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Our Founding Novelist

By Anne Trubek | HUMANITIES, January/February 2010 | Volume 31, Number 4

Quick: Who was the first professional writer in America? What was the first great American novel?

Scratching your head? These seem like they should be easy questions to answer, or at least debate. But they often elicit confused looks. When I ask friends, I can see them dialing back, in their heads, through the timeline of American literature, past Mark Twain to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Edgar Allan Poe, maybe to Washington Irving or James Fenimore Cooper and then, well, where, exactly? What about that murky period around the Revolution? Did any Americans write novels back then?

There were indeed American writers penning novels before the nineteenth century, and one, Charles Brockden Brown, has been dubbed America’s first professional writer. His first book, Wieland; or, The Transformation: An American Tale, may be the nation’s first significant novel. It was published in 1798, and was lauded by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Mary Shelley. That British Romantics even read an American novel is startling, shattering assumptions that literary influence flowed only westward over the Atlantic then. The most recent Modern Library edition of Wieland contains blurbs by John Keats (“very powerful”) and William Hazlitt (“Brown was a man of genius”). The sheer existence of these quotes creates a certain cognitive dissonance.

Being startled and feeling a bit of historical vertigo is a common reaction not only to learning about Brown but also to reading his masterpiece, Wieland. It is a profoundly odd novel featuring spontaneous combustion, ventriloquism, brutal murders, and psychological depravity. Wieland may be one of the most overlooked novels in the American literary canon, and the reason it’s overlooked is because it is very hard to get one’s head around. It is that strange.

How does one read a novel about a faithful family man who murders his wife and five children and an Irish interloper who can mimic and project human voices that was published when John Adams was president?

The author too was strange, at least in the sense that he fits uneasily into scholarly summations. He so resists easy understanding that his critics often end up treating him like a literary text, or an ambiguous, interpretive puzzle. As Leslie Fiedler wrote: “From the beginning . . . it has been hard to describe Charles Brockden Brown without seeming to compose a poem on a symbolic subject.” Fiedler created his own such poem in this one-sentence biographical sketch:

That he tried the impossible and that he failed; that he had disavowed his own art before his untimely death of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine; that he hardened from a wild disciple of the Enlightenment, a flagrant Godwinian (“Godwin came and all was light!”), into a pious conservative; that he drew his inspiration from loneliness and male companionship, and that he ceased to be a creative writer when he married; that over his whole frantic, doomed career, the blight of melancholy presides.

In the decades since Fielder’s comment, the critical head-scratching has continued, though the reasons for our confusion have changed. In his monograph, Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic, Peter Kafer calls him a “biographical and historical mystery.” The editors of Revising Charles Brockden Brown mention that Brown is often described as an “anomaly” and a “curiosity” by others, but then continue in a similar vein, asserting he was “less a ‘single author’ than a medium.”

He was vexing to his contemporaries as well. His friends called him “obscure & unintelligible.” Fiedler quotes the painter Thomas Sully who said of Brown shortly before the writer’s death:

It was in the month of November—our Indian summer—when the air is full of smoke. Passing a window one day I was caught by the sight of a man, with remarkable physiognomy, writing at a table in a dark room. The sun shone directly upon his head. I shall never forget it. The dead leaves were falling then. It was Charles Brockden Brown.

Not surprisingly, even Brown was mystified by himself. His mood while writing was so magical and odd he feared it would take him “a greater distance from the tract of common sense than I am at present desirous of being.” To a friend he wrote, “To comprehend one’s own character is sufficiently hard. . . . I am no longer master of myself—I weep involuntarily. . . . I am no more—I must relinquish my pen and fly from myself.”

So who was America’s first professional writer? He was born in Philadelphia in 1771 of Quaker stock. His father, Elijah, was expelled from Quaker meetings for nonpayment of debts when Brown was young, and in 1777 Elijah was banished from Philadelphia after he appeared on a list published by the Continental Congress’s ad hoc Committee on Spies, headed by John Adams. The committee had been charged to name those “dangerous to the State who ought to be arrested.” Those rounded up were sent to Virginia. The group was split between Tories and Quakers. Brown seems to have been included not because he was an important or threatening man, but because he had been selling goods requisitioned for the army in an attempt to get out of debt.

Elijah’s woes caused his family of seven children to struggle. Another burden was his son Charles’s poor health. Sickly and bookish, the boy was told to exercise more and read less. He took long, solitary, daily walks. Still he read constantly, and could be as precious as he was precocious. As a ten-year-old, he asked why a visitor had called him “boy.” It was a rhetorical question. “Does he not know,” Charles continued, “that it is neither size nor age, but understanding that makes the man? I could ask him a hundred questions, none of which he could answer.” At eleven, he started attending Friends’ Latin School in Philadelphia, and in his teens he published a poem, “In Praise of Solitude.” He planned to write epic poems on the first Europeans to arrive in the New World. His goal in life, he stated, was to become a “Visionary.”

At sixteen, he left school and studied for the law, the career his parents deemed him best suited to pursue, while his four brothers went into business. Brown, however, was never inclined be a lawyer. While an apprentice he cofounded, in 1787, the Belles Lettres Club, where he exchanged essays with his friends. By eighteen he was publishing essays, including a series of four called “The Rhapsodist.” Influenced by Rousseau and the epistolary form, he and his friends exchanged many lengthy, weighty, and passionate letters. A kind of heightened literary style was common to correspondence between men at the time, but Brown’s still stands out. To one friend he wrote:

I caught a momentary glimpse of my Correspondent. I saw him buried in profound and tranquil sleep. . . . He looks upon me with regard. He dreams of me. . . . Let me cherish thee, in the same rapture which thou breathest, a refuge from despair, a cure for madness and an antidote to grief. . . . I see nothing but myself and thee.

Brown gave up the law by 1792 and decided to do what few others had yet tried in America: earn his living from writing.

Between 1798 and 1800, he published four novels: (1) Wieland; or, The Transformation; (2) Ormond; or, The Secret Witness; (3) Arthur Meryn; or, Memoir of the Year 1793; and (4) Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. The novels were well received and have always, despite some contemporary interest in his other work, been considered his best writing, with Wieland considered the best of the four.

In 1800, he became a journalist. He helped found and worked as an editor for the Monthly Magazine. He wrote about women’s rights, republicanism, and religion among other political and cultural themes. In 1801, the magazine changed its name to The American Review and Literary Journal. That same year, he published two more novels, Clara Howard and Jane Talbot. Both are epistolary and sentimental novels, and have never received much acclaim. When the American Review went under in 1802, he founded another magazine, The Literary Magazine and American Register. Brown became even more outspoken politically, writing many anti-Jeffersonian, pro-expansionist tracts.

In 1804, to the disapproval of his parents, he married a non-Quaker, Elizabeth Linn. They had four children. Needing a steadier income, he started working for his brother in the import business. He continued to write essays and tracts until 1810, when he died, at thirty-nine, of tuberculosis.

Ever since his death, the conventional line about Brown’s literary career was that he had an intense burst of brilliant creativity, with Wieland being the zenith. Then his powers dropped off bit by bit until, unable to make it as a novelist, he failed down to journalism, squeezed out two conventional romances, married, then became a businessman and ceased to be a literary figure at all. But this narrative of Brown is now deemed “the old, restrictive stereotype of literary pioneer and heroic failure.” Contemporary critics are looking more closely at, and lauding, Brown’s nonfiction, noting his formative role as a founder and editor of journals. His non-Gothic novels are receiving more attention too, as is his concern with women and female heroines, his feminized writing style, and his male friendships.

Brown’s novels have all been published in scholarly editions. And now the Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive and Scholarly Edition is preparing a six-volume print edition of selected writings and an electronic archive of his uncollected writings. Soon, we will have unprecedented access to Brown’s reviews, letters, articles, stories, and novels. These new editions promise to clear much of the smoke that surrounds Brown and his writing.

But even as new materials give rise to even newer reappraisals, it seems unlikely that Brown’s imaginative fiction will be any less striking. Nor will his difficult masterpiece, Wieland, any more readily lay bare its ambiguities. For as long as critics will be interested in Charles Brockden Brown, they will be contending with Wieland’s strange commingling of literary elements.

A novel of ideas, a work of science fiction, and a founding text of American Gothic, Wieland is a thinking person’s horror story. Its strangeness has more than a little to do with the circumstances of its creation. After he left the law, Brown moved to New York and joined the Friendly Club, a group of young professionals who met each week to discuss literature and politics. He became a vegetarian and, after he was introduced to the works of William Godwin, an anarchist, a perhaps unsurprising choice for the son of a shamed Quaker in post-Revolutionary America. These experiences influenced the novel, in which one also finds the ideas of Cicero, Locke, and Jefferson all smoldering in the minds and actions of its characters.

Clara Wieland narrates the novel in epistolary form, in a stream-of-consciousness style far ahead of its time. The novel takes place before the American Revolution, and begins when Clara has moved to the Pennsylvania colony with her brother, Theodore, after their father’s apparent death by, yes, spontaneous combustion. (Brown bases this on an event reported to have taken place in 1783, and includes a note in the text to that effect.)

Early on Clara tells us a backstory about her German-born father, who was extremely devout and followed his own religion. He sometimes heard the voice of the divine and went twice daily, alone, to a small summerhouse he had built on his estate to pray. One night, acting erratically and hysterically, the father went to the summerhouse. His wife went to try to find him, and she saw a light and an explosion, followed by screams. Her uncle rushed out to the house.

Within the columns he beheld what he could no better describe, than by saying that it resembled a cloud impregnated with light. It had the brightness of flame, but was without its upward motion. It did not occupy the whole area, and rose but a few feet above the floor. No part of the building was on fire.

Eventually, the uncle spots Clara’s father, “naked; his skin throughout the greater part of his body was scorched and bruised. His right arm exhibited marks as of having been struck by some heavy body. His clothes had been removed, and it was not immediately perceived that they were reduced to ashes. His slippers and his hair were untouched.” A few hours later, the father dies.

The rest of the novel is just as weird. The children, Clara and her brother Theodore, create a utopian community of enlightenment rationality on their estate, Mettingen. They take refuge from the outside world and, with their friends Catherine and Henry Pleyel, remain blissfully self-contained, discussing books and philosophies. Theodore marries Catherine, and the two have four children. Clara and Henry are clearly destined to marry as well.

Any novel that begins with spontaneous combustion is bound to blow up again, and so this novel does. Theodore, a stable, rational man, begins to hear voices. The enlightened sensibility of the tiny group is disturbed. The others doubt Theodore when he insists the voices are “real.” Henry insists the voices can be explained empirically. But then, a stranger, Carwin, an Irish immigrant, shows up, wandering around the property.

Carwin is a “biloquist,” a ventriloquist adept at mimicking the voices of others. He explains the voices may have been made by other humans. One night, when Clara returns to her house, Carwin is hiding in her closet, planning to rape her. Carwin does not attack Clara, but the episode leads Henry to suspect that Clara is having an affair. The odd plot twists continue, with various late-night walks, letters, frightening sounds in the hallway, and other Gothic hallmarks.

Eventually, Theodore, obeying the voices in his head, either out of religious fanaticism or madness (or both), kills his wife and children, and tries to kill Clara. Carwin saves Clara. Theodore kills himself. Clara moves to Europe and eventually marries Henry Pleyel.

This is no simple origin story for a new nation, though it is imbued with the effects of Europe on America, the role of the state and religion and the possibility of rationalism. A few months after he wrote it, Brown did another strange thing: He sent the novel to then Vice President Thomas Jefferson. In the brilliant opening paragraph of Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic, Peter Kafer sums up the oddity of this gesture, and the contrast the book provides to reigning Revolutionary values:

At the age of twenty-seven, Charles Brockden Brown invented the American Gothic novel with a story in which a father dies by spontaneous combustion and the son, a onetime deist, goes crazy and strangles his wife and five children, seeks to murder (and perhaps rape) his sister, and commits suicide. Brown then sent a copy of his novel to the vice president of the United States, announcing himself ‘a stranger to the person, though not the character of Thomas Jefferson’ and hoping that Wieland; or the Transformation, an American Tale ‘is capable of affording you pleasure.’ To Thomas Jefferson: a deist who designed his Monticello home as the American epitome of classical proportion, who got a violent headache when he stood atop Virginia’s Natural Bridge and looked down ‘into the abyss,’ who would seek to have David Hume’s History of England purged of its disturbing unrepublican elements, and whose favorite novel was Laurence Sterne’s sentimental Tristram Shandy. What was he thinking?

Indeed, what was he thinking? Another question about early American literature still unanswered. It is one being actively debated, though. Often, the more historical the materials, the more new technologies can aid research. Much of Brown’s writings have remained inaccessible until now, and soon they will be searchable and thankfully, given Brown’s difficult scrawl, transcribed. As we expand the American literary canon backward, into the eighteenth century, this period of letters may become less fuzzy, less strange. But the terror that drives Wieland will remain inexplicable. As is appropriate.

About the Author

Anne Trubek is an associate professor of English at Oberlin College. She is author of A Skeptic’s Guide To Writers’ Houses, to be published by University of Pennsylvania Press in October 2010.

Funding Information

Preparation for the digital and print publication of The Letters of Charles Brockden Brown is being supported by a $170,000 grant from NEH. Between 1979 and 1984 NEH made grants worth $111,255 in support of bicentennial editions of Charles Brockden Brown’s major works.