Charles Brockden Brown
THE novels of Charles Brockden Brown possess only an historical interest. He was the first to write American fiction, and his works had the good fortune to please in London before the time of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott ; he came, too, in the period after Mrs. Radcliffe and Monk Lewis, and had his genius been stronger he might have had the
distinction of being remembered as the representative of the change of the novel from the wildly romantic into a more natural type. He stands just at that point of development, but he had not force or character enough to rise to a position in literature which should command attention beyond his own generation. He was born in Philadelphia. With an original taste for letters, a vigorous imagination, and a wide curiosity for knowledge of all kinds, a literary profession was inevitable. He tried his hand at law, but abandoned the study after a brief experience of it, and gave his mind to the moral and political speculation then rife, to the manners and customs of nations, to history, and to the individuals whom he created in imagination, and sent on their travels. He wrote several novels, and left fragments of others, which have been collected in the edition 1 before us, and are well known to students. His political pamphlets, and the European and American Annals which he wrote for the American Register from 1806 to 1809, are of solid worth, but are not included in his works. He died in 1810, at the age of thirty-nine.
This short biography is all the preface needed by one who reads his writings, and it might easily be dispensed with. It is not his life, which was not remarkable, but his position, that throws the light upon his novels which is necessary for their being understood. He was in his time a reforming novelist. For one thing, he thought it was the part of an American to use those “ sources of amusement to the fancy and instruction to the heart that are peculiar to ourselves,” and which he declares “ are equally numerous and inexhaustible.” He announced his purpose “ to profit by some of these sources,” and in Edgar Huntly he tried to “ exhibit a series of adventures growing out of the condition of our country, and connected with one of the most common and wonderful diseases or affections of the human frame.” Here we have the two characteristics which are aimed at now by every tyro, truth in local color and in the facts of science. That he understood himself to be an innovator may be easily gathered from his frank assertion of his “ one merit, — that of calling forth the passion and engaging the sympathy of the reader by means hitherto unemployed by preceding authors. Puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimæras, are the materials usually employed for this end.” Not to continue the quotation too long, since Brown was not an adept at condensed invective, he for his part was going to deal with facts. He was, in a word, a realist. But who would have guessed it, if he had not published the notice in his preface ? To what “ facts ” did he have recourse to exterminate and supplant those “ Gothic castles and chimæras ” with which Mrs. Radcliffe and Monk Lewis, in the van of good Sir Walter, had occupied the grounds of romance ? To what field of the conflict, to what stage of the comedy, would he direct attention, that his readers might no more be cheated and fooled with entertainment afforded by “puerile superstition and exploded manners ” ? Why, ventriloquism, and sleep-walking, and the wild red Indian ! There is something humorous in this issue of the first realistic reformer, for one cannot doubt that he took himself seriously ; and then, there is a familiar tone, as of something heard yesterday, in that “ puerile superstition ” and “ chimæras.” To a later generation, Brown’s heroes and heroines are very far from any humanity that rides in our street-cars ; they seem little more credible than the Nun and the Gallant they were to do away with ; his tales are wildly improbable, more impossible than ghosts by as much as one lays aside incredulity in reading of “ Gothic castles.” The realist of today must peruse these novels with much mirth, if he judges them by the style of to-day in men, and things, and fiction. If this should go on, and the world revolves, why may not Silas Lapham come, in the changeful process of human life, to be no better than a “ knight-inarmor ” ?
It is hardly possible to give a true impression of the general character of Brown’s six novels to one who has not read one or two of them, at least. They are without unity of design ; there are several stories which interweave with one another in the same tale, but they are not correlated among themselves ; the main narrative is not so much broken by episodes, but rather is itself a succession of slightly connected events and different family histories; the method, generally speaking, is like that of the novel of adventure, in which it is not the dramatic plot, but the exciting stages of a muchcheckered career, that holds the attention. The better ones of the series, Wieland, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly, have some special feature, it is true. In one the mystery of the story is in ventriloquism, in another somnambulism ; and the idea of supplanting supernatural by physical and quasi-scientific mystery was an original and useful one, fruitful still in our own days. In others the scenes of the yellow-fever epidemic in New York and Philadelphia, of which Brown had himself been a witness, afford the realistic element, and these are much the best done of anything from his pen ; but here, too, it is to be observed that he discarded the supernatural only to hold fast to the exceptional. In the sphere of character and action he was still under the shadow of the old castle ; the spectacular has given place to the sensational, but in the bosoms of Constantia and Jane, of Wieland and Ormond and Sarsefield, reigns the very breath of romantic passion, and adventure is the genius of their careers. As for the language in which they address one another, it was never heard off the stage of melodrama : they enter and strike attitudes and have their say ; one would as soon think of interrupting a set piece of fireworks as their speeches. The style, too, is, beyond concealment, tedious. The truth is, these novels are as much gone by as the Algerian pirates, with whom they were contemporary ; even Mrs. Radcliffe and Monk Lewis have kept better pace with the modern reader than has Brown.
Yet, historically, he is curiously interesting. His pages reflect both a state of mind and a mood of imagination in which he shared only as a member of a larger world of men, some of whom were destined to a better fortune. It is not only the literary reformer who is found in the gallery of forgotten things ; the portrait of the social innovator is as commonly to be met with there ; and in Brown we find the stamp and impress of one of the most noted in his day and most obscure in ours, — the philosopher William Godwin. Brown was familiar with his writings, as not long ago young men were with John Stuart Mill’s. One reads between the lines in these tales the theory and maxims and speculation to which Godwin gave currency. In Jane Talbot, the hero of the story is the typical young man with dangerous ideas, — or he has that reputation in the ears of the world, and particularly of the mother of the young lady he would marry. We quote a passage, partly as a sketch of the abandoned youth of the first days of the century, and partly for an ulterior purpose :—
“ A most fascinating book fell at length into his hands, which changed in a moment the whole course of his ideas. What he had before regarded with reluctance and terror, this book taught him to admire and love. The writer has the art of the grand deceiver, — the fatal art of carrying the worst poison under the name and appearance of wholesome food ; of disguising all that is impious, or blasphemous, or licentious, under the guise and sanctions of virtue. Colden had lived before this without examination or inquiry. His heart, his inclination, was perhaps on the side of religion and true virtue ; but this book carried all his inclination, his zeal, and his enthusiasm over to the adversary ; and so strangely had he been perverted that he held himself bound, he conceived it to be his duty, to vindicate in private and public, to preach with vehemence, his new faith. The rage for making converts seized him.”
In this strain the mother writes to her daughter of Godwin’s Political Justice. The vigor of his influence must have been considerable in the community, his name must have been a standing target in society, when he was invoked by a novelist to create the character of such a man as Colden, even by rumor ; and the fact that Colden is a blameless person, quite in the style of the virtuous and rather colorless philanthropist, which was then one of the ideals set up for youth, ought perhaps to indicate that Brown himself, who had speculated on the forbidden topic of the marriage relation, was not unscathed by the malign influence, though his character remained unharmed. As reminiscences, in imaginative literature, of the philosophizing temper of the year 1800, all such passages are worth remark.
There is, too, in the novels a pervading conception of man as a creature of dark passions, which, had Brown written a score of years later, would have been called Byronic. The fact is that Byron did not so much invent Byronism as clothe this type of passion with a power and lift it to a height that made it his own creation in literature ; and it happened fortunately for his fame that he in his own person embodied it for the imagination of his contemporaries. But premonitions of Byronism, and even incomplete prototypes of it, are to be found before his day ; and in Brown’s novels there are several passages that are, as we say, “very like.” Take this characterization : —
“ A youth of eighteen, a volunteer in a Russian army encamped in Bessarabia, made prey of a Tartar girl, found in the field of a recent battle. Conducting her to his quarters, he met a friend, who, on some pretense, claimed the victim. From angry words they betook themselves to swords. A combat ensued, in which the first claimant ran his antagonist through the body. He then bore his prize unmolested away, and, having exercised brutality of one kind upon the helpless victim, stabbed her to the heart, as an offering to the manes of Sarsefield, the friend whom he had slain. Next morning, willing more signally to expiate his guilt, he rushed alone upon a troop of Turkish foragers, and brought away five heads, suspended by their gory locks to his horse’s mane. These he threw upon the grave of Sarsefield, and conceived himself fully to have expiated yesterday’s offense. In reward for his prowess, the general gave him a commission in the Cossack troops. This youth was Ormond.”
Crude, brutal, coarsely laid on, it is ; but Ormond — and we may say that his later career was all of a piece with this trifling anecdote of his teens — is essentially an earlier Lara. Nor is this instance alone and singular. The entire atmosphere of Ormond, which is a novel of violent passion and detestable wickedness, is pre-Byronic ; and Brown’s imagination, or his note-book from historical reading, was inexhaustibly fertile of the sort of incident instanced by the quotation above. The despised masters and mistresses of “puerile superstition” did not sup on horrors in more courses.
It is not with Byron, however, but with Shelley, that Brown’s name is lastingly associated. Shelley, whose own early romances in the German style remain to bear witness to his first taste in fiction, has left it in writing that Brown’s novels had a profound effect upon his mind. It is no wonder that they absorbed him, when first met with ; he was just at the right age and had just the right opinions and emotions to live in sympathizing imagination the lives of some of Brown’s heroes, for at some points they touched his own career nearly. That passage which draws Colden’s character, already quoted, might have been actually written of Shelley by some of his family detractors ; he might have sat for the portrait of Colden as the latter is represented by his friends, also. More than once, in the other novels, one comes on sentiments, personal situations, and ideals of conduct through which one feels at once, if he is on the watch, the pulse of Shelley beating as he read. For example, it is one of Brown’s distinctions that his pages are devoted, whenever they touch on female character, to the advocacy of the right of woman to equal education, and to a position of equal dignity intellectually, with man. Brown appears to have been familiar with Mary Wollstonecraft’s writings on the subject, and to have adopted her views so far, at least, as the mental training of woman is concerned. The reiteration of this doctrine, both openly in the author’s discourse, and indirectly in the conversation of the characters, was enough of itself to win Shelley’s adherence. On the imaginative side, Brown touched him also in the marrow ; for Shelley’s temperament, being extravagantly romantic in his nonage, was the local habitation in which Ormonds and Sarsefields and their tribe thrive. Ventriloquism and somnambulism, in their turn, were the kind of science Shelley studied ; he perhaps pursued chemistry as much with the hope of raising a ghost as from any other motive ; science to him was only another form of that marvel which he first found in the supernatural. Therefore, as a social philosopher, a romancer, and a dealer with curious quasi-scientific phenomena, Brown had a threefold interest to his youthful admirer ; but Shelley’s assertion of the relative power of Brown’s influence over him is unfounded. He made a deep impression upon him, but it was not a fruitful one, such as were those made by the great writers. In the poet’s works, perhaps the name Constantia, in the lyric To Constantia Singing, was taken from the novel of Ormond ; but further than that nothing is traceable.
These, it seems to us, are the principal points of Brown’s historical interest. As a precursor of Cooper, or Hawthorne, or Poe, a position that has been claimed for him, we cannot regard him at all ; the analogy between their works and his is of the slightest. He was a romancer of the old kind, although he made efforts in the direction of realism ; he has no art ; he is awkward, long-winded, and melodramatic, interested almost wholly in adventure, and save for the accident of coming first and being a Philadelphian would be without note.
- Charles Brockden Brown’s Novels. 6 vols. Philadelphia : David McKay. 1S87. Edition limited to 500 copies.↩