CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN (1771 - 1810)
American novelist, essayist, and short story writer.
Brown is remembered as the author of the first Gothic novel produced by an American. Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798), which draws on the traditions of both Gothic and sentimental novels, explores such issues as suicide, murder, seduction, and insanity. He also wrote three other novels dealing with horror and the supernatural, all with a peculiarly American flavor, replacing the expected tropes of European Gothic with American images, including the frontier, forests, caves, and cliffs. Many critics fault Brown's work for what are perceived as serious stylistic and structural deficiencies, but they also express admiration for his intense artistic vision and his struggle to reconcile his Romantic imagination with the Enlightenment ideals of reason and realism. Brown is also recognized as one of the first Americans to gain a significant audience abroad and to attempt to support himself through his literary endeavors; for this reason he has been called the first professional writer in the United States. His work also reflects an interest—radical for his time—in the rights and roles of women. Hailed as a central figure in the literature of horror and the supernatural, Brown has been seen as an important influence on the masters of Ameri can Gothic writing, including Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Stephen King.
Brown was born to a Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1771. The Quakers' 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 a series of essays as "The Rhapsodist," 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 have maintained 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 (1798), 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, and translated a work of nonfiction about the United States from the French, but modern critics have given 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 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. The epistolary novel Wieland, Brown's best-known work, is about an archetypal Gothic heroine, Clara Wieland, whose peaceful life with her brother, Theodore, and his family is destroyed by the appearance of a mysterious stranger, Carwin. Theodore begins to hear a disembodied voice, which he takes to be God's, and thereafter he hurls himself into an obsessive religious melancholy. He hears the voice command him to kill his wife and children, which he does. He is about to murder his sister and the man she loves when Carwin confesses he has been responsible for the voices. But, shockingly, he was not responsible for the voice that commanded Theodore to murder his family. Wieland has been seen variously as a cautionary tale on the dangers of religious fervor, an indictment of patriarchal institutions, a critique of Puritanism, and a self-referential allegory of the writing process itself.
Edgar Huntly also explores the problems of humans' inability to trust their sense perceptions. In the novel, the narrator follows the sleepwalking Huntly, whom he suspects is his best friend's murderer, through a labyrinthine frontier. His journey symbolizes the moral dilemma at the core of the novel: whether criminology can begin to fathom a mind in nightmarish conflict. Ormond focuses on Brown's ideas regarding the necessity of educational equality for women. The villainous Ormond terrorizes the beautiful Constantina Dudley after having had her father killed, holding her captive and threatening to rape her. But she defeats him (and the oppression he symbolizes) by stabbing him. In Arthur Mervyn, as a plague of yellow fever ravages Philadelphia, the narrator rescues the young waif Mervyn, whose true nature remains ambiguous to the very end. The story has been interpreted as Brown's argument for civic responsibility toward the impoverished, the ill, and the downtrodden. Brown examines, by way of the apparently innocent narrator's adventures, the theme of appearance versus reality. The narrator becomes implicated in several crimes, but his declarations of benevolent intentions contradict his actions.
Brown is known as being the first professional fiction writer in the United States, but he struggled to support himself through his literary efforts, turning toward journalism and editorial work in his later years to make a living. However, Brown's writing was well received by some contemporary critics, who praised his clear and forceful style and knowledge of the human heart while maintaining that his stories were improbable and that his use of detail and his narrative technique interfered with plot movement. Many important nineteenth-century writers admired Brown's works, including Poe, Hawthorne, John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, and Mary Shelley, who counted Brown's four Gothic novels among her six favorite books.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, critics focused on the importance of Brown's contribution to American letters. For his use of realistic details of American life, particularly his portrayal of Native Americans and the frontier, and for his role in initiating the American literary preoccupation with psychological horror, Brown was acclaimed as a pioneer in fiction and the father of American Gothic literature. Critics who viewed his contribution as mainly historical, however, censured his overblown style, illogical plots, and unrealistic characters. From the midtwentieth century on, critics have generally acknowledged the weaknesses in Brown's style but praised his attempts at reconciling eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideals with nineteenth-century Romantic principles; his exploration of the conflict between rationalism and the irrational power of the imagination; and his creation of the particularly American brand of Gothic fiction. Some critics have argued that Brown's novels cannot be truly classified as Gothic but rather as romances of mystery and terror that are only "superficially" Gothic, using Gothic trappings to delve into the psychology of the characters. Other commentators consider Brown's use of the Gothic as similar to that of William Godwin in its focus on the psychological and the revolutionary, while yet others have regarded Brown's gothicism as based more on German sources and works by English authors. As the interest in the genre of Gothic literature grows, so does interest in and admiration of Brown's works, which are widely viewed as innovations in American gothicism and the literature of psychological horror.