This article discusses the American constitutional elegy. It argues that American national difference in literature can be tracked in the terms of its engagement with specifically American constitutional principles, concentrating on the national period, beginning in the late eighteenth century with the Revolutionary War and sketching the story up to the present day. It then returns to the great theme of elegy as a flexible form and its practices under persistent self-scrutiny. All choral poetry carries with it an association with the choruses of ancient, especially Athenian, tragedy and thus with the common understanding that the chorus speaks as or on behalf of a democratic citizenry. Marilyn Hacker has written a ‘constitutional elegy’ in the great American tradition, a tradition that continues to challenge our principled commitment to the legal and symbolic bonds of ‘adjacent difference’ in a rights-based national polity.
Anne K. Mellor
This article addresses the female-authored elegy. By far the greatest number of elegies penned by women between 1660 and 1834 confront the loss of a dearly beloved family member or friend. Additionally, it describes Mary Chudleigh's three elegies at length because they provide a brilliant representation of the emotional continuum upon which other female elegists map the work of grieving. At the end of the eighteenth century, the female-authored elegy underwent a significant literary development. In the hands of its most skilled practitioners — Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Letitia Landon, and Felicia Hemans — the poetic elegy became an exploration. The female-authored elegies functioned on occasion as a vehicle of culturally repressed sexual desire. Many of them are more specific in their political critique, taking the occasion to support particular parties, policies or public figures.
Mark L. Kamrath
Charles Brockden Brown, who edited three periodicals between 1799 and 1809, used his experience as a novelist to engage readers on important cultural issues. His periodicals became increasingly political. Brown’s “Annals of Europe and America” document historical events, his capacity as a novelist to write “history,” and his status as an ironic historian. In assessing Napoleonic rule and British expansion, he develops a self-conscious method that also informs his inquiry into American events. He sympathetically renders oppressed others in India, comments ironically on motives for exploiting the American west, and interrogates political intrigue in the 1808 Republican nomination process. With developing awareness of the constructed, contingent nature of history, Brown came to understand political self-interest, power and imperialism, and American exceptionalism relative to that of Europe. As in his novels, he imaginatively and provocatively employed genre conventions of the day to represent the past and critically reflect on the present.
The British book trade evolved into a fully modern industry during this period. Its modernity was signalled by more effective copyright laws, clearer divisions of labour and responsibility, and the emergence of publishing as a distinctive branch of the trade. The period saw a significant increase in the publication of fiction as a purely commercial phenomenon. Publishers, booksellers, the owners of circulating libraries, and authors all benefited from this. New and more standardized formats developed, including the ‘three-decker’ and the one-volume cheap reprint, which were to characterize much of the nineteenth-century fiction industry, and at the same time the old practice of serial publication was revived from the early 1830s onwards in several forms. Fiction publishing was a business—and by the end of the period it was a commercially significant business.
Charles Brockden Brown embraced the classical tradition in English literature, as can be seen from his many references to Greek and Roman historiographers, poets, and philosophers. His retellings of ancient events and his portraits of classical figures questioned central maxims in the writing of history which derived from Cicero and had been practiced by the later school of eighteenth-century exemplary historiography. While Brown’s classicism has been frequently interpreted along the line of the growing political tensions in the 1790s, this chapter shows that his adaptations of classical sources are motivated less by a partisan spirit than by Brown’s understanding of himself as a civic commentator and public intellectual. Brown’s Roman stories and his numerous essays on topics related to classical antiquity have to be seen as an intervention in the formation and enlargement of public opinion in the early national period.
This chapter discusses Charles Brockden Brown’s literary investment in physiology, medicine, and disease as a crucial knowledge base for his Gothic fictions. The instances of somnambulism, spontaneous combustion, ventriloqual psychosis, and yellow fever that populate Brown’s fictions are the signature pathological and quasi-pathological conditions that mark its inherently para-physiological literary terrain. Situated as cultural pathologies and quasi-clinical conditions, these diseases or diseaselike conditions function as triggers for his plots and as engines of sociocultural critique. This chapter traces Brown’s intellectual investments in medical knowledge as part of the shared border between the mental/moral and the bodily/natural and how these investments led him to situate his fiction in the interstices between the social, medical, and mental and the categories of knowledge that regulate understanding of these domains.
Jordan Alexander Stein
This chapter considers the various things that sex does and can mean in Charles Brockden Brown’s corpus, with particular attention to his novels. Following on Brown’s discussion in “Walstein’s History,” the chapter takes for granted that sex has at least three different meanings: sex as gender, sex as marriage, and sex as sexuality. Though Brown’s works depict sex in plural ways, the works are not consistent in their representations of the relationship among these plural aspects of sex or in their emphases on which aspects matter most. Sex accordingly has become an interpretative problem for readers of Brown’s novels: what meaning or meanings for sex are being represented, and to what end? The chapter surveys scholarly attempts to make sense of Brown’s engagements with sex in its multiple forms, in an effort to identify which meanings might best serve readers of Brown’s novels.
Siân Silyn Roberts
This chapter situates Charles Brockden Brown’s Gothic and sentimental novels in relation to the broader culture of novelistic miscellany that proliferated before 1820. It considers Brown’s contributions to contemporary narrative theory, his revision of the political economy of sentimentalism and the Gothic, and the historical formalism of episodic and picaresque narratives. It offers an overview of contemporary debates about the moral value of novel reading and considers contemporary calls for a novelistic culture of literary nationalism in terms of a broader, circum-Atlantic system of literary transmission and adaptation. It offers a heuristic account of the social function of the episode or fragment in early American imaginative writings and considers how Brown theorizes his relationship to the generically variable, constitutively elliptical nature of early American literary production more generally.
Abigail Smith Stocker
The Woldwinites, the group of British writers centered around Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, were a key influence on Charles Brockden Brown’s writing. From them, he drew a coherent set of political and artistic ideas concerning fiction writing. This chapter outlines the major aspects of that influence. Brown read the Woldwinites in the context of the Friendly Club circle with his fellow club members Elihu Hubbard Smith and William Dunlap. By the mid-1790s, Brown had adopted Woldwinite fiction as a model for his own and espoused well-known Woldwinite tenets such as the duty to struggle for justice, deference to general utility, and reliance on patience and time to generate change. Brown adopted a more nuanced account of Godwin’s views of marriage after the appearance of the latter’s Memoirs of Wollstonecraft and articulated a systematic critique of the excessive sensibility often associated with Wollstonecraft in his novels and essays.
This chapter explores the potential causes of and responses to the yellow fever outbreaks in Philadelphia and New York during the late eighteenth century. Disrupting routines, halting commerce, and endangering the health and welfare of residents of these areas, the outbreaks also play a central role in the writings of Charles Brockden Brown, who used them to frame some of his novels and tales and to position his characters in moments of crisis. Moreover, this chapter connects the dilemma in the “Man at Home” series to the founding father and debtor Robert Morris, and through this connection we see how Brown positions debt alongside yellow fever as social crises that his characters must navigate. By exploring how Brown used yellow fever in his writing and how scholars have interpreted this use, this chapter explains the multifaceted roles that the disease had on Brown and our understanding of his work.
Charles Brockden Brown’s lifelong commitment to the principles of the Enlightenment is well reflected in his commitment to equal rights for women in education, marriage, and social standing and in his support for women’s economic independence. The strong women he created in his fiction have attracted the admiration of readers and writers over many generations, and his exploration of gender dynamics remains unsurpassed. This essay focuses on two fictional texts, Alcuin; A Dialogue (1798) and the novel Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (1800), in which the promises of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution for the transformation of gender as a social relation are critically examined, their limits tested, and their justice affirmed. Next to the well-known Ormond, the early Alcuin emerges as a masterpiece of social satire and sociological analysis.
This chapter argues that Edgar Huntly is the foundational text for the American Gothic, a genre that shadows American history. Noting the strange similarity between Charles Brockden Brown’s romance and Francisco Goya’s The Sleep of Reason, produced in the same year, the chapter argues that Brown and Goya are alike in ironizing the Enlightenment by noting that violence as often arises from reason as from its repression, as much from intellectuals striving to do good as from irrational impulses. Like many Gothic texts, the romance’s presiding metaphor is live burial, in a cave but also in language, in the very instrument of reason. The romance parallels the sleepwalking of the ambiguous foreign other, Clithere, and narrator Edgar; and just as Clithero’s narrative proves to be a compromised tissue of intertextual fantasies and lies, ostensibly benevolent but ultimately murderous, so doubt is cast on the narrator, also dangerously fettered by reason.
Michael A. Cody
The biography of Charles Brockden Brown continued to be of literary and scholarly interest after his death in 1810 and into the twentieth century. William Dunlap, one of Brown’s closest friends, extended an earlier aborted attempt at a biography of Brown and published his two-volume Life of Charles Brockden Brown in 1815. Dunlap provided the biographical basis for numerous essays and sketches that periodically remembered Brown’s life and work and sustained public interest in the author. Few new details of Brown’s biography surfaced over the years, so these recurrences of brief literary biographies serve as an evolving record of Brown’s literary reception across changes in public and artistic tastes. Through the first half of the twentieth century, Daniel Edwards Kennedy compiled a six-hundred-thousand-word biography of Brown but left it, at his death in 1960, incomplete and unpublished. Subsequent scholars, however, have benefited from additional biographical details that Kennedy’s researches uncovered.
Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds
Biography and reception of Charles Brockden Brown since the mid-twentieth century was marked by efforts to canonize him and to recover primary and related texts. The first generation of this era typically practiced formalist readings and focused primarily on Brown’s first four novels. Often psychobiographical, these studies created a “Gothic” and proto-Romantic Brown. Later generations have expanded the canon to include Brown’s work over his lifetime, including the many genres he worked in; have practiced more cultural and poststructuralist methodologies with an eye to gender and sexuality, geography, race, and class; have placed Brown in a more global context; and have brought Brown studies into the era of digital humanities.
Charles Brockden Brown’s stature among elite writers in English during the Romantic era was significant from his death in 1810 until the late nineteenth century, though it was initially far more robust abroad than at home. In the United States during the first two decades after Brown’s death, his work tended to be treated with a certain critical condescension or outright neglect. Meanwhile, his major novels saw several reissues in England before 1820, during which time they drew the fascination and praise of now-canonical authors. In the end, with this mark made on transatlantic literary culture, an enriched understanding of Brown and his literary importance made the return trip, resulting in Brown’s elevated stature among later generations of American writers. This chapter moves back and forth across the Atlantic to reimagine the circulation of ideas, influences, and aesthetic norms that first framed Brown’s work for a transatlantic readership.
Charles Brockden Brown’s Philadelphia Quaker upbringing was one of many influences on his work. Over the course of the eighteenth century, Philadelphia Quakers went from a dominant to a persecuted minority. Quaker treatment of Native American and Scots-Irish neighbors was the source of internal and external strife, especially in the aftermath of the Paxton Boys uprising. Aspects of this history can be discerned in Brown’s writing on Quakers. Brown directly discussed Quakers in a number of periodical pieces after 1800, and he made imaginative explorations of religious and Quaker issues in his novels Arthur Mervyn, Wieland, and, in particular, Edgar Huntly. While the mature Brown retained an acute sense of Quaker history and practice, he denied Quakers any particular regard or advocacy.
Examining the literary construction of place in Charles Brockden Brown’s fiction and nonfiction, this chapter argues that the author’s spatial imagination was representative of eighteenth-century geographical thought while also anticipating new humanist theories of cultural geography. Be they cityscapes or desert wilderness, architectural structures or complex spatial systems, Brown’s settings reveal geographic writing protocols and theories of representation that in turn served as creative venues for contemplating political doctrines of territoriality; Enlightenment fantasies of fixed spaces in an age of globalization and landscape aesthetics; and new geographic sensibilities linking the human body to the sensory experience of space and the spatial feeling of emplacement. By recovering Brown’s lifelong enthusiasm for the science of geography, the chapter concludes that in the course of his literary career, Brown not only repudiated writing fiction in favor of textbook geography but preferred geographic over literary authorship.
This chapter discusses the interrelationships between Charles Brockden Brown’s writings and the historical forces of colonialism and empire. Brown’s novels, journalism, political pamphlets, and historiography explore the impact of US territorial and commercial expansion, the slave trade, political violence, and ideologies of racial difference on the development of the republican political experiment. Brown challenges the ideological divide between British colony and American republic. His writings register how colonialism was part and parcel of the Bildungsroman of a rising republic with imperial designs in North America. This political paradox marked the distinctiveness of Brown’s settler-national voice. Recently, scholarship attuned to the historical forces of colonialism and empire has reorganized the prevailing chronology of Brown studies. It is no longer widely accepted that Brown, after 1800, turned toward conservatism and abandoned aesthetic experimentation. The reception history of Brown’s later work now reads like one of his compelling, contradictory, unpredictable Gothic novels.
This chapter surveys the treatment of sentimentality and sensibility across Charles Brockden Brown’s fiction within the historical and cultural context of the wider Atlantic world. It considers the changing ways in which literary critics have responded to Brown’s use of sentiment, as well as the role this feature of his fiction has played in determining his place within literary history. The chapter argues that the representation of feeling in Brown’s fiction should be paired with a study of finance, speculation, and consumer society. Brown explores and exposes sympathy’s double bind, which lubricates the wheels of commerce even as it seeks to stop its destructive effects.
This chapter explores Charles Brockden Brown’s fictionalized depictions of the anti-Jacobin conspiracy theories that drove the Illuminati scare that gripped the United States in the 1790s, as exemplified in Wieland, Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist, and Ormond. These visions of global conspiracy refer to John Robison’s 1799 Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe and Abbé Barruel’s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, in which the authors reduce the French Revolution and the subsequent radical convulsions to the machinations of a German secret society known as the Bavarian Illuminati. Brown satirically appropriates these counterrevolutionary theories of a worldwide conspiracy. The chapter presents Brown’s imaginative juxtapositions of Jacobin and anti-Jacobin discourse in the three novels as an incipient attempt to map a conflict-ridden 1790s public sphere, while retaining a version of radical political and social commitment—in coded form—during a period of counterrevolutionary backlash.