Truth's Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel

Truth's Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel

by Philip F. Gura

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ISBN-13: 9781429951340
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/09/2013
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 788 KB

About the Author

Philip F. Gura is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of American Transcendentalism: A History, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction, as well as many other books of American cultural history.
Philip F. Gura is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of American Transcendentalism: A History, which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction, among many other books on American cultural history.

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Truth's Ragged Edge

The Rise of the American Novel
By Philip F. Gura

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Philip F. Gura
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780809094455

1  Beginnings

Historians of the English novel point to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) as a progenitor of the form. The American version of this tale is Joseph Morgan’s History of the Kingdom of Basaruah (1715), a minister’s allegory of the Calvinist view of man’s fall and redemption.1 Though uninspired, the book is a testament to the centrality of Christian allegories in eighteenth-century British North America.2 But with the circulation in the newly independent United States of popular English novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747–48), Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768), and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771), novelists began to revise and sometimes challenge allegorical narratives of the pious Christian life. Rather than provide road maps through the Delectable Mountains, they heralded the triumph of individual virtue and urged the cultivation of sentiment in contemporary settings readers would recognize. They often based their novels on the kinds of stories heard from neighbors or read in the weekly newspapers—tales, in other words, populated not by pasteboard archetypes but by real people. Appropriate for earlier times, accounts of a pilgrim’s progress lacked the texture and complexity of everyday experience in the late-eighteenth-century United States and particularly its moral ambiguity.
Fictional works that directed an individual through this sinful world emerged first as handmaidens and then as rivals to the sermons, religious allegories, and wonder tales that hitherto had dominated native literature. In his Algerine Captive (1797), one of the earliest American novels, Royall Tyler, Vermont superior court judge, playwright, poet, and novelist, noted this shift. His character Updike Underhill, following six years of captivity in the Barbary States, remarks how on his return from his forced absence from the United States he “found a surprising alteration in public taste,” for now everyone read novels. “The worthy farmer no longer fatigued himself with Bunyan’s Pilgrim up the ‘hill of difficulty,’ or through the ‘slough of despond,’” and “Dolly, the dairy maid, and Jonathan, the hired man, threw aside the ballad of the cruel stepmother, over which they had so often wept.”3 A character in another early American work commented on the same shift in reading habits. “We fly from the laboured precepts of the essayists,” he observed, “to the sprightly narrative of the novelist.”4
This comment appears in what is widely recognized as the first bona fide American novel, William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy.5 Brown (1765–1793) was born in Boston, the son of a prominent clockmaker.6 Educated locally, he displayed a penchant for classical and English literature and by his early twenties was publishing patriotic poetry, thereby contributing to the city’s nascent cultural nationalism. In one poem, “Shays to Shattuck: An Epistle,” Brown imagines a conversation in prison between a despondent Daniel Shays, fomenter of Shays’s Rebellion, and one of his foot soldiers, in which the former tries to justify his rebellion. In another, “Yankee Song,” Brown celebrates the state’s recent ratification of the Federal Constitution. The poem contains the refrain “Yankee Doodle keep it up, Yankee Doodle dandy” and upon republication the following year carried the now-familiar title “Yankee Doodle.” In his early twenties, Brown came to the attention of the prominent printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, who encouraged regional authors by publishing them in his newspapers and a periodical titled The Massachusetts Magazine (1789–1796), whose contributors eventually included Benjamin Franklin, the New Hampshire essayist Joseph Dennie, the poet Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton, and the early women’s rights advocate Judith Sargent Murray. Thomas was not particularly interested in publishing native fiction, however, finding children’s books and almanacs, as well as reprints of popular English titles, more lucrative. But his good nose for profit led him in 1789 to publish Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, no doubt thinking that its thinly veiled references to recent sensational events in Boston guaranteed its success.7
For almost a century this novel was mistakenly attributed—Thomas had issued it anonymously—to another Boston writer, the poet Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton, because she was intimately involved in the scandal that had inspired it. This sordid tale unfolded in two of Boston’s most prominent families. Sarah Apthorp married Perez Morton, a prominent state politician who counted the Revolutionary patriot James Otis among his friends. The Mortons graciously allowed Sarah’s unmarried sister Frances (Fanny) to live with them in their Beacon Hill home, but she proved too tempting to Perez; a surreptitious affair led to the birth of their child. Sarah and Fanny’s father, James Apthorp, was outraged and demanded that Morton openly acknowledge the baby girl. Morton refused, and just before a meeting at which Apthorp planned to press his demand even more forcefully, Fanny poisoned herself and died.8
Brown used the scandal to explore the vagaries of human passion in a young republic that extolled free will. The Power of Sympathy, an epistolary novel, alternates between scenes of overt moralizing and outright melodrama. It begins in a way familiar to contemporary readers, with Thomas Harrington writing to his friend Jack Worthy about his attraction to Harriot Fawcet, whom he plans to seduce. But she successfully resists his intentions, whereupon Brown includes his first surprise: Harrington, now admiring her virtue as well as her beauty, eventually falls in love with her, and she with him. However, some in their circle disapprove of their marriage plans. In particular, Mrs. Holmes, a family friend, urges another of Harrington’s friends to dissuade him. Before long, the secret comes out: the couple cannot marry because they are siblings. Harriot is the result of Harrington’s father’s illicit affair sixteen years earlier with a young woman, Maria. When Harrington’s father learned that his mistress was pregnant, his interest cooled, and he abandoned Maria to her fate. The Reverend and Mrs. Holmes took her in, and the family soon included Maria’s young daughter, Harriot; Maria revealed the identity of the girl’s father to her benefactors. After Maria becomes gravely ill and dies, the Holmeses, to protect their friend Harrington’s reputation, place young Harriot out to service. The news of her early years shocks and dismays both Harrington and her, and before long she dies of sorrow and despair. Learning of her death, Harrington shoots himself, an end that borrows from Goethe’s book The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).
Much of the novel consists of secondary characters moralizing on this tragic course of events. Worthy’s epistles, for example, and those of Mr. and Mrs. Holmes read like didactic essays or sermons on character formation in young women, the dangers of reading fiction, and proper republican marriage. But the characters also punctuate their moral lessons by alluding to other events at least as troubling as the dilemma in which the Harringtons and Harriot find themselves. One subplot concerns a young man, Henry, who after his lover, Fidelia, is kidnapped just before their marriage, takes his own life. Her abductors release her; but on hearing of Henry’s fate, she despairs and becomes deranged. Another tangential tale, again centering on the vagaries of passion, details the affair of the senior Mr. Harrington and the young Maria. And in a brief textual reference and lengthy footnote, Brown alludes to yet another contemporary story making the rounds in New England. Elizabeth Whitman, a Connecticut clergyman’s unmarried daughter, had died alone in childbirth at a tavern near Boston, the baby’s father unknown, a scandal that later became the basis of another early American novel, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1798).
As these stories indicate, in The Power of Sympathy Brown was chiefly interested in the wages of excessive passion, both socially approved and illicit. Henry’s love for Fidelia is so great that once she is abducted, he kills himself because he cannot imagine life without her. Ophelia and Maria are unable to resist the advances of men who they believe are willing to marry them but in fact are rakes. Harrington and Harriot’s affection is so deep that the impossibility of their marrying leads to one’s suicide and the other’s premature death. Brown implies that love, hatred, and fear cannot be easily controlled and often push one to irrationality. Recounting Ophelia’s story, Brown writes that when Martin turned on her, “she awoke from her dream of insensibility, she was like one … deluded by an ignis fatuus to the brink of a precipice,… abandoned … to contemplate the horrours of the sea beneath him, into which he was about to plunge.”9
That terrifying moment, standing at the edge of an abyss and peering over, fascinated Brown, as it did other early American writers. Famously, it became the subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Imp of the Perverse,” his name for the impulse to look over the edge, fascinated by the thought of one’s extinction. In The Power of Sympathy, Harrington and Harriot continue to feel more than familial love even after they realize that their love is illicit. He wonders why “this transport” is a crime, for his affection for Harriot is “most pure, the most holy … Here,” Harrington exclaims upon learning his dilemma, “was all the horrour of conflicting passions.”10 What precisely does one do about such a love? The rational Mrs. Holmes cannot help them. “GREAT God!” she cries to Harrington’s sister, Myra. “Of what materials has thou compounded the hearts of thy creatures! Admire, o my friend, the operation of NATURE—and the power of SYMPATHY!”11 Even the elder Harrington is at a loss to comprehend his son’s and Harriot’s plight. He asks the Reverend Holmes, “How shall we pretend to investigate the great springs by which we are actuated, or account for the operation of SYMPATHY?” His son, he continues, had “accidentally seen [Harriot], and to complete THE TRIUMPH OF NATURE—has loved her.”12
Brown, too, stands at the verge of such an abyss but refuses the plunge. He does not pretend to know why such things as Harrington’s and Harriot’s love occur and ends his novel the “easy” way, with the death of one of the lovers. Harriot’s demise drives Harrington to despair, even as his suicide serves a higher purpose: soon he will join her in heaven, where their love “will not be a crime,” although the reader never learns why not.13 In their earthly lives, the problem resides in society’s arbitrary rules, in particular an insistence on the supremacy of reason over passion. “Why did I love [this] Harriot?” Harrington ruefully asks. “Curse on this tyrant custom that dooms such helpless children to oblivion and infamy!”14
Brown’s characters’ failings indicated his allegiance to the ideals of republican virtue, selfishness at odds with their privileged position in society. The elder Harrington’s dalliance with Maria, his inferior in social class, betrays a social hierarchy that exists even in a supposedly democratic nation. “I am not so much a republican,” the younger Harrington tells Worthy early in the novel, “as formally to wed any person of this class. How laughable,” he thinks, openly to acknowledge as his wife a “daughter of the democratick empire of virtue.”15 To his surprise, “the power of sympathy” prevails, for he does fall in love. But once the couple’s true relationship is known, to formalize it would only fray, if not sever, the still-fragile bonds of republican virtue. Brown thus postpones their happiness until heaven.
The revolutionary nature of the U.S. government was not explicit in The Power of Sympathy but in various degrees was the focus of other early American novels, particularly Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry (1792–1815), set in western Pennsylvania after the disruption of the Whiskey Rebellion, and Tyler’s Algerine Captive, which drew on the United States’ conflict with the Barbary States. These are loose and baggy picaresque novels that through satire probe the country’s new social order, in particular the still-uncomfortable notion that the most plebeian citizen should be afforded the same respect as a person of wealth and influence. Thomas Jefferson voiced this ideal when he famously wrote John Adams in 1813 that there is a natural aristocracy among men based in virtue and talent that should trump any inherited or honorary rank.
But these picaresque novels were never as popular as other contemporary novels, such as The Power of Sympathy, that center on the vagaries of human passion, typified by seemingly omnipresent tales of seduction. One historian attributes this genre’s popularity in part to the “dramatic slackening” of laws against moral offenses like prostitution and adultery. In this climate women “began to experience unprecedented social and sexual freedom,” even as didactic novels and other moralistic literature warned of the dangers of female sexuality.16 Perennially the most popular novel of passion was Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte: A Tale of Truth, first published to an indifferent reception in England in 1791 by William Lane at his Minerva Press and issued in Philadelphia three years later. In the United States, however, Charlotte Temple, as it was retitled in 1797, became one of the bestselling novels before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), appearing in scores of editions, most commonly as Charlotte Temple: A Tale of Truth. What was its appeal to an American readership?
One answer lies in the way Rowson’s biography gave the book an air of undeniable veracity, for just as William Hill Brown’s life was brief and relatively uneventful, Rowson’s was the stuff of contemporary fiction.17 She was born Susanna Musgrove Haswell in 1762 in Portsmouth, England, the daughter of William Haswell, a career naval officer, and Susanna Musgrove Haswell, who died when her daughter was only ten days old. When Rowson was a year old, the English navy sent Haswell on assignment to New England as a customs official, and relatives in England cared for her until he brought her over in 1767. Having landed in Boston Harbor on a frigid and stormy midwinter day (a scene she later re-created in her novel Rebecca; or, The Fille de Chambre [1792]), Rowson found a new home at nearby Nantasket, a peninsula just south of the city. There she faced many adjustments, for she had to live not only with a parent she hardly knew but also with a stepmother, whom Haswell had married two years earlier. Although Susanna never warmed to Rachel Woodward Haswell, she later looked back fondly on these years, filled as they were with seaside and country walks and fine literature from her father’s library, not to mention spirited conversation with the future patriot James Otis, who gave her, according to one early biographer’s account, “particular notice and favor.”18
But the 1760s and 1770s were increasingly difficult times for the Crown’s officers. As the imperial crisis escalated, Haswell attempted to stay neutral, but his situation grew tenuous. Finally, in 1775, he and his family were placed under house arrest and relocated, first to nearby Hingham and then inland to Abington, this second move occurring because none other than Perez Morton had accused Haswell of “frequently making such false representations among the inhabitants, as tend to cause divisions, to strengthen our enemies, to intimidate and weaken our friends.”19 During these difficult years Susanna played a large role in staving off the family’s privation, often securing food and other necessities from sympathetic friends, both English and American. The family was finally able to return to London in 1778, after Haswell requested an exchange for an American prisoner, a trade completed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, between British and American authorities.
But in England the family’s economic difficulties only mounted. After a succession of unremarkable jobs, Rowson found her way to the stage and then, after a modicum of success, began a prolific career as a songwriter, playwright, and novelist. In 1786 she published Victoria, and three more novels followed. None, however, drew much attention. During this period she married William Rowson, a hardware merchant, handyman on theater sets, and occasional actor and musician who brought an illegitimate son to the union. William Rowson never attained anything like his wife’s success and reputedly was a drunk, but the two remained together until her death in 1824.
In the early 1790s Rowson caught the attention of the prominent American actor and playwright Thomas Wignell, who enticed her across the Atlantic to work in his New Theater in Philadelphia. Arriving at the end of the great yellow fever epidemic of 1793, the family decamped to Baltimore almost immediately. When it was safe to return to Philadelphia, Rowson resumed acting, filling important secondary roles in several of Wignell’s productions. She tried her hand at playwriting, penning the relatively popular Slaves in Algiers; or, A Struggle for Freedom (1794). She also convinced the city’s major publisher, Matthew Carey, to reissue Charlotte, the last of the quartet of novels she had written in England in the 1780s. Its publication proved a better business decision for him than it had for Lane, and he issued three subsequent editions in the next few years. But frustrated because on the stage she remained in the shadows of more prominent leading ladies, in 1796 Rowson moved to the Federal Street Theatre in Boston, where her two stepbrothers lived. There she briefly continued her acting career and then, recalling the difficulties of her own teenage years, reinvented herself one more time, as the preceptor of a female academy. She abandoned fiction altogether upon completion of the ambitious but not overly popular historical novel Reuben and Rachel (1798). For the next twenty-five years Rowson devoted herself to her Young Ladies’ Academy.
Rowson’s career was transatlantic in scope and achievement, yet surprisingly she is mainly remembered for Charlotte Temple. The book’s plot is straightforward and, to a late-eighteenth-century reader, would have been familiar. Charlotte is an attractive fifteen-year-old at an English boarding school, placed there by loving parents who have done little to prepare her for adulthood’s trials. On one of her walks, she catches the eye of John Montraville, an English officer who is about to go to America and who, after losing interest in marrying the girl when he learns that she has no great wealth, decides he still wants her as his lover.
In the brief dalliance that ensues, Mademoiselle La Rue, a French teacher at the school who herself plans to elope with Montraville’s associate Belcour, convinces Charlotte to see the lieutenant one last time before he leaves the country. Told by Madame Du Pont, the preceptor, that her parents soon will arrive to take her home for her birthday, Charlotte has one last chance to turn from her folly. “The irrevocable step is not taken” yet, she reasons; “it is not too late to recede from the brink of a precipice, from which I can only behold the dark abyss of ruin, shame, and remorse!”20 But La Rue convinces her that it would be cruel not to see Montraville a last time, and caught between love and reason, Charlotte capitulates. Montraville sweeps her into a waiting carriage and seals her fate. Immediately remorseful, Charlotte writes to her parents to alert them to her whereabouts, but Montraville, who has promised to mail her letter, instead destroys it. As their ship embarks for New York, the abductors show their true colors. The fortune hunter La Rue, realizing that Belcour has no money, instead sets her eyes on one Colonel Crayton, a wealthy but simple soul who quickly succumbs to her wiles. For his part, Belcour, aware that Montraville does not intend to marry Charlotte, decides to woo her as soon as opportunity permits.
After disembarking in New York, where Montraville is stationed, he installs Charlotte, now pregnant, in a small home just outside the city. His increasingly infrequent visits do little to alleviate her growing depression, as she finally understands the severity of her plight, as well as the pain her precipitous behavior has caused her parents. Still looking for marriage to a lady of means, Montraville begins to court Julia Franklin, a wealthy heiress. Though he seems genuinely guilty about his treatment of Charlotte, he jumps at an excuse to break with her, an opportunity that arises when Belcour (still trying to advance his prospects with her) convinces him that Charlotte has been with other men, including himself. Having discovered Belcour with her in a deceptively compromising situation (of Belcour’s contrivance), Montraville marries Julia but leaves Belcour money for Charlotte and her unborn child. Despondent, she again writes to her parents. Her health continues to decline, and Belcour, too, loses interest in her, stops his visits, keeps the money Montraville earmarked for her, and marries a wealthy farmer’s daughter.
Charlotte’s only happiness comes when her father, having received her missive, travels to the United States and finds her on her deathbed. She begs his forgiveness and makes him promise to care for her recently born daughter, Lucy. Distraught after he has made a visit to the cottage and not found Charlotte, Montraville frantically searches for her and comes upon her funeral. Meeting Mr. Temple, he confesses his part in his daughter’s downfall; he will go on to lead a melancholic life punctuated by frequent visits to his former lover’s grave. Mr. Temple and little Lucy return to England. Ten years later Temple and his wife find on their doorstep a destitute woman, none other than La Rue. Separated from her husband for seven years and mired in vice and misery, she asks forgiveness for her part in the family’s tragedy. Ever compassionate, the Temples place her in a nearby hospital, where a few weeks later she dies, completing the wreckage begun at the girls’ school years earlier.
Charlotte Temple thus has all the markings of a morality tale that warns young women of seduction. But what is one to make of its wildly different reception in England and the United States? Did its subject matter resonate differently because of the younger nation’s distinctive political and social ideals? The answer lies not in the reader’s sympathy for Charlotte but in Rowson’s carefully wrought depictions of other characters’ reactions to her plight.
Belcour is the novel’s only truly unrepentant soul and presumably ends the tale enjoying his gentleman’s life in the country. Rowson makes clear that he is a villain and from the outset distinguishes him from Montraville, who is “generous in his disposition, liberal in his opinions, and good-natured almost to a fault.” In contrast, Belcour “paid little regard to moral duties, and less to religious ones,” and did not think twice about the misery he inflicted on others. In short, “Self, darling self, was the idol he worshiped.”21 So why does Montraville seduce and abandon Charlotte? It is because he lacks virtuous friends who could point out the cruelty of his actions. He is oblivious of the consequences of his unchecked passion: infamy and misery for her and his own “never-ceasing remorse.” Had someone informed Montraville of what lay ahead, Rowson writes, “the humanity of his nature would have urged him to give up the pursuit.”22 Instead, Belcour, his ostensible friend who is lost to selfishness, only made the situation worse.
La Rue’s story is more complex. Early in her life she is placed in a French convent, from which she elopes with a young military officer, the first of many lovers. In England she continues her debauchery, living with several different men “in open defiance of all moral and religious duties.”23 With La Rue, Rowson, an avowed Federalist, confirms her contemporaries’ suspicion that the French Revolution, which while taking its inspiration from the American, descended into what most Federalists believed to be anarchy and madness and has spawned an attendant libertinism. The result, as the Yale president Timothy Dwight warned in a lecture on infidelity to the college’s students: “its great object is to unsettle every thing moral and obligatory, and to settle nothing.”24 Rowson’s book spoke directly to such fears that in the United States, where the effects of its own revolution were not yet completed, such transgressions as Charlotte’s would become all too common.
After another lover abandons La Rue and she is “reduced to the most abject want,” she gets a chance at rehabilitation. An acquaintance of Du Pont’s generously takes her in, and after La Rue displays what her benefactress takes as sincere penitence, she brings her to the preceptor’s attention. La Rue did, after all, have “a pleasing person and insinuating address,” as well as “liberal education and the manners of a gentlewoman.” But she could not govern herself and had “too much of the spirit of intrigue to remain long without adventures.”25 Unlike Belcour, though, La Rue finally cannot live with herself and finds her way to the Temples to ask for forgiveness. “I am the viper that stung your peace,” she exclaims. “I am the woman who turned the poor Charlotte out to perish in the street.”26
Rowson intended Charlotte Temple as a guide or even a warning. She addresses the “young, volatile reader,” who she guesses is bored at her novel’s frequent depictions of “fainting, tears, and distress.” “I must request your patience,” she writes. “I am writing a tale of the truth” and intend to “write it to the heart.” Do not throw the novel aside, she pleads, “till you have perused the whole.”27 Such perusal, however, does not bring the reader to a simple moral but to Montraville’s and Charlotte’s welter of conflicting emotions. Uncertainty and remorse complicate the novel; with a little more maturity, Montraville might have made a worthy match.
The message of Charlotte Temple is that capitulation to one’s feelings without proper rational reflection could lead not only to personal tragedy but to a breakdown of social mores of the sort that Federalists believed had followed the Reign of Terror in France and that would visit the United States if Jefferson were elected president. Once again Timothy Dwight, along with the Charlestown, Massachusetts, minister Jedediah Morse, most typified the hysterical alarm among conservatives. Dwight opined that if Americans did not combat France’s infidelity, “those morals which protect our lives from the knife of the assassin, which guard the chastity of our wives and daughters from seduction and violence, defend our property from plunder and devastation and shield our religion from contempt and profanation” would be trampled upon, and “our wives and daughters [would become] the victims of legal prostitution.”28 Charlotte’s melancholy death after her abandonment by those whom she, in her naiveté, thought trustworthy was a political as well as a moral lesson for the new nation.
The only American book to approach Charlotte Temple in popularity was another tale of seduction and betrayal, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, a complex work that, like The Power of Sympathy, emerged from the ideas and mores of post-Revolutionary Boston. Although upon publication it did not sell as rapidly as Rowson’s novel, it was reprinted throughout the nineteenth century, including a remarkable eight times from 1824 to 1828.
We know less about The Coquette’s author than we do of Rowson or Brown. Foster was born in 1758 in Salisbury, Massachusetts, the daughter of a prominent merchant, Grant Webster, and Hannah Wainwright Webster, after whose death four years later the widower sent his young daughter to a women’s academy. In 1785 she married John Foster, a young Dartmouth College graduate and minister of the Congregational church in Brighton, Massachusetts. They had six children, three sons and three daughters, two of whom themselves became notable writers.29 During this busy period Hannah Foster found time to publish two books, The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton: a Novel Founded on Fact (1797), whose title page identified her only as “A Lady of Massachusetts”; and The Boarding School; or, Lessons of a Preceptress to Her Pupils (1798), based in part on her own experiences. Aside from some anonymous essays published a decade later in The Monthly Anthology or Magazine of Polite Literature (later the North American Review), Foster left no other writings, in large part because of her deep engagement in Brighton’s religious and social life, which accompanied her station as a minister’s wife.30 After her husband’s death in 1829, Foster moved to Montreal to live with her daughter Elizabeth (known as Eliza), the wife of Dr. Frederick Cushing, a physician in that city, where Foster died in 1840.
Like Brown, Foster based her most popular work on a widely discussed current event first reported in the Salem (Massachusetts) Mercury for July 29, 1788. It was an account of the death four days earlier of a young woman at the Bell Tavern in nearby Danvers, shortly after she had delivered a stillborn child under circumstances to “excite curiosity, and interest [one’s] feelings.” Someone engaged for the purpose had brought her there in a chaise and then left. The woman’s demeanor marked her as from “a respectable family and good education,” the report continued, but she “was averse to being interrogated concerning herself or [her] connexions” and kept mainly to herself, anxiously awaiting the arrival of someone (presumably, the father of her child). After her child’s and her deaths, kindly townspeople gave them a decent burial.
Within days other papers copied the story, and soon it was the talk of the region, particularly after the woman was identified as Elizabeth Whitman, the daughter of the Reverend Elnathan Whitman, a prominent Hartford clergyman.31 Though the story was not in itself extraordinary—after the Revolution rates of illegitimate births skyrocketed—the fact that a prominent person had met so sad and mysterious an end caught the public’s interest and led many to ask why she had been at the tavern and for whom she had been waiting. A decade after these events, Foster published her novel based on them, changing Elizabeth Whitman’s name to Eliza Wharton.
In 1855 Jane E. Locke introduced a new edition of The Coquette with a lengthy biographical introduction that included significant new information about Whitman, her family, and the stillborn child’s father. Although all of Locke’s facts cannot be verified, she did at least help the reader understand just how Foster transformed Whitman’s tragic tale for her own purposes.
Elizabeth Whitman had an impeccable New England pedigree. Her great-grandfather had married one of the daughters of Solomon Stoddard, a prominent minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards. She seemed destined to unite with a clergyman, and when she was still quite young, such a match was proposed—arranged, really—with one Joseph Howe, minister to Norwich, Connecticut. A considerably older man, Howe died suddenly. At some point in the next few years Whitman, a society belle, entertained another offer, from a recent Harvard graduate, Joseph Stevens Buckminster, minister to an important church in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and one of the most prominent young “liberal Christians” of the day. But Whitman rejected him and, remaining single, eventually met the untimely death described in the newspapers. Locke offered a crucial but unsubstantiated fact: the father of Elizabeth’s child was none other than the Honorable Pierpont Edwards, Jonathan Edwards’s youngest, wayward son and thus her second cousin.32
Locke intended her biography to rehabilitate Whitman’s image. Exceedingly beautiful, highly intelligent, and accomplished, Whitman was always the center of attention. She was extraordinary in other ways, too: very moody, “as the truly gifted ever are, and of a wild incomprehensible nature, little understood by those who should have known her best.” In Pierpont Edwards she met someone who presumably understood her and could satisfy her emotional needs. Between them there was “a close affinity of spirit,” a “marriage of the soul … that overshadows sin.” Then the bombshell: the two lovers had not only such a marriage of spirits but also “one [that], though secret, [was] actually sanctified by the law of the land,” a fact Whitman was “known to have declared” prior to her death.33
Why, then, was she left alone at the tavern to die? Locke repeats the story of Whitman’s lonely isolation as she waited in her room, passing the time writing and occasionally playing a guitar, “the only companion of her solitude.” Then, one night after about two weeks, a chaise appeared. Someone got out, paused at the door as though looking for something but, evidently not finding what he sought, drove away. In daylight, one could see, in chalk over the lintel at which he had peered, the scrawled letters “E. W.,” too faint to see in darkness. Pierpont Edwards, Locke believed, had returned for Whitman, only to miss the agreed-upon symbol by which she marked her location.34
More than The Power of Sympathy or Charlotte Temple, The Coquette places the reader in a world in which what passed as moral rectitude conflicted with the national belief in individual freedom. The Coquette begins with Eliza’s scarcely disguised relief at the death of the Reverend Haly (Howe), an older clergyman whom her parents approved of as an ideal spouse. Free to enjoy more time in genteel society, Eliza draws the attention first of Boyer (Buckminster), who is soon to be installed as the minister over an important church and who thinks that she will make an ideal spouse, and then of Peter Sanford (Edwards), an attractive and self-centered rake who wishes to seduce but not marry her. Boyer presses his suit, but Eliza, unwilling to give up her newfound freedom, asks for time. Boyer grows increasingly impatient because Eliza sees more and more of Sanford, even after friends pointedly warn her of his promiscuity. So pressured, she finally decides to marry Boyer, but because she promised Sanford first to inform him of her decision, she agrees to meet him. By chance, Boyer stumbles on the two in the Whartons’ garden and precipitously breaks off the engagement. Sanford is now free to pursue his pleasure. Eliza is mortified at the misunderstanding.
Sanford, who views Eliza as a coquette, knows that he now has the advantage. To prolong his titillation, he announces a lengthy business trip to the South. Genuinely distraught over the breakup with Boyer, Eliza has no outlet for her affection. After a year, Sanford still has not returned, and she writes Boyer to confess her shortsightedness and to ask if despite her faults, he still might accept her. But he is about to marry his friend Selby’s sister, whose personality and character he believes more suited to the sober and important career on which he has embarked. Though still fairly young, Eliza has no more suitors, presumably because they, too, question her judgment and consider her a mere flirt. She falls into a deep melancholy.
Sanford returns to the area married to a wealthy woman, yet Eliza more and more depends on him for attention. He craftily (and perversely) establishes a friendship between his wife and her, so he can regularly see his old amour. Then, as his finances and marriage begin to fail, almost in desperation he again pursues Eliza, needing her attention as much as she does his. He persists, and a dalliance becomes outright seduction. When Eliza realizes that she is pregnant, Sanford deposits her at a tavern, promising to return. Delivering a child that dies after only a few hours, Eliza, too, perishes, leaving her friends and family (and Sanford) in despair. As in Charlotte Temple, the wreckage is complete.
The Coquette is more than a retelling of the Elizabeth Whitman story. The reader would have sympathized with Eliza very differently than she would have with Whitman or Charlotte Temple. For one, Foster’s narration takes a sophisticated epistolary form, with central episodes retold from various points of view. Eliza corresponds most often with her friend Lucy Freeman; Boyer, with his friend Selby; and Sanford, with his friend Charles Deighton. There are also letters among Eliza’s friends Lucy Freeman Sumner and Julia Granby, the Richmans, and Mrs. Wharton.
More to the point, Eliza is complex. Unlike the immature and insipid Charlotte Temple, she is attractive and prepossessing. Her unwillingness to abide by conventional norms and to engage in the self-regulation demanded by society tears her apart psychologically. Foster registers how attributes that should be regarded as Eliza’s strengths—her honest self-scrutiny and fierce independence—instead cause confusion and depression. Attentive contemporary readers of The Coquette would not have merely condemned her folly but rather would have considered the nature and consequence of her desire to exercise her free will.
Part of Eliza’s appeal is her willingness to say what she thinks and to declare who she is. Writing to Lucy after the untimely death of the Reverend Haly, she does not hide how she welcomes the opportunity to again indulge her “accustomed vivacity” and playfully complains that she disagrees with Lucy’s deeming her ways “coquettish.” They deserve “a softer appellation,” she argues, because they proceed from “an innocent heart, and are the effusions of a youthful, and cheerful mind.”35 Having escaped what from her standpoint clearly would have been a loveless marriage to an older man, all Eliza wants is “that freedom which [she] so highly prize[s].”36
Her dilemma is clear: she does not yet want to marry, even if an acceptable suitor appears and even though her parents and friends think that in this she is dangerously bucking common sense as well as morality. Eliza notes the Richmans’ insular and private happiness. It saddens her that “[t]hey have no satisfaction to look for beyond each other.”37 Eliza seeks something else, “some amusement” beyond what she can supply by herself, by which she means attendance at the social occasions at which she is the center of attention.38 Sanford, who prides himself in his judgment of women, notes her “agreeable person, polished manners, and refined talents,” all of which make her “the toast of the country around.” He registers as well, however, her tendency to flirtation. This makes him want to “avenge [his] sex, by retaliating the mischiefs she meditates” against men. At this point, he has no “ill designs” but wishes only “to play off her own artillery.”39
What young woman, beginning to entertain thoughts of the other sex, would not identify with Eliza or wish to emulate her freedom and savoir-faire? Or fantasize about companionship with such a man as Sanford, “a professed libertine” who already had “but too successfully practiced the arts of seduction”? Not ready to accept a comfortable but staid life with Boyer, or wanting to become “an avowed prude at once,” she continues to flirt with Sanford, who can easily distinguish between “a forbidding, and an encouraging reception.” “His person, his manners, his situation, all combine to charm my fancy,” she tells Lucy.40 But although Sanford is lured to the table, he has more experience at the game. “I am,” he tells Deighton, a “Proteus, and can assume any shape that will best answer my purpose.”41
After Lucy reminds Eliza of Sanford’s reputation as a rake, she adds that no person of Eliza’s “delicacy and refinement” should ever consider connection to such a man and so believes that Eliza must only wish to exhibit “a few more girlish airs” before she “turn[s] matron.”42 Urging Eliza to accept Boyer, Lucy advises that it is time to “lay aside those coquettish airs which you sometimes put on.” But Eliza bristles at Boyer for continuing to press his suit before she is ready to make a decision and recoils “at the thought of immediately forming a connection, which must confine [her] to the duties of domesticity.” “You must either quit the subject, or leave me to the exercise of my free will,” she tells him emphatically, wanting to claim in the sphere of personal behavior the kind of personal freedom to choose that theologians offered in the religious.43 Trapped in a culture in which marriage was normative, many readers identified with Eliza’s frustrating dilemma as a young woman simply “too volatile for a confinement to domestic avocations” yet having no socially sanctioned alternative.44
Even Sanford is surprised at Eliza’s continued attention. Knowing that her “sagatious [sic] friends have undoubtedly given her a detail of [his] vices,” he asks, “[w]hy does she not act consistently, and refuse at once to associate with a man whose character she cannot esteem?”45 Still, unable to help himself, Sanford takes every opportunity to point out to Eliza the dissimilarity of her disposition and Boyer’s, knowing that if he can separate them, he will be more likely to succeed in his “plan.” “Not that I have any thoughts of marrying her myself,” he writes Deighton; he simply desires Eliza too much “to see her connected with another for life.” In fact, Sanford thinks so much of her that he has not yet even decided to seduce her, although “with all her pretensions to virtue,” he certainly thinks it possible. “She is,” after all, “the very soul of pleasure,” he notes.46
Thus, Boyer and Sanford seek to entrap Eliza, whose only refuge is to remain single, disapproved of by friends and family. When Lucy marries George Sumner, Eliza does not partake of the general happiness. Why? The idea “of an alienation of affection, by means of entire devotion to another,” appalls her.47 To Eliza, the sacred bond of matrimony promises too short a tether.
After Sanford leaves town to make his fortune, Boyer marries, and attention from other suitors ends, Eliza tumbles into depression. “Health, placid serenity, and every domestic pleasure, are the lot of my friend,” she writes to Lucy, while she, “who once possessed the means of each, and the capacity of tasting them, has been tossed upon the waves of folly” until “shipwrecked on the shoals of despair!… What have I now to console me?” Eliza exclaims. “My bloom is decreasing; my health is sensibly impaired,” and all those talents “with the possession of which I have been flattered” were “of little avail when unsupported by respectability of character!”48 Lucy’s retort stings: “Where is that fund of sense, and sentiment[,] which once animated your engaging form? Whence that strength of mind, that independence of soul, that alacrity and sprightliness of deportment, which formerly raised you superior to every adverse occurrence?”49 Eliza cannot explain it, and to her other close friend, Julia, she can only invoke the imp of the perverse. “In many instances,” she writes, “I have been ready to suppose that some evil genius presided over my actions, which has directed them contrary to the sober dictates of my own judgment.”50
Sanford’s return momentarily delivers Eliza from her melancholia. He renews their flirtation, confessing that his has been a marriage of convenience. Soon enough after his renewed attentions, her friends notice a change in Eliza, a rapid return to her “former cheerfulness,” her taste for “company and amusements” again evident. But they believe these only “indications of a mind not perfectly right,” as is her irrational defense of Sanford.51 She tells her friends that she has forgiven his past. To Lucy, who warns her against any reinvolvement because “the world would make unfavorable remarks upon any appearance of intimacy” between her and Sanford, she replies coldly, “I care not for that.” It is, she continues, “an ill-natured, misjudging world; and I am not obliged to sacrifice my friends to its opinion.”52 Even at the age of thirty-seven, she rejects social convention and particularly Lucy’s notion that “we are dependent beings” and “must feel the force of that dependence.”53
Eliza’s mother expands on the same sentiment, at one point counseling her daughter that we “are all links in the great chain of society, some more, some less important, but each upheld by others, throughout the confederated whole.”54 Here Foster locates one pole of what in the new nation has become a central problem: the relation between individual freedom and social obligation. Mrs. Wharton continues to believe in a reciprocal relation between these two duties, even as her daughter wishes to claim a personal liberty and attendant self-fulfillment that to some was not only morally problematic but also unpatriotic, detrimental to the good of the commonwealth that the Revolutionary generation enshrined as the greatest good. Could it be, Foster asks, that liberal democracy thus contains the seed of that which might destroy common purpose?
Eliza’s end comes quickly, narrated by Julia Granby in a letter to Lucy. One night, staying with her friend, Julia awakens to see a man stealing from the house, after which she hears Eliza’s footsteps on the stair. Soon enough, Eliza becomes pregnant. Sanford installs her at the tavern, and readers of the many newspaper articles about Elizabeth Whitman knew the rest.
The Coquette is not a simple morality tale like Charlotte Temple. It depicts an attractive, intelligent, independent woman meeting an end she does not deserve. For all the patriotic rhetoric and talk of freedom in the air in 1798, many of the country’s citizens—women in particular—remained fettered. Eliza Wharton, like others who bristled under such restrictions, learned the length of her chain, and readers registered this as much as Sanford’s perfidy.
The Coquette thus explores the national mind-set roiled by inflated notions of freedom and equality beginning to circulate in the late eighteenth century. The novel’s continuous republication during the 1820s, when the New Haven theologian Nathaniel William Taylor famously championed free will and thereby fueled much theological bickering, is understandable. But its popularity depended as well on its trenchant presentation of what were becoming more and more complex questions. What was the Revolution’s legacy in the realm of personal behavior? When did the pursuit of individual happiness, guaranteed as much as life and liberty, conflict with the greater good of the social organism? Or should the latter even be considered as more than its individual constituents? Foster had transformed a sad tale of frailty and human sorrow into a parable about democracy and its incipient discontents.
One of Foster’s implicit laments is that a man’s sexual transgressions are often excused or forgotten, while a woman’s stay with her for life. “It has ever been my opinion,” Sukey Vickery, another novelist from this period, wrote, “that the world has been too rigid, much too rigid, as respects the female sex.”55 Other writers noticed such inequalities but handled them differently, sometimes with humor or satire. Such was the case with Tabitha Tenney, author of the popular Female Quixotism, Exhibited in the Romantic Opinions and Extravagant Adventures of Dorcasina Sheldon (1801), the title of which, a conflation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) and Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote (1752), points to Tenney’s comedic thrust. Readers loved it; four editions, some with illustrations of more humorous scenes, appeared before mid-century.
Tenney was born in Exeter, New Hampshire, in 1762 to Samuel Gilman and Lydia Robinson Gilman. At sixteen she married Dr. Samuel Tenney, a surgeon in the Revolutionary War, who afterward returned to Exeter. An ardent Federalist, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from 1800 to 1807, the years of Jeffersonian ascendency and thus an uncomfortable time for him politically. Both Tenneys liked Washington, however, and remained there until Samuel’s death in 1816, after which Tabitha returned to Exeter, where she died in 1837.
Just before her husband’s first term as a representative, she published The New Pleasing Instructor; or, Young Lady’s Guide to Virtue and Happiness (1799), a text that Rowson might have used in her academy, and shortly thereafter began writing Female Quixotism. She completed the novel in the nation’s capital and sent the manuscript to Boston, where Thomas & Andrews, the same firm that had brought out her first book, issued it. Occupied with family and social life, Tenney wrote nothing else.
Female Quixotism is frequently compared with Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry, but Tenney’s satire has an edge that could only have been honed by a woman’s experience. Her point is that in the new country’s free market economy, a highly transient population animated by the prospect of social advancement relied on outward signs to judge a person’s inner being. Female Quixotism thus presents a vivid example of a culture increasingly reliant on a presentation of self or of various social selves and the accompanying perils of traversing an increasingly impersonal economic and social landscape. Good conservative that Tenney was, she yearns for a vanishing social stability, when through face-to-face interaction one simply knew who another person was. It is no accident that many of Dorcas’s suitors are transients, products (and, in some cases, casualties) of a country literally and metaphorically on the move. Dorcas’s absorption in romantic fictions has impaired her ability to judge its inhabitants’ sincerity. As George and Evert Duyckinck noted in their pioneering Cyclopedia of American Literature, “[l]eft by a fond [widowed] father to follow her own wishes,” Dorcas takes “to reading novels, and so saturates her mind with their wishy-washy contents, that she determines herself to be a heroine,” styling herself Dorcasina and seeking romantic love.56 The novel’s ribaldry derives from the fatuousness of a woman whose head is filled with romantic claptrap as she searches for a suitable spouse.
Dorcasina’s inflated notions of courtship and marriage lead to a series of comedic encounters with men who pretend to express an interest in her but really value her estate. Accompanied (and sometimes foiled) by her serving woman, Mary, who aptly plays the Sancho Panza part, Dorcasina bumbles through a series of misadventures until her attractiveness fades. She does not die a terrible death, like Eliza Wharton, but becomes a spinster, an end that to many readers must have seemed equally abhorrent.
In her preface Tenney tells the reader that she first heard part of Dorcasina’s story in Philadelphia and thought it “so whimsical and outré” that she sought out the rest of it.57 Dorcasina pursues or is pursued by many suitors, real and imaginary: Lysander, who courts her when she is a blooming twenty-year-old and who really does love her but whose language and demeanor are not romantic enough for her; the Irish-born convict Patrick O’Connor, by turns a scholar, a gambler, and a highwayman, who convinces her that he is a gentleman; Philander, who knows the romantic lexicon but is revealed to be a buffoon; Mr. Cumberland, an older merchant whom her father convinces to consider Dorcasina (already long in the tooth) for her inheritance; the dashingly romantic Captain Barry, who is fresh from Indian wars in the West where he has been wounded and who is young enough to be her son; his servant James, whom Barry convinces to play the suitor with his hostess after he realizes how old and unattractive Dorcasina is; Dorcasina’s servant John Brown, who she thinks is a nobleman in disguise and so outfits him in her recently deceased father’s wardrobe; Captain Montague, really Dorcasina’s friend Harriot Stanley in disguise, who wants to rescue Dorcasina from further misadventures and so kidnaps and hides her; and finally, when she is fifty, Seymore, a villain who has lost his fortune in France and now hopes to recoup it, and who is blunt enough to tell her that she is old and ugly.
There are a plethora of moments that, viewed one way, make Dorcasina seem comic; another, worthy of the reader’s sympathy; and yet another, repulsively pathetic. In turn, she is accosted by young ruffians who think she is a prostitute because she has disguised herself to meet O’Connor at his room in town; has midnight assignations, with and without her servant, at which, given the darkness, the principals often misidentify each other, so that at one point she lovingly embraces her African American servant, Scipio, and at another is stripped of most of her clothes. Dorcasina’s only respite comes at the end, when, in her spinsterhood, she writes to her friend Mrs. Barry and offers the advice she wishes she had followed. “Suffer not [your] daughters’ imaginations to be filled with the idea of happiness,” she counsels, “particularly in the connubial state, which can never be realized.” Describe life to them, she adds, “as it really is.”58
Tenney’s humor masks the dark aspects of her tale. Dorcasina has indeed read too many “romances,” for they make her confuse appearance and reality. She wants her suitors to propose in certain proper words (the episode with Lysander), to dress in particular ways (her infatuation with the recuperating Captain Barry), and to meet her at suitably romantic times and places (her trysts with O’Connor); but she is unaware that these men do her bidding only because they seek her fortune. In other words, she does not truly “know them.”
Sally Wood’s Dorval; or The Speculator (1801), Caroline Matilda Warren Thayer’s The Gamesters; or, Ruins of Innocence (1805), Samuel Relf’s Infidelity (1797), James Butler’s Fortune’s Football (1797): the very titles of these other early American novels indicate that their authors dealt with the same themes as Tenney did. In those years, counterfeiting, lotteries, gaming of all sorts, disguise, hypocrisy, and seduction were rampant in the public imagination.59 Federalists like the Tenneys were quick to blame this topsy-turvy, seemingly immoral world on the Democratic-Republicans whom Jefferson brought to the capital. Jefferson’s predecessor John Adams in 1804 warned that democracy was “a young rake who thinks himself handsome and well made, and who has little faith in virtue.” “Democracy,” he continued, “is Lovelace, and the people are Clarissa.”60
The one early novelist who has achieved lasting critical acclaim is Charles Brockden Brown. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and John Greenleaf Whittier all later praised his works. The pioneering feminist Margaret Fuller, a great admirer of the best European literature, wrote in the 1840s upon the reprinting of two of his novels, Ormond and Wieland, that she had “long been ashamed that one who ought to be the pride of our country, and who is, in the highest qualities of mind, so far in advance of our other novelists, should have become almost inaccessible to the public.”61 Brown met with similar approval in Europe. John Keats, Percy and Mary Shelley, William Hazlitt, and William Godwin (with whom he was often compared) held his novels in high regard. No other early American fiction writer was accorded such respect.
What made Charles Brockden Brown stand out among his contemporaries? Marveling at the rapidity with which he wrote and published his novels—he issued four in a three-year period—the anonymous author of a biographical sketch of Brown wrote that they constituted “a series of the most original, powerful, and masterly … works of fiction, of which American literature could then, or perhaps even now, boast.” This writer also distinguished Brown’s readers from those who enjoyed works like Charlotte Temple or Isaac Mitchell’s American gothic The Asylum (1811). Brown wrote “for those who indulge in the deep and powerful emotions; for those who think and feel strongly; who delight patiently to trace every action to its appropriate motive; and to mark the ebbs and flows of passion, and follow them out to their farthest consequence.”62
Brown’s roots lay in Quaker Philadelphia, where he was born in 1771 into a family that traced its American ancestors to the seventeenth century. He was unusually delicate and frail and took readily to the world of books. In his later years, Brown’s gauntness made his appearance “remarkable,” so much so that “it was impossible to pass him in the street, without stopping to look at him.” He had a “pale, sallow, strange complexion,” one acquaintance recalled, straight black hair, and a “melancholy, broken-hearted look” in his eyes—“altogether an extraordinary face” that, once seen, “was never forgotten.”63
In his teens Brown’s parents placed him under the tutelage of Robert Proud, future historian of the state of Pennsylvania, at the Friends Latin School, where Brown remained until he was sixteen. He displayed a literary bent, writing poetry and sketching grandiose, though unrealized, plans for no fewer than three poetic epics on the discovery of America and the conquests of Peru and Mexico. His parents, however, steered him toward law, which he studied with Alexander Willcocks, one of the city’s prominent attorneys. When it came time to commit fully to such work, Brown rebelled, unable to stomach having to defend guilty clients as well as innocent.
This precipitated a psychological crisis of several years’ length that gradually became more severe. “From some dark hints” in Brown’s correspondence, one of his biographers, the historian William Hickling Prescott, wrote that “the rash idea of relieving himself from the weight of earthly sorrows, by some voluntary deed of violence, had more than once flitted across his mind.”64 Fortunately, Brown’s depression lessened in 1790, when he met Elihu Hubbard Smith, a recent Yale graduate studying medicine in Philadelphia and part of a coterie of writers and intellectuals in New York City and Connecticut. Among Smith’s friends were the lexicographer Noah Webster; the poets John Trumbull, David Humphreys, Lemuel Hopkins, Richard Alsop, and other Connecticut Wits; and William Dunlap and his drama circle in New York. Brown felt right at home among these like-minded young intellectuals, delighting in meetings of their Friendly Club at which they frequently read one another’s works in progress. He began to ponder the idea of becoming a writer.
For several years Brown moved between Philadelphia, New York, and New England, most often staying with Smith in New York, where he had established a medical practice. In 1798, however, the same year in which Brown published his first novel, Wieland; or, The Transformation, Smith’s untimely death of yellow fever in an epidemic that struck New York shocked Brown and his friends. Brown contracted a milder case of the disease and, after he started to recover physically and emotionally, began to write at a blazing pace, publishing in rapid succession Ormond; or, The Secret Witness (1799), Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799–1800), and Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799). He also assumed editorship of a new journal, The Monthly Magazine and American Review, fulfilling Smith’s dream of a New York magazine devoted to literary, not religious or political, topics. In addition to publishing essays, stories, and poems, as well as notices of new books and miscellaneous articles reprinted from foreign sources, Brown used the journal as a vehicle for his own stories and novels in progress, most notably his “Memoirs of Stephen Calvert.”
After Brown returned to Philadelphia permanently in 1801, he published two more novels, Clara Howard; In a Series of Letters (1801) and Jane Talbot, a Novel (1801). Three years later he married Elizabeth Linn, who was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister in New York City and whose brother John Blair Linn had become a good friend. Extant correspondence reveals that Brown took part in the business affairs of his brothers while he continued to edit, this time the semiannual American Register or General Repository of History, Politics, and Science; to write, primarily political pamphlets of an anti-Jeffersonian stripe; and even to translate from the French C. F. Volney’s important View of the Soil and Climate of the United States (1804). Prone to bouts of physical illness and melancholy throughout his life, after his marriage Brown continued to repair to the country for health reasons, but to no avail. Late in 1809 he fell seriously ill and never again left his bed. He died of “pulmonary consumption” the following February. Lamenting his early passing, one of Brown’s eulogists said, “He seemed destined to become one of the brightest ornaments of his country.”65 Dying so young, Brown would never know that another generation of American writers recognized his prescient insights into democracy’s psychological toll.
Brown accomplished much in his thirty-nine years, not the least of which was his participation in one of the country’s first literary coteries devoted to cultural nationalism. And unlike, say, Rowson or Tenney, he self-consciously fashioned a career in American letters and in his various editorships helped others with similar aspirations. He also had the satisfaction of seeing his works reviewed, for the most part favorably, on the other side of the Atlantic, where American novels were usually dismissed. Through Smith’s good offices, for example, the French émigré bookseller Hocquet Caritat, who also ran one of New York’s early lending libraries, published Wieland. Caritat took copies of it (and, later, of others of Brown’s titles) to London and Paris on his book-buying ventures, making it available to reviewers in the influential European quarterlies. Concomitantly, some of Brown’s works appeared in pirated overseas editions. Ormond was brought out in London in 1800, and Arthur Mervyn and Edgar Huntly in 1803. Caritat probably also was the source for the appearance there in 1802 of four of Brown’s stories, in Carwin, the Biloquist, and Other American Tales and Pieces. French and, eventually, German editions of his novels followed.
Although recent scholarship has brought attention to all of Brown’s fiction, as well as to his work as editor and pamphleteer, Wieland remains his most important accomplishment. Coming as it did only a year after The Coquette, it heralded a new kind of American novel that, while borrowing from and extending certain aspects of earlier American fiction, set new standards for the form, particularly through its emphasis on the religious sources and implications of Wieland’s heightened emotional state and subsequent crimes. That Wieland was so well received, even though its assessment of human nature is so disconcerting, makes it all the more worthy of attention, as does its status as one of the few early American novels to tackle religious belief directly.66
Like many other American novels identified as “tales of truth” or “based on fact,” Wieland probably owed its inspiration to a contemporary incident, reported in July 1796 in The New-York Weekly Magazine and republished a month later in The Philadelphia Minerva.67 The story concerned a father’s brutal murder of his entire family—a wife and four children—in rural New York. James Yates, a pious, God-fearing man who never had evidenced any unbalanced behavior, one evening, when reading the Bible, saw a bright light in the room. Two angels appeared on each side of him, one urging him to destroy all his worldly idols, including his Bible, the other urging him to refrain from such blasphemy. Yates tossed his Scripture into the fire and hacked apart his sleigh and killed one of his horses, overt symbols of his vanity and worldliness. After returning inside, he slaughtered his two boys, then chased down his frantic wife and daughters. He dispatched them, too, but not before making one child dance and sing over her dead mother. He then tried to kill his sister, but she managed to escape. Captured, incarcerated, and interrogated, Yates confessed calmly and directly, admitting remorse for his deeds but consoled by having performed the duty to which the “good” angel had directed him. He was imprisoned as a hopeless lunatic, an extreme example of the religious enthusiasm unleashed in the early years of the Second Great Awakening, in which the new Romantic emphasis on self often obscured the lessons of the Scripture, wherein lay commonly discerned and accepted bases of moral virtue.
In his novel Brown condemned such excesses of devotion but also probed the hidden springs of human motivation. His main character, Theodore Wieland, lives in the countryside outside Philadelphia with his wife, Catharine, and their children. His sister, Clara, lives separately in another house on the same property, named Mettingen, and narrates the story as a lengthy missive to a friend who has inquired after her well-being. Catharine’s brother, Henry Pleyel, a frequent visitor and an intimate of the family, completes the cast of central characters whose lives will be overturned in the course of the novel. The four have known one another since childhood and live a comfortable, cultured existence: reading poetry, translating classical texts, playing music, and walking the pastoral landscape. The reader never learns the source of the Wielands’ wealth that makes possible this genteel lifestyle, but it appears considerable and may be linked to family business in the city.
Family background is crucial to the novel, particularly the story of Clara and Theodore’s father, who grew up in Germany. Melancholy and brooding as a young man, the elder Wieland serendipitously discovered the doctrine of the Camisards (a strict French Protestant sect) and became a fervent acolyte. He crossed the Atlantic to evangelize the Native Americans in Pennsylvania but soon turned his attention to land he had purchased on the Schuylkill River. After his large farm became successful, he returned to his religious devotions, building a place of worship on a hill near his home and regularly going there to read and pray. Gradually, his family and friends noticed a peculiar sadness in his demeanor, which he explained by saying that “a command had been laid upon him, which he had delayed to perform.”68 The command had been transferred to another, and he believed that the consequences of his dereliction would be severe.
One evening, increasingly despondent, he went to his hilltop temple to pray. After half an hour a bright light illuminated the building, and his family heard piercing shrieks. Rushing up the hill, his brother found him scorched, bruised, and naked, his clothes reduced to ashes. Still alive, the elder Wieland said that he had seen a person approaching and, when he turned to him, felt a blow on his arm and saw a spark light on his clothing. Whatever happened—the brother thought that his sibling’s account had been “imperfect” and that he had suppressed “half the truth”—the elder Wieland’s flesh soon began to putrefy, and within hours he was dead.69
Clara, then six, said that the impressions upon her brother and her could “never be effaced.” Were the events, she continued, “fresh proof that the Divine Ruler interferes in human affairs, meditates an end, selects, and commissions his agents, and enforces[,] by unequivocal sanctions, submission to his will?” Or had her father’s death merely been caused by “the irregular expansion of the fluid that imparts warmth to our heart, and our blood, caused by the fatigue of the preceding day”—that is, a sort of spontaneous combustion?70 Whatever has occurred, the tragedy greatly affects Theodore, who has inherited his father’s heightened religious sensibility, which like him, he does not express through traditional services but in private prayer and meditation.
Clara’s story proper begins around 1763, “when the Indians were repulsed on the one side, and Canada conquered on the other,” and Catharine and Wieland have been married for six years.71 One evening Wieland decides to retrieve a book he left in the temple on the family estate, which is now devoted to musical and literary recreation. He returns looking troubled and asks Catharine if she followed him on the path. She has not moved an inch, a fact to which Pleyel and Clara testify. “Your assurances,” Wieland replies, “are solemn and unanimous; yet I must deny credit to your assertions, or disbelieve the testimony of my senses,” for he claims to have heard Catharine call him back from some danger.72 Not only that: he claims that she spoke these words after he thought he saw a light glimmering in the temple.
Clara is distraught, for she perceives “a shadowy resemblance” between this event and the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. She cannot bear to think that her brother’s senses might be “the victims of such delusion,” for this evidences “a diseased condition of his frame” that might show itself thereafter “in more dangerous symptoms.” She then raises one of the novel’s central propositions. “The will is the tool of the understanding,” Clara observes, “which must fashion its conclusions on the notices of sense.” She continues: “If the senses be depraved, it is impossible to calculate the evils that may flow from the consequent deductions of the understanding.”73
Over the next few weeks, three members of the group have similar experiences. On one occasion, for instance, when Pleyel and Wieland are debating if Wieland should travel to Europe to claim a part of his patrimony, a voice they believe Catharine’s dissuades them. It also conveys the erroneous news that Theresa de Stolberg, the woman in Europe whom Pleyel has pledged to marry, is dead. Catharine, however, denies having been anywhere near the men when they heard the voice. More remarkable, a missive subsequently arrives that appears to confirm Theresa’s death. Learning of these events, Clara is visibly shaken, for “here were proofs of a sensible and intelligent existence, which could not be denied.”74
Brown eventually introduces another major character. Francis Carwin appears at Clara’s doorstep: a stranger looking like a “clown,” his gait, “rustic and awkward,” but his voice something “wholly new” and in which “force and sweetness” are memorably merged. His tone is such, she says, “as if an [sic] heart of stone could not fail of being moved by it,” imparting “an emotion altogether involuntary and incontroulable [sic].”75 Not at all attractive, this man still so influences Clara that she counts their meeting “among the most extraordinary incidents” of her life, so much so that she makes a sketch of the traveler as soon as he leaves. She is surprised and delighted when she learns that Pleyel knows Carwin and that now he, too, will become an inhabitant of the tightly knit—one might say claustrophobic—world of Mettingen.
A series of surreal events now occur involving Clara and Carwin. These culminate when planning to meet Carwin in her home, Clara instead finds a note from him that says that on his arrival he was surprised to find another person in place of her. He also warns her of a horrible sight she is about to see. Entering her bedroom, Clara finds Catharine brutally strangled. Wieland arrives and, seeing Catharine, is overwhelmed with grief, declaring mysteriously, “This is too much! Any victim but this, and thy will be done. Have I not sufficiently attested my faith and my obedience? She that is gone, they that have perished, were linked with my soul by ties which only thy command would have broken; but here is sanctity and excellence surpassing human.”76 As he approaches Clara, he hears noises outside and hastily departs. A crowd gathers, and she soon learns terrible news: Wieland’s children have also been murdered.
Clara believes that Carwin is responsible for this devastation, but when she later tells this to her friend Mr. Hallet, he dismisses her speculation by informing her that although Carwin has not been seen since the evening of the murders, the perpetrator has been already brought before the bar and found guilty. Mr. Hallet leaves Clara with a transcription of the trial in which she is astonished to read that the confessor is Wieland and that when he returned to Clara’s home, he intended to kill her, too. And why? After admitting his constant desire for closer communion with God, he describes how at Clara’s he saw a blinding light, which he thought the luster of the deity, and heard a “shrill” voice, which he took as divine, command him to prove his faith by taking the lives of his wife and children.
Deciding to leave the area once and for all because of its association with such horrific events, Clara returns to her home a last time to retrieve personal papers. There by appointment she meets Carwin, who is to explain his role in the mysterious events at Mettingen. He reveals that he possesses the unusual gift of “biloquism”—ventriloquism. He, for example, mimicked Catharine’s voice at the bottom of the hill when Wieland was warned from the temple and convinced Pleyel and Wieland not to venture to Europe. And the more he exercised his gift, the bolder he grew. Because Clara’s maid, Judith, with whom he was having an affair, always extolled her mistress’s fortitude, to test it, he impersonated murderers in Clara’s room. Later, when she again thinks someone is hidden in her closet and inexplicably and irrationally forces the door to find Carwin within, he claims that he had not been there to ravish her but only to pry into her journal to learn more about her. After he had departed and saw Pleyel coming, he decided again to test the strength of his “gift”: he impersonated Clara and made it seem as if she and he were having sexual intercourse.
But Carwin insists that he did nothing to encourage Wieland to commit his terrible crimes. “Who was it that blasted the intellects of Wieland?” she asks. “Who was it that urged him to fury, and guided him to murder?” He replies, “If I have memory, if I have being, I am innocent. I intended no ill; but my folly, indirectly and remotely, may have caused it”—that is, his ventriloquism might have disposed Wieland to imagine other, divine commands.77 But Carwin’s “only crime was curiosity.” By some “perverse fate,” he was led “perpetually to violate” his resolution not to use ventriloquism.78 Clara, however, still believes that to test Wieland’s faith, Carwin had commanded him to kill those he loved most.
At this moment Wieland, escaped from prison and, by another revelation, directed to kill Pleyel as well as Clara, enters her home. She tells him that Carwin is responsible for the recent mystery and mayhem. He has “this moment confessed it,” she continues; “he is able to speak where he is not.” Wieland asks him if this is so, and Carwin’s reply is at best confused and inconclusive.79 Wieland, possessed, all but forgets Carwin’s presence, and as he moves toward Clara, she grasps a penknife to protect herself. At this point, “[a] voice, louder than human organs could produce, shriller than language can depict, burst from the ceiling, and commanded him—to hold!” Speaking as the voice of God, Carwin tells Wieland that he has been a fool to think that God would ask him to do evil and commands him to “shake off thy phrenzy [sic], and ascend into rational and human. Be lunatic no longer.”80 Now utterly distraught, Wieland seizes Clara’s knife and kills himself, compounding the family tragedy.
Three years later some stability has returned to Clara’s life. She is living in Europe and happily married to Pleyel, whose beloved Theresa did in fact die shortly after they were married. Clara imparts the novel’s moral. The evil of which Carwin was the author, she says, only reveals the “errors” of his victims—that is, their lack of good judgment. “If Wieland had framed juster [sic] notions of moral duty, and of the divine attributes,” she claims, and if she had been “gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight, the double-tongued deceiver would have been baffled and repelled.”81
Clara’s moral, however, is at odds with the tale, and here Brown’s genius for probing the depths of religious enthusiasm and human consciousness is most evident. Two matters in particular need further consideration: the nature of Clara’s and Wieland’s relationship and Carwin’s culpability. In delineating each, Brown borrows from and yet dramatically extends the stock tropes so prevalent in other, less ambitious contemporary fiction.
In his preface Brown writes that to understand the novel, the reader has to appeal to those who are “conversant with the latent springs and occasional perversions of the human mind.”82 Some of these matters are related to religious belief, and in Wieland Brown draws from the emotive spirituality that emergent groups like the Methodists, Freewill Baptists, and Universalists encouraged.83 And even though for most Protestants such direct communication with God had ended with the apostles, in the post-Revolutionary period certain ecstatic sects revived the notion. The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (the Shakers), for example, believed that their leader, Mother Ann Lee, was the second incarnation of Christ, and they claimed to transcribe spiritual songs received during divine revelation. Universalists, too, though more restrained in their outward practice, promulgated a creed that others could easily misunderstand. If a benevolent God would never condemn frail humans to eternal punishment and thus all were eventually to be saved, as the Universalists believed the Bible proclaimed, why should one live any longer on this troubled earth? A pious mother, following this logic and distraught over her temporal circumstances, might drown her children in a well rather than have them see any more earthly privation.
Wieland also touches on more individual psychological matters, most prominently, an abnormally close relationship between brother and sister that recalls the comparable obsession in William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy. Charles Brockden Brown makes much of the similarities between Clara and Catharine: they are the same age, they grew up within sight of each other’s houses, their tempers are “remarkably congenial,” and their teachers prescribed the same pursuits and allowed them to cultivate them together.84 Wieland has chosen the only appropriate spouse, but Brown suggests that his relationship to his sister, virtually his wife’s double, is unusual and that she understands this. When Clara, for example, hears that her brother is to marry Catharine and the affianced ask if she would like to live with them, she politely declines yet could “scarcely account” for her refusal, “unless it were from a disposition to be an economist of pleasure.” Why? For “self-denial, seasonably exercised, is one means of enhancing our gratifications,” an odd way to speak about enjoying one’s sibling.85
Clara’s unusual relationship to her brother helps explain a remarkable dream she has of his beckoning her to come quickly to him, not realizing that there is a deep pit that separates them and into which she would tumble. Later, when Clara approaches the closet where she believes murderers have lurked and again thinks someone “whose purposes were evil” is within, she tries to compose herself, only to become more confused.86 “In my dream,” she thinks, “he that tempted me to my destruction, was my brother … What minister or implement of ill was shut up in this recess? Who was it whose suffocating grasp I was to feel, should I dare to enter it? What monstrous conception is this? my brother!”87
She cannot dismiss this “strange and terrible chimera” and is “irresistibly persuaded” that Wieland is there to harm her.88 Against all common sense and all the conventions of the sentimental novel that would have the heroine thereupon beat a hasty retreat, Clara inexplicably goes toward the door to open it. “The frantic conception that my brother was within, that the resistance made to my design was exerted by him, had rooted itself in my mind.”89 But this sexual fantasy ends with her terrifying discovery that it is not her brother but Carwin in the closet.
Still, if the effect of her actions here is not catastrophic—Carwin intends her no harm—this and other disconcerting events initiate her descent from rationality and sanity to mental instability. As she begins her tale, she is deeply depressed and tells her correspondent, “Futurity has no power over my thoughts.” For to all that is to come she is “perfectly indifferent … Fate has done its worst.” Throughout the novel she repeatedly describes herself as confused and panic-stricken, and Brown recurs to the gothic metaphor of tumbling headlong into the pit or chasm. Clara insists, however, that despite her frightful memories, she will persist in telling her tale. “My narrative may be invaded by inaccuracies and confusion,” she says, but even if it destroys her, she will continue to write it as best she can, given her debilitation. “What but ambiguities, abruptnesses, and dark transitions,” she remarks, “can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?”90 Traumatized, Clara no longer can discern the boundary between reality and imagination.
She even begins to suspect a possible underlying cause of her deterioration. When her friend Mr. Cambridge tries to convince her that the murders were the work of a madman, he tells her details of her grandfather’s death. He lived a normal, contented life until the death of his brother, which brought on depression. One day, with his family on the cliffs at Cornwall, England, he began to tremble, “threw himself into the attitude of one listening,” and told his companions that he had just heard a “summons, which must be instantly obeyed.” He then precipitously hurled himself into the ocean below. This story, compounding those of her father and of Wieland, prompts Clara to wonder if madness does not run in her family and, further, if so, whether she is succumbing to it. “What was my security against influences equally terrific and equally irresistible?” she asks. She is stupefied “with ten-fold wonder” as she thinks about life’s fragility. “Was I not likewise transformed from rational and human into a creature of nameless and fearful attributes? Was I not transported to the brink of the abyss?”91 With so unreliable a narrator describing the novel’s central scenes, how is a reader to judge Carwin’s culpability? Clara is right to ask whether her brother was “a maniac, a faithful servant of God, the victim of hellish illusions, or the dupe of human imposture.”92
The questions Brown raises in Wieland and the ways in which his characters grapple with them demonstrate remarkable intelligence and ambition. And while one cannot talk of schools of influence on the pioneering novelists except in the most general terms—that English novels such as Clarissa, say, influenced Rowson or that William Godwin’s The Adventures of Caleb Williams was in the back of Brown’s mind—we have the attestations of later writers like Hawthorne, Poe, Neal, and others that of the first wave of American novelists, Charles Brockden Brown made the most lasting impression.
He wove the threads of the sentimental and gothic into a wholly new fabric, a type of fiction whose main texture came from his interest in the roots and branches of human motivation, particularly as they were bent by religious experience in the United States. As his biographer Prescott put it, Brown’s great object was to exhibit the mind “in scenes of extraordinary interest. In the midst of the fearful strife,” he continued, readers “are coolly invited to investigate its causes and all the various phenomena which attend it.”93 Thus, Brown was interested not only in man’s soul but also in his will and the behavior that flows from it, measured against the larger claims made for freedom in the American experiment. The course of a life is not eternally decreed, Brown suggests, but molded by intentions and actions, heredity and fate, coincidence and accident, time and place.
He treated such matters most powerfully in Wieland and the three novels that followed in rapid succession: Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly—sprawling, often untidy creations, each with a plethora of characters and subplots. All display his fascination with a social order disrupted not only by fraud and imposture but also by seduction, poverty, disease, dissimulation, counterfeiting, land speculation, unusual psychic states like somnambulism, and above all a loss of meaningful religious faith. He explores the psychological confusion of individuals who are caught between certainty and contingency, belief in providential decree and individual freedom, American citizens who try to negotiate between the demands of self and society, of personal morality and social expectations.
Through the first two decades of the new century, few other novelists rose to Brown’s standard, but many similarly linked themes of sexual seduction and betrayal to the emergence of a sense of the primacy of the individual, typified in Female Quixotism but evident as well in The Gamesters, and The Lottery Ticket: An American Tale, and Rebecca Rush’s Kelroy. Other novelists introduced different but equally significant themes. Leonora Sansay, another Philadelphian, had been in Saint-Domingue (Haiti) in the last days of French colonial rule. Her epistolary novel Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo (1808) describes life among the embattled ruling class and directly confronts Haiti’s slave-based economy as well as the nature of colonial oppression, topics that subsequently informed American fiction during the period of Indian removal and the rise of abolitionism.
For the most part, however, in the first two decades of the nineteenth century most American novelists relied on well-worn tropes in play since the early 1790s and in England before that. This changed in 1821 with the publication of James Fenimore Cooper’s second novel, The Spy, set during the American Revolution, which unleashed a deluge of historical fictions that did not take English novels such as Richardson’s Pamela, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, or Ann Radcliffe’s gothic The Mysteries of Udolpho as models. Rather, the major influence was Sir Walter Scott, whose tales of the Scottish border, beginning with Waverley in 1814, brought him extraordinary success.
But despite Cooper’s success and the advent of American historical fiction, Brown’s effect was lasting. Brown suggested that if the individual’s experience, not social norms, was the arbiter of moral behavior—a proposition implicit in a culture that enshrined each person’s right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness—citizens like Eliza Whitman, Harriot Fawcet, and Theodore and Clara Wieland might become more common than one had thought possible. And as the nation’s religious complexion more and more mirrored the confusion that revolutionary ideology had unleashed, the war between intellect and emotion that Emerson later wrote about became inescapable.

Copyright © 2013 by Philip F. Gura


Excerpted from Truth's Ragged Edge by Philip F. Gura Copyright © 2013 by Philip F. Gura. Excerpted by permission.
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