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VI. Charles Brockden Brown

When, in 1834, the historian Jared Sparks undertook the publication of a “Library of American Biography,” he included in the very first volume — with a literary instinct most creditable to one so absorbed in the severer paths of history — a memoir of Charles Brockden Brown by W. H. Prescott. It was an appropriate tribute to the first imaginative writer worth mentioning in America,--he having been born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on January 17, 1771, and died there of consumption on February 22, 1810,--and to one who was our first professional author. He was also the first to exert a positive influence, across the Atlantic, upon British literature, laying thus early a few modest strands towards an ocean-cable of thought. As a result of this influence, concealed doors opened in lonely houses, fatal epidemics laid cities desolate, secret plots were organized, unknown persons from foreign lands died in garrets, usually leaving large sums of money; the honor of innocent women was constantly endangered, though usually saved in time; people were subject to somnambulism and [58] general frenzy; vast conspiracies were organized with small aims and smaller results. His books, published between 1798 and 1800, made their way across the ocean with a promptness that now seems inexplicable; and Mrs. Shelley, in her novel of “The last man,” founds her whole description of an epidemic which nearly destroyed 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 that he may have drawn from those of Mary Wollstonecraft his advanced views as to the rights and education of women, a subject on which his first book, “Alcuin,” offered the earliest American protest. Undoubtedly his books 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,” first published in 1839 in London, though the scene was laid in America. This book was attributed, from its profuse literary quotations, to Edward Everett, but was soon understood to be the work of a very young man of twenty-one, Horace [59] Binney Wallace. In this book the 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.

Brown's style, and especially the language put by him into the mouths of his characters, is perhaps unduly characterized 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 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 now do; that they were far more ornate in utterance, more involved in statement, more impassioned in speech. Even a comparatively terse writer like Prescott, in 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 [60] 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 tinder-box. The criticism on Brown is fair enough, yet Prescott himself presently takes us halfway back to the florid vocabulary of that period, when, instead of merely saying that his hero was fond of reading, he tells us that “from his earliest childhood Brown gave evidence of studious propensities, being frequently noticed by his father on his return from school poring over some heavy tome.” If the tome in question was Johnson's dictionary, as it may have been, it would explain both Brown's style of writing and the milder amplifications of his biographer. Nothing is more difficult 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 [61] Dickens, go but little beyond the similar courtesies employed in a 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 increased in proportion.

In the preface to his second novel, “Edgar Huntley,” 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 almost 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, and had laid the foundation for American fiction. [62]

With all 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 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 one-story 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 fortune and 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 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, [63] 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 1800.

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 diverts 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 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 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 often,--somnambulism, [64] ventriloquism, yellow fever, forged letters, concealed money, secret closets,--that it not only gives a sense of puerility, but makes it very difficult to recall, as to any particular passage, from which book it came. [65]

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