third act, Prof. Grasso showed, that we can begin to see the fascinating ways in which Kelso’s story, in its totality, connected aspects of 19th-century life that are rarely placed in conversation with one another. Once a religious revivalist, Kelso continued in the studies that moved him from Christianity to atheism while in California, becoming an outspoken critic of conventional attitudes toward sex and marriage and adopting Spiritualism as a guiding principle. Always a fiery champion of the laborer, his radicalism on this front intensified when he moved to the Wild West of Colorado, to the point that he took on the mantle of anarchist in his final book, Government Analyzed, in which he denounced his erstwhile patriotism as misguided righteousness that led to state-sanctioned slaughter. The Civil War, for Kelso, could no longer be seen as a sacred means for justly reconstructing the nation and delivering on the promises of the Declaration of Independence. Its outcome was, instead, a cruel joke about how easily tyranny can be re-packaged as oligarchy.

Invoking another 19th-century literary giant, Prof. Grasso noted that, in his Whitmanian multiplicity, Kelso ultimately morphed into one of Emerson’s “representative men.” This is true, on one hand, given how the spheres of public life that Kelso occupied—religious, political, military—and the facets of his private life with which he most wrestled—marriage, mourning, sexuality, gender politics—map onto the larger narrative of the era. The same can be said of the modes of character he embodied and the systems in which they were enmeshed: evangelical Christian, sentimental war hero, enlightened critic, radical reformer. In a theme that Prof. Grasso returned to throughout his talk, by zooming out and thinking in these terms, we can see how the method in which a story is told is, in many respects, as important as the story itself. In her article “Historians Who Love Too Much,” Jill Lepore distinguishes between biographies, which for Lepore reflect on the singularity of an individual’s contribution to history, and microhistories, those works which use a single life as an allegory for the culture of a given time. Pushing back against this, Prof. Grasso described how, in constellating the sources through which Kelso’s life story revealed itself—newspapers, diaries, Kelso’s books, and, most notably, his three separate autobiographical memoirs—he realized that we needn’t choose between Lepore’s two categories. The irreducible singularity of Kelso’s biography is, Prof. Grass concluded, precisely what makes it a micro-historical window into the times of crisis and reform through which he lived.