Brown, Charles Brockden
Charles Brockden Brown 1771–1810
American novelist, essayist, and short story writer.
For additional information on Brown's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 22.
Brown is typically recognized as a significant figure in American literature for his attempt to earn a living as a professional writer. Hailed by many modern scholars as the first American novelist, Brown wrote fiction that, according to many critics, contained serious stylistic and structural deficiencies. Yet his works, particularly his first four published novels (Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly), also demonstrate Brown's intense artistic vision and his apparent struggle to reconcile his Romantic imagination with the Enlightenment ideals of reason and realism. It is this conflict that continues to draw twentieth-century scholars to Brown's work. Gothic elements in Brown's writing and the possible influences of other Gothic writers on Brown form another arena for critical debate. Brown's novels are filled with ambiguity in theme and characterization, and critics have attempted to attach a purpose to these equivocations. Finally, Brown's work reflects an interest, radical for his time, in the rights and roles of women; his apparent feminism is another attribute which entices modern critics to his writing.
Brown was born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1771. The religion's disdain for formal higher education resulted in the sixteen-year-old Brown's being apprenticed to a lawyer. While employed at the law office, Brown pursued his literary interests and joined the Belles Lettres Club, where he participated in philosophical and political discussions. In 1789 he published The Rhapsodist, a series of essays in which he analyzes the effectiveness of the government created after the American Revolution. His interest in radical social and political ideas was furthered by his reading of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and William Godwin's An Enquiry concerning Political Justice (1793). Many critics believe that these two works heavily influenced Brown's later thinking and writing. After abandoning his legal career in 1792, Brown completed his first novel, the now-lost Sky-Walk, in 1797. During the next several years, Brown embarked upon a period of extraordinary literary activity, publishing Alcuin, a fictional
dialogue on women's rights, and his first significant novel, Wieland, in 1798. Ormond, the first part of Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly all appeared during 1799. The proceeds from these works, however, were not sufficient for Brown to support himself, and as he grew increasingly interested in marrying and having a family, Brown joined his family's mercantile business in 1800. During his courtship of Elizabeth Linn in the early 1800s, Brown wrote the second part of Arthur Mervyn and his last two novels, Clara Howard and Jane Talbot, which were published in 1801. At this point, Brown turned to journalistic endeavors, producing political pamphlets and essays, and editing a journal. He married in 1804 and supported his wife and children on his editorial work after the family business dissolved in 1806. Brown died in 1810, of tuberculosis.
Brown wrote essays, short stories, and political pamphlets, as well as a translation, but modern critics pay relatively little attention to these works, except as a means of elucidating aspects of Brown's major novels. The dialogue Alcuin, although considered a minor work, is studied attentively by modern critics in an effort to dissect Brown's feminism. In this fictional exchange between a man and a woman, arguments both for and against political and educational equality of the sexes are presented. Brown continued to explore such issues in his novels, which all contain strong female characters. Like Brown's minor works, the sentimental novels Clara Howard and Jane Talbot generate relatively little critical interest and are regarded as exhibiting Brown's shift from radical to more conservative views.
The plots of Brown's four major novels, which combine elements of the Gothic and the sentimental novel, are often considered convoluted and episodic, though highly imaginative. What unites the novels is Brown's focus on psychological aberrations and the reactions and development of his characters. In Wieland, the plot deals with spontaneous combustion, mass murder, seduction, and ventriloquism; Edgar Huntly features a case of sleepwalking. In both novels, the inability of humans to trust sense perceptions alone is explored. Ormond focuses on Brown's ideas regarding the necessity of educational equality for women, and also incorporates a familiar seduction plot. The plot of Arthur Mervyn is judged to be particularly intricate. Through it Brown examines, by way of the apparently innocent narrator's adventures, the theme of appearance versus reality. The narrator becomes incriminated in several crimes, but his declarations of benevolent intentions contradict his actions.
With Brown writing at a time when eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals were giving way to nineteenth-century Romantic principles, it is no wonder that his works contain aspects of each philosophy, and in fact, many critics have noted in Brown's work a conflict between these two distinct ideologies. Paul Witherington has maintained that the struggle between Enlightenment theories of benevolence and Romantic notions regarding character and plot "unwinds the art" of all of Brown's novels through violations in point of view, character alterations, and authorial intrusion. Further, Witherington has contended that Brown abandoned fiction not because of a "failure of imagination," but because he found the imagination to be a revolutionary force which endangered "the values of benevolence he wanted most to preserve." Similarly, Michael D. Bell has asserted that Brown's novels reveal the author's conflict between rationalism and the irrational power of the imagination, and Maurice J. Bennett has suggested that Brown's abandonment of fiction reflected his rejection of the imagination in favor of reason.
While Brown's novels incorporate aspects of Romanticism in their focus on imaginative power, they also contain some elements of the Gothic. Philip Young has observed that although Brown's novels cannot be truly classified as Gothic, Brown did write "the romance of mystery and terror." Richard D. Hume has similarly found that Brown's novels are not Gothic in more than "a superficial sense"; he has maintained that Brown is most interested in the psychology of his characters and that he employs the "trappings of Gothicism," (such as the use of suspense, apparently supernatural elements, and the isolated setting of Wieland) in order to provide situations to which his characters will respond. Lillie Deming Loshe and Donald A. Ringe have both examined the influences on Brown's Gothicism. Loshe argues that Brown's use of the Gothic is similar to that of William Godwin in its focus on the psychological and the revolutionary. Ringe, on the other hand, has contended that Brown created his own version of Gothicism, which was based more on German sources and English authors other than Godwin, and which eventually influenced Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The ambiguity in Brown's novels is an issue of much debate among modern critics. John Cleman has noted that the haste with which Brown composed his novels and the fact that he wrote during a time when his political and moral theories were in transition are factors which could account for the ambiguity in his works. Yet many critics, including Cleman, view Brown's ambiguity as integral to his vision. Cleman has studied the major characters in Brown's novels and has asserted that the relationships among them reveal that Brown deliberately constructed the ambiguity (such as the sense of discrepancy between what seems to be virtue and what actually is vice) found in his work. Similarly, David Seed has argued that ambiguities in Wieland demonstrate Brown's scepticism regarding "the mind's capacity to grasp truth and order perceptions."
Twentieth-century scholars have found Brown's feminist ideas in Alcuin intriguing and have looked to the female characters of his novels, such as the narrators of Wieland and Ormond, to support the views outlined in the dialogue. David Lee Clark has maintained that Brown's revolutionary ideas regarding women's rights were developed prior to and were not significantly influenced by the works of Mary Wollstonecraft or William Godwin, and that Brown was particularly concerned with the economic and political rights of women. Fritz Fleischmann, however, does see parallels between Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women and Alcuin, but has argued that, regardless of the view one takes on Brown's incorporation of Godwinism into his own theories, Brown's feminism is obvious and compelling.
Alcuin: A Dialogue (fictional dialogue) 1798
Wieland; or, The Transformation (novel) 1798
Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793. 2 vols. (novel) 1799-1800
Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (novel) 1799
Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (novel) 1799
Clara Howard (novel) 1801; also published as Philip Stanley; or, The Enthusiasm of Love, 1807
Jane Talbot, a Novel (novel) 1801
A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States (nonfiction) (translation of work by Constintin Francois de Volney) 1804
*Carwin, the Biloquist, and Other American Tales and Pieces. 3 vols. (unfinished novel and short stories) 1822
The Novels of Charles Brockden Brown. 7 vols. (novels) 1827
The Rhapsodist, and Other Uncollected Writings (essays and novel fragment) 1943
The Novels and Related Works of Charles Brockden Brown. 6 vols. (novels and unfinished novels) 1977-87
*Memoirs of Stephen Calvert (unfinished novel) 1978
*Carwin, the Biloquist and Memoirs of Stephen Calvert were published earlier in William Dunlap's The Life of Charles Brockden Brown: Together with Selections from the Rarest of His Printed Works, from His...
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SOURCE: "Alms for Oblivion: The Minor Writings of Charles Brockden Brown," in The Cornhill Magazine, New Series, Vol. XIII, July-December, 1902, pp. 494-506.
[In the following essay, Garnett reviews some of Brown's literary fragments, observing that these works reflect the same theme as his novels, that is, the effects of abnormal events on the development of human character.]
Time hath, my Lord, a wallet on his back
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion.
Troilus and Cressida.
There is a celebrated dictum of Keats—not to be told in Gath, for in his day it made sport for the Philistines—to the effect that
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter.
Such must also have been the opinion of a contemporary poet, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, for in a letter to his friend Kelsall he describes himself as the author of many celebrated unwritten productions, 'among which I particularly solicit your attention to a volume of letters to yourself.' How it is possible to melodise and not to melodise, to write and not to write, remains the secret of the poets: though De Quincey came near penetrating it when he indited a series of most affectionate epistles to his daughters, but never posted one of them. Coleridge achieved much in this line by leaving the conclusion of Christabel to the...
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SOURCE: Charles Brockden Brown: A Study of Early American Fiction, Free Press Association, 1904, pp. 47-66.
[In the following essay, Vilas reviews the influence of other writers on Brown, as well as Brown 's influence on Shelley and on American writers. Vilas notes that Brown did not establish a school of fiction in America and stresses the influence of William Godwin on Brown.]
Influence of European Writers on Brown
That Brown was affected in his works of fiction by his predecessors and his contemporaries in the art has been indicated, indeed, it goes without saying. Everyone is the product of his time and his environment. Now and then an intellect stands forth that seemingly has been able so to gather impressions from the "storied urns" of the past and from the realities of the present as to "send messages into Philistia" to appear like the warning voice of a prophet, or in other words of a man in advance of his time. The effect is caused by a higher point of view or by superior comprehension, possibly by both. The question then should not be,—Was Brown affected by other writers in his field?—but,—How was he affected by them? We must take it for granted that Brown, a "literary Doge," had read De Foe, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. That he was acquainted with the lesser lights that followed admits of no doubt to one who has read his works. Had he not read most...
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SOURCE: "The Gothic and the Revolutionary, " in The Early American Novel, Columbia University Press, 1907, pp. 29-58.
[In the following essay, Loshe studies the Gothic elements of Brown 's novels, stressing the influence of William Godwin on Brown 's writing. Loshe maintains that, like Godwin, Brown incorporated into his novels elements that were both psychological—such as characters with abnormal powers—and revolutionary—such as the "dream of an ideal commonwealth beyond the sea."]
The period of amiable amateurishness with which American fiction began, was followed by the popularity of the first really gifted American novel-writer, the first also whose name has won the adornment of tags in the handbooks of literary history—Charles Brockden Brown, variously known as "The First American Novelist, " "The Father of American Fiction," "The First American Man of Letters." Brown's novels, however, are separated from those of his predecessors less by professional handling or technical skill than by the new ideals of literature and life which they represent. In England, as in America, sentimental and didactic fiction was still produced in quantity, but the fashion of the hour at which Brown wrote was the Gothic.
Although the history of the Gothic novel goes back to 1764, when Horace Walpole had a bad dream and wrote The Castle of Otranto, the possibilities of the new type...
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SOURCE: "Brockden Brown and the Rights of Women," in University of Texas Bulletin, No. 2212, March 22, 1922, pp. 5-44.
[In the following excerpt, Clark studies Brown's ideas regarding the rights of women, particularly in Alcuin, and maintains that the impact of the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin on Brown has been too strenuously emphasized by many critics.]
One cannot correctly appraise the literature dealing with the social and political emancipation of women in the last third of the eighteenth century without some knowledge of the evolution of the thought of which that literature is a record. Particularly is this so in evaluating the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Brockden Brown. It is too generally assumed that the first two were the originators of the social theories that are now so invariably associated with their names; and that their work in turn inspired Brockden Brown in America.
Although a detailed study of the struggle for the social and political freedom of women is beyond the scope of the present work, certain general tendencies in the literature of revolt in England, France, and America, will be briefly traced.
As a matter of fact neither Mary Wollstonecraft, nor William Godwin, nor yet Brockden Brown was an original thinker, for there is nothing really new in any of them. Mary Wollstonecraft in her Rights...
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SOURCE: "The Literary Opinions of Charles Brockden Brown, " in Studies in Philology, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, October, 1934, pp. 541-566.
[In the following essay, Marchand uses a variety of sources—including the prefaces to Brown 's novels, literary allusions in his novels, his reviews and contributions to periodicals, and letters and passages in his journal—to examine Brown 's literary and critical theories. Marchand notes in particular that Brown 's literary judgments were guided by his view that the value of works of literature lies in their "moral tendency."]
Since Charles Brockden Brown never formulated his literary or critical theories in an extended discourse comparable to Poe's "Poetic Principle" or Hugo's "Préface de Cromwell," any discussion of them must rest on the following sources: (1) the prefaces to his novels, (2) literary references and allusions found in the novels themselves, (3) his reviews of books in the several periodicals1 which he edited, (4) his other contributions to periodicals, (5) fragmentary and passing comment made in his capacity as editor, (6) letters and passages from his Journal printed in William Dunlap's Life of Charles Brockden Brown. Much must necessarily remain in the uncertain region of inference. A further difficulty lies in the fact that, following the atrocious custom of the day, periodical contributions were unsigned, or, at best, signed with...
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SOURCE: "Charles Brockden Brown and the Establishment of Romance," in American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey, D. Appleton-Century Company, 1936, pp. 25-39.
[In the following essay, Quinn argues that Brown's novels reflect his interest in both the romance genre and in American material. Quinn goes on to study the romantic elements of Wieland, Arthur Mervyn, Edgar Huntly, and Ormond.]
The foundations of American fiction were laid by writers who, with few exceptions, were the creators of one novel, or were sporadic in their efforts. In the work of Charles Brockden Brown, however, we have the professional man of letters, with an achievement which may be estimated in terms both of quality and quantity.
That he wrote romances was of course inevitable. But in speaking of his work as romantic, it is important to employ this misused term correctly. Much confusion would be avoided if the name "romantic" were kept to describe the material of a novelist who rejects the familiar in order to secure the interest which is given to the strange or the new. Its antithesis is not "realistic" but "classic," if again we use that term, in its proper sense, to signify that material which attracts a reader through his familiarity with it and allows him to exercise the faculty of recognition, just as the romantic material kindles the faculties of wonder and surprise. "Realistic" and...
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SOURCE: "Methods of Composition," in The Sources and Influence of the Novels of Charles Brockden Brown, Vantage Press, 1950, pp. 189-206.
[In the following essay, Wiley appraises the plots, characters, and style of Brown's novels, contending that his plots are "original, exceptional, and forceful," although they lack coherence. Wiley also notes that Brown's style may seem inflated, but that it reflects the "prevalent pedantry of the times."]
The plots of Brown's novels are original, exceptional and forceful, though defective in unity of design. Each main narrative consists of a series of episodes slightly connected with each other, but all connected to the purpose and developing it. They are like clothes hanging on a line, grouped, however, as a good housewife would hang them. A contemporary of Brown, Royall Tyler, said of him:
He never mastered the art of fiction well enough to produce a book that deserved anything more than the name of narrative.
Brown may have been negligent of his plots, but he certainly was never at a loss for a breath-taking adventure or for creating suspense,—not inferior to Cooper in this respect. The incidents of his novels are many of them dramatic, yet he made little attempt to dramatize his plots. He makes a conscious effort in Edgar Huntly. Dramatic terms are used in the story; for example,—...
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SOURCE: "Charles Brockden Brown and the Sublime," in The Personalist, Vol. XLV, No. 2, April, 1964, pp. 235-49.
[In the essay that follows, Bernard argues that the praise Brown has received for his descriptions of the "American scene" is undeserved: the few occasions when Brown does discuss the American scene, he does so within the constraints of eighteenth-century aesthetics of the sublime and the picturesque.]
Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) has often been praised for his description of the American scene in his novels.1 But, although Brown deserves much praise, it is by no means certain that he deserves it for his description of the American scene. It is surprising, first, how infrequently Brown describes the American scene at all. Second, when he does describe it, he does so almost invariably in terms of the eighteenth-century esthetics of the sublime and of the picturesque. Twentieth-century critics, perhaps eager to extend the limits of American literary independence from Europe, have claimed too much for Brown. Earlier critics correctly found Brown's descriptions artificial, closer, for example, to a painting of Salvator Rosa than to any real scene.2
Brown himself refutes the notion that he is a close observer of nature. William Dunlap has reproduced in his biography of Brown letters Brown wrote on a trip to Rockaway, New York, and on a trip up the Hudson....
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SOURCE: "Charles Brockden Brown as a Novelist of Ideas," in Books at Brown, Vol. XX, 1965, pp. 165–84.
[In the following essay, Hirsch maintains that Brown utilized a combination of genres—the sentimental novel of seduction and the gothic romance—in order to advance his French-influenced philosophic ideas.]
The historian Bernard Faÿ observes "a curious phenomenon" in serious American literature of the late eighteenth century: "French writers roused American minds and created original reactions in them at a time when English writers were less interesting and stimulating, but afforded examples that could easily be utilized and imitated. French culture in America was a means of liberation, not a model to be copied. Indeed its great role seems to have been to aid hardy and simple minds, who might have lacked enterprise or imagination, to find themselves and adopt a new spirit that should lead them to create a new form for themselves."1 This "curious phenomenon" of turning to France for ideas and to England for form may throw some light on the critical problem of Charles Brockden Brown's achievements and shortcomings as a novelist.
Reared in Philadelphia, "the cultural capital of, … and least provincial spot in America,…"2 during the 1770s and 1780s, Brown " … was exposed to all currents of thought, European and American, that were molding a new country and...
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SOURCE: "Brockden Brown: The Politics of the Man of Letters," in The Serif: Kent State University Library Quarterly, Vol. III, No. 4, December, 1966, pp. 3-11.
[In the following essay, Berthoff surveys Brown 's political philosophy as exhibited in his novels and maintains that it remained consistent throughout his literary career. Berthoff explains that Brown's political theory centered on human personality and self-fulfillment as ways of evaluating the problems of the state; in Brown's earlier novels he focuses on the potential destructiveness of self-interest, while in his later novels, Brown emphasizes the success of self-interest.]
Charles Brockden Brown's last two novels, Clara Howard and Jane Talbot, were published in 1801. Their general feebleness seems to anticipate directly his abandonment of the novel as a literary instrument. Actually these books, epistolary in form, are in some ways more competently executed than the four better-known novels Brown had rushed into print in the brief and turbulent period, 1798-99, when his most important writing was done. But the force of mind, the psychological intensity and energy of analysis that characterized this earlier work have gone out of Brown's story-telling. He is still committed as a novelist to the serious exploration of moral ideas and their practical human consequences and to the projection of a sharply monitory image of the...
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SOURCE: "Savages and Savagism: Brockden Brown's Dramatic Irony," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. VI, No. 4, Summer, 1967, pp. 214-25.
[In the following essay, Kimball examines Brown's use of the term "savage, " arguing that Brown uses the term ironically, not as a reflection of "New World experiences" with Indians, as many critics have contended, but as a way of commenting on the human capacity for violence.]
Critics of Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly (1799) have taken the titular hero at his word. "My parents and an infant child were murdered in their beds," he says. Thus "I never looked upon or called up the image of a savage without shuddering."1 Accordingly, critics say that Huntly's attitude reflects New World experience with the red man, and that Brown considers the Indian a murderous savage "whose every action if not closely circumscribed leads to tragedy."2
This approach overlooks Brown's ironic use of the term "savage" and the idea of savage violence as commentary, not on the red man, but on the white. The Indians in Edgar Huntly are really foils for the savage potential of Brown's hero. "What light has burst upon my ignorance of myself and of mankind!" says Huntly as he reflects upon his adventure. "How sudden and enormous the transition from uncertainty to knowledge!" (p. 6). The new knowledge results from a nightmare series of...
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SOURCE: "Charles Brockden Brown, Translator," American Literature, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, March, 1972, pp. 1-12.
[In the following essay, Tichi contends that Brown's 1804 translation of F. de Volney's A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States reveals Brown's nationalistic bias.]
In his lifetime Charles Brockden Brown translated one work only: C. F. de Volney's A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States. For the novelist-editor-critic and, as of 1803, political pamphleteer, the translation of Volney in 1804 seems an odd choice, Although he was America's formost litterateur, Brown rendered into English no romantic tale in the tradition of Chateaubriand's Atala, but "the first book to give an organized synthesis of the physiographic and geologic regions of the United States and of the climatology of the continent."1 The choice for translation seems doubly puzzling when we consider that a London English language edition was already available in America even as Brown labored at its American counterpart. And without engaging in the perpetual debate over the noblesse oblige of literary translators, one must upon examination of Brown's work concur with a reviewer for the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review that Brown "omitted notes that did not accord with his own ideas" and "wholly altered the form of one of the appendices."2 But while his...
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SOURCE: "Benevolence and the 'Utmost Stretch': Charles Brockden Brown's Narrative Dilemma," in Criticism, Vol. XIV, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 175-91.
[In the following essay, Witherington analyzes Brown's abandonment of fiction as a result of his failure to reconcile the two strains of his thought: the principles of objectivity and reason associated with the Enlightenment and the revolutionary and imaginative impulses of Romanticism.]
The titles of Charles Brockden Brown's novels suggest the steps backward his fiction took from 1798 to 1801, and the failure of his plans for an American literature. The mythic sounding Sky-Walk is lost to us today, but an advertisement remains, claiming "strains of lofty eloquence, the exhibition of powerful motives, and a sort of audaciousness of character."1Wieland and Ormond, the next novels, offer romance and exotic singularity. Arthur Meruyn and Edgar Huntly take up everyday names, which Clara Howard and Jane Talbot turn toward the woman's market, Brown's last effort to come to terms with fiction. There was no failure of imagination. Brown simply found that imagination was revolutionary, that it threatened the values of benevolence he wanted most to preserve.
Although Brown is respected today for his fathership of nineteenth-century American fiction, he often behaves more like a child of the...
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SOURCE: "Charles Brockden Brown and the Uses of Gothicism: A Reassessment," in ESQ: A Journal of The American Renaissance, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1st Quarter, 1972, pp. 10-18.
[In the essay that follows, Hume differentiates between the Gothic novel and the presence of Gothic elements in a novel, measuring Brown's work against these standards. Hume concludes that Brown is concerned in all his novels with the psychology of his characters and that he utilizes the "trappings of Gothicism " in order to create situations to which his characters react, but that his novels are not truly Gothic.]
Although Charles Brockden Brown has long been thought of as the first American Gothic novelist—essentially a forerunner of Poe—recent critics have been turning away from this view of him, and we may well wonder just how much substance there is in the Gothic ascription.1 Certainly to date no one has shown that in sources or mode Brown was drawing significantly on contemporary English Gothic novelists; and indeed, I shall try to prove the opposite. In truth the form of his novels seems more influenced by Godwin, Bage, and Holcroft than by the Gothicists. This has led several critics, notably Clark, to view them as "novels of purpose"—the purpose being "dissemination of … radicalism."2 But this description represents Brown's work no better than earlier labels.
Brown can actually be...
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SOURCE: "'The Double-Tongued Deceiver': Sincerity and Duplicity in the Novels of Charles Brockden Brown," in Early American Literature, Vol. IX, No. 2, Fall, 1974, pp. 143-63.
[In the following essay, Bell addresses the "dialectic between innocence and experience " in Brown 's novels, maintaining that in novels such as Wieland, Brown explores the conflict between Lockean-style rationalism and the irrational forces of the imagination. Bell further claims that this struggle has philosophical, political, psychological, and literary dimensions.]
The four best-known novels of Charles Brockden Brown turn on a contest between two recurring figures: a virtuous but inexperienced protagonist (Clara Wieland, Constantia Dudley, Edgar Huntly, Arthur Mervyn) and an antagonist (Carwin, Ormond, Clithero Edny, Welbeck) whose attitudes and experience threaten the protagonist's conception of virtue and order. At the center of these novels is a dialectic between innocence and experience or, to use the terms Brown himself preferred, between "sincerity" and "duplicity." Brown's plots reveal the difficulty of living by honesty and idealism, a difficulty he had already noted in the early 1790's:
I think it may safely be asserted that of all the virtues mankind is most universally deficient in sincerity…. How many motives are there for concealing our real sentiment, for counterfeiting...
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SOURCE: "Ambiguous Evil: A Study of Villains and Heroes in Charles Brockden Brown's Major Novels," in Early American Literature, Vol. X, No. 2, Fall, 1975, pp. 190–219.
[In the following essay, Cleman studies the main characters in Brown 's major novels and argues that their interrelationships demonstrate that the ambiguity in Brown 's work was purposeful and carefully constructed.]
In the first issue of his Weekly Magazine Charles Brockden Brown wrote, "Great energy employed in the promotion of vicious purposes, constitutes a very useful spectacle. Give me a tale of lofty crimes, rather than of honest folly."1 Such morbid intentions were certainly carried out, for in his major works—Wieland (1798), Ormond (1799), Arthur Mervyn (1799, 1800), and Edgar Huntly (1799)—Brown created a remarkable array of villains and "lofty crimes."2 For some time, the usual treatment of these characters was to see them as simply conventional figures embodying certain ideas to be tested in the course of the novel. David Lee Clark, for example, feels that most of Brown's villains are in some sense connected with or actually represent members of the Illuminait, socio-religious fanatics who set about indoctrinating youths,3 and Lulu Rumsey Wiley observes that Brown "based all the actions of the hero on his right intentions and habitual benevolence...
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SOURCE: "Born Decadent: The American Novel and Charles Brockden Brown," in The Southern Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, July, 1981, pp. 501-19.
[In the following essay, Young asserts that although Brown 's novels cannot properly be characterized as Gothic, Brown did write "the romance of mystery and terror." Young further argues that the "dark secret" of Romanticism—love between members of the same family or same sex—is also reflected in Brown's works.]
"… the Writer must appeal to Physicians and to men conversant with the latent springs and occasional perversions of the human mind."
—Brown, Advertisement to Wieland, 1798
Great ages of practically everything decline and fall, but it takes time. Fin de siècle cannot close in without a siècle behind it, and when Charles Brockden Brown came along the history of American fiction was not quite a decade old. Such an infant, indeed, was the American Novel that he is still called the Father of it. Yet he might as reasonably be considered the descendant of others. Late eighteenth-century America remained culturally colonial; our fiction grew out of England's. England had known the great age of Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, and Sterne, and then well before the turn of the century its novel was on the wane. Thus if Brown shows signs, and he...
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SOURCE: "Charles Brockden Brown," in American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, The University Press of Kentucky, 1982, pp. 36-57.
[In the following essay, Ringe states that while the liberal ideas of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft may have been important to Brown, it was British and German Gothic writers such as Matthew Gregory Lewis, Eliza Parson, and Cajetan Tschink who influenced the style and substance of Brown's fiction. Ringe further argues that in Wieland and Edgar Huntly Brown attempts to establish his own interpretation of the Gothic mode, adapted to the conditions of American life.]
To discuss the novels of Charles Brockden Brown only in terms of contemporary Gothic fiction is to view them from an admittedly limited point of view. A man of strong intellectual curiosity, Brown read widely in both traditional and contemporary literature. Echoes of Shakespeare and Milton are heard throughout his works, and the influence on his books of both the fiction and nonfiction of his own age was great. Biographers have stressed the importance of William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Robert Bage in the development of Brown's ideas, and no single book was perhaps more important than Godwin's Caleb Williams (1794) in teaching the young man about the form and purpose of fiction. To emphasize these influences, however, is to create a bias in...
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SOURCE: "Charles Brockden Brown: Feminism in Fiction," in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Fritz Fleishmann, G. K. Hall & Company, 1982, pp. 6-41.
[In the essay that follows, Fleischmann explores Brown's "systematic treatment" of women, their rights, and their roles in his novels. Fleischmann argues strongly in favor of the view that Brown was a feminist and also advocates Brown's "competence as a writer," but notes that there is no consensus (feminist or otherwise) in Brown scholarship.]
Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) is the first novelist to be considered here, because he was the first born. But it would also be appropriate, for other than chronological reasons, to place him at the beginning since he already has a long history of feminist criticism, a history that many would consider disheartening, for it has neither produced a consensus on Brown's feminism nor left much impact on his status in the canon of American writers.
At least three generations of feminist critics have remarked on Brown's women characters; a feminist reading of his novels goes back at least as far as Margaret Fuller's comment that "it increases our own interest in Brown that, a prophet in this respect of a better era, he has usually placed his thinking royal mind in the body of a woman … a conclusive proof that the term feminine is...
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SOURCE: "Charles Brockden Brown's Ambivalence Toward Art and Imagination," in Essays in Literature, Vol. X, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 55-69.
[In the following essay, Bennett contends that Brown 's novels reflect his effort to reconcile reason and imagination and concludes that Brown 's rejection of fiction was based on the triumph of his "moral distrust" of the form of the romance over his need to create.]
Recent years have witnessed an increasing tendency to accept Charles Brockden Brown's work on its own terms rather than merely as an awkward provincial imitation of that of Richardson, Godwin, and Radcliffe. There is a greater willingness to regard many of his artistic strengths as conscious achievements and his putative "faults" as equally intentional attempts at innovation.1 Of course, the haste with which Brown composed is a matter of record, and there are always those critics who regard much of his work in the same manner as James Russell Lowell viewed that of Poe—as so much "fudge."2 In his recent study of American romance, however, Michael Davitt Bell identifies a fundamental stance toward aesthetic activity that Brown shared with the major writers of pre-Civil War America—a set of attitudes and ambivalences that surfaced directly in the kinds of narrative he composed and that shaped the general contours of his literary career.3 By examining the miscellaneous...
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SOURCE: "The Writer as Bourgeois Moralist," in The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 131-63.
[In the following essay, Watts purports that Brown 's last two novels, Clara Howard and Jane Talbot mark Brown's transition from the radicalism of his earlier novels to the middle-class, moralistic stance of his later essays and journalistic endeavors. Watts argues that in both Clara Howard and Jane Talbot, Brown uses "sentimental strategies and domestic devices" to present his belief that success and happiness can be achieved through a balance of male ambition and female self-restraint.]
On or about April 1800 Charles Brockden Brown changed. In a despondent letter to his brother James, the young author confessed that "gloominess and outof-nature incidents" had tainted his early novels. The time had come, he wearily admitted, "for dropping the doleful tone and assuming a cheerful one, or at least substituting moral causes and daily incidents in place of the prodigious or the singular. I shall not fall hereafter into that strain. Book-making, as you observe, is the dullest of all trades, and the utmost that any American can look for in his native country is to be reimbursed his unavoidable expenses." This rather sullen, forlorn admission seemed to belie the upward trajectory of Brown's literary...
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SOURCE: "The Mind Set Free: Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland" in Making America/Making American Literature: Franklin to Cooper, edited by A. Robert Lee and W. M. Verhoeven, Rodopi Amsterdam/Atlanta B.V., 1996, pp. 105-122.
[In the essay that follows, Seed analyzes the style and structure of Wieland and argues that the ambiguity and irresolution in the novel reflect Brown's questioning attitude toward the ability of the mind to "grasp truth and order perceptions." Seed goes on to state that in his presentation of the error of perception and the mind's capacity for self-delusion, Brown anticipates Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne]
When attempting to place Charles Brockden Brown within American literary history Leslie Fiedler locates one central preoccupation in his writings: "the essential human passion to which he hoped to appeal in his examination of society, as well as by his exploration of terror, was curiosity."1 Curiosity was not only the grounds of Brown's appeal to his readers. It was the very condition of the workings of his imagination. In an address to his Philadelphia literary society he grandiosely declared: "the relations, dependencies, and connections of the several parts of knowledge, have long been a subject of unavailing enquiry with me."2 Achievement was clearly lagging well behind ambition but in a 1788 sketch, "The Man at Home" he figured the...
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Axelrod, Alan. Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983, 203 p.
Provides a detailed critical analysis of Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly.
Berthoff, W. B. "Adventures of the Young Man: An Approach to Charles Brockden Brown." American Quarterly IX, No. 4 (Winter 1957): 421-34.
Studies Brown's treatment of the theme of initiation in several of his novels.
——."'A Lesson on Concealment': Brockden Brown's Method in Fiction." Philological Quarterly XXXVII, No. 1 (January 1958): 45-57.
Analyzes Brown's short story "A Lesson on Concealment" in order to argue that Brown uses narrative to discover, explore, and test ideas.
Chase, Richard Volney. "Brockden Brown's Melodramas." In The American Novel and Its Tradition, pp. 29-41. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Anchor Books, 1957.
Examines Brown's use of melodrama in his novels and comments on the influence of Brown's innovations on later American novelists.
Clark, David Lee. Charles Brockden Brown: Pioneer Voice of America. Durham, N. C: Duke University Press, 1952, 363 p.
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