From Virtue’s blissful paths away
The double-tongued are sure to stray;
Good is a forth-right journey still,
And mazy paths but lead to ill.
—by Charles Brockden Brown (1798). Wieland, T. & J. Swords, H. Caritat, New York.
From Virtue’s blissful paths away
The double-tongued are sure to stray;
Good is a forth-right journey still,
And mazy paths but lead to ill.
—by Charles Brockden Brown (1798). Wieland, T. & J. Swords, H. Caritat, New York.
The interest in Charles Brockden Brown and his works arises largely from his ranking position among American Prose Writers. Hence, it is not expected that an estimate, somewhat extended and somewhat critical, of his writings is likely to become popular. No other than this, save very brief sketches of Brown and of what he has done, is known to the writer. It may be, then, that the student of American literature will find in this book, written five years ago, something suggestive, perhaps something usually called original.
—Martin S. Vilas, 1904; introduction to Charles Brockden Brown: A Study Of Early American Literature.
§.00 Martin Samuel Vilas’ Charles Brockden Brown: A Study Of Early American Literature (Burlington, VT., Free Press Association, 1904) is one of the better overviews of the work of the American gothique novelist Charles Brockden Brown I have ever come across. Its value lays chiefly in Vilas’ clear and forthright approach to literary criticism (“It has been said,—and rightly I think,—that to study literature correctly and determine the value of the work of each author, he should be studied with reference to himself alone first, next with reference to his place in the history of the literature,” Vilas, p. 66) despite his clear appreciation for Brown as a writer of considerable ability (“Brown is not lacking in invention or originality” p. 56), and praise for Wieland and Ormond, Vilas never allows his appreciation to deteriorate into feeble sentimentalism and excuse-making in relation to Brown’s lesser works (ie. “Brown had been trained a Quaker, but that in no sense excuses him for his inaccurate uses of ‘thee,’ ‘thou,’ and ‘thine'” p. 56).
§.01 As a consequence of Vilas approach (and good writing), the work retains an amusing character, while never compromising swiftness or comprehensiveness to entertainment, which is surprising for a corpus retrospective (cast your mind to any contemporary volume on literary history). The text examines Brown’s novels, Wieland (1798), Ormond (1799), Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800), Edgar Huntly (1799), Clara Howard (1801), and Jane Talbot (1801), in addition to Brown’s social background, philosophic and political influences, and his influence on other writers, all in the space of only 80 pages.
§.02 However, Vilas’ criticism, deft though it is, contains some flaws, as demonstrated in his analysis of Brown’s treatment of wild nature, “He could not describe a cavern, a precipice or a deep ravine without letting his imagination lead him into something that is gruesome. Thus nature becomes not an emblem of the bright and beautiful, but the representation of an infinite and awful power which hangs over and around all things” (p. 58). This characterization is accurate, but is held to be a failing in Brown’s works by Vilas, who notes that his contention with this “gruesome” portrayal of wilderness, is theological in origin. He writes, “[Brown’s descriptions of nature] never go back with a glad and cheerful heart to say,—I am of nature and of God. I exist as a part of it and of Him. If he is great and wonderful, aye, awful at times in his manifestations, I rejoice in it, for it exalts me that see in it an expression of myself. The Almighty is great and powerful, so am I in a small degree as a manifestation in one form of Him.” Vilas then writes, “… these optimistic feelings were not akin to the soul of Brown. His philosophy was the philosophy of darkness and distortion.” (p. 59) At the first, it should be noted that even if it were true that Brown’s philosophy was one of “darkness and distortion” this, in no way detracts (indeed, would enhance) the powers of his prose. I consider this criticism to be irrelevant in relation to Brown’s prose, precisely because it is a problem only in contradistinction to Vilas’ personal philosophy (of providential-anthropocentric unity), which, itself, is far less realistic, than Brown’s more cautious and skeptical view of nature’s savage increase (contemplate Leishmaniasis, or the black plague, cancer, the flesh-feasting botfly, the rivers of blood spilt by the man-eating tigers of India, or the thousands upon thousands who die to mosquitoes annually). That Brown long-suffered with health complications (chiefly consumption) was likely a factor which effected his outlook on ‘nature,’ and one which would predispose him towards a view of ‘the natural’ which was less than ideal (much to Vilas’ evident chagrin), in spite of his gentle yet sedulous religiosity.
§.03 Despite the reservations and harsh criticisms expressed in his text, Vilas’ view of Brown, both as a novelist and American, is ultimately favorable, as he concludes, “Within the limits of his strength, he did a great work. He realized his duty to his country and to civilization to contribute as much as within him lay and he never faltered though beset constantly by weariness and disease. His patience, his conscientiousness and his unfaltering devotion to the light that came to him led him ever on with a resolute heart and, even when disease was constantly preying upon him, his smile of affection always covered the deep-seated anguish. His pure and upright life was reflected in his writings, and if he could not write brilliant facts so that they would endure, all things of him exhibited the greatest of all truths that the highest virtue consists in ‘the perfection of one’s self and the happiness of others.’ It was then a courageous thing to be an American writer and especially to attempt to be the first American novelist, but Brown constantly displayed that courage. Had he not deserved to be first, the position would not have been accorded him. If he did not set the pace, he started the movement. It is with very great respect and considerable admiration that I have studied this ‘brief but blazing star’ that during his short and sickly life worked with such unfailing earnestness along lines that to him seemed best and highest.”
Sources (alphabetically, by author)
After the mysterious voice’s prediction is validated a new and rather bizarre character is introduced by the narrator,
“I now come to the mention of a person with whose name the most turbulent sensations are connected. It is with a shuddering reluctance that I enter on the province of describing him. Now it is that I begin to perceive the difficulty of the task which I have undertaken; but it would be weakness to shrink from it. My blood is congealed: and my fingers are palsied when I call up his image. Shame upon my cowardly and infirm heart! Hitherto I have proceeded with some degree of composure, but now I must pause. I mean not that dire remembrance shall subdue my courage or baffle my design, but this weakness cannot be immediately conquered. I must desist for a little while.”1
“One sunny afternoon, I was standing in the door of my house, when I marked a person passing close to the edge of the bank that was in front. His pace was a careless and lingering one, and had none of that gracefulness and ease which distinguish a person with certain advantages of education from a clown. His gait was rustic and aukward. His form was ungainly and disproportioned. Shoulders broad and square, breast sunken, his head drooping, his body of uniform breadth, supported by long and lank legs, were the ingredients of his frame. His garb was not ill adapted to such a figure. A slouched hat, tarnished by the weather, a coat of thick grey cloth, cut and wrought, as it seemed, by a country tailor, blue worsted stockings, and shoes fastened by thongs, and deeply discoloured by dust, which brush had never disturbed, constituted his dress.”2
As Clara observes the tatterdemalion garb of this traveler the stereotype of the country hick, the nescient bumpkin enters her mind; she wonders idly whether it is possible, through “progressive knowledge,” to reconstitute the relationship between agriculture and ignorance. These reflections seem suggestive of Brown’s own political and social inclinations. Clara wearies of her vigil and returns to her kitchen where her maid, a young woman, is busying herself. In short order a knock can be heard upon the front door; the maid goes forth to meet the stranger and is greeted by a cavalcade of arcane allusions.
“‘Pry’thee, good girl, canst thou supply a thirsty man with a glass of buttermilk?'” She answered that there was none in the house. ‘Aye, but there is some in the dairy yonder. Thou knowest as well as I, though Hermes never taught thee, that though every dairy be an house, every house is not a dairy.’ To this speech, though she understood only a part of it, she replied by repeating her assurances, that she had none to give. ‘Well then,’ rejoined the stranger, ‘for charity’s sweet sake, hand me forth a cup of cold water.’ The girl said she would go to the spring and fetch it. ‘Nay, give me the cup, and suffer me to help myself. Neither manacled nor lame, I should merit burial in the maw of carrion crows, if I laid this task upon thee.’ She gave him the cup, and he turned to go to the spring.”3
Clara is struck by the singular nature of the stranger’s voice, particularly the articulate passion of the utterances, so much so that her eyes are filled with “unbidden tears.” Clara, compelled to see to whom this powerful voice belongs, is shocked to find out that the beggar was none other than the raggedy traveler she had observed upon the road. This description is a touch melodramatic and, more unfortunately, rather gives the show away to the reader sufficiently skilled in deduction; if you, dear reader, happen to find yourself deficient of that aforementioned attribution, fear not, all shall, in short order, be made clear.
Sometime later, as she lies in bed, Clara hears mysterious voices once more, this time, however, there is no uncertainty as to the murderous intention which lies behind them.
The first voice intones: “Stop, stop, I say; madman as you are! there are better means than that. Curse upon your rashness! There is no need to shoot.”4
The second voice responds: “Why not? I will draw a trigger in this business, but perdition be my lot if I do more.”5
The first voice, enraged, rises: “Coward! Stand aside, and see me do it. I will grasp her throat; I will do her business in an instant; she shall not have time so much as to groan.”6
Clara, terrified, flies from the room and faints from the strain of her peril. Later, Pleyel relays that he has chanced upon the raggedy stranger who had so moved Clara previously; both the stranger and Pleyel had meet in Spain some time ago. Pleyel tells his friend that the stranger’s named was Carwin, a Englishman by birth and a Spaniard by choice with whom Pleyel had kept up some correspondence. Carwin, in keeping with cultural propriety, had, upon moving to his new homeland, converted to Catholicism, learned the Spanish tongue and appropriated their dress and customs to such a degree that he was, in every particular, indistinguishable from a born-and-bred Spaniard. Even his name, Carwin, was a Spanish adoption (recall the title; yet another instance of “transformation”). Whilst it was suspected by many who knew him that Carwin’s faith was merely adopted for political convenience, this claim goes unproved. It is also revealed that Carwin and Pleyel are firm friends. When Carwin calls upon Clara and Pleyel, they are fascinated by his articulation but confused as to the destitution of his rustic American garb, so at odds with the eloquence of the man’s gestures and speech and his previous fixation on Spanish lineaments. Pleyel attempts, during one of these meetings, to steer the conversation towards Spain in the hopes of excavating the reason for the strange man’s drastic metamorphosis; Carwin’s response is quire fascinating as he states, “Britons and Spaniards… are votaries of the same Deity, and square their faith by the same precepts; their ideas are drawn from the same fountains of literature, and they speak dialects of the same tongue; their government and laws have more resemblances than differences; they were formerly provinces of the same civil, and till lately, of the same religious, Empire.”7 Whilst not singular for the time, such a conception of common ethnography would be considered profoundly radical.
After many of these encounters, they notice a change in Carwin, he assumes a solemnity which disquiets the Wieland household. Clara notes that she is unable to tell ever whether his intentions were good or ill. One night Clara approaches the closet wherefrom she had previously heard the two murderous voices, this time another voice cries out for her to “hold!” She is again terrified but masters herself and determines to get to the bottom of the mystery and root out the source of the mysterious voice once and for all. Opening the closet doors the young woman is greeted by the shadowy form of Carwin who curses the voice which had warned her of impending danger stating quite plainly that he would have raped her long ago had this not occurred. Disturbingly, Carwin does not seem much perturbed by the grotesque nature of his intentions and elaborates upon his schemes, “I was impelled by a sentiment that does you honor; a sentiment, that would sanctify my deed; but, whatever it be, you are safe. Be this chimera still worshipped; I will do nothing to pollute it.”
In a critical consideration of Brown’s narrative deployment of uncertainty let us consider two antagonists within American fiction: Hannibal Lector, from Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Rising and Leonid Danilovich Arkadin from Eric Van Lustbader’s The Bourne Objective. Both are intelligent, cunning and ruthless yet sympathetic characters with a predilection for ultra-violence. Hannibal is a young man whose sister is murdered by plunderer’s during World War II who vows to find them and make them pay for their crimes. Arkadin is a assassin with a troubled past, highly skilled in his trade; yet, despite his ruthlessness he is also given over to empathetic outbursts, “Maslov’s chief assassin at the time had killed a child – a little boy no more than six years old – in cold blood. For this obscenity, Arkadin had beaten his face to pulp and dislocated his shoulder.”1 Arkadin’s presence is recognized, Bourne is certain that Arkadin is a killer and he knows that such a being is after him, hellbent on his destruction whereas in Hannibal, the budding serial killer goes unnoticed by his adversaries (with the exception of the inspector) until the climax begins to draw near. Though the reader knows that Hannibal deigns the various plunderer’s deaths, the villains and side-characters do not; they are uncertain of the danger that awaits them. As such, when leveraging the dread both characters are able to invoke it is Hannibal Lector who emerges as the more imposing foe (he did triumph over his sister’s killers, after all, whereas Arkadin is dispatched by Bourne). The point of this exercise is to demonstrate that the more a thing (in this case, a villainous character) is starkly revealed, to either the character’s within a work or to the reader, the less terrifying they tend to be; hence the horror-trope of the unseen monster which is typically only ever revealed some significant portion of the way into the film, generally near the middle or end (yet rarely ever at the beginning; where a monster is introduced in the very beginning of a horror film and is shown, it is typically not its true form, but rather a husk, shadow or vessel). Brown utilizes just such a trope, not with a particular character, but with a mysterious voice; what it is, if it even is, such things are not explained until deep into the text and as such, work to generate a intensive sense of dark confusion and impending doom, given the fate of the elder Wieland. When all is uncertain, darkness reigns.
1Eric Van Lustbader, The Bourne Objective (Vision, 2010), p. 96-97
Shortly after the transformation of the Wieland Sr.’s temple, we are introduced to the theme of voice and rhetoric, a theme which will form the backbone of many of Brown’s subsequent social and philosophical critiques as well as a sizable portion of the novel’s plot. This theme takes the form of Wieland, Jr.’s intensive interest in Cicero1, the famed Roman orator. Wieland, Jr. is so taken with Cicero and ancient Roman oratory in general, that not only does he attempt to find ways to replicate Roman Latin annunciation, but also attempted to emulate their gestures and movements. Wieland Jr.’s interest in Romanism is only intensified when the young, bright and cheerful, Henry Pleyel enters the picture. Pleyel is the brother of Clara’s friend and he and Wieland Jr. become fast friends. One of the cornerstones of this friendship is a shared interest in Roman history, principally, a mutual appreciation for the works of Cicero.
This fellowship between Pleyel, Clara and Wieland, Jr. was of such a grade that even the outbreak of war failed to shatter the splendor of their idyll, rather, it only intensifies it.
“Six years of uninterrupted happiness had rolled away, since my brother’s marriage. The sound of war had been heard, but it was at such a distance as to enhance our enjoyment by affording objects of comparison. The Indians were repulsed on the one side, and Canada was conquered on the other. Revolutions and battles, however calamitous to those who occupied the scene, contributed in some sort to our happiness, by agitating our minds with curiosity, and furnishing causes of patriotic exultation.”2
In one of these war time idylls at the family temple, Pleyel takes Wieland, Jr. to task over the merits of Cicero’s speech given in defense of a Roman named Aulus Cluentius Habitus3. It is during their disputation that we see the intersection of Brown’s political inclinations with the ever present theme of voice or oration.
“One afternoon in May, the blandness of the air, and brightness of the verdure, induced us to assemble, earlier than usual, in the temple. We females were busy at the needle, while my brother and Pleyel were bandying quotations and syllogisms. The point discussed was the merit of the oration for Cluentius, as descriptive, first, of the genius of the speaker; and, secondly, of the manners of the times. Pleyel laboured to extenuate both these species of merit, and tasked his ingenuity, to shew that the orator had embraced a bad cause; or, at least, a doubtful one. He urged, that to rely on the exaggerations of an advocate, or to make the picture of a single family a model from which to sketch the condition of a nation, was absurd.”4
A storm shortly blows in and Wieland and Pleyel shortly thereafter resume their argument, the ladies of the house, sprightly enjoining. At length Wieland resorts to a letter to prove the merit of his argument (the precise nature of this argument is not disclosed in the text, it is really just a plot device) but cannot find it and recalls he had left the document in his father’s temple which had been vacated due bad weather. He embarks to retrieve the letter and returns without it, his countenance utterly changed. Things here take a turn towards the bizarre when Wieland asks with perplexity whether or not his wife had moved from her seat (she had not), both his wife and Clara and Pleyel respond that she had stayed with them all the while. Wieland then informs them that he must either question their assurance or his own senses as he claims to have heard his wife at the bottom of the hill before the temple, saying, “Stop, go no further. There is danger in your path.” Pleyel notes that this could not be, but Wieland is not to be dissuaded and further elaborates that he saw… something, neath the light of the moon. Wieland goes on to state that he was so moved by this mysterious occurrence of events that he “-could do nothing but obey.”
Henry Pleyel is of the opinion that, perhaps his friend had heard a voice but that the voice most certainly could not have belonged to Catherine (Wieland’s wife and Pleyel’s sister). Catherine herself agrees with Henry but Clara’s mind instantly turns to the grotesque events which lead to the death of her father; strangely, the thought that what had occurred to her father might now be happening to her brother produces no fear or despair but rather, a thrill of interest. The events of that night’s adventure leave a solemn impression upon the young Wieland who doesn’t know what to make of the events save that something had occurred and that something could not be explained away by Pleyel’s rationalizations.
Sometime later, Pleyel has occasion to travel to Europe where he discovers to his very great delight, that the already wealthy Wieland, Jr. had rightful claim to a substantial holding in Lusatia5 whose previous occupants had been killed in the Prussian War6. Pleyel is determined that his friend should lay claim to this inheritance but Wieland is hesitant, cautious about the corrosive effects that such wealth and power invariably bring. Pleyel also has a personal motivation; love. Having a residence in Leipzig, Saxony in Germany he had there fallen for a woman and was thus doubly motivated to convince his friend to take up the inheritance: as he would then be able to pursue his amour whilst being in close proximity to his Wieland, his wife and, presumably, Clara as well. Clara describes Pleyel’s endeavor thusly,
“Pleyel was enamoured of his scheme on account of its intrinsic benefits, but, likewise, for other reasons. His abode at Leipsig made that country appear to him like home. He was connected with this place by many social ties. While there he had not escaped the amorous contagion. But the lady, though her heart was impressed in his favor, was compelled to bestow her hand upon another. Death had removed this impediment, and he was now invited by the lady herself to return. This he was of course determined to do, but was anxious to obtain the company of Wieland; he could not bear to think of an eternal separation from his present associates. Their interest, he thought, would be no less promoted by the change than his own. Hence he was importunate and indefatigable in his arguments and solicitations.”7
During one of Pleyel’s attempts at persuasion, he left with young Wieland on a walk, stating that they’d return to the womenfolk of the estate shortly. However, they return far later than expected, both wearing countenances of supreme confusion, when the women inquire as to what has transpired, Pleyel feigns indifference but shortly thereafter shoots his friend a cautionary gaze, compelling him to silence. Later, a uncharacteristically serious Pleyel greets Clara and inquires whether or not Catherine had left the chamber in which he had departed before his argument with Wieland. Clara replies that neither she nor Catherine had moved from their perch and that they had spent the whole of the men’s absence in reading and sprightly conversation. Pleyel suddenly and inexplicably exclaims that his love, the Baroness de Stolberg, is dead. Clara is momentarily shocked and wonders aloud how he could possibly know this given the fact that the Baroness resides in Germany and the Wielands reside in America and no messages between either party, expressing anything of the sort, had been sent. On the verge of tears, Pleyel explains the reason for his previous look of confusion, noting that on his walk with Clara’s brother, the two men had taken up a sea by a river. Pleyel plied his arguments with renewed forcefulness but Wieland would not yield and responded that it was pointless for even should he cave to peer-pressure, Pleyel would still have to convince his wife and Clara. Pleyel is somewhat perplexed and states that Wieland’s wife should certainly join them in Europe, inquiring, “But when she [Catherine] knows your pleasure, will she not conform to it?” Before Wieland can answer a voice that seems to come from both everywhere and nowhere responds, “No.” Henry notes that the voice was in every particular, his sister’s. Clara is convinced that the voice is real and is determined to fly with Henry to Europe to ascertain the fate of the Baroness, yet, before she or Henry can act the mysterious voice prevails upon them.
“You shall not go. The seal of death is on her lips. Her silence is the silence of the tomb.”
Several weeks pass and word finally arrives from Saxony; the Baroness is dead. The voice, whoever or whatever it is, spoke truly.
One of the very interesting things which Brown does after Clara becomes convinced the voice is real, is to have her waver between believing that the voice is malevolent and beneficent; our clear-minded narrator eventually concludes that the voice is most likely a guiding spirit. What is interesting about this narrative move is that it is rather against horror convention given that most horror fiction produces some particular kind of supra-agent, a kind of outer force (such as a ghost, visions or a mysterious human figure) and though one is generally kept ignorant by the author on all manner of this outer force‘s attributions, one always knows that it is malevolent (even if the motivations for its malevolence are never explained). A good example of this trend in horror is contained within the Hound of the Baskervilles8, wherein the nature of the titular and dreadful hound is left shrouded in mystery, it is not known whether or not the hound is natural or supernatural, but the hound certainly exists and it is most certainly malevolent. However, the “outer force” in Wieland is of a different composition; things here are not so cleanly delineated and it is in this kind of permeation of outer-darkness, and the general building-up of a peculiar and believable sense of uncertainty, that the novel draws much of its strength.
[—Continued in part 8—]
1Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE) was a Roman orator, writer and politician who became a vocal enemy of Mark Antony during the power struggle which ensued after the death of Julius Caesar. He was eventually executed by Mark Antony, who severed his hands and feet and displayed them triumphantly in the Forum Magnum.
2Brown, Wieland, p. 31
3Aulus Cluentius Habitus was a wealthy citizen of Larinum, Samnium, who was accused of attempting to poison his step-father. Cicero defended him and he was found not guilty whereas his accuser, his step-father, Oppianicus, was found to be the guilty party. See, Cicero, In Verrum II.
4Brown, Wieland, p. 35
5Lusatia is a small, German and Polish-speaking, central European country inhabited primarily by Slavs.
6During the period from 1792-1871 Prussia experienced numerous wars. Given that Wieland was published in 1798, Brown is likely referencing The War of the First Coalition (1792-1797).
7Brown, Wieland, p. 45
8The Hound of the Baskervilles is a crime novel written by Sir Conan Doyle featuring his famous characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. It was first published in serialized form in The Strand from 1901-1902.