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.