Charles Brockden Brown Brown, Charles Brockden - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 Original Letters, and from His Manuscripts Before Unpublished, 1815.

Richard Garnett (essay date 1902)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martin S. Vilas (essay date 1904)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lillie Deming Loshe (essay date 1907)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 psychologicalsuch 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...

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David Lee Clark (essay date 1922)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ernest Marchand (essay date 1934)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Arthur Hobson Quinn (essay date 1936)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lulu Rumsey Wiley (essay date 1950)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth Bernard (essay date 1964)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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David H. Hirsch (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Warner Berthoff (essay date 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Arthur G. Kimball (essay date 1967)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cecelia Tichi (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Witherington (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert D. Hume (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Davitt Bell (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Cleman (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Philip Young (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donald A. Ringe (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Fritz Fleischmann (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Maurice J. Bennett (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Steven Watts (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Seed (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

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