January 17, 2010

Birth of Charles Brockden Brown

On January 17, 1771, Charles Brockden Brown was born in Philadelphia. Credited as one of the earliest practitioners of the American novel, Brown's most well-known books were published just before the turn of the century, when the United States was still in its awkward adolescence: Wieland, or The Transformation: An American Tale (1798), Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799), and Arthur Mervyn, or Memoirs of the Year 1793, published in two parts in 1798-1799.

One of his most famous works, Wieland, or The Transformation: An American Tale is an early American Gothic novel which sets the tone of much of Brown's writing. Its plot is driven by a character who masters, of all things, the skill of ventriloquism. The title character Wieland, a pious and God-fearing Pennsylvanian of German descent, believes he is hearing a divine voice, which compels him to murder his wife and children. Carwin, the new-to-town ventriloquist, is suspected, if Wieland hasn't lost his sanity. The bloody, tragic tale, full of incessant forebodings of doom, was an inspiration to the work of both Edgar A. Poe and Mary Shelley. As an early Brown biographer named Martin S. Vilas wrote in 1904, "there is a conception of a grim destiny that pursues and overhangs its object as relentlessly as the night follows day."

Wieland is put on trial for the murders he commits. He admits the deed but notes his love for his family and tries to defend himself:

Think ye that malice could have urged me to this deed? ...I will tell what I have done, and why. It is needless to say that God is the object of my supreme passion. I  have cherished, in his presence, a single and upright heart. I have thirsted for the knowledge of his will. I have burnt with ardour to approve my faith and my obedience. My days have been spent in searching for the revelation of that will; but my days have been mournful, because my search failed. I solicited direction; I turned on every side where glimmerings of light could be discovered... but not till lately were these purposes thoroughly accomplished, and these wishes fully gratified.

I thank thee, my Father, for thy bounty! that thou didst not ask a less sacrifice than this! that thou placedst me in a condition to testify my submission to thy will! ...Now may I, with dauntless and erect eye, claim my reward, since I have given thee the treasure of my soul!

The book is not all doom-saying, however. Similar to Shelley but divergent from the style of Poe, Brown's novel includes a moral message. Wieland's sister, who serves as narrator of the story, sums it up for the reader: "If Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty and of the divine attributes, or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight, the double-tongued deceiver would have been baffled and repelled."

In his book The Prose Writers of America, a sequel to the successful Poets and Poetry of America, anthologist Rufus W. Griswold chided Brown for making such a villainous, well, villain. Griswold takes issue with using terms like "fiend" or "diabolical malice," instead placing the blame on Wieland himself. According to Griswold, Wieland was already "in a state to hear voices when no voices sounded."

*For more on Charles Brockden Brown and his work, visit the "Philadelphia Gothic" online exhibit from the Library Company of Philadelphia, a free library established by Benjamin Franklin, who shares the same birthday.

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