It is somewhat remarkable that the first of our novelists, as well as the first of our painters, should have sprung from a sect, which in principle and practice manifests a repugnance rather than sympathy with the products of the imagination. Charles Brockden Brown was, like Benjamin West, of Quaker lineage, his ancestors having emigrated to Pennsylvania in the same ship which brought William Penn to her shores. He was born in Philadelphia on the seventeenth of January, 1771. His middle name was derived from his uncle, who was settled in this country at an early period, under somewhat peculiar circumstances. This relative was brought up in England as a student in the office of a lawyer who was disaffected to the government of the reigning monarch, Charles II. While pursuing his studies he accidentally overheard a conversation between his employer and a number of other persons, in which a plot against the government was broached. At the close of the conference the auditor was discovered. A number urged that he should be put to death, but his life was spared by the lawyer's assertion that the youth was of too feeble intellectual capacity to make use of his knowledge. It was then decided that he should be sent out of the country, but the project was not executed until some time after, when some circumstances had re-excited the fears of the conspirators. He was shipped to Philadelphia, where he rapidly rose to official eminence. He was the "skilful conveyancer" and "great scrivener" who drew up the articles of agreement of the Philadelphia Library for Benjamin Franklin, who records the fact, in 1731.
The early years of the future novelist were marked by intellectual precocity and physical weakness. He found food in books for the cravings caused by the one, and a solace for the deprivations entailed by the other. When but an infant he could be safely left without other companion than a picture-book, which would engross his attention so completely as to exclude all ideas of mischief and apprehensions of danger. A few years after he would be found in his stockings (an instance of cautious neatness characteristic of Quaker training) mounted on a table in order to trace out the courses of rivers and mountains, on a large map suspended to the wall. This was so favorite a study with him that at the age of ten he could answer any geographical question started in the family. It was a taste which continued through life; one of the works on which he was employed at the time of his death being a treatise on this same subject. General literature was, however, equally attractive, as he devoured the contents of every book he could lay his hands upon.
A characteristic anecdote is related of him when at the age of ten years. "Why does he call me boy?" said he, referring to a visitor, who had just left the room, and had thus addressed him in contemptuous reproof for some question or remark; "does he not know that it is neither size nor age, but understanding, that makes the man? I could ask him an hundred questions, none of which he could answer."
At the age of eleven he entered the school of Robert Proud, a renowned teacher of those days. He remained here five years, pursuing classical studies with such ardor that his slight physical frame often broke down under his exertions. His periods of relaxation were not, however, passed in inaction. He followed the good advice of his instructor to turn for a while his back on the city as well as the school, and recruit in the pure country air. The excursions consequently performed were generally pedestrian, and were conducive to mental as well as physical strength; though, as he was usually without a companion, they served somewhat to confirm him in a reserved habit of mind. A passion for verse-making succeeded the regular duties of school. He laid Virgil and Homer on the shelf only to endeavor to rival their labors by his own. He had three historical poems planned out, one on the Discovery of America, another on Cortez, and a third devoted to Pizarro. Epic writing, however, happily proved but a passing fancy with him.
One of his early poetical attempts met with an amusing mishap. It was an Address to Franklin, but the printer of the periodical in which it appeared saw fit to insert throughout, in place of the author's hero, the name of Washington. "Washington," he says in his journal, "therefore stands arrayed in awkward colours. Philosophy smiles to behold her darling son; she turns with horror and disgust from those who have won the laurel of victory in the field of battle, to this, her favourite candidate, who had never participated in such bloody glory, and whose fame was derived from the conquests of philosophy alone." We next hear of Brown as a law student in the office of Alexander Wilson, a leading member of the Philadelphia bar. The study was as discordant with his mental as its practice with his personal habits. He appears, however, to have at first taken hold of the profession with ardor as he became a member of a law society, bore a leading part in its forensic debates, and was elected its President. This association, however, soon had a rival in the formation of the "Belles Lettres Club," of which Brown, who was at first averse to the project, soon became the leader. He was conscientiously active in both of these associations, and his decisions in the cases brought before the first named association show that his mind was well fitted for the legal profession. But directly after the completion of one of these decisions, says one of his friends, "he gave vent to his fancy in a poetical effusion, as much distinguished by its wild and eccentric brilliancy as the other composition was for its plain sobriety and gravity of style." This anecdote shows the bias of his tastes, and foreshadows the determination arrived at on the conclusion of his studies — the abandonment of law for literature.
The change was one regretted by his family, who had no fortune on which he could fall back from the hazards of an author's career for support; but it was not the wilful prosecution of a whim on the part of Brown. With a view to the improvement of his style he had for some time past kept a daily record of his thoughts and experiences, in which he copied the letters he wrote to his friends and those which he received in return — a practice somewhat similar to that of the inveterate journalizer, Haydon, the painter, who pasted all the letters addressed to him in the ample pages of his folio records. He had tested his intellectual powers in his club compositions, and in a series of essays under the appropriate title of The Rhapsodist, which were published in 1789 in The Columbus Magazine. Their reception had given him confidence in his intellectual resources. A distrust of his qualifications for the more active legal career was doubtless an equally or more exciting cause of his determination. The decision must, however, be regarded, as it seems to have afterwards been by its author, as an unfortunate one. The demands of a profession were precisely those which he needed to cure his shyness, call him from a too retired mode of life, a constant habit of introspection and revery, which he indulged to an injurious extent, and which an exclusively literary career tended, as his works prove, to foster rather than combat.
Due credit must at the same time be given to him for resolution and bravery. He was not only the first person in America who ventured to pursue literature as a profession, but almost the first to make an attempt in the field of imaginative writing, disconnected with the advocacy of any question of national or local interest.
He sought relief from the doubts and anxieties incident to this change of his plans in a journey to New York to visit his intimate friend Dr. Elihu Hubbard Smith, with whom he had become acquainted while the latter was prosecuting his medical studies at Philadelphia. He was introduced by this gentleman to William Dunlap, the painter and author, and to most of the leading literary and scientific men of the city, many of whom met at a weekly reunion under the pleasant title of the "Friendly Club," of which Brown, who seems to have deserved the epithet of Dr. Johnson, that of being a "clubable man," soon became a member. Owing, doubtless, to the attractiveness of the choice literary society of these gentlemen, our author's visits to New York were more and more prolonged, and following one another at less and less intervals, he virtually became a resident of the city.
A letter published in The Literary Magazine written about this time, descriptive of a journey to Rockaway, contains a pleasant and curious description of that celebrated watering-place, which he speaks of as at that time "a place of fashionable resort."
He wrote in the fall and winter of 1797 a work which he refers to in his journal as "the dialogue of Alcuin, in which the topic of Marriage is discussed with some degree of subtlety, at least." It was published in the same year, but its crude and hazardous theories on the subject of divorce and other social topics excited little attention, and were abandoned by the author as he grew wiser and older. He also speaks in his journal of having commenced a novel in a series of letters, which was never completed.
During the summer of 1798 the yellow fever broke out in New York. Brown, unwilling to lose the society of his friend Smith, in whose house he was then resident, determined to remain in the city, relying for security, as he states in a letter to his brother James, on his mode of living, "from which animal food and spirituous liquors are wholly excluded." He also relied on the remoteness of his residence from the infected district. The latter advantage was neutralized by the humane conduct of himself and Dr. Smith in removing the friend of the latter, Scandella, an Italian gentleman, who was attacked by the disease, to their home, where he soon after died. Both friends caught the infection; but Smith fell, and Brown recovered.
His correspondence bears touching evidence of his sorrow for the loss of his friend, and his novel of Arthur Mervyn gives a similar testimony of the lasting effect which his experience as an eyewitness of and sufferer from the pestilence here and in his native city in 1798 made upon him.
We next hear of a magazine projected by Brown. It does not seem to have got out of the limbo of castle-building, although the requisites to insure success are moderate. They are thus stated in a letter to his brother Armit, and are interesting as an item of literary history:
"Four hundred subscribers will repay the annual expense of sixteen hundred dollars. As soon as this number is obtained, the printers will begin, and trust to the punctual payment of these for reimbursement. All above four hundred will be clear profit to me; one thousand subscribers will produce four thousand five hundred dollars, and deducting the annual expense will leave two thousand seven hundred."
We find him in 1798 contributing a series of papers entitled The Man at Home to The Weekly Magazine, a miscellany of some merit. These papers have a connecting thread of story, but are for the most part occupied with reflections on men and society. They extend through the first volume, and are followed in the second by his novel of Arthur Mervyn.
The projected magazine gave way to a series of far greater importance, not only to the reputation of the author but to that of the literature of his country. His first step, however, in the career which was to make him famous was arrested by an annoying mishap. The story is worth relating as it shows the obstacles with which authorship in America had to struggle in its infancy. Brown wrote his first novel, bearing the title of Sky Walk, or the Man Unknown to Himself. The printer who had engaged to print the work and look to its sale for his pay, died when his task was nearly completed. His executors refused to fulfil the contract or to sell the printed sheets at the price the author's friends offered for them, and thus Sky Walk was denied a terrestrial career. The fate of the sheets is unknown. Brown, who, judging from the number of his fragmentary manuscripts as well as the incomplete nature of his published works, wrote quite as much to please himself as the public, did not probably take the matter to heart, and afterwards incorporated portions of his ill-fated novel in "Edgar Huntley."
In the year 1798 his Wieland appeared. It was published in a duodecimo volume of some three hundred pages by T. & J. Swords and H. Caritat. Its success was immediate, and so stimulating to its author that in the December after its publication he wrote Ormond. The publication of this second novel in New York, 1799, was followed by the first part of that of Arthur Mervyn during the same year in Philadelphia. This was followed in a few months by Edgar Huntley, in 1800 by the second part of Arthur Mervyn, and in the next year by Clara Howard, and Jane Talbot. His literary labors at this period seem to have been interrupted only by a short visit to some friends at Middletown, Connecticut, in June, 1799; by a similar excursion to Princeton, New Jersey, to meet his eldest brother, whose ordinary residence was Charleston, South Carolina, and a tour of a few weeks in the summer of 1801, up the Hudson, through Massachusetts to Northampton, and thence by Hartford and New Haven to New York.
This rapid succession of fictitious narratives is almost unexampled in literary history, but does not seem to have satisfied the intellectual activity of their author. In the month of April, 1799, he carried out his favorite plan of a periodical by the issue in New York of No. 1 of The Monthly Magazine and American Review. He was the chief contributor to its pages, but it does not seem to have met a success equal to his novels, as it closed with the century in 1800. A second attempt was more permanent; The Literary Magazine and American Register started in October, 1803, in Philadelphia, where its projector was again a resident, having been continued for five years.
In 1803 he also published the first of several political essays, that on the "Cession of Louisiana to France," in which he advocated the purchase of that region by the United States, and the progressive territorial extension of the Union, in animated and earnest language. In November, 1804, he married Miss Elizabeth Linn, daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Linn, of New York.
Brown, whose mind seems to have been at all times clear and practical with regard to the duties of life, aware, perhaps, of the limited scope of his novels, and finding himself breaking loose from the peculiarities of mental existence to which they owe their power as well as their individuality, applied himself to graver though less ambitious labor, and devoted himself, after his marriage, with increased energy to his literary career. He projected, and by the aid of Mr. Conrad, the active publisher of his Magazine, issued in 1806 the first volume of the American Register. This was the first publication of its kind which appeared in the country. It contained European and American annals, Review of Literature, Foreign and American State papers, Miscellaneous articles, an American Obituary, and a Chronicle, consisting of a large number of brief articles. The narrative portions are excellent. This series was continued in semi-annual volumes, interrupted only by the death of its author five years afterwards.
A second political pamphlet appeared about this time on the Jay Treaty, rejected by Jefferson. A third, entitled "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," was published in 1809.
He also planned a system of general geography, which, with the exception of the part relating to the United States, was completed at the time of his death. It has never been published, but is said by his biographers to have been admirably executed. He also "made considerable progress in a work on Rome during the Age of the Antonines, similar to Anacharsis' Travels in Greece."
In addition to these MSS. he left behind him a number of elaborately executed architectural drawings, a study which was always a favorite one with him.
In reading of such a constant series of important intellectual productions we are in danger of forgetting that their author was a man weak in body though strong in mind. It was doubtless solely in consequence of the strict regime of his life that he was enabled to resist the attacks of disease which, as we have seen, had seized upon him almost at his birth, until his thirty-ninth year. "When," says he, in a letter written to a friend about this period, "have I known that lightness and vivacity of mind, which the divine flow of health, even in calamity, produces in some men! Never — scarcely ever. Not longer than half an hour at a time, since I have called myself man." In order to combat the now rapidly advancing strides of consumption he was induced to lay aside his books, as years ago in his schoolboy days he had been forced to lay aside the books of others, for a journey from home. He accordingly made a brief visit to New York, stopping at several points in the state of New Jersey. This was in the summer of 1809. On the tenth of November in the same year he took to his bed "with a violent pain in his side for which he was bled" — and was confined to his room until his death on the twenty-second of February following. The gentleness and equanimity of his life did not desert him at its close. Though often tortured by disease he conversed cheerfully with his wife and friends, and retained full possession of his faculties to the last.
Brown describes himself as "mute among strangers." Like many persons of reserved habits he took intense enjoyment in the society of his intimate friends. His stationary mode of life shows that he had little of the spirit of adventure. "I would rather," he says, "consort for ever with a ploughman or even an old Bergen market-woman, than expose myself to an hundredth part of the perils which beset the heels of a Ledyard or a Park." He was careless of his money, and slovenly in dress. His description of Mervyn has been well applied by his biographer, Dunlap, to himself. "My existence is a series of thoughts, rather than of motions. Ratiocination and deduction leave my senses unemployed." He appears to have had but little sympathy with the Quakers. "The truth is," he says, "I am no better than an outcast of that unwarlike sect." His religious views were unsettled in the early period of his life, but in the preface to his Magazine he emphatically professes his faith in Christianity. His moral character was unexceptionable. He was much beloved by his friends and relatives, and was liberal notwithstanding his poverty, receiving his sisters-in-law, on their father's death, into his own family. In person, Brown was tall and strongly framed, but extremely thin. His complexion was pale and sallow, his hair straight and black. The expression of his face was strongly marked with melancholy. "I saw him," says Sully, the painter, "a little before his death. I had never known him — never heard of him — never read any of his works. He was in a deep decline. It was in the month of November — our Indian summer — when the air is full of smoke. Passing a window one day, I was caught by the sight of a man, with a remarkable physiognomy, writing at a table in a dark room. The sun shone directly upon his head. I never shall forget it. The dead leaves were falling then — it was Charles Brockden Brown." "Brown lived in Philadelphia," says John Neal, who furnishes this anecdote, "in Eleventh, between Walnut and Chesnut streets, in a low, dirty, two-story brick house, standing a little in from the street with never a tree nor a shrub near it." His novels, though successful, probably added little to his financial resources. He says in one of his letters to his brother, James Brown, dated New York, April, 1800, "Bookmaking, as you observe, is the dullest of all trades, and the most that any American can look for in his native country is to be reimbursed for his unavoidable expenses. * * The saleability of my works will much depend upon their popularity in England, whither Caritat has carried a considerable number of Wieland, Ormond, and Mervyn."
The novels were reprinted and well received in England, though we are not aware that the author ever derived any pecuniary advantage from their success. Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntley have taken a place in Bentley's Library of Standard Romance.
Brown entertained a moderate estimate of his own literary powers. In the prospectus to his Literary Magazine, issued October, 1803, he says — "I shall take no pains to conceal my name. Anybody may know it who chooses to ask me or my publisher. I shall not, however, put it at the bottom of this address. My diffidence, as my friends would call it, and my discretion, as my enemies (if I have any) would term it, hinders me from calling out my name in a crowd. * * I am far from wishing, however, that my readers should judge of my exertions by my former ones. I have written much, but take much blame to myself for something which I have written, and take no praise for anything. I should enjoy a larger share of my own respect, at the present moment, if nothing had ever flowed from my pen, the production of which could be traced to me. A variety of causes induce me to form such a wish, but I am principally influenced by the consideration that time can scarcely fail of enlarging and refining the powers of a man; while the world is sure to judge of his capacities and principles at fifty from what he has written at fifteen." He was not, however, insensible to the pleasure of success. In a letter to his brother, dated Feb. 15, 1799, almost the only one in which he alludes to the success of his literary attempts, he says, "I add somewhat, though not so much as I might if I were so inclined, to the number of my friends. I find to be the writer of 'Wieland' and 'Ormond' is a greater recommendation than I ever imagined it would be."
Caleb Williams was published in 1794. Wieland appeared four years later. There is an undoubted resemblance between this and Brown's other novels and that of Godwin. That Brown admired Caleb Williams is amply proved by his letter to his brother, in which he speaks of its "transcendent merits as compared to the mass of novels." The two authors were alike in their earnestness and directness, and in their sombre views of society. They both relied more on the development of a story, the working out of an idea, than on the exhibition of character. There is also some similarity of style. Here, however, the resemblance ceases. Caleb Williams is written to expose the evils of the social system of England, and of the exaggerated ideas of personal honor derived from the times of chivalry working on a noble but morbidly sensitive hero. Wieland is a fanciful attempt to illustrate the effects which might be produced by the comparatively trifling agency of ventriloquism. One deals, as its title faithfully. promises, with "things as they are" — the other tries to trick us into a belief in the supernatural, though not actually deserting the regions of the real — scenes, incidents, characters, results, are all different.
In writing Wieland, Brown seems to have taken a lesson from the laboratories of his numerous medical friends, rather than from any literary model. He probably derived the opening incident, the destruction of the elder Wieland by spontaneous combustion, from the doctors. As he continues his characters are passive matter in his hands. He troubles himself little if any to individualize. They are nothing apart from the circumstances which surround them. It is only when brought into conjunction in the lonely country-house, like the contents of the crucible, that they show their latent virtues, and like these too they are well nigh absorbed in the result. The incidents of the tale are equally faulty. The supernatural voice whose monitions lead Wieland to immolate wife and children, turns out to be the miserable trickery of the "biloquist" Carwin, who, commencing the purposeless annoyance of a family of strangers, has not the courage to avow his tricks until after they have led to this bloody catastrophe. With all its improbabilities, however, the tale enforces the breathless attention of the reader from beginning to end.
Brown was sensible of the abruptness of the introduction of Carwin, and to mend the matter commenced the memoirs of the early career of this mysterious and disagreeable personage in The Literary Magazine. He abandoned the plan after writing a few chapters which have no connexion whatever with the story they were intended to complete, except in the relation of the manner in which the "biloquist" becomes sensible of his peculiar powers.
The other novels have a more real though not less intense interest. They introduce us to a somewhat wider range of characters, men of mixed and complicated natures, not the blind slaves and passive agents of a single idea. They bring us, too, to the city, but it is most often to the city in its plague-stricken agonies, when its streets are almost as desolate as the frontier settlement and wooded fastnesses in which the author delights. We have little of the domestic life either of city or country. There is scarcely any dialogue to stay the stern progress of events — the characters are more disposed to soliloquize than to talk. We have few glimpses of indoor comfort in mansion or cottage, no peaceful views of smiling landscape. Brown can depict natural scenery, and does it too with a firm and bold hand, but his pictures have more of Salvator than of Claude. In the wild scenery of Pennsylvania, in the then wilderness of the Forks of the Delaware, he is as much at home as among the right angles of his native city. In Edgar Huntley he has given full scope to his love of natural scenery. The strange wild ramble of the somnambulist through cave, forest, and river, is full of fine description, though the varying scene is suggested rather than portrayed. The adventures with the cougar and the Indians in the same story are wonderfully animated; anticipating and foreshadowing the more elaborate efforts of the great successor of the first American novelist.