Charles Brockden Brown Analysis

Other literary forms

ph_0111207064-Brown_C.jpg Charles Brockden Brown Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Charles Brockden Brown published two parts of a dialogue on the rights of women, Alcuin: A Dialogue, in 1798; the last two sections appeared in William Dunlap’s 1815 biography of Brown. Many of Brown’s essays on literature have been collected in Literary Essays and Reviews (1992), edited by Alfred Weber and Wolfgang Schäfer. His later political and historical essays, originally published in magazines and as pamphlets, have not been collected. Several of Brown’s fictional fragments appear in Carwin, the Biloquist, and Other American Tales and Pieces (1822) and in the Dunlap biography, notably the Carwin story and “Memoirs of Stephen Calvert.” Several collected editions of Brown’s novels were published in the nineteenth century. Harry Warfel’s edition of The Rhapsodist, and Other Uncollected Writings (1943) completes the publication of most of Brown’s literary works. Some of Brown’s letters have appeared in scattered books and essays, but no collection of letters has yet been published.


The significant portion of Charles Brockden Brown’s literary career lasted little more than one year, in the period 1798-1800, during which he published the four novels for which he is best known: Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly. Although Brown’s career began with the essays comprising “The Rhapsodist” in 1789 and continued until his death, most of his other fiction, poetry, and prose is thought to be of minor importance.

Brown’s literary reputation rests heavily on his historical position as one of the first significant American novelists. An English reviewer wrote in 1824 that Brown “was the first writer of prose fiction of which America could boast.” Brown’s contemporaries recognized his abilities, and he received praise from William Godwin, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although his American reputation remained unsteady, he was read by nineteenth century novelists such as James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, scholars and advanced students of American culture have been Brown’s most frequent readers; they have rediscovered him in part because his concerns with identity and choice in a disordered world prefigured or initiated some of the major themes of American fiction.

Brown’s four best-known novels begin the peculiarly American mutation of the gothic romance. Some similarities can be seen between Brown’s novels and the political gothic of Godwin and the sentimental gothic of Ann Radcliffe, but Brown’s adaptations of gothic conventions for the exploration of human psychology, the analysis of the mind choosing under stress, and the representation of a truly incomprehensible world suggest that he may be an important bridge between the popular gothic tradition of eighteenth century England and the American gothic strain that is traceable through Poe, Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne to Henry James, William Faulkner, and such late twentieth century novelists as Joyce Carol Oates.


Allen, Paul. The Late Charles Brockden Brown. Edited by Robert E. Hemenway and Joseph Katz. Columbia, S.C.: J. Faust, 1976. Begun in the early nineteenth century, this biography was later expanded upon by William Dunlap. Despite some inaccuracies, this work became the basis for subsequent studies.

Axelrod, Alan. Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. Study of Brown’s work focuses primarily on four novels: Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Barnard, Philip, Stephen Shapiro, and Mark L. Kamrath, eds. Revising Charles Brockden Brown: Culture, Politics, and Sexuality in the Early Republic. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004. Collection of thirteen essays addresses various aspects of Brown’s works, placing them within the context of the political and ideological issues of his time. Among the topics discussed are the culture of the Enlightenment and questions of gender and sexuality.

Christopherson, Bill. The Apparition in the Glass: Charles Brockden Brown’s American Gothic. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993. Chapter 2 provides a good discussion of the American romance, and separate chapters are devoted to Brown’s novels Wieland,...

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