Charles Brockden Brown is given credit for being the first American to earn a living as a professional author, although he did so for only a few years of his life. He was born into a Philadelphia Quaker family, and even as a youngster he read voluminously. Because of his constant reading, he earned a reputation as a scholar and genius in Philadelphia. Early in life, too, he began to write, planning three epic poems on explorers Christopher Columbus, Francisco Pizarro, and Hernán Cortés, all notably American rather than European themes. His first published work, “The Rhapsodist” (1789), a glorification of the romantic rebel, appeared in The Columbian Magazine, a Philadelphia publication.
Despite his literary bent, Brown’s family insisted that he study law in 1787, but in 1793 he announced that he would henceforth be a professional writer. After several visits to New York, Brown took up residence in that city, where he found, especially in the Friendly Society, the stimulation he needed as a writer. Brown was an ardent admirer of the British radical William Godwin, who was also a novelist, and Brown’s writing reflects that enthusiasm, as in Alcuin: A Dialogue, which is really a treatise on the rights of women, though it uses elements of fiction to carry the message. Following that work, Brown turned to writing fiction that can be called novels, but in which he hoped to teach as well as entertain. Writing at a furious rate, he wrote and published six novels within four years. Wieland, which many regard as his best work, is based on an actual murder case in...
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