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.