38 Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810)

Meghan Self

Introduction

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) was one of the most prolific and influential writers of the Early US Republic period. Charles Brockden Brown was born on January 17, 1771 into a Quaker merchant family living in Philadelphia. At a young age, Brown’s family established plans for him to pursue a career as a lawyer, quite possibly to help with the family mercantile business. In the late 1780s, Brown took a law apprenticeship with a notable Philadelphia attorney; however, Brown was increasingly dissatisfied with his burgeoning legal career and in 1793, he left the legal-field to pursue his aspirations of a being a writer.

Brown’s life and literary career were influenced by the American Revolution, the subsequent post-revolutionary era, and most notably by the late Enlightenment period. The impact of these events is evident in the cultural and socio-economic transformations that occurred in the early US Republic period; moreover, the “direct and dramatic implications and consequences” that the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the early nineteenth-century Napoleonic Wars had in shaping Brown’s intellectual acuity and literary craft, which are reflected in Brown’s tendency to critique, in often nuanced and oblique ways, the over-reliance on Enlightenment thinking that dominated the early American cultural and political climate at the time (Barnard et al. 823).

In the early 1790s, Charles Brockden Brown met William Dunlap — a well-known painter, writer, and theatre director — and Elihu Hubbard Smith — a young physician who studied under Benjamin Rush. Brown, Smith, and Dunlap were part of New York’s social and intellectual circles and together they partook in studying the fundamental principles of many prominent British radical intellects. Brown and his associates “shared common interests in basic skepticism towards theism and religious institutions” and in their anxieties about the new nation’s dependence on Enlightenment thinking (Bernard et al. 823).

Prior to Brown’s success as a writer, early American novels consisted of strict indoctrination on issues of morality and piousness. The works of writers like William Hill Brown and Suzanna Rowson more generally reiterate similar reflect early British and American sentiments regarding the dangers of female seduction, immorality, and other degenerate practices and behaviors. However, Charles Brockden Brown’s work stands in opposition to his contemporaries. Brown refers to the didactic novelist as a “story-telling moralist” and declares the novel genre to have immense power to elicit respectable morals and provide virtuous instruction to all readers.

In England, Brown was praised by British intellects and other writers such as William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft for his social reformist ideas. But, in the United States, Brown’s work was only marginally recognized; praised posthumously by later writers such as James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Fuller, and John Greenleaf Whitter. These distinguished writers and many others gave Brown’s work the recognition that eluded him during his lifetime. And although Brown did not succeed financially as a writer, he is credited as the father of the American Gothic genre, for reclaiming the novel genre, in addition to his six novel publications, numerous essays, reviews, short fiction, and political pamphlets as well as the founder and editor of two literary periodicals.

Brown’s first novel, Sky-Walk (completed March 1798), was lost in the aftermath of a yellow fever scourge in Philadelphia. Wieland, the key novel to accomplish appropriation, appeared in New York in September 1798 days before Elihu Hubbard Smith kicked the basin in a New York yellow fever disease in late September. The following months saw the dissemination of his books Ormond (January 1799), Arthur Mervyn (May 1799), Edgar Huntly (August or September 1799), ArthurMervyn, part II (September or October 1800), and the serialized StephenCalvert (June 1799-June 1800). As these books appeared, Brown began work in 1799 as publication director of New York Monthly Magazine and American Review periodicals. In 1801, Brown published two epistolary novels: ClaraHoward (April 1801) and JaneTalbot (December 1801).[1] Shortly after the publication of his last novel, Brown turned his attention to his literary journal The Literary Magazine and American Register, which he continued to edit until he died from tuberculosis on February 22, 1810.

Texts:

Edgar Huntly http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8223

Weiland http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/792

“The Difference between History and Romance” (cannot find link)

“Somnambulism: A Fragment” http://faculty.etsu.edu/codym/Somnambulism.pdf


  1. Barnard, Philip, Elizabeth Hewitt, and Mark Kamrath, eds. Letters and Early Epistolary Writings. Collected Writings of Charles Brockden Brown Vol. 1. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2013.

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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature by Meghan Self is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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