Charles Brockden Brown Critical Essays


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Charles Brockden Brown’s aims in writing, aside from attempting to earn a living, are a matter of debate among critics. In his preface to Edgar Huntly, he makes the conventional claim of novelists of the time, that writing is “amusement to the fancy and instruction to the heart,” but he also argues the importance as well as the richness of American materials: One merit the writer may at least claim:—that of calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader by means hitherto unemployed by preceding authors. Puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras, are the material usually employed for this end. The incidents of Indian hostility, the perils of the Western wilderness, are far more suitable; and for a native of America to overlook these would admit of no apology.

This statement suggests several elements of Brown’s primary achievement, the development of gothic conventions for the purposes of exploring the human mind in moments of ethically significant decision. Such an achievement was important for its example to later American novelists.

American gothic

Brown’s novels are like William Godwin’s in their use of radical contemporary thought; they are like Ann Radcliffe’s in that they continue the tradition of the rationalized gothic. Brown, however, proves in some ways to be less radical than Godwin, and his fictional worlds differ greatly from Radcliffe’s. Brown brings into his novels current intellectual debates about education, psychology and reason, epistemology, ethics, and religion. Characters who hold typical attitudes find themselves in situations that thoroughly test their beliefs. The novels do not seem especially didactic; they are rather more like Radcliffe’s romances in form. A central character or group undergoes a crisis that tests education and belief. Brown’s novels tend to be developmental, but the world he presents is so ambiguous and disorderly that the reader is rarely certain that a character’s growth really fits the character better for living.

This ambiguity is only one of the differences that make Brown appear, in retrospect at least, to be an Americanizer of the gothic. In one sense, his American settings are of little significance, since they are rather simple equivalents of the castle grounds and wildernesses of an Otranto or Udolpho; on the other hand, these settings are recognizable and much more familiar to American readers. Rather than emphasizing the exoticism of the gothic, Brown increases the immediacy of his tales by using American settings.

Brown also increases the immediacy and the intensity of his stories by setting them close to his readers in time. Even though his novels are usually told in retrospect by the kinds of first-person narrators who would come to dominate great American fiction, the narratives frequently lapse into the present tense at crises, the narrators becoming transfixed by the renewed contemplation of past terrors. Brown avoids the supernatural; even though his novels are filled with the inexplicable, they do not feature the physical acts of supernatural beings. For example, Clara Wieland dreams prophetic dreams that prove accurate, but the apparently supernatural voices that waking people hear are hallucinatory or are merely the work of Carwin, the ventriloquist. All of these devices for reducing the distance between reader and text contribute to the success of Brown’s fast-paced if sometimes overly complicated plots, but they also reveal the author’s movement away from Radcliffe’s rationalized gothic toward the kind of realism that would come to dominate American fiction in the next century.

Perhaps Brown’s most significant contribution to the Americanization of the gothic romance is his representation of the human mind as inadequate to its world. Even the best minds in his works fall victim to internal and external assaults, and people avoid or fall into disaster seemingly by chance. In Radcliffe’s fictional world, Providence actively promotes poetic justice; if the hero or heroine persists in rational Christian virtue and holds to his or her faith that the world is ultimately orderly, then weaknesses and error, villains and accidents will be overcome, and justice will prevail. In Brown’s novels, there are no such guarantees. At the end of Wieland, Clara, the narrator, reflects, “If Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty, and of the divine attributes; or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight, the double-tongued deceiver would have been baffled and repelled.” Clara’s moralizing is, in fact, useless, even to herself. She was not so “gifted”; therefore, she could never have escaped the catastrophes that befell her. Furthermore, she persists in seeing Carwin, the “double-tongued deceiver,” as a devil who ruined her brother, even though Carwin is no more than a peculiarly gifted and not very moral human being. Clara is able to moralize in this way only because, for the time being, disasters do not threaten her. Placed once again in the situation in which she completed the first portion of her narrative, she would again reject all human comfort and wish for death. Brown’s fictional worlds defy human comprehension and make ethical actions excessively problematic.

This apparent irony in Wieland illustrates a final significant development in Brown’s adaptation of the gothic romance. Although it is difficult, given his sometimes clumsy work, to be certain of what he intends, Brown seems to have experimented with point of view in ways that foreshadow later works. Arthur Mervyn, written in two parts, seems a deliberate experiment in multiple points of view. As Donald Ringe has noted, while the first part, told primarily from Mervyn’s point of view, emphasizes Mervyn’s naïve victimization by a sophisticated villain, the second part, told from a more objective point of view, suggests that Mervyn may unconsciously be a moral chameleon and confidence man. This shifting of point of view to capture complexity or create irony reappears in the works of many major American novelists, notably Herman Melville (for example, in “Benito Cereno”) and William Faulkner.

By focusing on the mind dealing with crises in an ambiguous world, making his stories more immediate, and manipulating point of view for ironic effect, Brown helped to transform popular gothic conventions into tools for the more deeply psychological American gothic fiction that would follow.


Clara Wieland, the heroine of Wieland, is a bridge between the gothic heroine of Radcliffe and a line of American gothic victims stretching from Edgar Allan Poe’s narrators in his tales of terror through Henry James’s governess in The Turn of the Screw (1898) to Faulkner’s Temple Drake and beyond. Her life is idyllic until she reaches her early twenties, when she encounters a series of catastrophes that, it appears, will greatly alter her benign view of life. When her disasters are three years behind her and she has married the man she loves, Clara returns to her view that the world is reasonably orderly and that careful virtue will pull one through all difficulties.

The novel opens with an account of the Wieland family curse on the father’s side. Clara’s father, an orphaned child of a German nobleman cast off by his family because of a rebellious marriage, grows up apprenticed to an English merchant. Deprived of family love and feeling an emptiness in his spiritual isolation, he finds meaning when he chances upon a book of a radical Protestant sect. In consequence, he develops an asocial and paranoid personal faith that converts his emptiness into an obligation. He takes upon himself certain duties that will make him worthy of the god he has created. These attitudes dominate his life and lead eventually to his “spontaneous combustion” in his private temple on the estate he has developed in America. The spiritual and psychological causes of this disaster arise in part from his guilt at failing to carry out some command of his personal deity, perhaps the successful conversion of American Indians to Christianity, the project that brought him to America. Clara’s uncle presents this “scientific” explanation of her father’s death and, much later in the novel, tells a story indicating that such religious madness has also occurred on her mother’s side of the family. Religious madness is the familial curse that falls upon Clara’s immediate family: Theodore Wieland, her brother; his wife, Catharine; their children and a ward; and Catharine’s brother, Pleyel, whom Clara comes to love.

The madness strikes Theodore Wieland; he believes he hears the voice of God commanding him to sacrifice his family if he is to be granted a vision of God. He succeeds in killing all except Pleyel and Clara. The first half of the novel leads up to his crimes, and the second half deals primarily with Clara’s discoveries about herself and the world as she learns more details about the murders. Clara’s ability to deal with this catastrophe is greatly complicated by events that prove to be essentially unrelated to it but coincide with it. In these events, the central agent is Carwin.

Carwin is a ventriloquist whose background is explained in a separate short fragment, “Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist.” Because ventriloquism is an art virtually unknown in Clara’s world, Carwin seems monstrous to her. As he explains to Clara near the end of the novel, he has been lurking about the Wieland estate, and his life has touched on theirs in several ways. He has used his art to avoid being detected in his solitary night explorations of the grounds. The apparently supernatural voices he has created may have contributed to the unsettling of Theodore Wieland, but Wieland’s own account during his trial indicates other more powerful causes of his madness. Much more dangerous to Clara has been Carwin’s affair with her housekeeper, Judith, for by this means he has come to see Clara as a flower of human virtue and intellect. He is tempted to test her by creating the illusion that murderers are killing Judith in Clara’s bedroom closet. This experiment miscarries, leading Clara to think she is the proposed victim. He later uses a “supernatural” voice that accidentally coincides with one of her prophetic dreams; though his purpose is to frighten her away from the place of his meetings with Judith, Carwin confirms Clara’s fears and superstitions. He pries into her private diary and concocts an elaborate lie about his intention to rape her when he is caught. Out of envy and spite and because he is able, Carwin deceives Pleyel into thinking that Clara has surrendered her honor to him.

Throughout these deceptions, Carwin also fosters in Clara the superstition that a supernatural being is watching over and protecting her by warning her of dangers. Carwin’s acts are essentially pranks; he never intends as much harm as actually occurs when his actions become threads in a complex net of causality. The worst consequence of his pranks is that Pleyel is convinced that Clara has become depraved just at the moment when she hopes that he will propose marriage, and this consequence occurs because Carwin overestimates Pleyel’s intelligence. Pleyel’s accusation of Clara is quite serious for her because it culminates the series of dark events that Clara perceives as engulfing her happy life. Carwin’s scattered acts have convinced her that rapists and murderers lurk in every dark corner and that she is the center of some impersonal struggle between forces of good and evil. Pleyel’s accusation also immediately precedes her brother’s murders. These two crises nearly destroy Clara’s reason and deprive her of the will to live.

The attack on Clara’s mind is, in fact, the central action of the novel. All the gothic shocks come to focus on her perception of herself. They strip her of layers of identity until she is reduced to a mere consciousness of her own integrity, a consciousness that is then challenged when she comes to understand the nature of her brother’s insanity. When all the props of her identity have been shaken, she wishes for...

(The entire section is 5018 words.)