Authors: Charles Brockden Brown

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American novelist, editor, and historian.

January 17, 1771

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

February 22, 1810

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Biography

Charles Brockden Brown is credited as the first American to earn a living as a professional author, although he did so for only a few years of his life. He was born into a Philadelphia Quaker family, and even as a youngster he read voluminously. Because of his constant reading, he earned a reputation as a scholar and genius in Philadelphia. Early in life, too, he began to write, planning three epic poems on explorers Christopher Columbus, Francisco Pizarro, and Hernán Cortés, all notably American rather than European themes. His first published work, “The Rhapsodist” (1789), a glorification of the romantic rebel, appeared in the Columbian Magazine, a Philadelphia publication.

Charles Brockden Brown

(Library of Congress)

Despite his literary bent, Brown’s family insisted that he study law. He did so from 1787 until around 1793, when he announced that he would henceforth be a professional writer. After several visits to New York, Brown took up residence in that city, where he found, especially in the Friendly Society, the stimulation he needed as a writer. Brown was an ardent admirer of the British radical William Godwin, who was also a novelist, and Brown’s writing reflects that enthusiasm, as in Alcuin: A Dialogue (1798), which is really a treatise on the rights of women, though it uses elements of fiction to carry the message.

Following Alcuin, Brown turned to writing novels, through which he hoped to teach as well as entertain. Writing at a furious rate, he wrote and published six novels within four years. Wieland; or, The Transformation (1798), which many regard as his best work, is based on an actual murder case in Pennsylvania. The book is a study in religious psychosis, with the added novelty of ventriloquism. The story is melodramatic and uses many of the devices of the English gothic fiction of the time, but it is original in that it uses American materials and presents a serious study of a human mind under pressures it does not understand.

In a later novel, Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1798), Brown again made use of native materials. In 1793, he and his family, along with hundreds of others, had fled Philadelphia to escape an epidemic of yellow fever; five years later, another epidemic of the same disease in New York killed his close friend Elihu Hubbard Smith. Arthur Mervyn is a highly realistic account of the horrors of such a scourge, describing the effects of the Philadelphia epidemic in a manner comparable to Daniel Defoe’s description of the London plague of 1665 in A Journal of the Plague Year (1722). In other novels, Brown also made use of American subject matter. He introduced American Indians and the frontier into the American novel in Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1799); unfortunately, Brown knew little about American Indians or the frontier and was unable to present them very realistically. The outstanding characteristic of the novel, as in Wieland, is the presentation of a human mind in torment.

There is no doubt that Brown’s novels were influenced by European fiction. Scholars generally consider the first American novel to be William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy (1789), which appeared less than a decade before Wieland. Brown’s significance stems from the fact that he was willing to use native materials and themes in his work. Too often critics have overemphasized the similarities between Brown’s work and that of Godwin without giving credit to Brown for his originality.

Despite his output of fiction between 1798 and 1801, Brown made too little money to support himself as a professional author. To supplement his income, he edited the Monthly Magazine and North American Review from 1799 to 1800. When the magazine failed, he returned to Philadelphia in 1801 and became a partner in his brothers’ mercantile firm. In 1804, he married Elizabeth Linn, and they had four children. Following the failure of the family firm in 1806, Brown became an independent merchant. During the last three years of his life, he continued to write, mostly nonfiction work for various periodicals.

Author Works Long Fiction: Sky-Walk; or, The Man Unknown to Himself, wr. 1797–98 (never published; subsequently lost) Wieland; or, The Transformation, 1798 Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793, 1798 (serial), 1799 (book, part 1), 1800 (part 2) Ormond; or, The Secret Witness, 1799 Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, 1799 Memoirs of Stephen Calvert, 1799–1800 (serial), 1815 (in The Life of Charles Brockden Brown), 1978 (book) Clara Howard: In a Series of Letters, 1801 (also known as Philip Stanley; or, The Enthusiasm of Love, 1807; Clara Howard; or, The Enthusiasm of Love, 1827) Jane Talbot, a Novel, 1801 Memoirs of Carwin, the Biloquist, 1803–5 (serial), 1815 (book; novella) Short Fiction: Alcuin: A Dialogue, 1798 Carwin, the Biloquist, and Other American Tales and Pieces, 1822 (3 volumes) The Rhapsodist, and Other Uncollected Writings, 1943 (Harry R. Warfel, editor) Somnambulism and Other Stories, 1987 (Alfred Weber, editor) Nonfiction: An Address to the Government of the United States, on the Cession of Louisiana to the French; and on the Late Breach of Treaty by the Spaniards: Including the Translation of a Memorial, on the War of St. Domingo, and Cession of the Missis[s]ippi to France, Drawn Up by a French Counsellor of State, 1803 Monroe’s Embassy; or, The Conduct of the Government, in Relation to Our Claims to the Navigation of the Missis[s]ippi, Considered, 1803 Interesting Account of the Project of France Respecting Louisiana, 1803 An Address to the Congress of the United States, on the Utility and Justice of Restrictions upon Foreign Commerce: With Reflections on Foreign Trade in General, and the Future Prospects of America, 1809 Literary Essays and Reviews, 1992 (Alfred Weber and Wolfgang Schäfer, editors) Translation: A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States of America: With Supplementary Remarks upon Florida; on the French Colonies on the Mississippi and Ohio, and in Canada; and on the Aboriginal Tribes of America, 1804 (of Constantin-François Volney’s Tableau du climat et du sol des États-Unis d'Amérique) Collected Works: The Collected Writings of Charles Brockden Brown, 2013–15 (7 volumes; Philip Barnard et al., editors) Bibliography Allen, Paul. The Late Charles Brockden Brown. Edited by Robert E. Hemenway and Joseph Katz, J. Faust, 1976. Begun in the early nineteenth century, this biography was later expanded upon by William Dunlap. Despite some inaccuracies, this work became the basis for subsequent studies. Axelrod, Alan. Charles Brockden Brown, an American Tale. U of Texas P, 1983. A study of Brown’s work that focuses primarily on four novels: Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly. Includes bibliographical references and an index. Barnard, Philip, et al., editors. Revising Charles Brockden Brown: Culture, Politics, and Sexuality in the Early Republic. U of Tennessee P, 2004. A collection of thirteen essays addressing various aspects of Brown’s works, placing them within the context of the political and ideological issues of his time. Discusses the culture of the Enlightenment and questions of gender and sexuality, among other topics. Christophersen, Bill. The Apparition in the Glass: Charles Brockden Brown’s American Gothic. U of Georgia P, 1993. Discusses the American romance in chapter 2. Devotes separate chapters to Brown’s novels Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly. Clark, David L. Charles Brockden Brown, Pioneer Voice of America. 1952. AMS Press, 1966. Still one of the most complete books on Brown available. Combines biography, criticism, and liberal quotations from Brown’s papers. Some of Brown’s letters were published for the first time in the original edition of this work. Clemit, Pamela. The Godwinian Novel: The Rational Fictions of Godwin, Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley. Oxford UP, 1993. Discusses the influence of British novelist William Godwin on Brown, examining elements of the Godwinian novel in Wieland. Includes bibliographical references and index. Grabo, Norman S. The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown. U of North Carolina P, 1981. Scholarly yet easy-to-read analysis of Brown’s major fiction. Focuses on the psychology of the characters and what they reveal about Brown’s own mind. Hinds, Elizabeth Jane Wall. Private Property: Charles Brockden Brown’s Gendered Economics of Virtue. U of Delaware P, 1997. Contains chapters on economics and gender issues in the 1790s and separate chapters on each of Brown’s major novels. Includes detailed notes and a bibliography. Kafer, Peter. Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic. U of Pennsylvania P, 2004. Focuses on Wieland in explaining how Brown adapted the European gothic novel into a purely American genre. Describes the social and political influences on Brown’s work. Ringe, Donald A. Charles Brockden Brown. Rev. ed., Twayne Publishers, 1991. Contains some of the most helpful criticism of Brown’s works to be found. Discusses each of the novels and provides a chronology of Brown’s life and writings. Includes an annotated bibliography. Rosenthal, Bernard, editor. Critical Essays on Charles Brockden Brown. G. K. Hall, 1981. A valuable collection of original essays by various scholars. Opens with a summary of criticism on Brown up to 1980. The first section contains a good selection of early reviews; the second section, containing contemporary articles, includes essays on Brown’s lesser-known novels as well as major works. Watts, Steven. The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture. Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Discusses Brown’s work from the perspective of the emergence of a capitalistic culture at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Addresses the author’s major novels as well as his essays, private correspondence, and other materials.

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