In 1793 James F. Brown was born a slave and in 1868 he died a free man. At age 34 he ran away from his native Maryland to pass the remainder of his life in upstate New York's Hudson Valley, where he was employed as a gardener by the wealthy, Dutch-descended Verplanck family on their estate in Fishkill Landing. Two years after his escape, he began a diary that he kept until two years before his death. In Freedom’s Gardener, Myra B. Young Armstead uses seemingly small details from Brown’s diaries--entries about weather, gardening, steamboat schedules, the Verplanck's social life, and other largely domestic matters--to construct a bigger story about the development of national citizenship in the United States in the years predating the Civil War.
Brown’s experience of upward mobility demonstrates the power of freedom as a legal state, the cultural meanings attached to free labor using horticulture as a particular example, and the effectiveness of the vibrant political and civic sphere characterizing the free, democratic practices begun in the Revolutionary period and carried into the young nation. In this first detailed historical study of Brown’s diaries, Armstead thus utilizes Brown’s life to more deeply illuminate the concept of freedom as it developed in the United States in the early national and antebellum years.
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In some sections, the narrative thread almost disappears...the reader can get lost amid intricate and long-winded excursions into, say, the “cultural meanings of gardening” or mini-biographies of black newspaper owners.Read Full Review of Freedom's Gardener: James F. ... | See more reviews from NY Times