Brown, Charles Brockden (1771-1810)

views updated May 29 2018

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810)



Forging a New National Literature. Often described as the father of the American novel, Charles Brockden Brown is credited with answering the call for distinctively American fiction by transferring the horror and supernatural atmosphere of the Gothic novel from the moldering castles of Europe to New World settings. While his novels today seem derivative from his British models, in his time critics on both sides of the Atlantic praised Browns fictional treatment of American themes and settings as the beginning of a truly American literary tradition of which his countrymen could be proud.

Background. Brown was born in 1771 to a Quaker family in Philadelphia. After a brief foray into law he turned to literature as an occupation. Browns reputation as one of the nations first major novelists rests on four novels: Wieland (1798), Ormond (1799), Arthur Mervyn (1799, 1800), and Edgar Huntly (1799).

Gothic Horror. Like most Gothic fiction, Browns novels are notable for their sensationalism and violence. As Brown once wrote, The chief point is not the virtue of a character. The prime regard is to be paid to the genius and force of mind that is displayed. Great energy employed in the promotion of vicious purposes constitutes a very useful spectacle. Give me a tale of lofty crime rather than of honest folly. Browns fascination with the darker side of human nature reflects, in part, his own psychological makeup. Yet he was also expressing fundamental social concerns and tensions.

Wieland. Set on a pleasant country estate outside Philadelphia, Browns first-published and best-known novel is the story of Theodore and Clara Wieland, a brother and sister orphaned from youth by the mysterious death of their father. The arrival of a stranger named Francis Carwin disrupts their peaceful existence, and the characters begin hearing mysterious voices. Theodore goes insane and kills his wife and children, believing that the voices are divine and that he is doing as they have commanded. He next attempts to murder Clara, who is saved only by Carwins intervention. Realizing the enormity of his crime, Theodore kills himself. By emphasizing the inexplicable and the irrational, Brown reveals his belief in the limits of reason. The novel has also been interpreted as a warning not to abandon ones moral principles for the purely emotional appeal of what seems to be divine inspiration.

Yellow Fever. Both Ormond and Arthur Mervyn draw on Browns experiences during the yellow-fever epidemics that plagued Philadelphia and New York in the 1790s. The more successful of the two books described the adventures of Arthur Mervyn, a young man left to make his own way in the world. Leaving his rural home for Philadelphia, he becomes caught up in the schemes of the unscrupulous Welbeck in the nightmarish but still alluring setting of the plague-ridden city. Arthur ultimately establishes himself financially by marrying a wealthy woman. The embodiment of the self-made individual at the heart of liberal capitalist society, Arthur is ambiguously characterized as both a virtuous innocent and an opportunistic man on the make, revealing Browns own ambivalence about the individualistic values so cherished by his countrymen.

Later Life. Although these novels achieved critical acclaim, they enjoyed little popular success, and Browns hopes of becoming a self-supporting author foundered. After the publication of two more novels, Clara Howard and Jane Talbot, in 1801 and the magazine serialization of Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist in 18031805, Brown supported himself as a magazine editor, a partner in his familys mercantile business, and finally as an independent retailer before his death in 1810.


Charles Brockden Brown, The Novels and Related Works of Charles Brockden Brown, Bicentennial Edition, 6 volumes, edited by Sidney J. Krause, Alexander Cowie, and S. W. Reid (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 19771987);

Emory Elliott, Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic, 17251810 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982);

Elliott, ed., American Writers of the Early Republic, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 37 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985);

Donald Ringe, Charles Brockden Brown (New Haven: College & University Press, 1966);

Steven Watts, The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

Charles Brockden Brown

views updated May 29 2018

Charles Brockden Brown

The American novelist and magazine editor Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) was a predecessor of Edgar Allan Poe in horror fiction and a critic of contemporary literature.

Charles Brockden Brown was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on Jan. 17, 1771, the fifth son of Elijah and Elizabeth Armitt Brown, wealthy and liberal Quakers. Charles attended the Friends' Latin School, began the study of law, but soon gave evidence of the traits of melancholy, an interest in morbid psychology, and a commitment to literature that governed all of his short life.

With the brilliant and gifted Dr. Elihu Hubbard Smith, the dramatist William Dunlap, and others, Brown formed literary and scientific clubs in Philadelphia and New York to discuss current ideas and issues. This intellectual sociability, however, provided only interludes between long periods of introspective retreat when he read widely and wrote with almost fanatic intensity.

Brown was deeply affected by the yellow fever epidemics which broke out in both cities during this time and took the life of Dr. Smith in 1798. Mainly because of his parents' objection to marriage "out of meeting," he remained a bachelor until 1804, when he married the Presbyterian Elizabeth Linn.

After the experimental novel Alcuin (1798), in which he expressed William Godwin's ideas on social justice and woman's rights, he undertook to Americanize the then popular Gothic novel of horrors. He gave it a local setting in the towns and untamed countryside he knew so well and added to its horrors from his knowledge of the pseudosciences and morbid psychology of his day. His was a complex personality, and his intense concern for moral issues was reflected in swift-moving plots; he produced in rapid succession Wieland (1798), Arthur Merwyn (1798-1799), Ormond (1799), and Edgar Huntly (1799).

Spontaneous combustion, sleepwalking, ventriloquism, compulsive behavior, and other scientific interests of the time often provided rational explanations for the seemingly occult mysteries that held suspense at a high level throughout the complex and often unresolved plots of these novels. Brown's skills, however, in dealing with extremes of character, swift-moving action, and a shifting narrative point of view gave them reader interest far beyond any other writing of the day.

Although recognized in his own time as a promising novelist, Brown was soon forced by illness and lack of financial success to turn to the editing of journals, in which his literary nationalism was tempered by his sound esthetic judgment of the work of others. His last years were devoted to the more commonplace novels Clara Howard and Jane Talbot (both 1804) and to effective tracts on current national problems.

Living at a time when a professional literary life was impractical because of the disorganized state of American intellectual society, Brown used his powerful, though imperfect, gifts to open many of the avenues which later writers like Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville followed to achieve their masterworks.

Further Reading

The best general biography of Brown is Harry R. Warfel, Charles Brockden Brown: American Gothic Novelist (1949). Donald A. Ringe, Charles Brockden Brown (1966), provides a critical analysis of his major works, in biographical form.

Additional Sources

Warfel, Harry Redcay, Charles Brockden Brown, American Gothic novelist, New York, Octagon Books, 1974.

Allen, Paul, The life of Charles Brockden Brown, Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975.

Watts, Steven, The romance of real life: Charles Brockden Brown and the origins of American culture, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. □