Wieland was the first gothic novel written and published in America. Gothic fiction, a genre popular in Europe (especially England and Germany), had its inception in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1765). In the tradition of the romance, the gothic novel offers an outlet for its readers’ emotions—particularly fear. Characterized by ghosts, goblins, and supernatural occurrences, gothic tales take place in such places as ruined cathedrals and crumbling mansions. Their usual theme is the restoration of a usurped inheritance to its rightful heir. Although the earlier gothic authors presented supernatural phenomena as objective realities, later writers tended to present the supernatural as perhaps the result of imagination or of sensory delusion.
In Wieland, Charles Brown develops and Americanizes the gothic novel by adapting its theme, setting, and purpose. Unlike its predecessors, the work does not center on acquiring a European patrimony. Although Theodore Wieland, Jr., falls heir to lands in Lusatia, he has no desire to claim his holdings in the old country. He prefers to stay in America, where life is stable and familiar.
Rather than setting his novel in an archaic building, Brown has the story take place in a rural region in eastern Pennsylvania. Clara’s house is situated on a rugged river bank; the temple sits atop a cliff; and the summer house rests in a rocky crevice near a waterfall. These places are beautiful, and their wild isolation lends them an eeriness suggesting the presence of sprites. In selecting a natural site, Brown began a trend for other American writers, such as Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant, who emphasized the appeal of nature.
Earlier gothic writers supplied rational explanations for mysterious phenomena, but Brown went a step further in Wieland by suggesting that the degree of one’s belief in the supernatural derives from one’s psychological makeup. That is, some people are predisposed toward the paranormal as a result of childhood memories, their innate psychic status, and their religion. When the elder Wieland undergoes his horrendous experience in...
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