Born at the point of American Independence and living through the political revolutions and culturally romantic eras of Europe, Charles Brockden Brown was a man of his time. He revelled in the forces of independence, freedom and republicanism during America’s founding years, writing pamphlets, articles, letters and uniquely American gothic fiction. Hard work, economic progress and personal freedom were key drivers for the search of an early American identity and Brockden Brown’s work also reflects the adolescence of his country: arrogant and energetic, it was psychologically fragile with great fears lurking all around.
A Short Life
Born into a Quaker family in Philadelphia in 1771, just six years before the Declaration of Independence, Brown was one of six siblings. Physically weak, he died, in 1810 of the tuberculosis that had afflicted him throughout his life, but by all accounts he was an adventurous, strong-willed young man, industrious and considerate. He lived through a key turning point in history; Philadelphia was one of the largest cities in the world, an exciting melting pot of culture and politics and the site of all major Congress decisions in the newly independent country (the Declaration was signed there on July 4th 1776). During his life the new America broke its ties to colonial Europe with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and wrestled with blockades, naval wars and treaties which served to firm the new America’s resolve to grow strong and economically independent in a complicated world.
By the early 1790s Brown had moved to a New York which had rapidly became a political and cultural nexus. With only 5 million residents, compared to the 11 million of Britain, and 29 million of France, new Americans were rapidly developing their own socio-economic philosophies against a background of revolution and war in Europe which complicated all forms of nation-state relationships. Brown and his friends in the New York scene of literary and political intellectuals published furiously in journals, books, newspapers and letters which helped shape the direction of the New America.
The America of the late 1790s occupied the 16 states of the Eastern edge of the land mass. To the left lay vast plains occupied by Native American tribes, on land owned, by treaty at least, by the French; and further, to the South West, from Florida upwards, the Spanish Empire still held the territory. America was growing rapidly and in the following 50 years it would add another from 40 million immigrants, as it expanded west, acquired these other territories and grew in economic strength.
The sources of America’s population explosion – France, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Britain in particular – contained a rich culture in music, art, literature and science. The lush orchestrations of Beethoven swept across the dining rooms of the wealthy and musically literate. Jane Austen‘s Sense and Sensibility was published only a year after Brown’s death. The Romantic poets too, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats and William Blake amongst them, were hugely popular at a time when Europe was in turmoil, stirred by the social and political writings of Kant, Edmund Burke and America’s own Thomas Paine. This was a world beginning to spin ever faster and the flood of immigrants from Europe to America, seeking respite from war and religious persecution burgeoned the nascent new world.
Writing and Work
Brown was active during the first inklings of the new America and wrestled with the issues that occupy a new society. He wrote for and created a number of journals, including in 1799 the Monthly Magazine and American Review, and a few years later, in 1803 the Literary Magazine and American Register. His lifelong interest in the lessons of history and their influence on the modern politics also led him to a series of historical reports and publications.
He wrote and campaigned for penal reform, the abolition of slavery, universal franchise and political justice, all within the framework of a subtle atmosphere of lingering fear. The European wars, the poverty of new migrants and the desolation of the Native American lands created an undercurrent of the brooding supernatural. The combination of these themes found substance in the six novels he published from 1799 to 1801 which established him as one of the earliest and greatest of American writers, the first to take literature as a profession and certainly the first to create a unique brand of the novel form.
Although William Hill Brown’s The Powers of Sympathy was probably the first American novel, and Hannah Webster Foster’s 1799 The Coquette was the first American bestseller; Brown’s Wieland; or the Transformation of 1798 brought a uniquely American style to the novel form of the late 18th century. Employing the exaggerated methods of his European influences, William Godwin, Mary Shelley and Matthew Lewis, with their castles, mad monks and repressed sexuality, he placed gothic sensibilities into the farms and white board houses, the lonely churches, the wide streets and fields of his America to forge a powerful series of dark gothic novels. Over 80 per cent of Americans worked on farms, unlike the increasingly urbanized European city dwellers, so his fiction spoke to the new generation of readers, who devoured the Ann Radcliffe and Maria Edgeworth thrillers of their day, but craved something closer to their own experiences, that mined their own fears.
The books which established his reputation were Wieland; or, the Transformation (1798); Ormond; or, the Secret Witness (1799); two Arthur Mervyn novels: (Arthur Mervyn or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799) and Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793, Second Part (1800); Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799) and Jane Talbot; A Novel (1801). In each of these he combined historical and imaginative narratives, creating a political fiction that was a clear reflection of his life and times.
Charles Brockden Brown, with his dark fantasies and nightmare intimations had been influenced by the European gothic writers, but his untimely early death returned the favour to Mary Shelley (particularly The Last Man of 1926) and Nathaniel Hawthorne amongst many in the immediate years. Later, Edgar Allen Poe, William Hazlitt and Walter Scott all cited Brown as an influence and he proved to be one of the most significant thinkers of his era, as well as the first American gothic novelist and probably the first author with a truly authentic American voice.
The text of this post appears as Charles Brockden Brown: Life, Times and Works in a new paperback edition of Wieland; or, a Transformation, published by Flame Tree 451.
Images in the post are by Grant Wood, William Blake and Fuseli. Wood’s iconic American Gothic was painted in 1930, recalling the stoic country folk of the new America a century earlier. Fuseli’s Nightmare (1781, at the head of this blog) and the Silence (1799, final image) are examples of dark, supernatural creations that influenced writers and artists of the late 18th Century Gothic and Romantic movements, including William Blake, whose impeccable revolutionary credentials surfaced with America, a Prophecy in 1793. The image here appears at the beginning of that beautifully illustrated work and shows, metaphorically, the mighty America in chains, waiting to be unleashed.
Other posts of interest include: