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Carl Van Doren (1885–1950).  The American Novel.  1921.


Page 10

sleep alone.” Such addiction to romance, Tyler argued, was too exciting for plain Americans; their novels like their clothes ought to be homespun.
  It was in the very year of Royall Tyler’s preface that the first American to make authorship his sole profession decided upon fiction as the form he should undertake. Charles Brockden Brown (1770–1810) of Philadelphia as a schoolboy aspired to be an epic poet, and contemplated epics on Columbus, Pizarro, and Cortez, possibly desiring to rival Timothy Dwight, whose Conquest of Canaan appeared in 1785, or Joel Barlow, whose Vision of Columbus followed two years later. But after reading William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) Brown acquired a new ambition. He would patriotically try for reality as some others were trying; and of course he would lay stress on the moral tendency of his performances, as all had done. In addition he hoped “to enchain the attention and ravish the souls of those who study and reflect.” At the same time, he was too good a democrat to write for geniuses alone, and he believed that while they were being stirred by the ideas of a novel the plain people could be captured by its plot.
  Brown’s important books were written in a few vivid months, spent mostly in New York. His specific indebtedness to Godwin appears chiefly in a fondness for the central situation of Caleb Williams: an innocent and somewhat helpless youth in the grasp of a patron turned enemy. The parallel is exact in Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800), which brings a young man of that name to Philadelphia, makes him blunder into the secret of a murder, and subjects him to elaborate persecutions from the murderer.



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