I’m not sure whether Robert Brown was a hedgehog or a fox, but I know that he thought about it. He probably had an opinion, although I never asked him which he thought he was. Robert was a thinker, an informed thinker who read widely, and would off-handedly refer to something like Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog & The Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History in the course of conversation. When I finally got around to reading it, I realized that I hadn’t engaged my mind with something so dense since college. But Robert had the ability to pull from his memory a reference to literature or art or film or history or politics, weave it unpretentiously into the conversation, and compel other people to go read the book or watch the film or listen to the music simply because he had made it sound so essential.
He didn’t just absorb ideas. Robert was a man of action. He was born and raised in New York City, but he settled on a small farm in southern Orange County where he and his wife Margaret tended animals and learned to grow things. He became an expert horseman and built their home–without any training–when the old one burned down. Why the house burned down to begin with is a story in itself, but it happened during the time when Robert was a leader in the civil rights struggles of Chapel Hill in the 1960s.
It was fascinating to hear tales of Robert’s motorcycle trips. Whether it was in Cuba or Mexico or just somewhere relatively tame like San Francisco, Robert bumped into extraordinary people. Maybe it’s some kind of cosmic coincidence, but he met people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Nelson Algren, James Baldwin, Russell Banks and Norman Mailer. He never mentioned these people until he dropped their name into a conversation, and you wouldn’t realize until later how surprising it was that he had never mentioned them before. You didn’t know for a long time that he would never mention them again, either.
If you asked Robert, he would tell you he was a journalist. For years, he published the Anvil, a progressive weekly. But before that, he published Reflections, a literary magazine that gave Robert a chance both to write and publish poetry, essays, art and criticism.
Robert nearly died when he was a young man. During his Korean War service, his airplane crashed and he spent months in the hospital. The damage to his body was severe, and he never fully recovered. Among the vestiges of the crash was permanent damage to his vocal chords, which left him with the distinctive scratchy, almost growling, voice that anyone who ever talked with him will certainly recall. It was also in the military that he first encountered the delights of tobacco, which became a habit he pursued with customary vigor. That’s what killed him in February.
Whether Robert Brown was a hedgehog or a fox is something his friends can debate. The hedgehogs, I’ve learned, have a unified vision of the world; the foxes tend to pursue disparate, unrelated lines of thought. Everyone who knew and loved him is invited to join Margaret this Saturday, June 10, at 5 p.m. in the gardens at their farm, 1509 Smith Level Road just south of Chapel Hill, on the occasion of Robert’s 73rd birthday.