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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
NOT only was Brockden Brown the first American man-of-letters proper,—one writing for a living before we had any real literature of our own,—but his work possessed a genuine power and originality which gives it some claim to remembrance for its own sake. And it is fair always to remember that a given product from a pioneer indicates a far greater endowment than the same from one of a group in a more developed age. The forerunner lacks not one thing only, but many things, which help his successors. He lacks the mental friction from, the emulation of, the competition with, other writers; he lacks the stimulus and comfort of sympathetic companionship; he lacks an audience to spur him on, and a market to work for; lacks labor-saving conventions, training, and an environment that heartens him instead of merely tolerating him. Like Robinson Crusoe, he must make his tools before he can use them. A meager result may therefore be a proof of great abilities.  1
  The United States in 1800 was mentally and morally a colony of Great Britain still. A few hundred thousand white families scattered over about as many square miles of territory, much of it refractory wilderness with more refractory inhabitants; with no cities of any size, and no communication save by wretched roads or by sailing vessels; no rich old universities for centers of culture, and no rich leisured society to enjoy it; the energies of the people perforce absorbed in subduing material obstacles, or solidifying a political experiment disbelieved in by the very men who organized it;—neither time nor materials existed then for an independent literary life, which is the growth of security and comfort and leisure if it embraces a whole society, or of endowed college foundations and an aristocracy if it is only of the few. Hence American society took its literary meals at the common table of the English-speaking race, with little or no effort at a separate establishment. There was much writing, but mostly polemic or journalistic. When real literature was attempted, it consisted in general of imitations of British essays, or fiction, or poetry; and in the last two cases not even imitations of the best models in either. The essays were modeled on Addison; the poetry on the heavy imitators of Pope’s heroics; the fiction either on the effusive sentimentalists who followed Richardson, or on the pseudo-Orientalists like Walpole and Lewis, or on the pseudo-mediævalists like Mrs. Roche and Mrs. Radcliffe. This sort of work filled the few literary periodicals of the day, but was not read enough to make such publications profitable even then, and is pretty much all unreadable now.  2
  Charles Brockden Brown stands in marked contrast to these second-hand weaklings, not only by his work but still more by his method and temper. In actual achievement he did not quite fulfill the promise of his early books, and cannot be set high among his craft. He was an inferior artist; and though he achieved naturalism of matter, he clung to the theatrical artificiality of style which was in vogue. But if he had broken away from all traditions, he could have gained no hearing whatever; he died young—twenty years more might have left him a much greater figure; and he wrought in disheartening loneliness of spirit. His accomplishment was that of a pioneer. He was the first American author to see that the true field for his fellows was America and not Europe. He realized, as the genius of Chateaubriand realized at almost the same moment, the artistic richness of the material which lay to hand in the silent forest vastnesses, with their unfamiliar life of man and beast, and their possibilities of mystery enough to satisfy the most craving. He was not the equal of the author of ‘The Natchez’ and ‘Atala’; but he had a fresh and daring mind. He turned away from both the emotional orgasms and the stage claptrap of his time, to break ground for all future American novelists. He antedated Cooper in the field of Indian life and character; and he entered the regions of mystic supernaturalism and the disordered human brain in advance of Hawthorne and Poe.  3
  That his choice of material was neither chance nor blind instinct, but deliberate judgment and insight, is shown by the preface to ‘Edgar Huntly,’ in which he sets forth his views:—
          “America has opened new views to the naturalist and politician, but has seldom furnished themes to the moral-pointer. That new springs of action and new motives of curiosity should operate, that the field of investigation opened to us by our own country should differ essentially from those which exist in Europe, may be readily conceived. The sources of amusement to the fancy and instruction to the heart that are peculiar to ourselves are equally numerous and inexhaustible. It is the purpose of this work to profit by some of these sources, to exhibit a series of adventures growing out of the conditions of our country, and connected with one of the most common and wonderful diseases of the human frame. Puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras, are the materials usually employed for this end. The incidents of Indian hostility and the perils of the Western wilderness are far more suitable, and for a native of America to overlook these would admit of no apology. These therefore are in part the ingredients of this tale.”
  4
  Brown’s was an uneventful career. He was much given to solitary rambles and musings, varied by social intercourse with a few congenial friends and the companionship of his affectionate family, and later, many hours spent at his writing-desk or in an editorial chair.  5
  He was born January 17th, 1771, in Philadelphia, of good Quaker stock. A delicate boyhood, keeping him away from the more active life of youths of his own age, fostered a love for solitude and a taste for reading. He received a good classical education; but poor health prevented him from pursuing his studies at college. At his family’s wish he entered a law office instead; but the literary instinct was strong within him. Literature at this time was scarcely considered a profession. Magazine circulations were too limited for publishers to pay for contributions, and all an author usually got or expected to get was some copies to distribute among his friends. To please his prudent home circle, Brown dallied for a while with the law; but a visit to New York, where he was cordially received by the members of the “Friendly Club,” opened up avenues of literary work to him, and he removed to New York in 1796 to devote himself to it.  6
  The first important work he produced was ‘Wieland: or the Transformation’ (1798). It shows at the outset Brown’s characteristic traits—independence of British materials and methods. It is in substance a powerful tale of ventriloquism operating on an unbalanced and superstitious mind. Its psychology is acute and searching; the characterization realistic and effective. His second book, ‘Ormond: or the Secret Witness’ (1799), does not reach the level of ‘Wieland.’ It is more conventional, and not entirely independent of foreign models, especially Godwin, whom Brown greatly admired. A rapid writer, he soon had the MS. of his next novel in the hands of the publisher. The first part of ‘Arthur Mervyn: or Memoirs of the Year 1793’ came out in 1799, and the second part in 1800. It is the best known of his six novels. Though the scene is laid in Philadelphia, Brown embodied in it his experience of the yellow fever which raged in New York in 1799. The passage describing this epidemic can stand beside Defoe’s or Poe’s or Manzoni’s similar descriptions, for power in setting forth the horrors of the plague.  7
  In the same year with the first volume of ‘Arthur Mervyn’ appeared ‘Edgar Huntly: or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker.’ Here he deals with the wild life of nature, the rugged solitudes, and the redskins, the field in which he was followed by Cooper. A thrilling scene in which a panther is chief actor was long familiar to American children in their school reading-books.  8
  In 1801 came out his last two novels, ‘Clara Howard: In a Series of Letters,’ and ‘Jane Talbot.’ They are a departure from his previous work: instead of dealing with uncanny subjects they treat of quiet domestic and social life. They show also a great advance on his previous books in constructive art. In 1799 Brown became editor of the Monthly Magazine and American Review, and contributed largely to it.  9
  In the autumn of 1801 he returned to Philadelphia, to assume the editorship of Conrad’s Literary Magazine and American Review. The duties of this office suspended his own creative work, and he did not live to take up again the novelist’s stylus. In 1806 he became editor of the Annual Register. His genuine literary force is best proved by the fact that whatever periodical he took in charge, he raised its standard of quality and made it a success for the time.  10
  He died in February, 1810. The work to which he had given the greater part of his time and strength, especially toward the end of his life, was in its nature not only transitory, but not of a sort to keep his name alive. The magazines were children of a day, and the editor’s repute as such could hardly survive them long. The fame which belongs to Charles Brockden Brown, grudgingly accorded by a country that can ill afford to neglect one of its earliest, most devoted, and most original workers, rests on his novels. Judged by standards of the present day, these are far from faultless. The facts are not very coherent, the diction is artificial in the fashion of the day. But when all is said, Brown was a rare story-teller; he interested his readers by the novelty of his material, and he was quite objective in its treatment, never obtruding his own personality. ‘Wieland,’ ‘Edgar Huntly,’ and ‘Arthur Mervyn,’ the trilogy of his best novels, are not to be contemned; and he has the distinction of being in very truth the pioneer of American letters.  11
 
 
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