Charles Brockden Brown: as American Novelist

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      Charles Brockden Brown 1771-1810 Philadelphia has the honor of being the birthplace of Brown, who was the first professional man of letters in America. Franklin is a more famous writer than Brown, but, unlike Brown, he did not make literature the business of his life. Descended from ancestors who came over on the ship with William Penn, Brown at the age of ten had read, with Quaker seriousness, every book that he could find. He did not go to college, but studied law, which he soon gave up for literature as a profession.

Charles Brockden Brown
Charles Brockden Brown

      Charles Brockden Brown was a known as the first novelist and America’s first professional American writer. Born in Philadelphia into a family of prosperous Quakers, he first studied Law in Philadelphia where he met Elihu Smith, one of the Connecticut Wits during the brief practice with him, he formed the Society for the Attainment of Useful Knowledge in 1790. Being contemptuous of the legal profession, he moved to New York and began his literary career.

      Alcuin: A Dialogue (1798) was his first publication - a treatise on the rights of women. The work showed the influence of English thinker William Godwin. He was inspired by the English woman novelist Mrs. Radcliff. Inspired by both, he feverishly wrote four novels all of which translate the English Gothic novel into the American idiom. He was already under the influence of Godwin, the father of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein and married English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.) Driven by poverty, Brown hastily penned four haunting novels in two years:

      Wieland (1798), Arthur Mervyn (1799), Ormond (1799), and Edgar Huntley (1799). In them, he developed the genre of American gothic. The Gothic novel was a popular genre of the day featuring exotic and wild settings, disturbing psychological depth, and much suspense. Trappings included ruined castles or abbeys, ghosts, mysterious secrets, threatening figures, and solitary maidens who survive by their wits and spiritual strength. At their best, such novels offer tremendous suspense and hints of magic, along with profound explorations of the human soul in extremity. Critics suggest that Brown’s Gothic sensibility expresses deep anxieties about the inadequate social institutions of the new nation.

      Wieland is Brown’s first novel. The older Wieland, the German mystic, emigrates to Pennsylvania, erects a mysterious temple on his estate; He dies there one night of spontaneous combustion. His wife dies soon afterward, and their children Clara and the younger Wieland, become friends with Catherine Pleyel and her brother, Henry. Wieland marries Catherine, and Clara falls in love with Henry who has a fiance in Germany. A mysterious stranger called Carwin then enters the circle of the friends. Shortly afterward, a series of warnings is heard from unearthly voices. The circumstances persuade Henry that Clara and Carwin are involved with each other. So he returns to his fiance and marries her. Wieland, inheriting the fanaticism of his father, is evidently driven mad by the voices and murders his wife and children. Carwin then confesses to Clara that he produced the voices by the art of ‘colloquium’, a form of ventriloquism that enables him to mimic the voices of others and project them over some distance. He was simply carried away by his curiosity and his passion for mystery. Weiland, escaping from his asylum, is about to murder Clara and Carwin, using his art for the last time, successfully orders him to stop. The unhappy madman then commits suicide. Carwin departs for a far away place of Pennsylvania and Clara marries Henry Pleyel after the death of his first wife. The characters never understand what is truth and what is untruth. For instace, Brown is the first American writer to use the unreliable narrator. More the point is the entire novel is cast in the form of a letter from the last surviving member of the Wieland family. Brown used distinctively American settings. As man of ideas, he - dramatized scientific theories, developed a personal theory of fiction, and championed high literary standards despite personal poverty. Though flawed, his Works are darkly powerful. Increasingly, he is seen as the precursor of romantic writers are - Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He unravels the fears of the subconscious in such away that the outwardly optimistic Enlightenment period drove them underground.

      Depression from ill health and the consciousness that he would probably die young colored all his romances. He has the hero of one of his tales say, "We are exposed, in common with the rest of mankind, to innumerable casualties; but, if these be shunned, we are unalterably fated to die of consumption." In 1810, before he had reached forty, he fell a victim to that disease. Near the end of his days, he told his wife that he had not known what health was longer than a half hour at a time.

      Brown deserves a place in the history of American literature for his four romances: Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly. These were all published within the space of three years from 1798, the date of the publication of Wieland. These romances show a striking change from the American fiction which had preceded them. They are no longer didactic and sentimental, but Gothic or romantic. Working under English influence, Brown gave to America her first great Gothic romances. The English romance which influenced him the most was Caleb Williams (1794), the work of William Godwin (1756-1836), the father-in-law of the poet Shelley.

      Wieland is considered the strongest of Brown's Gothic romances, but it does not use as distinctively American materials as his three other stories of this type, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, or Memoirs of the Year 1793, and Edgar Huntly. The results of his own experience with the yellow fever plague in Philadelphia give an American touch to Ormond and Arthur Mervyn, and at the same time add the Gothic element of weirdness and horror. Arthur Mervyn is far the better of the two.

      Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleep Walker, shows a Gothic characteristic in its very title. This book is noteworthy in the evolution of American fiction, not because of the strange actions of the sleep walker, but for the reason that Brown here deliberately determines, as he states in his prefatory note To the Public to give the romance an American flavor, by using "the incidents of Indian hostility and the perils of the Western wilderness." If we assume that John Smith's story of Pocahontas is not fiction, then to Brown belongs the honor of first recognizing in the Indian a valuable literary asset from the Gothic romancer's point of view. In Chapter XVI., he reverses Captain Smith's story and has Edgar Huntly rescue a young girl from torture and kill an Indian. In the next two chapters, the hero kills four Indians. The English recognized this introduction of a new element of strangeness added to terror and gave Brown the credit of developing an "Americanized" Gothic. He disclosed to future writers of fiction, like James Fenimore Cooper (p. 125), a new mine of American materials. This romance has a second distinguishing characteristic, for Brown surpassed contemporary British novelists in taking his readers into the open air, which forms the stage setting for the adventures of Edgar Huntly. The hero of that story loves to observe the birds, the squirrels, and the old Indian woman "plucking the weeds from among her corn, bruising the grain between two stones, and setting her snares for rabbits and opossums." He takes us where we can feel the exhilaration from "a wild heath, whistled over by October blasts meagerly adorned with the dry stalks of scented shrubs and the bald heads of the sapless mullein."

      Brown's place in the history of fiction is due to the fact that he introduced the Gothic romance to American literature. He loved to subject the weird, the morbid, the terrible, to a psychological analysis. In this respect he suggests Hawthorne, although there are more points of difference than of likeness between him and the great New England romancer. In weird subject matter, but not in artistic ability, he reminds us of Poe. Brown could devise striking incidents, but he lacked the power to weave them together in a well-constructed plot. He sometimes forgot that important incidents needed further elaboration or reference, and he occasionally left them suspended in mid-air. His lack of humor was too often responsible for his imposing too much analysis and explanation on his readers. Although he did not hesitate to use the marvelous in his plots, his realistic mind frequently impelled him to try to explain the wonderful occurrences. He thus attempted to bring in ventriloquism to account for the mysterious voices which drove Wieland to kill his wife and children.

      It is, however, not difficult for a modern reader to become so much interested in the first volume of Arthur Mervyn as to be unwilling to leave it unfinished. Brown will probably be longest remembered for his strong pictures of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, his use of the Indian in romance, and his introduction of the outdoor world of the wilderness and the forest.

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