Early American Horror: The Influence of Charles Brockden Brown
Secret passages. Labyrinths. Suspicious deaths. Unknown evil. All of these elements and more make up the heart of Gothic literature. When thinking of American gothic and mystery writing, thoughts often stray to writers like Edgar Allan Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne. However, Charles Brockden Brown is actually the forerunner to Poe, Hawthorne, and other Gothic and mystery writers in American literature. Written at a time when America was undergoing its birth pangs and struggling to create a new identity, Brown’s works reflect the psychological, political, and social anxieties of a nation coming into being. In his major works, the horror cast upon the scene of America comes from within the darkness and inexplicability of human beings, the idealism of a new republic and the Age of Reason shaken at the core. Charles Brockden Brown reveals that the heart of darkness resides in humanity, and no political, religious, or philosophical structure can save it from itself.
Charles Brockden Brown was born in Philadelphia in 1771 into a Quaker family who adhered to their faith’s belief in pacifism. The America of his youth was one of violence that reflected the division in America surrounding the quest for independence from the British. The nation was divided as friends and family members turned on one another; everyone was suspect. Quakers, especially, were accused of siding with the British due to their pacifism. Brown’s father was financially ruined as he was accused of treason and torn from his home and family. Not surprisingly, the characters of Brown’s Gothic novels are unstable, with darkness lurking behind the veneer of civilization. Outsiders are dangerous, yet the greatest threat comes from within – the family, the neighbor, the American self.
While Brown was trained to work in the field of law and later worked in the family mercantile business, he had hoped to make writing his true profession. He was both writer and editor for literary magazines and wrote a number of novels and short stories. Four of his works – Wieland (1798), Ormond (1799), Edgar Huntly (1799), and Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800) – gained him some notoriety during his lifetime. Each of these can be classified as Gothic and mystery novels and investigate the darker layers of human nature. The most well-known of his novels, Weiland, details the dangers of both religious fanaticism and faith in humankind’s reason and perceptions. Clara’s father, a religious fanatic, dies due to spontaneous combustion while in his temple not far from his home. Her brother, seemingly the image of loving family man and icon of the Age of Reason, believes he hears the voice of God telling him to kill his wife and family. He slaughters them with an axe and eventually kills himself when he realizes he has been deluded. Brown’s novel Edgar Huntly similarly critiques faith in human reason, as the title character finds himself victim of sleepwalking, awaking several times in the American wilderness and prey to his own primal urges. The horrors he sees in the Pennsylvania countryside reflect the horror within himself, as the appearance of civilization hides darkness and violence. Similarly, in Arthur Mervyn Brown depicts the chaos of Philadelphia during the Yellow Fever Epidemic, the disease a metaphor for the moral pollution of institutions like the slave trade and the greed and corruption in Philadelphia at the time. Finally, Ormond, reveals the darkness of human nature through familiar Gothic tropes such as seduction, incest, murder and impersonation.
While Charles Brockden Brown is not the most well-known American writer, his influence is evident in the works of later writers such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even Stephen King. Each of these authors investigates the darkness that lurks within human beings and the fragility of the rational mind. As the narrator of the old radio show The Shadow would intone at the beginning of each episode, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Charles Brockden Brown pondered this question at a time of political and social turmoil, yet his question is relevant, perhaps even more so today.
Works Cited: Elliot, Emory. “Introduction.” In Charles Brockden Brown. , Wieland; or The Transformation and Memoirs of Carwin The Biloquist. Oxford University Press, 1994.
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