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Murder, divine mandates, even spontaneous human combustion set the scene in a thrilling tale in one of America’s first novels. Clara Wieland lives in virtual isolation in a small farming community in Pennsylvania. Her quiet life turns horrific when she learns she must defend herself against the deadly intentions of her own brother, who believes God has instructed him to sacrifice his family. Clara investigates utilizing distinctive Enlightenment scrutiny. Are the voices her brother hears ...
Murder, divine mandates, even spontaneous human combustion set the scene in a thrilling tale in one of America’s first novels. Clara Wieland lives in virtual isolation in a small farming community in Pennsylvania. Her quiet life turns horrific when she learns she must defend herself against the deadly intentions of her own brother, who believes God has instructed him to sacrifice his family. Clara investigates utilizing distinctive Enlightenment scrutiny. Are the voices her brother hears authentic, or the trickery of a visiting stranger with a penchant for ventriloquism? By transplanting the English gothic novel to America and critiquing that literary form in its new setting, Charles Brockden Brown manages to create a text that is simultaneously a bizarre thriller, a novel of ideas, and a declaration of literary independence for the emerging American nation.
From the Introduction by Mike Lee Davis
Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798) is an extraordinary text. It is not only the first novel to be published by the first American to make his living as an author, but functions as a profound commentary on enlightenment values, a stunning critique of the patriarchal assumptions of revolutionary America, and an incredibly wacky and experimental tale. It features unprecedented narrative twists along with such bizarre phenomena as spontaneous human combustion. The text presents us with a narrator, Clara Wieland, who bears a striking resemblance to the beset heroines of the gothic novels that became popular in England in the 1790s. Like her analogues in those novels, Clara spends much of her time in virtual isolation in a rural setting, where she dreads an attack by a villain and tries to make sense of seemingly supernatural phenomena, such as the disembodied voices that are heard by multiple other characters in the novel. But Clara’s isolated setting is not a monastery in Spain or a fortress in the Italian Alps; it is a humble farming community in Pennsylvania. Moreover, the villain is not a priest who has sold his soul to the devil or a dashing European nobleman with designs on an inheritance, but Clara’s own brother, Theodore, who believes that he has been instructed by God to murder his family. Perhaps most important, Clara doesn’t simply wander through her spooky narrative fainting at every opportunity and eavesdropping on ghost stories; instead, she tries to keep a level head, takes measures to defend herself, and makes a point of sharing her contempt for gothic novels with the reader. By transplanting the English gothic novel to America and critiquing that literary form in its new setting, Brown manages to create a text that is simultaneously a thriller, a novel of ideas, and a declaration of literary independence for the emerging American nation.
As an idealistic and energetic youth who was keen to debate the most pressing political, philosophical, and aesthetic questions of his time, Charles Brockden Brown was precisely the kind of person who would struggle to emerge as America’s first professional novelist. Unfortunately for Brown, the United States of the late eighteenth century was a context in which that mission was almost bound to fail. Brown was born in 1771 to a Quaker family in Philadelphia and grew up amid the topsy-turvy world of the American Revolution. His boyhood education at the Friends’ Latin School prepared him for a career as a lawyer—a career that he forsook in order to pursue his passion for writing. Wieland appeared near the beginning of the most fertile period of Brown’s literary life. His productivity between 1798 and 1801 is staggering: he managed to produce a book-length feminist dialogue (Alcuin), as well as five novels in addition to Wieland. One of these is the celebrated Edgar Huntly (1799), an adventure tale regarded by many critics, because of its focus on conflicts between European settlers and Native Americans, as a precursor to the works of James Fenimore Cooper. Biographers often characterize Brown’s marriage in 1803 as the event that, more than anything else, led him to turn his back on novels and to concentrate on more profitable literary endeavors such as magazine editing and pamphleteering. However, Brown’s trajectory as a writer had clearly begun to change as early as 1800, when he abandoned sensationalistic violence, literary experimentation, and freewheeling philosophical inquiry for a more conventional and sentimental approach to fiction in his final two novels, Clara Howard and Jane Talbot (both published in 1801). Although Brown’s marriage was by all accounts happy, it resulted in a financial strain that required him to devote less and less energy to his writing as he focused on his family business and ultimately his own retail shop. His novel-writing days were well behind him when he died of tuberculosis in 1810, but his fiction was respected by many notable literary contemporaries, including such prominent Romantics as Percy Shelley, William Godwin, and John Keats.
Much of the appeal of Wieland has to do with its retelling of the historical case of James Yates, a New York farmer who murdered his wife and children in 1781. Yates, like Theodore Wieland, believed that God had demanded the sacrifice of his family members. But Brown inserts the completely fictional figure of Carwin “the biloquist” into his version of the bloody story to raise important questions about the nature of divine revelation and the reliability of human senses. For Brown, biloquism is something far more powerful than what we think of today as ventriloquism; it involves the ability to imitate people’s voices perfectly and to cast the imitated voice so that it sounds as if it is coming from wherever the biloquist likes. Even if Carwin, a gifted wanderer who is accepted into the Wieland family circle and repays that kindness by toying with his new friends, is not responsible for all of the voices that Theodore claims to have heard, the narrative invites us to reflect on the possibility that his deception of Theodore was the catalyst that unleashed a religious mania that might otherwise have remained in check.
Enlightenment thinking obviously stresses the importance of experimentation and the evidence of our senses over the claims of ancient texts (whether secular or religious), so it is unsurprising when an argument breaks out in chapter 4 of Wieland concerning Cicero’s Pro Cluentius. The debate spans several pages and hinges on a dispute over whether the word Cicero uses at a certain point is polliceretur or polliceatur. Although Brown appears to be questioning the reliability of authoritative texts handed down over the centuries, he masterfully deploys Carwin’s biloquism to show us that the evidence of our senses can also lead us into error. The central question of the Enlightenment is epistemological: How do we know the things we think we know? Wieland’s sly pairing of religious mania (Theodore’s conviction that he has correctly interpreted the word of God) and Carwin’s biloquism (the possibility that what sounds like the word of God is nothing more than a trick being played by a mischievous stranger) suggests that Brown is unwilling to come down firmly on either side of the reason/revelation fence.
Brown is equally skeptical concerning the patriarchal assumptions of colonial and revolutionary America, assumptions that led to an equation between votes cast by adult white men and the voice of the people. He begins his interrogation of the notion that father knows best through his examination of Clara’s father (also named Theodore), who comes to America from Europe after reading a pamphlet produced by French Protestants. The senior Wieland initially crosses the Atlantic with the intention of converting the Native Americans to Christianity because he is convinced that he knows what is good for them. However, he becomes distracted by the pursuit of wealth and personal comfort and neglects his missionary goals while tending to his farm outside of Philadelphia. Years later, he believes that he has disappointed his own figurative father (God) and begins to experience “disquietude.” Certain that God is going to punish him, he proceeds fearfully one night to the temple that he has constructed as a personal sanctuary for prayer. While praying, he is incinerated. Although he construes the burning as divine retribution, Clara’s uncle (whose job as a surgeon qualifies him as an exponent of Enlightenment values) concludes that spontaneous human combustion is the more logical explanation. The fact that two grown men can have such disparate interpretations of the same event is underscored by Clara’s artful telling of the tale, which subtly suggests that our young female narrator is aware of the possibility of a murderous arsonist as the most likely explanation.
Fathers and father figures in Wieland consistently make decisions that are apt to leave readers scratching their heads concerning patriarchal competence. Obviously, when Clara’s brother murders his wife and children because he is certain God told him to do so, the reader has no choice but to see unchecked patriarchal authority as a threat. Later, when the murderous Theodore escapes from prison in search of Clara, we have to wonder whether Clara’s guardian (her substitute father) is acting in her best interest by keeping the news of Theodore’s escape from her. Brown, a vociferous advocate of women’s rights in his other writings, seems to be raising important questions about the kinds of decisions that men are entitled to make on behalf of women.
None of this is to suggest that Brown presents his female narrator as flawless. The bizarre construction of the narrative gives the reader reason to doubt Clara’s reliability and raises questions about her literary artistry. Are the footnotes that Brown inserted in the text supposed to be his own or Clara’s? Why does the character of Louisa Conway flit in and out of the early part of the story only to reappear in a final chapter, a chapter that reads more like a plot summary for a sequel than an actual conclusion to Wieland? When Clara invites the reader to speculate about her feelings for the mysterious Carwin, isn’t she luxuriating in the desire/dread conundrum of the very gothic heroines she claims to hold in contempt? What is the point of the pretense that the novel is written as a series of letters—particularly since that illusion is virtually abandoned between the first chapter and the last?
Such interpretive riddles abound in Wieland. The problem of the novel, in fact, begins with the pronunciation of its title. Brown’s selection of a title (a European name) that was almost certain to be mispronounced by a substantial portion of the American readership to which his novel was directed is our first alert to the possibility that Brown’s project, in Wieland, is to attempt to answer the aesthetic question raised by America’s political independence. The novel’s full title, Wieland; or the Transformation, an American Tale, seems to respond to that aesthetic question with almost mathematical precision by moving from something distinctively European (the name Wieland) through the idea of transformation (the potential for mispronunciation) to the notion of the American. There is a sense in which the American Revolution can be seen as anti-European, a severing of European (and particularly English) ties, but there is also a sense (perhaps best articulated by the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke) in which American independence stands as a testament to the maturation of England’s socio-political heritage. And if America’s Declaration of Independence can be seen, from a political vantage point, as a simultaneous repudiation of England and an out-Englishing of the English, then the aesthetic question faced by the burgeoning republic can be seen in terms of a choice between developing the European artistic traditions that still tied America to the Old World and repudiating those traditions in favor of a nationalistic and rigorously un-derivative aesthetic, a declaration of literary and artistic independence meant to underscore American separatism.
Brown engages this problem in Wieland through a careful manipulation of the gothic devices that his readers had come to expect from the imitators of Ann Radcliffe, England’s foremost gothic novelist, whose “explained supernatural” is clearly the literary justification for the figure of Carwin. Radcliffe’s hallmarks permeate the novel despite Clara’s contempt for gothic trumpery:
The tales of apparitions and enchantments did not possess that power over my belief which could even render them interesting. I saw nothing in them but ignorance and folly and was a stranger, even to that terror which is pleasing. But this incident [Carwin’s biloquial deception of two other characters] was different from any that I had ever before known. Here were proofs of a sensible and intelligent existence, which could not be denied. Here was information obtained and imparted by means unquestionably super-human.
When we later learn that Carwin is responsible for these “super-human” voices, we experience the same satisfaction that comes with reading the explanations of the seemingly supernatural events in a Radcliffe novel (or, in more contemporary terms, the un-sheeting of a phony ghost at the end of a Scooby-Doo episode).
But Brown is no slavish imitator of Radcliffe. After all, he has no gothic castles to work with in America, no Italian bandits, no secret pirate tunnels. Brown certainly knew (and probably authored) a parody of gothic conventions that appeared in his Weekly Magazine in June 1798:
Take an old castle; pull down a part of it, and allow the grass to grow on the battlements, and provide the owls and bats with uninterrupted habitations among the ruins. Pour a sufficient quantity of heavy rain upon the hinges and bolts of the gates, so that when they are attempted to be opened, they may creak most fearfully. Next, take an old man and woman, and employ them to sleep in a part of this castle, and provide them with frightful stories of lights that appear in the western or the eastern tower every night, and of music heard in the neighbouring woods, and ghosts dressed in white who perambulate the place.
Convey to this castle a young lady; consign her to the care of the old man and woman, who must relate to her all they know, that is all they do not know, but only suspect. Make her dreadfully terrified at the relation, but dreadfully impatient to behold the reality. Convey her, perhaps on the second night of her arrival, through a trap-door, and from the trap-door to a flight of steps downwards, and from a flight of steps to a subterraneous passage, and from a subterraneous passage, to a door that is shut, and from that to a door that is open, and from that to a cell, and from that to a chapel, and from a chapel back to a subterraneous passage again; here present either a skeleton with a live face, or a live body with the head of a skeleton, or a ghost all in white, or a groan from a distant part of a cavern, or the shake of a cold hand, or a suit of armour moving—fierce “put out the light, and then”—
Let this be repeated for some nights in succession, and after the lady has been dissolved to a jelly with her fears, let her be delivered by the man of her heart, and married.[i]
In Wieland, Brown manages to stud his narrative with many of the tensions and delights of the English gothic novel without adhering to the formula of that form as established by Radcliffe’s many imitators. But whereas Wieland succeeds, for the most part, in adapting an Old World literary form to a New World setting, The Memoirs of Carwin may indicate that the reversal of the process did not come so easily to Brown. The unfinished Memoirs (also included in this volume) attempts to tell the back story of the biloquist who claims to have been raised in Pennsylvania and persuaded by a utopian named Ludloe to leave America for European intrigue in Spain. Brown’s attempt to tell this European tale sputtered when he began it in the summer of 1798 and ran completely out of steam when he attempted, in 1803, to pick up where he had left off. Appropriately, Brown is most perceptive and imaginative in such American tales as Wieland; Carwin is certainly more intriguing (for both the writer and his audience) in the Pennsylvanian confines of the finished novel than in the Barcelona or Toledo of the fragment.
Critics are increasingly skeptical of the propriety of labeling Brown “the father of the American novel,” but his achievements are impressive even if such a moniker overstates his legacy. In addition to the admiration that Brown received from English writers in his own lifetime, he was vitally important to many of America’s foremost literary figures of the nineteenth century. Cooper’s focus on the frontier, Nathanial Hawthorne’s fascination with the mysterious and supernatural, and Edgar Allan Poe’s abiding interest in the horrific and grotesque can all be traced back to the overlooked figure of Brown. Even if we acknowledge the importance of Brown’s predecessors (from William Hill Brown to Susannah Rowson), there can be no denying that the author of Wieland is an American original.
Mike Lee Davis is a professor of American Literature at Cameron University. He holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Princeton University and is the author of Reading the Text that Isn’t There: Paranoia in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel (Routledge, 2005).
[i] “A Receipt for a Modern Romance,” signed Anti-Ghost, appeared in Brown’s Weekly Magazine, II.22 (June 30, 1798) and is reprinted in Literary Essays and Reviews (8).
Posted January 19, 2010
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Posted December 13, 2009
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