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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Charles Brockden Brown

Charles Brockden Brown was critically acclaimed in both America and Europe for his novels that adapted the Gothic style to the American landscape, substituting urban decay and untamed wilderness for castles and dungeons. In England, he was celebrated by the social reformer and novelist William Godwin and by the poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the United States, where the admiration was largely posthumous, Brown was praised by Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Margaret Fuller, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and John Greenleaf Whittier. Although recognition eluded him in his lifetime, as did monetary rewards, Brown did succeed in publishing six novels, as well as numerous political pamphlets and essays, and in founding two literary journals. Brown considered himself a “story-telling moralist,” blending the didactic with the literary in consonance with an age still ambivalent about the benefits of reading fiction. Cathy N. Davidson acknowledges Brown’s struggle with an audience predisposed against the novel and concludes, “Brown strove to educate the educated to the intellectual benefits of novel reading.”

Charles Brockden Brown was born on January 17, 1771, in Philadelphia to Quaker parents, Elijah and Mary Armitt Brown. He grew up amid the excitement and turmoil of the colonies in revolt, even witnessing the arrest and temporary banishment to Virginia of his wealthy merchant father, whose Quaker pacifism led to accusations of being a British sympathizer. Brown entered the Friends Latin School in Philadelphia at the age of eleven and studied under the distinguished Robert Proud, graduating at the age of seventeen. Instead of attending college, Brown initially complied with his family’s wishes and began working as a lawyer’s apprentice to Alexander Wilcocks, but he became disenchanted with the profession by 1793. All the while, he continued to nurture his literary skills and in 1786 joined the Belles Letters Club of Philadelphia. In 1789, he published a series of essays in Columbian Magazine under the title “The Rhapsodist,” adopting the persona of a “hermit-explorer” who, as Emory Elliot explains, “spent months alone in the Ohio wilderness, meditating on human nature.” Brown may have disappointed his family by not entering the family mercantile business, but his Quaker upbringing infused his writings with ethical and moral themes.

In 1796, Brown moved to New York and joined the Friendly Club, a group of intellectuals interested in the social reformist ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin. Club members included William Dunlap, a writer and artist who became Brown’s first biographer, William Johnson, a Friend, and Elihu Hubbard Smith, a poet, playwright, and medical student. In 1798, Brown shared bachelor quarters with Smith and Johnson in what must have been a stimulating environment, for in that year Brown published two novels: Alcuin: A Dialogue was a critique of marriage and its restrictions for women. Wieland; Or, The Transformation. An American Tale was based on a true story about a devoted father and brother who turns delusional and murderous. As the source of the delusion may be voices from God, Wieland also addresses what would become a recurrent theme in Brown’s works: religious ambiguity. The year 1798 was also a time of tragedy. Johnson had welcomed into their home an Italian physician stricken with yellow fever. The man soon died, and Brown and Smith also fell ill. Brown survived, while Smith succumbed.

Brown drew upon his close encounter with disease in several of his works, notably Ormond and the first part of Arthru Mervyn, both published in 1799. In 1799, Brown also published his fourth novel, Edgar Huntly, which used sleepwalking as a framing device, a subject he explored in “Somnambulism,” the fragment that appears in this anthology. Some critics have suggested that Brown employed this structure to explore themes of the subconscious and repressed impulses, another manifestation of the Gothic. During that prolific year, Brown turned his attentions to editing. In April 1799, he helped to found The Monthly Magazine and American Review. In addition to working as editor, he submitted many of his own writings. In December 1800 the magazine was renamed The American Review and Literary Journal and continued publication until 1802.

In 1801 Brown published two novels in the sentimental style, Clara Howard and Jane Talbot. Michael T. Gilmore observes that Brown’s final novels appropriately addressed women’s subjects in that “the romances constituted a last appeal to the already feminized reading public and capped his attempt to earn a living as a fiction writer.” Despite these attempts, the works were not financially successful. At this point, Brown entered the family’s trading business with his brothers. In 1803, he published two political pamphlets critical of Thomas Jefferson’s policies regarding the purchase of the Louisiana Territory: An Address to the Government of the United States, on the Cession of Louisiana to the French and Monroe’s Embassy, or the Conduct of the Government, in Relation to Our Claims to the Navigation of the Mississippi. Though Brown’s motives in these pamphlets are not entirely clear, they were apparently quite popular and gave him the notoriety that had eluded him as a novelist. In 1803, Brown launched another periodical, The Literary Magazine and American Register, where he published “Somnambulism” in May 1805. This successful periodical ran until 1860, when it was reconfigured as the semi-annual American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Science, which ran until 1810.

In 1804, Brown married Elizabeth Linn after a four-year courtship challenged by their families on religious grounds. Linn was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. Brown’s parents did not attend the Presbyterian ceremony, and Brown was subsequently censored by his Quaker meeting in Philadelphia. Despite this family tension, the Browns enjoyed a brief but happy marriage that produced four children in five years. In 1804, Brown also translated and published with the original notes Volney’s A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States. Geography had long been an interest for Brown. At the time of his death he was working on his own geographical study, “System of General Geography; Containing a Topological, Statistical, and Descriptive Survey of the Earth” (the manuscript has been lost). In 1809 he wrote another anti-Jefferson pamphlet, on the trade embargo, An Address to the Congress of the United States on the Utility and Justice of Restrictions Upon Foreign Commerce. This was his final publication. Brown died at the age of thirty-nine from tuberculosis in Philadelphia on February 22, 1810.

Susan Clair Imbarrato
Minnesota State University Moorhead

In the Heath Anthology
Somnambulism, a fragment (1805)

Other Works
The Novels of Charles Brockden Brown, 7 vols. (1827)

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Cyclopaedia of American Literature
  A biography of Brown written in 1856.

American Literature on the Web
  A portal for primary and secondary web materials.

Charles Brockden Brown Papers
  Bowdoin College's Brown collection, including letters and other materials available online.

Perspectives in American Literature
  Site by Paul Reuben providing a scanned drawing of Brown and primary and secondary bibliographies.

Secondary Sources

A. Axelrod, Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale, 1983

Bill Christophersen, The Apparition in the Glass: Charles Brockden Brown's American Gothic, 1993

C.N. Davidson, Revolution and the Word: the Rise of the Novel in America, 1986

E. Elliott, Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic 1725- 1810, 1982

N.S. Grabo, The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown, 1981

Elizabeth J. Hinds, Charles Brockden Brown's Gendered Economics of Virtue, 1997

D.A. Ringe, Charles Brockden Brown, 1966

H.R. Warfel, Charles Brockden Brown: An American Gothic Novelist, 1949

S. Watts, The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture, 1994