Elevens (2001)

(Excerpt from the novel Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad)

 

“You count the money. I’ll count the blood.” Daniel pushes the open case of dollars toward Jesús who in turn opens a large cooler releasing a cloud of mist. The cooler is tied to a dolly. Daniel’s gloves lift blocks of dry ice, revealing pint bags labeled O negative, A negative, A positive, B positive, etc. All will be consumed during a single meeting of Fiona’s extended family. The O negative is for her.

“All good.” Daniel replaces the ice and shuts the lid. “Let’s do this again sometime.”

“You got it.” Jesús shakes hands and nods toward the twin-engine plane fronting a skyline of red rock formations. “Baron, huh? What’s it cruise, 200 knots?”

“I’m not a pilot.” Daniel grins. “I just hire them.” He tilts the dolly back while Jesús opens the door. “I need a steady source for O negative. What can you get me every other week?”

Jesús shrugs. “80 or 90 pints. Maybe 100.”

“Get me 100 and I’ll pay 200 bucks a bag.” Daniel pushes his cargo into the morning sun. “See you in two weeks?”

“You got it. I’ll have 100 for you.”

Outside, today’s pilot – Bud — opens the baggage door. When Daniel unstraps the cooler, each grabs a handle and lifts. Bud groans. “This feels heavier than what we agreed.”

“131.5 pounds, like I told you.” Daniel grunts through his teeth.

Bud puts his end into the cabin. “Same as my daughter who flew with me yesterday. Course, she’s at the age where she’d kill me for telling. You got kids?”

“None that I weighed recently.” Daniel looks at his watch. “It’s after six. Let’s go.”

Bud starts the engines. “Sedona traffic, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha taking off runway Two-One, left turnout.”

That you, Elevens? It’s Boxcar on your six. Where you headed?

“Goin’ to Chicago with all that money I won last night.” He turns onto the taxiway.

Me too.”

“Uh, I recall you leavin’ more than you came with.”

“I meant Chicago. And I was doin’ all right until you dropped triple Jacks. I’m staying at the downtown Hilton. Sure would love a chance to get my five hundred dollars back.”

“Game on!” A smile creeps across Bud’s face. “Of course, we could bet that five hundred on a race to Chi-Town.”

“Hmm. Where you stopping for fuel?”

“Garden City, Kansas.” Bud enters the runway. “Wanna make it double or nothin’?”

“That’a Texas-sized 10-4.”

Bud opens the throttle and the engines roar in stereo. Seconds later they’re airborne, white wings disappearing into a cerulean panorama. He looks in the mirror at Boxcar’s Mooney lifting off. “So, Mr. Strange, what’re we haulin’ today?”

Daniel is so entranced by the Mars-red surface he almost forgets his “business” name, Robert Strange. “Uh, lab samples. Tissue. Can’t say much beyond that.”

“Long as it ain’t stem cells – or clonin’.” Bud shakes his head. “So sick of people playin’ God when they should be worshipping Him. You a church-goer?”

“It’s been a while. I might come back.”

“Don’t wait too long. Never know when Judgement Day will arrive.”

“So why do they call you Elevens?”

“My lucky number. Born November 11. On my eleventh birthday I went to church for the first time and got moved by the Holy Spirit. At twenty-two, I became a father for the first time. And at the age of thirty-three, after wandering in the desert so to speak, I came back to Jesus. Yessir, born again.” He pauses. “Of course, you heard about my last winning hand.”

“Three Jacks.”

“Which was the eleventh hand of the game.” His right hand goes up. “God as my witness, I kid you not.”

Daniel wrinkles his forehead. “I’m trying to remember the significance of eleven in the Bible. All I remember are twelves.”

“Right, the number of apostles, and the age Jesus was when he questioned scholars in the temple. Plus, twelve sons of Jacob who formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Yep, the good book likes an even dozen. But eleven is connected to the main event for people in my church – hold on.” Bud listens to frequency traffic for several seconds. “Chatter on the east coast. Reports of a plane crashing into a skyscraper.” He shakes his head. “Where were we?”

“Eleven in the Bible.”

“Right. Eleven appears less often in scripture but when it does, it usually signifies judgement. Take the Book of Genesis. In Chapter 11, mind you, mankind rebels against God and builds the tower of Babel. God responds by confusing their language – literally, they start babbling, and the result is chaos.” He pauses to listen again. “The apostle John had eleven visions in connection with the final judgement. And the Gospel of John tells of eleven promises God makes to mankind, beginning with everlasting life if you believe in Christ and ending with a call to obey Jesus. My takeaway: Eleven is a sign to get right with the Lord before Judgement Day.” Listening again. “For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that our savior was 33 when he was crucified.” He presses a headphone tight against his left ear. “Another plane hit the World Trade Center – South Tower this time – and now they’re saying both were airliners. Looks like an attack of some sort.”

“Let me hear.”

Bud switches to an AM channel and they listen silently for several minutes. The news gets worse as reports come in about another airliner crashing into the Pentagon. Even the distance of two time zones can’t deaden the reality that the nation is under attack. There’s confusion about a fourth plane which, at first, was headed for the White House but now lies burning on the ground in Pennsylvania. Aboard each plane, the hijackers shouted “Allāhu akbar” – 11 letters spelling “God is greatest” — as they used boxcutters to slit crewmembers’ throats. Now the media is sharing voice messages from those trapped in the burning towers. Daniel keeps swallowing to quell the emotions rising in his throat. Bud just lets his moans, groans, and tears flow unchecked. He improvises a prayer:

“Dear Lord, it’s Elevens here, your perennial sinner. I know we haven’t spoken directly about my little gamblin’ problem, but I’d like to make sure we’re square. If this is your Final Judgement, please have some mercy and take this flawed but well-meaning servant to sit by your side. If, however, this is a trial you’ve set for us, I’m ready to show my devotion by givin’ up cards. Just, please, give me a sign. Show me the way.” He turns to Daniel. “If you need help prayin’ – maybe you forgot some of the words – I can help.”

“I’m sure my fate has already been decided.”

Bud looks forward. “And Lord, let’s not forget our quiet friend here, Mr. Strange. He may be a mystery, but I’m guessin’ his intentions are just as noble as mine. That, I believe, makes him worthy of your protection. Amen.”

Albuquerque Center to all aircraft: All flights are to immediately land at the nearest facility. This is a nationwide order from the FAA. Repeat: Land immediately.

“Ask for a sign, receive one.” Bud clears his throat. “Albuquerque Center, this is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha. Message received. Over.” He spreads a chart across the control wheel. “No long runways in front of us, so we’ll have to turn around.”

“No.” Daniel holds a pistol in his right hand. “Keep going.”

“You out of your mind? I’ll lose my license – and my livelihood.” Bud’s eyes land briefly on the gun. “Careful with that trigger. We’ll both die if you pull it.”

“I’m not pulling anything so long as you keep flying.”

Bud sighs. “Mr. Strange, you’re makin’ a big mistake. And it’s a hell of a thing to do, dragging me into whatever scheme you got going on.” He glances back. “I’m guessin’ that’s not lab samples, is it? What are you into, drugs?”

“The less you know, the safer we both are.”

“Sounds like you’re in deep.” Bud softens his voice. “Look, man, it’s not too late. I’ll testify in your favor if you just give me the gun and let me follow orders.”

“We’re all obeying someone, Bud. Just get us to Garden City.”

“And then what? You can’t take off. All flights are grounded!”

“Let me worry about that.”

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, Albuquerque Center. Turn around now and land at Sedona. That is an order.

Daniel pushes the gun closer. “Don’t acknowledge.”

Bud exhales and puts both hands on the wheel. After several seconds, he shakes his head. “The Lord is testing me today. With signs I do not like.”

“When we land,” Daniel adjusts his tone, “I’ll pay your second installment early, and we’ll part ways. The world has no time right now for this little problem between us.”

“Problem? You hijack my plane and call it a ‘little problem’? That is a breach of trust, my friend, and comes at a time when my very identity is shaken to its core.”

“Identity?”

“Eleven has always been my number — whether it’s cards, horses, or life events. Then this morning happened. I woke up and said, ‘It’s the 11th of September, gonna be a good day.’ But clearly, it’s not. It’s a shitty day for everyone – possibly the worst in our nation’s history. That’s one sign.” He points at the gun. “Next, I’m held up by a Colt M1911. And now,” he punches his door, “111 miles from Sedona, we get intercepted.”

“What?”

“LOOK OUT YOUR GODDAMN WINDOW.”

Daniel’s jaw drops when he sees an F-16 with its flaps open and gear down, slowing into formation. Its pilot raises a hand, finger pointed down.

Barron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is Captain “Spike” Ripley of the United States Air Force. I’m in visual contact and will shoot you down if you fail to comply with the following order: Land immediately. Repeat: Land immediately.

“There’s nowhere.” Bud is sweating. “NOWHERE TO FUCKING LAND!”

Daniel snatches the chart. “There’s a private strip on a mesa up ahead.”

“What’s the heading?”

“25 miles straight ahead.”

“Length?”

“What the mesa?”

“RUNWAY.”

“2,900 feet.”

Bud snatches it back. “Shit, that mesa looks half the size of Sedona. It’ll be like landing on an aircraft carrier – which I’ve never done before.”

Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, this is your final warning. Land immediately.

Bud’s voice cracks. “Don’t shoot, Captain! Gimme two seconds.” He switches on the landing lights, decelerates, and snaps his fingers at Daniel. “Airport elevation.”

“What?”

“FEET ABOVE SEA LEVEL.”

“4,700.”

Bud clears his throat. “This is Baron One-One Two-Two Alpha, descending. God bless you, sir, and God bless the United States of America.” He glances over. “I’m assuming there’s no tower at this little outpost we’re shootin’ for.”

“Correct.”

“Well, brace yourself, because crosswinds are gonna be a problem.” He scowls when he notices the gun again. “Put that away.”

“Are you calm now?”

“Fuck you.”

Daniel complies and settles into his seat as the runway comes into view, sitting atop a block of crimson stone. The approach is fairly calm until a quarter mile out, when a gust knocks them off target. Bud’s knuckles are white as he raises the nose and straightens out against the crosswind. Back on track, he finally lowers the wheels, adjusting for the extra resistance which now appears to come from everywhere. At 500 yards, the plane shakes violently while Bud struggles to stay on target. At 200 yards, he pulls back on the wheel, keeping the nose up, while gunning the engine to stay above the rim. At 50 yards, a giant gust pushes the plane below the runway. Bud yanks back again and accelerates sharply as the rocky face grows bigger. Nearly above the rim, Daniel sees another plane above them.

“Shit, that you Elevens? I’m on top of you.”

“THE FUCK, BOXCAR. ABORT LANDING.”

“Pulling up.”

Too late. The Baron’s wheels catch the rim and collapse, causing them to skid diagonally across the runway. They knock aside a parked helicopter, then hit another plane before smacking into a hangar. As he slowly regains consciousness, Daniel hears a gurgling sound. Turning his head, he sees Bud’s eyes staring down at a long piece of metal in his throat. The gurgling slows to intermittent choking before Bud finally goes silent. Next, Daniel turns to the right and sees his arm hanging out the window, bent the wrong way. A piece of bone sticks out through his bicep.

***

“Daniel.” A familiar voice, but not the one he hoped for. His eyes open to see Søren Fillenius leaning over him, eyes piercing the narcotic haze. He snaps his fingers and waves his hand in front of Daniel’s face.

“Stop it.”

“There he is.” The hand withdraws. “That must be powerful stuff they gave you.”

Daniel looks at the tubes hooked up to his left arm. “Where’s Fiona?”

“Really? I come to your rescue, and she’s all you think about?” He shakes his head. “She’s not coming.”

“Rescue? Bullshit. You’re here for the cargo.”

“I did salvage some A positive. The rest will go to waste because the elders canceled the meeting. I suppose you’ll blame the pilot for our having to reschedule.”

“Waste? Take the O negative to Fiona.”

Søren looks indignant. “I’m not your mule – or hers.”

“You piece of shit. I nearly killed myself to deliver that.”

“Well well, the truth comes out.” Søren’s face comes closer. “I’ve got some truth of my own to share.” Two icy hands grab Daniel’s face and turn it to the right. “Look at what’s left of you and tell me you’re still useful.”

Daniel’s breathing accelerates when he sees the stump wrapped in bandages. “That’s up to Fiona…”

“She and I have already spoken.” Canines appear as Søren’s voice changes to a snarl. “I’m to estimate your value and decide whether you stay employed or remain here. Permanently.”

“I have a new source.” Daniel struggles to speak. “100 bags of O negative every two weeks. That, plus Atlanta and Cleveland, and Fiona is set.”

“Where is this new source?”

“Sedona. All we have to do is hire a new pilot.”

“All the planes are grounded.”

“For just a few days. The economy would collapse.”

“100 bags of O neg, huh?” Søren regards him carefully. “Add 100 of A positive to each flight and I’ll let you live.”

Daniel’s vision fades as the drugs take hold again. A warm, fuzzy feeling spreads throughout his body, and the pain that was rallying begins to recede. At this point, he could care less if Søren brought him home or drained him dry. He wonders if heaven feels this good, and kind of wishes he could slip away forever. Would Elevens be there? His prayer for protection should carry weight, right? With St. Peter or whoever guards the gates? If, however, he must stay here it better be with a steady supply of this shit. The label on the drip bag was hazy but it might’ve said Dilaudid. Maybe Jesús could add a few bags of this, too. Get rid of the bad dreams. Allow him to forget everything.

The shadows gather again. Søren’s voice sounds like it’s coming from an old phonograph. Soon, all Daniel can hear is his own shallow breathing. Sure ain’t hell, that’s for certain…

###

Wieland—Introductory Inscription (1798)

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 Dead of Venice (1914)

By Dan Klefstad


She promised to do it quickly. I promised to stay out of sight. All bodies float, which is why I brought two anchors – one for me, one for her victim. All she need do is throw us in, then the chainsfollowed by the weights. This far out the lagoon is forty feet deep, maybe fifty. From down there our lifeless ears might still enjoy the sounds of Vivaldi performed in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Just as likely, we’ll hear the rattle of Europe’s emperors as they prepare – once again — to exterminate a generation of working class blokes like me. As I row, I point to Italy’s newest battleship which dares to keep its lights on; perfect target for a night raid. I ignore that bit as I play the tour guide for Fiona and tonight’s meal. “The Regina Elena. Faster than the HMS Dreadnought wot I helped build. Yup, this next war looks to be a doozie.” 

In the lamplight, Fiona toys with the gold dragonfly I pinned to her ball gown. I can see her eyes well up and her mouth tremble. Lorenzo, heir to the Duke of Parma, raises his fist at the glowing gunboat. “Viva l’Italia!” 

Toff. What does he know of war? I served in the Tibetan campaign, so I know it’s a nasty business for those who actually fight. I want to hit him now but we’re still within sight of ship and shore. Looking back, I see a city of free spirits being hemmed in by sandbags and barbed wire. Bloody hell, when did the Four Horses of the Quadriga flee the Basilica?  Someone said the statue might go to Rome for safe keeping. From what — So the Turks can’t take it back? 

I suppose I owe you an explanation as to why three people are in a boat, after dark, and two of them will soon head to the bottom. Hang on: The young swell is giving Fiona his kerchief. Blimey, he even recites a Shakespeare sonnet – in English. She tries to smile but struggles to contain her thirsty teeth and, guessing here, a broken heart? Concern for her future? Both hands cover her mouth as she leans forward, shoulders quaking. This exposes her breasts which prove such a distraction that Lorenzo misses the oars resting and the blackjack falling toward his scalp. I wanted to wait ‘til a hundred yards off the Main Island, our usual point, but the fog rolled in so … Boom. Done. Colazione is ready. 

uncork my wine and try not to stare as she sinks her canines into his neck. It always amazes me how efficient she is. No wasted drops. Her lips move gently as she slowly sucks him dry. I’ve never timed her, but bottle and body usually empty together. Then I chain him to the anchor and over he goes. The rest – hundreds of them – are a little further out in what I call “the cheap seats.” This will be my final resting place. I can barely stop my tears now, but they’re not for me. Creatures like her are vulnerable these days. She’ll need someone to look after her, but my pain is almost debilitating now; I couldn’t arrange a replacement. 

I take another sip and remember how our partnership began with an ad in the Daily Mail 

“Seeking Personal Assistant. Must be physically strong, and willing to work all hours. Compensation: copious. Benefits: worthy of a parliamentarian. Nota bene — People with the following characteristics should not apply: squeamish, weak-willed, illiterate, semi-literate, religious, superstitious, melancholic, alcoholic, xenophobic, agoraphobic, unimaginative, uninventive, uninspired, and with rigid moral standards.” 

I had to look up Nota Bene and, if pressed, would cop to some grumpiness without a few pints each night. But I posted a reply. Benefits worthy of a parliamentarian. What did that mean?

***

We met soon after sundown in Hampstead Heath, at the gazebo. I wore a suit that no longer fit and she wore a dress that barely contained her bosom. Her coal black hair waved gently across the palest shoulders I’ve ever seen. I thought she was a courtesan looking for some muscle, and she did nothing to dispel that notion. She gave me money to hire a carriage which took us to Charing Cross. We stopped outside a row of fancy homes and that’s when she turned and handed me the dragonfly. All that gold with emerald eyes; I couldn’t guess the value of this “down payment” as she called it. Then she lowered her voice and — without blinking — said, “A gentleman lives there. I am going to drink his blood and he will die. Your job is to wait in this carriage until I return. If you tell anyone what I just said I will know, and I’ll come after you to reclaim my dragonfly. And you. If, on the other hand, you wait as instructed, I will pay a handsome sum. But first you’ll need to get rid of the body. Think of a place to bury him. And start thinking of places for tomorrow night, and every night. Welcome to your new career.”

***

She didn’t tell me for a week that I was her first. Guardian, I mean. Or caretaker or whatever you call someone that works for a … Whoops, not supposed to say that word. Anyways, from backbreaking work in a shipyard I started breaking my back for Fiona, digging graves and such. That first week I made more than all the previous year and a half. I quit that job — Hello new job — and soon graduated to being the murderer. Things were getting hot for Fiona, what with Scotland Yard improving their detection and all. She needed someone to do the dirty work, which I didn’t mind. I killed before, but it always bothered me that the people you shoot, stab, or blow up often go to waste. You seal them in a coffin or burn them and that’s it; they serve no further purpose. These days, when a body goes limp in my hands, I know it’s about to give life. 

She looks ravishing afterwards. Her hair gets full and wavy. Her skin glows like the moon. And her eyes – you could drown in them, they’re like a clear lake with a bottom so deep, so full of secrets that you’d need to swim forever to discover them. It’s the opposite, though, when she doesn’t get her ten pints. That’s the nightly quota. The first night without a victim is bad, but her hair starts to fall out on the second. Then her skin wrinkles and begins to smell, and her eyes harden to the point where I think she’d eat an entire schoolyard of children. I work very hard to make sure I never see that look again.

***

“We have to move,” she announced one night. “Detectives, newspapers – I feel like we’re surrounded. Did you know Venice has lots of people and very few policemen? It’s also easier to get rid of bodies there.” 

“Where will I dig? It’s a city built on water,” I said before realizing her point. “Fairly deep water actually, between the islands.” 

“Yes.” She frowned. “The only problem is getting there.” 

Before the night is over, I’m nailing her into a trunk with an unconscious bloke beside her. The journey would take two weeks by ship so she warned me: Some passengers would have to die. When I asked how many, she wouldn’t answer. I think she didn’t know the minimum needed to sustain her. In the end, I tossed three bodies over the rail; we couldn’t risk any more. To this day, I pity that poor bastard that crossed our path after we landed. I did a rum job of subduing him, and Fiona ripped him so terrible that half his blood painted the alley. Absolute horror show. We didn’t have a boat yet, no weights. Just my blackjack smashing his nose, a knock-down drag-out into the alley, and Fiona attacking his throat like a rabid dog. The musical accompaniment, though, was amazing. A lively melody emanated from a church across the street. I’d never heard a string ensemble perform, so I was unprepared for the effect it had. The bowing and plucking lifted my spirits, opened my heart, and stimulated an awareness I’d never felt before. 

A spark of inspiration – Let’s make this disaster look like a Mafia hit. I took my knife, severed his head, and tossed it into the nearest canal. Wouldn’t you know, that did the trick. The next morning, I scoured the papers and saw nothing. No mention of a blood-sprayed alley, headless body, or bobbing face screaming in silent agony – Niente. There was, however, an article about another event on that same street: a review of a concert featuring music by the baroque master Antonio Vivaldi. It said they did five shows a week at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and they always sold out when performing The Four Seasons. 

***

St. Stephen’s became our main hunting ground. Fiona and I surveyed the crowd and she picked the swain who’d leave with her as the musicians stood to rapturous applause. That’s how we claimed the cream of European societyToo bad I won’t see the job through to its finish. Here, off the Piazza San Marco, this dying East-Ender is preparing for his curtain call. I am not even good enough for an emergency snack because the cancer makes my blood smell bad. When she said that, when I realized could serve no further purpose, I replied “Enough. Let’s end it.” 

“Well,” I stand chained to my anchor, “you found me. You’ll find someone else.” I wipe my nose and eyes and lower my head toward her. “I’m ready.” 

Her hands caress my face as her lips melt against mine; I taste a little of bit of Lorenzo. Now our foreheads rest against each other. “You’ll feel a brief shock but no pain. I promise you.” 

“Will I hear the music from St. Stephen’s?” 

“Vivaldi? Yes. And Bach …” 

I nod, tears mingling with hers in a puddle at our feet. She drapes her right hand around the back of my head, stroking my hair, while her left tightens around my chin. “And Corelli … Scarlatti…” 

I close my eyes. 

“… Handel … Monteverdi…” 

I feel the shock but the flash behind my eyelids is a surprise. From inside the boat I hear a series of sobs. Then a splash, followed by a slight wailing sound, which gets wobbly as I sink beneath the waves. Her voice grows fainter and fainter as I take my place among our Venetians. 

Her timing was perfect. The concertmaster is tuning up the ensemble. I hear a pause. Then, glory of glories, they launch into the first movement, La Primavera. Four violins, one viola, a cello and bass fill my ears. Even the bells of the Regina Elena keep time with the bowing. I’ve seen this show dozens of times and never got tired of it. But the water bends the music in ways I couldn’t imagine. Antonio, if you’re in the ground somewhere, find a way to get yourself down here. Your Four Seasons never sounded better. 

Best seats in the house, eh boys? You can thank Fiona for that. Better yet, keep her in your prayers. It’s the least we can do for her. God, what an amazing place to spend eternity. 

###


‘The Dead of Venice’ is a chapter-excerpt from Dan Klefstad’s upcoming novel, ‘Fiona’s Guardians.’

Notes On Charles Brockden Brown: A Study Of Early American Literature by Martin S. Vilas (1904)

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)

  1. Arkaprabha92. (2015) The Realm of Shadows & Chimera: Gothicism in Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland or, The Transformation. JUSAS Online.
  2. Cheryl Spinner. (2010) Martin S. Vilas, Early 20th Cent. CBB Scholar. Electrically Speaking (Cheryl Spinner’s Research Blog).
  3. Martin S. Vilas. (1904) Charles Brockden Brown: A Study Of Early American Literature. Free Press Association.
  4. Memoir of Charles Brockden Brown (preface to Cornell University’s edition of Wieland).
  5. Rob Velella. (2010) Birth of Charles Brockden Brown. The American Literary Blog.