Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The First American Novelist
By Henry Theodore Tuckerman (18131871)
[Born in Boston, Mass., 1813. Died in New York, N. Y., 1871. Essays, Biographical and Critical. 1857.]
CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN was the first American who manifested a decided literary genius in a form which has survived with anything like vital interest. His native fondness and capacity for literature is not only shown by his voluntary adoption of its pursuit at a time and in a country offering no inducement to such a career, but they are still more evident from the unpropitious social circumstances and local influences amid which he was born and bred. He was the son of a member of the Society of Friends in Philadelphiaa class distinguished, indeed, for moral worth, but equally remarkable for the absence of a sense of the beautiful, and a repudiation of the graces of life and the inspiration of sentiment, except that of a strictly religious kind .
Like most gifted men, he won and retained affections with ease; he was the idol of the domestic circle, and loyal as well as magnanimous in friendship; he stood manfully by his comrades during the fearful ravages of the yellow fever; and his letters, while they aim to elicit the inmost experience and outward fortunes of those he loves, are remarkably self-forgetful. He lived wholly in his mind and affections; from a child devoted to books and maps, and, as a man, congratulating himself upon that fragility of body that destined him to meditative pursuits. Reading, clubs, pedestrianism, journalizing, and earnest reflection, were the means of his culture and development. Like the author of the Seasons, he was silent in mixed companies, but alert and expressive under genial mental excitement. An Utopian, he indulged in the most sanguine visions of the amelioration of society: a deep reasoner, he argued a question of law or government with subtlety and force; a devotee of truth, he ardently sought and carefully recorded facts; a wild dreamer, he gave the utmost scope to his fancy and the most intense exercise to his imagination; careless as to his appearance, unmethodical in affairs, intent upon the contemplative rather than the observant use of his faculties, he yet could summon all his powers at the call of love, duty, or taste, and bring them into efficient action. He describes his sensations at the first sight of the sea with the enthusiasm of Alfieri, and sums up an imaginary case, as president of a law society, with the grave reasoning of a Blackstone. The remarkable feature in his intellectual character was this union of analytical with imaginative power. So contented was he when his literary and domestic tastes were entirely gratified, as was the case during the last few years of his life, that he writes to one of his friends that the only thing which mars his felicity is the idea of its possible interruption. He fell into a gradual decline; and his wife declares that he surrendered up not one faculty of his soul but with his last breath.
A prolific English novelist expressed his surprise at the discovery of what he called a tendency to supernaturalism in our people, having always regarded the American character as exclusively practical and matter-of-fact. It seems, however, that both individuals and communities are apt to develop in extremes; and that there is some occult affinity between the achieving faculty and the sense of wonder. Shakespeare has inwrought his grand superstitious creation amid vital energies of purpose and action, and thus brought into striking contrast the practical efficiency and spiritual dependence of our nature. The coincidence is equally remarkable, whether it be considered as artistic ingenuity or natural fact; and probably, as in other instances, the great dramatist was true to both motives. The more strictly utilitarian the life, the more keen, it would appear, is a zest for the marvellous; from that principle of reaction which causes a neglected element of the soul to assert itself with peculiar emphasis. No class of people are kept in more stern and continuous alliance with reality than sailors and the poor Irish; and yet among them fanciful superstition is proverbially rife. There is, therefore, no absolute incongruity between the most literal sagacity in affairs and outward experience, and a thorough recognition of the mysterious.
The theological acumen and hardy intelligence of the New England colonists did not suffice against witchcraft and its horrible results; seers flourished among the shrewd Scotch, and gypsy fortune-telling in the rural districts of England. The faculty or sentiment to which these and other delusions appeal, in our more cultivated era, finds scope and gratification in the revelations of science, and so nearly connected are the natural and supernatural, the seen and the unseen, the mysterious and the familiar, that a truly reverent and enlightened mind is often compelled to acknowledge that a sceptical and obstinate rationalism is as much opposed to truth as a visionary and credulous spirit. There is an intuitive as well as a reasoning faith; and presentiments, dreams, vivid reminiscences, and sympathetic phenomena, of which introspective natures are conscious, indicate to the calmest reflection that we are linked to the domain of moral experience and of destiny by more than tangible relations. Hence the receptive attitude of the highest order of minds in regard to spiritual theories, the consolation found in the doctrines of Swedenborg, and the obvious tendency that now prevails to interpret art, literature, and events, according to an ideal or philosophical view.
It is a curious fact, in the history of American letters, that the genius of our literary pioneer was of this introspective order. If we examine the writings of Brown, it is evident that they only rise to high individuality in the analysis of emotion and the description of states of mind. In other respects, though industrious, wise, and able, he is not impressively original; but in following out a metaphysical vein, in making the reader absolutely cognizant of the revery, fears, hopes, imaginings, that puzzle the will, or concentrate its energies, he obeyed a singular idiosyncrasy of his nature, a Shakespearian tendency, and one, at that period, almost new as a chief element of fiction.