previous next

Chapter 3: the Philadelphia period

It is impossible to get the key to the early development of American literature without remembering that for fifty years the nation had no well-defined capital city, at least for literary purposes; and it had only a series of capitals, even politically. In the very middle of the nineteenth century, James Russell Lowell was compelled to write as follows:
Our capital city, unlike London or Paris, is not a great central heart.... Boston, New York, Philadelphia, each has its literature, almost more distinct than those of the different dialects of Germany; and the young Queen of the West has also one of her own, of which some articulate rumor has barely reached us dwellers by the sea. Our contributors, Graham's magazine, Feb., 1845.

In this local development of literature, Philadelphia, the first seat of our government, naturally took the lead. [51]

The first monthly magazine, the first daily newspaper, the first religious magazine, the first religious weekly, the first penny paper, mathematical journal, juvenile magazine, and illustrated comic paper ever published in the United States had started on their career in Philadelphia; and that city produced, still more memorably, in Benjamin Franklin the first American writer to gain a permanent foreign reputation; and America's first imaginative writer and first professional writer of any description, in Charles Brockden Brown, the novelist.

The first national capital.

In 1774 the first and second Continental Congresses met in that city, which was then the largest in America. In 1776 Philadelphia sent forth the Declaration of Independence. In 1787, in the same hall which had given birth to the Declaration, the Federal Convention assembled and formulated the Federal Constitution. The new Constitution met particularly strong opposition in Pennsylvania, which was, however, the second state to ratify it. The first Congress under the Federal Constitution met in New York in March, 1789, and Washington was inaugurated there [52] a month later. After that event, New York grew rapidly into a supremacy of numbers, of intellectual life, and of literary achievement. A year later, however, Congress returned to Philadelphia, there to remain until, in 1800, Washington became the permanent seat of government.

A social centre.

During and just after the Revolution, then, Philadelphia had the right to be regarded as the American metropolis. Public men gathered there from all parts of the country, and cultivated women came with them. French visitors, who soon became very numerous, criticised the city, found its rectangular streets tiresome and the habits of the people more rectangular still; but Americans thought it gay and delightful. Brissot de Warville declared that the pretensions of the ladies were “too affected to be pleasing” and the Comte de Rochambeau said that the wives of merchants went to the extreme of French fashions. The sarcastic Talleyrand said “their luxury is frightful” (“leur luxe est affreux”), leaving it an open question whether it was the amount of luxury to which he objected, or the kind of it. Mrs. John Adams, who had lived in Europe, complained [53] of a want of etiquette, but found Philadelphia society eminently friendly and agreeable. Superior taste and a livelier wit were habitually claimed for the Philadelphia ladies. It was said by a vivacious maiden who went from that city to make a visit in New York-Rebecca Franks, afterward Lady Johnston--that the Philadelphia belles had “more cleverness in the turn of an eye than those of New York in their whole composition.”

There was in Philadelphia a theatre which was much attended, and which must have had a rather exceptional company of actors for that period, inasmuch as Chief Justice Jay assured his wife that it was composed of “decent moral people.” In society, habits were not always quite moral, or conversation always quite decent. Gentlemen, according to John Adams, sat till eleven o'clock over their after-dinner wine, and drank healths in that elaborate way which still amazes the American visitor in England. Nay, young ladies, if we may accept Miss Rebecca Franks as authority, drank each other's health out of punch tankards in the morning. Gambling prevailed among both sexes. An anonymous letterwriter, [54] quoted in Mr. Griswold's “Republican Court,” declares that some resident families could not have supported the cost of their entertainments and their losses at 100, but that they had the adroitness to make the temporary residents pay their expenses. At balls people danced country dances, the partners being designated beforehand by the host, and usually remaining unchanged during the whole evening — though “this severity was sometimes mitigated,” in the language of the Marquis de Chastellux, when supper was served, which was usually at midnight.

This picture of Philadelphia life sets before us the conditions under which a litera-The Fist ture was produced which obtained Literary immediate recognition, and in some Centre. instances permanent reputation, here and abroad. From Philadelphia had come, at the end of the colonial period, the remarkably effective work of the conservative John Dickinson, and, somewhat later, the trenchant arguments of the radical Thomas Paine, and the brilliant sallies of the Whig humorist, Francis Hopkinson. The Letters from a farmer in Pennsylvania were written by Dickinson in 1767-1768, [55] and first printed in a Philadelphia newspaper. Later they were published in book form, with an introduction by Franklin, and had an astonishing popularity, not only in America, but in England, Ireland, and France. They were highly praised by such foreign critics as Voltaire and Burke, and their author was idolized at home until, as the Revolution approached, the public grew impatient of his temperate policy. He wished for constitutional liberty; they demanded independence. Thereafter probably the most influential pieces of Revolutionary prose, outside of documents, were Paine's Common sense, Hopkinson's The Battle of the Kegs, and Franklin's Examination relative to the Repeal of the Stamp Act.1

Such writing as this had greater flexibility, and therefore a more promising literary quality, than those pamphlets which Lord Chatham admired. The long series of volumes bearing the names of our early statesmen deal mainly with questions now past, and are rarely of interest to the modern reader. [56] Fortunately two authors, at least, among them possessed impulsiveness, vivacity, and humor as well as solid statesmanship; and made, at times, a purely literary use of these qualities. Those two were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. As the former had a wife of similar quality, their very letters form some readable literary memorial of that period, even though, after the practice of their time, her epistles were signed with such high-sounding names as “Portia.”

Benjamin Franklin.

In Franklin, on the other hand, we come upon a man who could not be said to turn to literature, but by his very nature made it a part of his various endowments; and who might justly be called the first great writer in America; the first to produce, in his Autobiography, a book now recognized by the world as classic. He was born in Boston on January 17, 1706, and died on April 17, 1790. He was apprenticed to his brother, a printer, but ran away to Philadelphia at the age of seventeen. He went to London and practiced his trade there for a time, returned to Philadelphia in a year and a half, printed and published newspapers and almanacs there, distinguished himself as [57] a founder of libraries, as an investigator of electricity, as postmaster-general, and as agent for the American colonies abroad. After the Revolution, he represented this country as ambassador to France, where he still stands nearest of all foreigners to the French heart. But he received from temperament, not from French influence, his most striking qualities, --the want of high spirituality, the thisworldly quality of his thought, and the cool sanity of his manner. His style has been called Addisonian, but it is primarily Franklinian. He lived at the period when Dr. Johnson's influence was at its greatest, yet he chose to keep to the simple idioms of common speech.

During his long life Franklin's genius expressed itself in many ways; he became famous as a scientist, as a moralist, as (like most great moralists) a humorist, as a statesman, and as perhaps the greatest of autobiographers. Before the beginning of the Revolutionary period he had gained wide reputation in science and in practical affairs; yet, says Professor Tyler,

undoubtedly his best work in letters was done after the year 1764, and thenceforward down to the very [58] year of his death; for, to a degree not only unusual but almost without parallel in literary history, his mind grew more and more vivacious with his advancing years, his heart more genial, his inventiveness more sprightly, his humor more gay, his style brighter, keener, more deft, more delightful. Tyler, Literary history of the American Revolution, II. 365.

One of the two works of pure literature for which he is now best known, however,

Poor Richard.

Poor Richard's almanac, belongs to the earlier period. The almanac was an established institution long before Franklin gave it standing as literature. The first matter of any length to be printed in America was an almanac published in Cambridge in 1639; and when, nearly a century later (1733), Poor Richard began to appear, it could differ only in degree of excellence from many of its predecessors and contemporaries. Among its most formidable competitors were the Astronomical diary and almanac of Nathaniel Ames, a Massachusetts man, father of Fisher Ames, and the Rhode Island almanac of Franklin's brother James. These publications were respectively [59] eight and five years older than the Philadelphia almanac; and they have much of the varied humor and wisdom which, touched with the subtle charm of personality that belonged to everything Franklin wrote, made Poor Richard so famous.

The incidents of the last twenty-five years of Franklin's life cannot be more than touched upon here. His diplomatic career in England and France kept him away from America during almost the whole of the Revolutionary period; yet his influence both at home and abroad was incalculably great. He did a great deal of writing, with entire indifference to literary fame; for he had always a practical end to gain. During those years of absence he was continually flinging off pamphlets in the American cause, written with imperturbable good-humor and telling irony. From the very beginning of the Revolution he turned to the advantage of his country the pungency, directness, and humor of his style. On the 16th of May, 1775, he wrote to Priestley this condensed sketch of the battle of Lexington, in which each sentence is an epigram--

You will have heard, before this reaches you, of a march stolen by the regulars into the country by night, [60] and of their expedition back again. They retreated twenty miles in six hours. The governor had called the assembly to propose Lord North's pacific plan, but, before the time of their meeting, he began cutting their throats. You know it was said he carried the sword in one hand and the olive branch in the other; and it seems he chose to give them a touch of the sword first. . . . All America is exasperated by his conduct, and more firmly united than ever.

His public career he might perhaps have explained as his friend Lord Dunning did his legal business, when he said, “I do one third of it, another third does itself, and the remaining third remains undone.” Industry was, however, the habit of Franklin's nature so thoroughly that it entered into the blood of his race. The Rev. Dr. Furness used to speak with delight of an aged Philadelphia lady, Franklin's grand-niece, who was in the habit of saying her prayers while coming down stairs to breakfast, in order to save time.

On the fifth of July he writes to Strahan:

You have begun to burn our towns, and murder our people. Look upon your hands -they are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends; you are now my enemy, and I am, Yours, B. Franklin.


On the third of October, Franklin again writes to Priestley: “Tell our dear good friend, Dr. Price, who sometimes had his doubts and despondencies about our firmness, that America is determined and unanimous, --a very few Tories and placemen excepted, who will probably soon export themselves. Britain, at the expense of three million pounds, has killed one hundred and fifty Yankees this campaign — which is twenty thousand pounds a head; and at Bunker's Hill she gained a mile of ground, half of which she lost again by our taking post on Ploughed Hill. During the same time sixty thousand children have been born in America. From these data, his mathematical head will easily calculate the time and expense necessary to kill us all, and conquer our whole territory.”

The autobiography.

There we see the literary touch, but it is still more clearly to be felt in his autobiography; as, for example, in the account of his first entry into Philadelphia:--

.. . I was in my working dress, my best clothes being to come round by sea. I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no soul, nor where to look for lodging. I [62] was fatigued with traveling, rowing, and want of rest; I was very hungry; and my whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar and about a shilling in copper. The latter I gave the people of the boat for my passage, who at first refused it, on account of my rowing; but I insisted on their taking it, a man being sometimes more generous when he has but little money than when he has plenty, perhaps through fear of being thought to have but little.

Then I walked up the street, gazing about, till near the market house I met a boy with bread. I had made many a meal on bread, and, inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the baker's he directed me to, in Second Street, and asked for a biscuit, intending such as we had in Boston ; but they, it seems, were not made in Philadelphia. Then I asked for a threepenny loaf, and was told they had none such. So not considering or knowing tie difference of money and the greater cheapness, nor the names of his bread, I bade him give me threepenny worth of any sort. He gave me, accordingly, three great puffy rolls. I was surprised at the quantity, but took it, and, having no room in my pockets, walked off with a roll under each arm, and eating the other. Thus I went up Market Street as far as Fourth Street, passing by the door of Mr. Read, my future wife's father; when she, standing at the door, saw me, and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward, ridiculous appearance. Then I turned and went down Chestnut Street and part of Walnut Street, eating my roll all the way, and, coming round, found myself again at Market Street wharf, near the boat I came in, to which I went for a draught of river water; and, being filled with one of my rolls, gave the other [63] two to a woman and her child that came down the river in the boat with us, and were waiting to go farther.

Every sentence ends with a snap. Probably Franklin eating his rolls in the street is the best-known figure in American history, after Washington and his little hatchet; and the fact is due not to any extraordinary character in the situation, but to the literary skill with which he brings it before us.

Note the felicity with which he defends in the autobiography that failure to acquire orderly habits with which John Adams reproached him:--

I made so little progress in amendment, and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who in buying an axe of a smith, my neighbor, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him, if he would turn the wheel; he turned, while the smith pressed the broad face of the axe hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on; and at length would take his axe as it was, without further grinding. “No,” said the smith, “ turn on, turn on, we shall have it bright by and by; as yet it is only speckled.” “Yes,” said the man, “but I think I like a speckled axe best.” And I believe this [64] may have been the case with many, who, having for want of some such means as I employed, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded that “ a speckled axe is best.” For something, that pretended to be reason, was every now and then suggesting to me, that such extreme nicety as I exacted of myself might be a kind of foppery in morals, which, if it were known, would make me ridiculous; that a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself, to keep his friends in countenance. In truth, I found myself incorrigible with respect to Order; and now I am grown old, and my memory bad, I feel very sensibly the want of it.

It is amusing to notice in this connection that “Order” stands third among the thirteen practical virtues which Franklin early tabulated and set himself to acquire; a whimsical digest of the system of thrifty morality which he perceived to be at the basis of worldly success. Franklin lacked spiritual power — the imaginative grasp of truth which belongs to creative minds. He had, however, what is perhaps the best working substitute for such power, the ability to state homely truths in such effective form as to offer to unimaginative minds a practical rule of living. [65] His famous saying “Honesty is the best policy” suggests very fairly the range of his power as a moralist, and the secret of his success as a man.

The Portfolio

Franklin was born in Boston, but his distinctive flavor belonged to a city where the literary touch was earlier recognized. A certain proof of the cultivated character of Philadelphia, beyond New York or Boston, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, may be found in the remarkable magazine called The Portfolio, a weekly quarto which may fairly be described as the first essentially literary periodical in America. Joseph Denny, the editor, was a Bostonian and a Harvard graduate, and had edited newspapers in New England. He had been nominated for Congress and defeated in New Hampshire, and went to Philadelphia in 1799, as private secretary to Thomas Pickering, Secretary of State. The Portfolio was established at the beginning of 1801; was for five years a quarto and then for many years an octavo, following precisely the development which periodicals now sustain, substituting octavo for quarto, monthly for weekly, introducing illustrations and sometimes [66] going down hill. He had for assistant writers John Quincy Adams, whose Letters from Silesia first appeared there, after being published in London in 1800, and Charles Brockden Brown, the so-called “Father of American fiction,” of whom we shall presently speak. Reading these volumes now, one finds with surprise that they go beyond similar periodicals even at the present day, in the variety of sources whence their cultivation came. The Portfolio translates portions of Voltaire's Henriade; recognizes the fact that fresh intellectual activity has just begun in England; quotes early poems by Coleridge and Wordsworth and Leigh Hunt, sometimes without giving the names, showing the editors to have been attracted by the poems themselves apart from the author. There is no want of color in the criticism. German books are apt to be found rather abhorrent to the Philadelphia critic, which is not surprising when we remember that it was the age of Kotzebue, whose travels it burlesques and who drives the editor into this extraordinary outburst: “The rage for German literature is one of the foolish and uncouth whims of the time and [67] deserves all the acrimony of the lampooner. We are sick, heart-sick of the rambling bombast, infamous sentiments, and distempered sensibility of the Teutonic tribe.” He, however, thinks but little better of William Godwin, and prints a burlesque of Dr. Johnson as bitter as if Johnson had written in German. He states an important truth in saying somewhere that punning is an humble species of wit, much relished in America; but in a later issue tones down this assertion by giving three columns from Dean Swift in favor of punning. He often gives letters from Europe, coming from various directions; discusses the theatre fully, both in Boston and Philadelphia; discloses to us the important fact that books in America still had to be published by subscription at that day and almost never off-hand; and he finally shows us the limitation of even Philadelphia cultivation by telling us that the Loganian library, pioneer of all American libraries, was then kept shut all the morning and became a mere coffee-house lounge in the afternoon.

The American poetical Miscellany.

It is one indication of the early leadership of Philadelphia that the first considerable collection of miscellaneous poetry published [68] in this country appeared there in 1809, under the title of The American poetical Mliscellany, original and selected. The editor says of it, in that florid style which still prevailed in prefaces: “The volume of poetry is made valuable by enfolding in its embraces some of the richest and deepest tinted flowers which ever bound the brows of Melancholy, or sparkled under the heavenly gem which drops from Pity's eye. Its pages are also strewed with many a wild and fragrant flower, gathered by Genius and Fancy, as they together strolled amid the wild luxuriance of the fields of nature.” This belonged to the personifying period, when men wrote “Inoculation, Heavenly maid!”

It is worth noticing, however, that the editor's taste is much better than his style, and he shows unquestionably that the best English poetry of that day, as was true of the poetry of Tennyson and Browning at a later day, was earlier appreciated in America than at home. The volume opens with Burns's Scots wha hae wia Wallace bled and closes with Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, in its original and more vigorous form; [69] and this at a time when Coleridge's new theory of versification, now generally accepted, that verse should be read by the accents, not by the syllables, was pronounced by the London monthly Review to yield only “rude unfashioned stuff;” and Burns's poems were described by it as “disgusting” and “written mostly in an unknown tongue.” The Lake poets were described by Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review as “constituting the most formidable conspiracy that has lately been formed against sound judgment in matters poetical;” and yet they were eagerly received, apparently, in America. It must not be supposed, however, that all the contents of this Philadelphia volume represent the same scale of merit; it also includes a poem of a dozen long verses by one Joseph Smith entitled Eulogium on Rum.

Charles Brockden Brown.

After Philadelphia's prestige as a literary centre had begun to wane, she was still to produce the second American writer, Charles Brockden Brown, who commanded the attention of trans-Atlantic readers. Charles Brockden Brown was born in Philadelphia, Jan. 17, 1771, and died there of consumption at the age of thirty-nine, Feb. 22, 1810. By [70] his own statement, made in a letter written just before his death, we learn that he never in his life had more than one continuous halfhour of perfect health. In spite of his short life and his ill-health, he accomplished much. At first he studied law, but abandoned it for literature. He was a frequent contributor to the magazines of the time, and was himself the editor of the Llonthly magazine and American Review (1799), and the Literary magazine and American Register (1803-8). His first published work, The dialogue of Alcuin (1797), dealt with questions of marriage and divorce, and he was also the author of several essays on political, historical, and geographical subjects. His novels followed each other with astonishing rapidity: Sky Walk; or the man unknown to himself (1798, not published), Wieland; or the Transformation (1798), Ormond ; or the secret witness (1799), Arthur Mervyn ; or Mlemoirs of the year 1793 (1799-1800), Edgar Huntly; or memoirs of a sleep Walker (1801), Jane Talbot (1801), and Clara Howard; or the enthusiasm of love (1801).

When, thirty years later, in 1834, the [71] historian Jared Sparks undertook the publication of a Library of American biography, he included in the very first volumewith a literary instinct most creditable to one so absorbed in the severer tasks of history -a memoir of Charles Brockden Brown by W. H. Prescott. It was an appropriate tribute to the first writer of imaginative prose in America, and also the first to exert a positive influence upon British literature, laying thus early a few modest strands towards an ocean-cable of thought. As a result of this influence, all manner of wheels began to move, in fiction; concealed doors opened in lonely houses; fatal epidemics laid cities desolate; secret plots were organized; unknown persons from foreign lands died in garrets leaving large sums of money; the honor of innocent women was constantly endangered, though usually saved in time; people were subject to somnambulism and general frenzy; vast conspiracies were organized with petty aims and smaller results. Brown's books, published between 1798 and 1801, made their way across the ocean with a promptness that now seems inexplicable; they represented American literature to England. Mrs. Shel. [72] ley in her novel of The last man founds her whole description of an epidemic, which nearly destroys the human race, on “the masterly delineations of the author of Arthur Mervyn.”

Shelley himself recognized his obligations to Brown; and it is to be remembered that Brown himself was evidently familiar with Godwin's philosophical writings and with Caleb Williams, and that he may have drawn from Mary Wollstonecraft his advanced views as to the rights and education of women, a subject on which his first book, Alcuin, provided the earliest American protest. Undoubtedly his tales furnished a point of transition from Mrs. Radcliffe, of whom he disapproved, to the modern novel of realism, although his immediate influence and, so to speak, his stage properties, can hardly be traced later than the remarkable tale, also by a Philadelphian, called Stanley; or the man of the world, the scene of which was laid in America, though it was first published in 1839 in London. This book was attributed, from its profuse literary material, to Edward Everett, but was soon understood to be the work of a young man of twenty-one, Horace Binney [73] Wallace. It is now forgotten, except one sentence: “A foreign nation is a kind of contemporaneous posterity.” In this book the later influence of Bulwer and Disraeli is palpable, but Brown's concealed chambers and aimless conspiracies and sudden mysterious deaths also reappear in full force, not without some lingering power; and then vanish from American literature forever.

The style of the period.

Brown's style, and especially the language put by him into the mouths of his characters, is perhaps too severely criticized by Professor Woodberry as being “something never heard off the stage of melodrama.” What this able critic does not sufficiently recognize is that the general style of the period at which they were written was itself melodramatic, and that to substitute what we should call simplicity would then have made the picture wholly unfaithful. One has only to read over the private letters of any educated family of that period to see that people did not then express themselves as they do now; that they were far more ornate in expression, more involved in statement, more impassioned in speech. Even a comparatively terse writer like Prescott, in [74] composing Brown's biography only sixty years ago, shows traces of the earlier period. Instead of stating simply that his hero was a born Quaker, he says of him: “He was descended from a highly respectable family, whose parents were of that estimable sect who came over with William Penn, to seek an asylum where they might worship their Creator unmolested, in the meek and humble spirit of their own faith.” Prescott justly criticises Brown for saying, “I was fraught with the apprehension that my life was endangered;” or “his brain seemed to swell beyond its continent;” or “I drew every bolt that appended to it;” or “on recovering from deliquium, you found it where it had been dropped;” or for resorting to the circumlocution of saying, “by a common apparatus that lay beside my head I could produce a light,” when he really meant that he had a tinderbox. Nothing is more difficult than to tell, in the fictitious literature of even a generation or two ago, where a faithful delineation ends and where caricature begins. The four-story signatures of Micawber's letters, as represented by Dickens, go but little beyond the similar courtesies employed in a [75] gentlewoman's letters in the days of Anna Seward. All we can say is that within a century, for some cause or other, English speech has grown very much simpler, and human happiness has probably increased in proportion.

In the preface to his second novel, Edgar Huntly, Brown announces it as his primary purpose to be American in theme, “to exhibit a series of adventures growing out of our own country,” adding “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.” He protests against “puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras,” and adds: “The incidents of Indian hostility and the perils of the western wilderness are far more suitable.” All this is admirable, but unfortunately the inherited thoughts and methods of the period hung round him to cloy his style, even after his aim was emancipated. It is to be remembered that all his imaginative work was done in early life, before the age of thirty and before his powers became mature. Yet with all his drawbacks he had achieved his end, [76] and had laid the foundation for American fiction.

Notwithstanding his inflation of style, he was undoubtedly, in his way, a careful observer. The proof of this is that he has preserved for us many minor points of life and manners which make the Philadelphia of a century ago now more familiar to us through him than is any other American city of that period. He gives us the roving Indian; the newly arrived French musician with violin and monkey; the suburban farmhouses, where boarders are entertained at a dollar a week; the gray cougar amid caves of limestone. We learn from him “the dangers and toils of a midnight journey in a stage coach in America. The roads are knee-deep in mire, winding through crags and pits, while the wheels groan and totter and the curtain and roof admit the wet at a thousand seams.” We learn the proper costume for a youth of good family,--“nankeen coat striped with green, a white silk waistcoat elegantly needle-wrought, cassimere pantaloons, stockings of variegated silk, and shoes that in their softness vie with satin.” When dressing himself, this favored youth ties his [77] flowing locks with a black ribbon. We find from him that “stage boats” then crossed twice a day from New York to Staten Island, and we discover also with some surprise that negroes were freely admitted to ride in stages in Pennsylvania, although they were liable, half a century later, to be ejected from street-cars. We learn also that there were negro free schools in Philadelphia. All this was before 1801.

It has been common to say that Brown had no literary skill, but it would be truer to say that he had no sense of literary construction. So far as skill is tested by the power to pique curiosity, Brown had it; his chapters almost always end at a point of especial interest, and the next chapter, postponing the solution, often starts the interest in a wholly new direction. But literary structure there is none: the plots are always cumulative and even oppressive; narrative is inclosed in narrative; new characters and new complications come and go, while important personages disappear altogether, and are perhaps fished up with difficulty, as with a hook and line, on the very last page. There is also a total lack of humor, and only such efforts [78] at vivacity as this: “Move on, my quill! wait not for my guidance. Reanimated with thy master's spirit, all airy light. A heyday rapture! A mounting impulse sways him; lifts him from the earth.” There is so much of monotony in the general method, that one novel seems to stand for all; and the same modes of solution reappear so oftensomnambulism, ventriloquism, yellow fever, forged letters, concealed money, secret closets -that it not only gives a sense of childishness, but makes it very difficult to recall, as to any particular passage, from which book it came, and leaves us quite willing to doubt whether it came from any. It is easy enough to criticise Brown, but he unquestionably had his day and served his purpose. He lived among a circle of Philadelphians who took habitually a tone like that of Cherbulieza charming heroine, who declares that for her the world ends at fifty leagues from Paris and she leaves all beyond to the indiscreet curiosity of geographers. He did not live to see the centre of statesmanship transferred in one direction, that of business in another, that of literature for a time in a third.

1 The title is, in full, The examination of Doctor Benjamin Franklin, in the British house of Commons, relative to the Repeal of the American Stamp Act, in 1766. First published in London, 1767.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: