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Charles Brockden Brown was America’s first professional man of letters, a novelist, publisher, and editor whose morally earnest Gothic tales attracted the attention of John Keats and Percy Shelley abroad and, among others, Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne at home. His career as a novelist was brief, intense, and brilliant, but he helped prepare for the more luxuriant flowering of American letters that was to come.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Law to Writing
Charles Brockden Brown was born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia on January 17, 1771. His father was a merchant, descended from a family whose Quaker roots can be traced to the seventeenth century. His maternal ancestors, the Armitts, shared a similar heritage. The family business failed, although Brown’s father managed to support his large family, probably through establishing new business activities in real estate.
From about the age of eleven to sixteen, Brown studied under the tutelage of Robert Proud at the Friends Latin School in Philadelphia, and after leaving it he went to work in the Philadelphia law office of Alexander Wilcocks without having attended college. The legal profession seems to have held little attraction for Brown, but he formed deep friendships at this time, particularly with William Wood Wilkins and Joseph Bringhurst, both of whom shared Brown’s literary interests. The three of them were active in the Belles Lettres Club of Philadelphia, which was formed in 1786 and lasted until 1793. When Wilkins, who had gone on to complete his legal education, died in 1795, Brown lost his closest tie to the profession of law. By then Brown had already declined to complete his own education as a lawyer.
Brown had begun experimenting with the writing of literature even while he studied law. In 1789, a series of his essays, known as ”The Rhapsodist,” was published in Columbian Magazine in Philadelphia, and, after abandoning the law a few years later, he dabbled in poetry and fiction. In 1797, he finished a novel called ”Sky-Walk,” though he never published it and the manuscript has been lost. In 1798, he began having his work published at a remarkable pace. During this year, he brought out a portion of Arthur Mervyn in the Weekly Magazine as well as two complete works, Wieland and Alcuin.
Experience with the Plague
At around this time, several regions of the United States were afflicted with outbreaks of yellow fever, a potentially lethal viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes. Many victims of yellow fever developed a jaundiced appearance, which led to the disease’s colorful name. There was no cure for yellow fever, and in severe cases the victim could bleed internally, which often resulted in death. The most severe American outbreak was in Philadelphia in 1793, where the disease is estimated to have killed approximately five thousand people, or one out of every ten Philadelphians. Another outbreak several years later had a profound impact on Brown’s life and work.
The year in which Brown published Wieland, one of his best-known works, he had gone to live in New York. He shared his living accommodations with Elihu Hub bard Smith, a doctor whom he had met in 1792 and who may have been his closest friend, and another friend named William Johnson. Smith, through an altruistic impulse, had brought to their home an ailing Italian physician who soon died from yellow fever. Shortly afterward, Smith contracted the disease and died, and Brown was stricken as well. Thus, Brown was a close witness to the horrors of yellow fever, and his temptation to escape the city was obvious. However, he chose to remain in the midst of the plague, perhaps underestimating its threat.
In Philadelphia, early in 1798, he began his serial publication in the Weekly Magazine of ”The Man at Home,” a story drawing on the plague. It is certainly possible, however, that his experience in New York accounted for some of the contents of his published fiction in 1799. That year he had published Ormond and part one of Arthur Mervyn, both of which make use of the horrors of plague that Brown knew so well.
In 1799, in addition to publishing Edgar Huntly, Brown began publication of a magazine, the Monthly Magazine and American Review. Although the magazine only survived until the end of 1800, during that time Brown doggedly pursued the task of searching out suitable contributions for the journal; he also contributed heavily from his own writing. He left New York in 1800, headed to Philadelphia, and looked for other means to earn money. He soon joined his family in the importing business. Brown seems to have maintained a connection with the family business until 1806, although his primary energies remained directed toward literary enterprises.
Toward the end of 1807, Brown introduced a new periodical, the American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Science. Brown edited five volumes. Although the pages of this journal included literary topics, such as poetry (including Brown’s own) and reviews of British and American literature, the main emphasis now reflected Brown’s political and historical interests. Essentially, the Register was what its name implied. It kept a record of laws and state papers, but it also gave written accounts of contemporary events, such as a report on the gun duel between Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, and Vice President Aaron Burr. During this time, Brown, who was never a very healthy individual, began to become more and more sickly. As was customary in his day, he took trips in hopes of restoring his health, but he succumbed to tuberculosis—a highly infectious and deadly disease usu ally characterized by bleeding in the lungs—in 1810, before turning forty.
Works in Literary Context
An American Perspective
Beginning in the years immediately after America gained its independence from England, America’s artistic intellectuals called for a literature that would reflect well on the creative capacities of the new nation, a literature that could earn the respect of England even as it treated indigenous themes. In Charles Brockden Brown, a handful of critics on both sides of the Atlantic found a writer who appeared to meet these requirements. While many scholars have tended to see Brown as a derivative writer, one who drew heavily on the political ideas of William Godwin and on the Gothic tradition in literature, those contemporaries of his who admired him saw in his works the beginning of an original American literature of which the new country could be proud. For some of Brown’s appeal lay in his depictions of American scenes, whether in writings about plagues in Philadelphia or in those about battles with Indians in the wilderness.
Americanized Gothic Literature
Brown’s four major novels have all attracted modern critical attention and have appeared in twentieth-century editions, largely because of Brown’s use of Gothic conventions to explore psychological themes. For example, in Wieland, the theme is religious fanaticism that leads to madness and murder; in Ormond and Arthur Mervyn, vivid scenes of the plague in Philadelphia create an atmosphere of terror and mystery; and in Edgar Huntly wilderness settings and Indian wars become Gothic trappings for another tale of madness and murder, told by a sleepwalker. In these works, Brown adapted native materials to the conventions of Gothic romance, thus Americanizing Old World literary modes.
The elements and themes that predominate in Brown’s fiction, however, are less Gothic than moral, social, and intellectual. All events that first appear mysterious, supernatural, or irrational in the works are eventually explained scientifically and rationally. For example, the disembodied voices in Wieland are the work of a ventriloquist, Ormond’s extraordinary range of knowledge is due to his artful eavesdropping, and Edgar Huntly’s inexplicable adventures result from his sleepwalking. However much Brown is torn between his fascination with the irrational and his interest in testing the strengths of rationally educated individuals, the key recurring moral point in his fiction seems to be a reaffirmation of basic Christianity. His flawed do-gooders all pointedly lack orthodox Christian training. His last published novel, Jane Talbot (1801), demonstrates his belief in the value of basic Christian principles against radical idealism. The social-moral philosophy of his fiction, thus, seems to arrive at a fairly conservative reaffirmation of the plain morality of his parents’ Quakerism.
Works in Critical Context
One of the great ironies of Brown’s literary career was that he strove so hard to foster and participate in the development of a native American literature, yet his greatest recognition, mostly positive, came from English critics. That Americans paid inadequate attention to him was the subject of numerous essays in America that appeared over the years, but the calls for broader recognition notwithstanding, Brown remained an obscure writer in his native land, appreciated by only a handful of people.
In recent years, scholarly interest in Brown has increased significantly, and some critics have begun to make claims for him which indicate that he may have been ahead of his time. For example, Edwin Sill Fussell posited that Wieland was actually about Brown’s struggle to break with dominant literary conventions, and that ”in Wieland Charles Brockden Brown was writing about writing . . . about that American literature not yet in existence but coming into existence as he confronted and incorporated the stiffest resistance imaginable, his own impossibility.” Warren Barton Blake wrote in 1910 that ”Brown was, above all, a transitional figure” and that his works, ”if they seem to us the crude expression of youth, are the expression of a literature’s youth no less than an author’s.” Yet, oddly enough, whether seeing in his writing something to be condemned or praised, Brown’s critics have generally agreed that his narratives rely heavily on improbabilities, that his characters are not clearly delineated, and that his plots border on the chaotic. For some, these qualities have represented aesthetic flaws; for others, they have been signposts of the ambiguities and uncertainties of the human mind and the human heart, examples of style conforming to substance. Whatever the justice of these competing views of him, scholarly interest in Brown has never been greater than at present.
Reception of Wieland
When it was initially published, many critics dismissed Wieland as a flawed novel that demonstrated Brown’s lack of writing skill. The work was seen as inconsistent, ambiguous, confusing, and overly dependent on Gothic romantic conventions. Some critics did note, however, that Brown had created a compelling and imaginative tale. As one anonymous reviewer noted, ”The author has certainly contrived a narration deeply interesting; and whatever may be its faults . . . Wieland, as a work of imagination, may be ranked high among the productions of the age.”
However, Wieland has recently been reevaluated by modern scholars. Some critics began praising the novel for the very ambiguities that others had seen as a flaw, remarking that this was part of a deliberate strategy employed by Brown. As James R. Russo wrote,” Wieland is told by a confessed madwoman, Clara Wieland, and her narrative seems incoherent at times because she is con fused, not because Brown is.” Other contemporary commentators consider Wieland an indictment of American ideology. As Roberta F. Weldon writes,
By focusing on the error of the Wieland family, the novel examines the flawed design underlying the American ideal. The Wielands believe with Emerson that ‘the individual is the world’ but experience the danger of self-absorption and are destroyed by it. What emerges from this critical reevaluation of Wieland is that Brown may have been a more skilled and complex writer than his contemporaries believed.
- Allen, Paul. The Life of Charles Brockden Brown: A Facsimile Reproduction. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’Facsimiles and Reprints, 1975.
- Axelrod, Alan. Charles Brockden Brown. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1983.
- Clark, David Lee. Charles Brockden Brown, Pioneer Voice of America. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press,1952.Dan Brown
- Grabo, Norman S. The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
- Kimball, Arthur G. Rational Fictions: A Study of Charles Brockden Brown. McMinnville, Ore.: Linfield Research Institute, 1968.
- Parker, Patricia. Charles Brockden Brown: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
- Petter, Henri. The Early American Novel. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1971.
- Ringe, Donald A. Charles Brockden Brown. New York:Twayne, 1966.
- Rosenthal, Bernard, ed.. Critical Essays on Charles Brockden Brown. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
- Unger, Leonard. American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. New York: Scribners, 1979.
- Warfel, Harry R. Charles Brockden Brown, American Gothic Novelist. Gainesville, Fla.: University of Florida Press, 1949.
- Blake, Warren Barton. ”Title: Brockden Brown and the Novel.” The Sewanee Review (Autumn 1910): 431-443.
- ”Review of Wieland; Or, the Transformation’.” The American Review, and Literary Journal (January-March 1802): 28-38.
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