1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Brockden Brown

Charles Brockden Brown
American novelist

CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN, the first American novelist who acquired an European reputation, and the fiist American who made literature a profession, was bcrn of Quaker parents in Philadelphia, January 17, 1771. A youth of delicate constitution and retiring habits, he early devoted himself to study; his principal amusement was the invention of ideal architectural designs, devised on the most extensive and elaborate scale. ___ characteristic talent for construction subsequently assumed the shape of Utopian projects for perfect commonwealths, and at a later period of a series of novels distinguished by the ingenuity and consistent evolution of the plot. The transition between these intellectual phases is marked by a juvenile rcmr.nce entitled Carsol, not published until after the author's death, which professes to depict an imaginary community, and shows how thoroughly the young American was inspired by Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, whose principal writings had recently made their appearance. From the latter he derived the idea of his next work, Alcuin, an enthusiastic but inexperienced essay on the question of woman's rights and liberties. From Godwin he learned his terse style, condensed to a fault, but too laconic for eloquence or modu-lation, and the art of developing a plot from a single psychological problem or mysterious circumstance. The novels which he now rapidly produced offer the strongest affinity to Caleb Williams, and if inferior to that remarkable work in the subtlety of mental analysis, greatly surpass it in affluence of invention and intensity of poetical feeling. All are wild and weird in conception, with incidents border-ing on the preternatural, yet the limit of possibility is never transgressed. In Wieland, the first and most striking, a seemingly inexplicable mystery is resolved into a case of ventriloquism. Arthur Mervyn is remarkable forthe descrip-tion of the epidemic of yellow fever in New York in 1798, which had proved fatal to the author's most intimate friend. Edgar Huntly, a romance rich in local colouring, is remark-able for the effective use made of somnambulism, and anticipates Cooper's introduction of the Red Indian into fiction. Ormond is less powerful, but contains one character, Constantia Dudley, which excited the enthusiastic admiration of Shelley, who was also deeply entranced by Brown's other romances. " Nothing," asserts Mrs Peacock, " so blended itself with the structure of his interior mind as the creations of Brown." The two had, indeed, nearly every leading trait in common, although Brown's weak health and narrow circumstances restrained him from carrying his enthusiastic aspirations into practice. Two subsequent novels, designed as representations of ordinary life, proved failures, and Brown betook himself to less ambitious literary pursuits, compiling a general system of geography, editing a periodical, and an annual register, and writing political pamphlets which attracted considerable attention at the time. He died of consumption, February 22, 1810. He is depicted by his biographer as the purest and most amiable of men, and in spite of a certain formality due, perhaps, to his Quaker education, the statement is borne out by his correspondence. As a novelist he ranks very high ; he is the precursor of Hawthorne, and hitherto his only American rival. Greatly inferior to Hawthorne in truth of natural description and insight into human character, he surpasses him in narrative and constructive ability. Wieland and Edgar Huntly especially are thrilling and exciting in the highest degree, while preserved by the constant presence of a psychological problem from degenerating into mere sensationalism. Most of Brown's novels have been reprinted in England, but none recently. His life by his friend Dunlop (Philadelphia, 1815) is a grievous piece of bookmaking, but is interesting from the subject. An edition of his works in 6 vols, was published at Philadelphia in 1857. (E. G.)

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