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

      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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