Charles Brockden Brown is America’s first important novelist. Arthur Mervyn, Ormond and Edgar Huntly are fascinating studies in not only the writing of the early republic, but also in the development of an authentic and distinctive American style of writing. Brown is often characterized as an early avatar of the gothic style of American fiction, and indeed his work was a major influence in the development of the gothic genre, but he was also instrumental in moving American fiction toward social and political concerns, toward asking who we are as a people and who we are going to be.
Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1771, at the nexus of revolution. At 16, in 1787, he was apprenticed to a Philadelphia law firm while a few blocks away the Constitution was being drafted. In 1793, during the midst of the devastating yellow fever plague, which killed over 10% of Philadelphia’s population, Brown quit the legal profession to focus on his burgeoning literary and philosophical pursuits.
In New York, during his exile from Philadelphia during the yellow fever year of ’93, Brown became associated with a group of intellectuals known as “The Friendly Club.” They were representative of progressive late era Enlightenment thinkers, and they encouraged Brown’s literary career.
It is not an overstatement to suggest that the Constitutional year of 1787 and the yellow fever outbreak of 1793 were the defining events for Brown. His fiction is informed by these moments of crisis, and he often uses these events as a backdrop for his fiction. Furthermore, among the members of the Friendly Club were many doctors and scientists (the Enlightenment being an era when science and the arts found common purpose), and Brown’s writing reflects this. His fiction often centered on medical/scientific mysteries like somnambulism, ventriloquism, spontaneous combustion, and religious madness.
His literary antecedents were, in addition to the popular romantic fiction of the day, the British progressive-radical writers like Mary Wollstonecraft and William Goodwin. They in turn were influenced by Brown as was Wollstonecraft and Goodwin’s daughter Mary Shelley. His style and literary criticism would have profound influence on the next generation of American writers like Sedgwick, Poe, and Hawthorne (Poe seems to have been heavily influenced by Brown’s style and preoccupation with mystery and the grotesque while Hawthorne seems to have been influenced by Brown’s focus on history being told through fiction).
Brown believed that romantic fiction could be both instructive and entertaining, and he developed quite detailed theories and criticisms on writing (some of these theories would prefigure Poe’s idea of a “single effect”). For Brown, fiction was a place where history and social issues could be worked out and reconciled.
His last novel Edgar Huntly: Or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, perhaps his most enduring and fully realized, centers on the tension between freedom and social order. Set in the relative wilds of the Lehigh Valley during the Constitutional year of 1787, Edgar Huntly is a wonderfully gloomy tale of somnambulism and murder.
The sleepwalking theme of the novel seeks to comment on the danger facing the new nation. Published in 1799, the novel is informed by not only the Revolutionary era in America, but also by the Rein of Terror then convulsing the newly democratic France. It may be hard for modern Americans to grasp that many in the late 18th century still viewed republicanism as a radical and dangerous proposition. Certainly unfettered freedom can be dangerous and self-destructive, as evidenced by the French Revolution. Brown used sleepwalking as a metaphor for this idea of unfettered personal freedom—the ability to act without social or civic restraint, essentially without conscience.
Huntly, the novel’s titular protagonist, leaves Philadelphia for the far flung wilds in order to find out who killed his friend Waldegrave. Huntly begins to sleepwalk, waking up in strange and forbidding places, unaware of what he has done. He becomes unkempt, dangerous, a threat to society. Although he (presumably) avenges his friend’s murder, Huntly’s unconscious nighttime “freedom” ultimately alienates him from society. Later in the novel, Huntly kills the group of Lenni Lenape who were responsible for the murder of his friend Waldegrave. Yet Huntly is also connected with the Native Americans, in particular the character Clitharo through the sleepwalking. In the narrative world of Edgar Huntly, Native Americans are seen as a metaphor for unrestrained and unfettered freedom and it is in the character of Edgar Huntly that freedom and order are addressed and resolved. Brown’s portrayal of Native Americans as “savages” is to modern ears clumsy and insulting, but It would be a mistake to view the novel through a post-colonial lens. Brown’s larger project is in attempting to reconcile, through Huntly, the American desire for freedom with the reality of living within a community.
At one point in the novel Huntly seeks medical advice in regard to his sleepwalking. The wise and all-knowing doctor motif was a regular feature in Brown’s novels as he was friends with many prominent progressive scientists of the day including William Shippen and Benjamin Rush. For Brown personal illness and social illness were things to be treated, things to be considered logically and with reason.
None of these themes or arguments should seem foreign to modern Americans. Indeed, the principal struggle throughout American history—from Brown’s day to our own—is this tension between freedom and community. It is a theme I have seen in most of the great works of American literature and cinema, and one we as a nation have struggled with since the days of Charles Brockden Brown. And, considering the current political, economic, and social crises, it stands as a theme to use as a frame while discussing the controversies and crises of the day. What are the responsibilities of “free” citizens? How can we maintain freedom and social order? Given the major economic and political crises of the day, it should not be a surprise that Brown suggests that unfettered freedom is essentially nihilistic; one cannot act without conscience, one must live with others not only for one’s self.
I think it says something that this essential question—explored through the fiction of Charles Brockden Brown, a question that Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin struggled with-- is still with us, and still worth debating. In the long run, it may be the act of debating that is ultimately important. Because once we’ve stopped debating, once we’ve stopped talking, and once we’ve stopped reasoning and imbuing the values of the Enlightenment, then we are merely sleepwalking into a wild and chaotic future.
I know this isn't a typical music post, but hey, I teach American lit. It was only a matter of time before I geeked out about American lit on here.
For further reading:
Charles Brockden Brown:
About the era:
Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature—by Bryan Waterman (I am in the middle of reading this terrific book. A great review of the progressive intellectuals of the late Revolution and Enlightenment).