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Charles Brockden Brown:
American Gothick with a K

[1]2,392 words

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) wasn’t the first American writer. That was William Hill Brown (no relation), whose The Power of Sympathy (1789) was an epistolary novel imitating Richardson with moral purpose and a satisfying ending of virtue triumphant. Then there was Susanna Rowson. Her Charlotte Temple (1790), was America’s first bestseller, another fine moral tale of a young woman choosing virtue and so (again) triumphing.

Charles Brockden Brown was number three. Moral purpose? Virtue triumphant? Here’s a sample from Edgar Huntley, or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker:

Possibly, the period will arrive when I shall look back without agony on the perils I have undergone. That period is still distant. Solitude and sleep are now no more than the signals to summon up a tribe of ugly phantoms. Famine, and blindness, and death, and savage enemies, never fail to be conjured up by the silence and darkness of the night. I cannot dissipate them by any efforts of reason. My cowardice requires the permanent consolation of light. My heart droops when I mark the decline of the sun, and I never sleep but with a candle burning at my pillow. If, by any chance, I should awake and find myself immersed in darkness, I know not what act of desperation I might be suddenly impelled to commit.

We sure aren’t in Kansas anymore, but in Brown’s world; that of the Gothic novel, given American tendrils to twist into a fertile soil instilling doubt and duplicity. It’s a seemingly innocent new world that actually resembles nature beneath the freshly cut lawn in the film Blue Velvet, harboring a host of microscopic creatures savage and wild, a Brueghel’s nightmare teeming below sunny small-town America.

Brown was a Quaker from Philadelphia whose family joined the Revolution, but refused to fight in it, and were fined by Pennsylvania for non-participation. This made Brown’s inheritance one of mixed loyalties, a yes/no view of the new America. He was educated, erudite, and a survivor, enduring the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in New York, a plague that, like one in Philadelphia, carried off a quarter of the population. Brown got a lesson not in moral virtue but the cold silence of once-busy streets, calls to bring out the dead, seeing companions now encased in coffins. 

Brown’s mentor were the novels of William Godwin, especially Caleb Brown, and Brown wished to create the Gothic world in an American setting. 

Wieland (1798), or The Transformation, was his first published work. Based on an actual murder in New York State, Brown depicted Wieland and his sister Clara, whose quest for knowledge ends as Wieland becomes more unstable, hearing strange voices in the night that urge him to kill. He follows through on this, although it is revealed that the voices are the work of Carwin, a biloquist (we would say ventriloquist), a shady, unstable character who claims the voices calling Wieland to murder were not his. Carwin’s ambiguity, combined with the horror of Wieland’s actions, seem to be a description of early America caught between civilization and a vast frontier, a revolution, a republic now at odds with a more violent upheaval in France, and with the stern dictates of Puritanism now called into doubt. 

Brown wrote a series of novels at a frantic pace, one after the other: Arthur Mervyn, Edgar Huntley, Ormond. His world is one of uncertainty, of people caught in an America at the mercy of tricksters. Arthur Mervyn, a farm lad seeking a better life than his father’s stifling farm which denies him an education, comes to Philadelphia, is caught in the yellow fever epidemic, and befriended by Welbeck, an embezzler. Arthur must prove he’s not tied in with this criminal. Arthur incites uncertainty in people with whom he comes into contact, but in the end marries Ochsa Fielding, an older woman who trusts him. Ochsa is Jewish, and the first Jewish character in American literature. 

Edgar Huntley is wilder and psychologically stark, and has been described as an American Oedipus. It is the first American murder mystery. Edgar, seeking the murderer of his friend, spies Clythero Edny, a mysterious man who sleepwalks, digging up a box at night, weeping over it, and reburying it before shambling off into the midnight forest like a zombie. 

Edgar hunts Clithero, thinking him the murderer, but discovers he’s a man haunted by a crime he committed in Ireland. Edgar becomes obsessed with Clithero, following him to mysterious, winding caves.

This leads to a nightmarish world where Edgar wakes up in a cave, finding himself almost naked. He meets a cougar, kills it, and eats its heart. He sees Indians with a white girl as their captive. To his horror, he discovers he is a sleepwalker, like Clithero, and wakes up in the midst of an Indian raid on his family’s community.

After a frantic night of escapes, swims, and revulsion at killing an Indian, a sort of happy ending comes until Edgar reveals a secret he hopes will comfort Clithero. It only sends the unstable man to flee to New York to kill, and a shocked Edgar sees the ambiguity of doing good and the tenuousness of sanity. It was said when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, one of her models for that man-made monster was the haunting, ambiguous Clithero.

Washington Irving never wrote weird stuff like this.

Brown also used the Gothic world to explore politics in an America fretfully watching the French Revolution and going through the Alien and Sedition Acts, where a young republic tried to protect itself against foreign incursion. This was demonstrated in his 1799 novel Ormond (or, The Secret Witness), which explores the consequences of human transformation in a fantastic world of conspiracy and struggle for survival. Constantia Dudley, a well-to-do young lady in post-revolutionary Philadelphia (unlike jokes about a dull Philly, Brown’s is anything but), desires to maintain her “homely liberty,” but the world has other ideas. Her father’s assistant steals the family’s money, forcing them into poverty. Constantia’s father becomes blind, turns drunk, and the two quarrel as she takes over as parent while yellow fever kills everyone around them. 

Constantia’s will to survive rivals that of Scarlett O’Hara. She meets Ormond, a foreigner who is intrigued by her, as is Martinette, an adventuress from revolutionary France. Martinette, enticing Constantia with stories of womanly courage, offers a quasi-lesbian friendship. But Ormond is the magnetic draw to Constantia’s soul. He has lots of money and finds a physician to cure her father’s blindness in the Masonic lodge he attends. Ormond is jaded, but also intellectually intriguing, entranced by Constantia’s spirit and courageous battle against plague and poverty. He explains to a fascinated Constantia he has come to help change America. Not as a revolutionary, but as one of the Illuminati:

Ormond aspired to nothing more ardently than to hold the reins of opinion, — to exercise absolute power over the conduct of others, not by constraining their limbs or by exacting obedience to his authority, but in a way of which his subjects should be scarcely conscious. He desired that his guidance should control their steps, but that his agency, when most effectual, should be least suspected.

This was a flash of lightning when I read it, describing mass media and psychological control of the masses by a covert agency, and neatly fits the post 9/11 age; nay, even Covid. 

Ormond, dashing, benevolent, but furtive, is almost an outline of Dracula, and there is something vampiric about him: a mix of erotic and Gnostic mesmerism where he hopes to advance the cause of the Illuminati to subvert morality and society. . . for a worthy cause, of course.

Constantia uneasily flees him, leading to a grand climax in true Gothic style in a darkened farmhouse near Perth-Amboy:

She lifted her hand to strike the flint, when her ear caught a sound which betokened the opening of the door that led into the next apartment. Her motion was suspended, and she listened as well as a throbbing heart would permit. That Omond’s was the hand that opened, was the first suggestion of her fears.

Constantia and Ormond fight as he attempts to rape her. She stabs him, and is saved. 

A year later, in England, Constantia numbly awaits courtship to an I. E. Rosenberg, who may yet make her happy and compliant. It promises to be an uphill struggle.


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After his flush of fiction, Brown decided he needed a rest. He married, turned to publishing and editing, and his political views moderated somewhat. 

Where once he sent a copy of Wieland to Thomas Jefferson, he now became strident in opposing Democratic Party policies, but was strongly in favor of the Louisiana Purchase. Brown returned to fiction to pen two “sentimental” novels, Clara Brown and Jane Talbot. They have been considered a substandard attempt by Brown to capture the women’s market, but Jane Talbot is a vigorous, passionate epistolary tale between Jane and Colden, her lover. They meet with disapproval from Jane’s concerned mother and her officious brother and are stymied by a woman’s attempt to frame Colden for a crime he did not commit. Jane’s simple yet determined desire to see her own way in choosing a husband is noteworthy, as is the passionate correspondence between Jane and Colden, not to mention Colden’s witty dismissal of her brother’s outraged propriety. 

It was fitting Brown wrote of a woman’s choice, for in 1798 he published Alcuin, the first American writing in favor of women’s emancipation, where a dialogue ensues between man and woman on the need for liberality in divorce, thought, and property rights.

I enjoy seeing the master of Gothic end with a woman unapologetic about wanting her own lover. A flash of sunlight cracked upon Brown’s dark world, and it was his last, for Brown died in 1810 of tuberculosis.

What happened to Brown? Why is he forgotten? Why do you read about Washington Irving or James Fenimore Cooper, but not Charles Brockden Brown?

The American Gothic novel discussed and presented cross-currents of European thought, worthy of a new republic caught in a world struggling between revolution and later the Napoleonic dilemma. America settled into facing the West and turned away from Europe, preferring Cooper and his Indians as well as lone frontiersmen. The dichotomy of Clithero and Edgar Huntley became Hawkeye.

As James Howard Kunstler put it in The Geography of Nowhere:

Where Scott dreamed up a sunny medieval fantasy world of jousting knights and damsels in distress, American writers of the early 1800s carried on in the vein of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein), producing a literature of woe, gloom, guilt, torture, insanity and murder-tinged with shades of the supernatural. In Edgar Allan Poe, one can see a clear connection between his feckless personal life-heartbreak, failure, alcoholism, and penury-and the masterpieces of doom he wrote. In Nathaniel Hawthorne, blissfully married and domestically secure compared to Poe, the objective was to conjure up a romantic history for a culture in which there was little sense of the past and everything seemed depressingly new. Yet, both Poe and Hawthorne managed to express the dark psychic undercurrents that swirled beneath the surface of life in the pre-Civil War era.

All true, and Brown got there first. Hawthorne and Poe acknowledged their debt to Brown, and Margaret Fuller was overjoyed at a new re-printing of his works in the 1840s. 

Certainly one can detect Brown’s earlier hand in works like Melville’s The Confidence Man, which was certainly inspired by Arthur Mervyn. James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, anything but Gothic, certainly owed plot points to Edgar Huntley. A decisive part of Cooper’s novel takes place in a cave with Indians about, and Hawkeye’s long rifle could well have been inspired by a special rifle Edgar Huntley uses in his quest to find justice for his murdered friend. 

So what happened to Brown? Admired as a writer’s writer in our early days, he and the style of American Gothic were seen as creaky and second-rate when American realism began in the early 1900s, and the novelist and critic John W. De Forest simply ignored writers like Brown, being, as he put it, “ghosts, and they wrote about ghosts, and the ghosts have vanished utterly.”

Then, the American reading class, when not desirous of moral tales in the vein of Charlotte Temple, preferred the vigorous style of Cooper, whom Edmund Wilson defined as a watered-down version of Sir Walter Scott. As Kunstler noted above, official America was happier with a sunnier, hopeful world for a new America. Stephen King, whose work is descended from Brown’s Gothic, said horror is one of those genres that live across the tracks in the literary community. In America, if you wanted to be a serious writer, you followed Sir Walter Scott. 

Brown’s style has been called turgid and overly erudite, and there are problems. In Ormond, the narrator’s name isn’t revealed until half-way through the novel. The dense prose is eighteenth-century writing at its least light, but this is more than compensated with scenes of atmosphere and wild action. Brown would be perfect for screen adaptation, and I have written screenplays for Ormond and Edgar Huntley. Brown’s oeuvre would have been a field day for Vincent Price. 

Aside from his style, another reason for Brown’s decline was the American upper class more or less ignored American writers, preferring to ape the English. Even today they underwrite BBC drama on PBS, but fund nothing for American works.

Mark Twain could be seen as an exception, but his serious, darker works were usually ignored. Twain’s modern image is a man who told funny stories. 

Brown instead encompassed an important vein of American writing dealing with dreams, nightmares, and the twilight of human reasoning and ambiguities of social order. He tapped subliminal urges in early America that are no less apparent today. He was a “woke” writer in the older, honest sense. 

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