1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Brockden Brown

R. P. S., in "Progress of Literature in Pennsylvania" Philadelphia Monthly Magazine NS 1 (July 1829) 599-603.



About the close of the last century commenced the literary career of Charles Brockden Brown. It was of short duration, but, like a falling star, brilliant, in proportion to its brevity. Brown was born in Philadelphia, in 1771. His relatives maintained the quaker tenets, and our author received his education under Robert Proud, at that time principal of the Quaker Academy. Brown was a student from his childhood, and as early as the age of sixteen, he had planned three epic poems on American subjects, which, however, were never completed, and their loss is not to be regretted, as his time was more profitably employed upon his prose writings. He was an enthusiastic admirer of the beauties of nature, and as fond of experimenting upon, and examining into, the causes of natural phenomena, as he was of investigating the motive of action, and anatomizing the human mind. Numberless passages in his writings indicate this philosophical tone. He was habitually thoughtful, and had acquired such a constant habit of analyzing, that objects which the common observer would pass without notice, were calculated to call into action the resources of his powerful mind. To minds thus constituted, there is a charm in solitude and retirement, beyond the conception of the mere man of the world, and Brown, in his life of Dr. Linn, thus forcibly describes the delights of a rural life. The passage is characteristic of the feelings of the writer.

"Fortunate is that man who has spent any part of his early years at a country school. In youth, every object possesses the charms of novelty; care and discord have as yet made no inroads on the heart, nor stained that pure and bright medium, through which the external world makes its way to the fancy. The noise, the filth, the dull sights and unwholesome exhalations of a city are, in consequence of this enchantment, ever new and delightful to the youthful heart; but how much is this pleasure heightened, when the objects presented to view, and by which we are surrounded, are in themselves agreeable! There is something in the refreshing smells, the green, the quiet, the boundless prospects of the country, congenial to the temper of human beings, at all ages; but these possess ineffable charms at that age, when the joints are firm and elastic, when the pulse beats cheerily, and no dark omens or melancholy retrospects invade the imagination. To roam through a wood, with gay companions; to search the thicket for blackberries; to bathe in the clear running brook, are pleasures which fill the memory with delicious images, and are frequently called up to afford a little respite to the heart, from the evils of our subsequent experience."

Having finished his scholastic studies, Brown read law for some years, but relinquished it to pursue the more seductive, but more laborious and irksome path of literature. In 1798 he became an author by profession, the first that appeared in Philadelphia, and published his novel entitled Wieland, a work of intense interest, which may fairly lay claim to the charm of originality. A principal actor, possessed of the power of ventriloquism, works upon the superstition of his victim, leads him through scenes of perplexity and doubt, until he finally murders a beloved wife and children. under the conviction that the dreadful sacrifice is commanded by a voice from heaven. Our author has in this volume paid more regard to the unity of plot, than in his subsequent productions. The year following he had five novels in progress, three of which, Ormond, or the Secret Witness, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntley, were published before the expiration of the year. Arthur Mervyn is decidedly his masterpiece, and will secure to its author lasting distinction, through all the changes to which fashion and caprice may subject this department of literature. It is characterized by purity and strength of diction, profundity of thought, a thorough knowledge of the operations of the human mind, and truth and distinctness of character. The story is of absorbing interest. Curiosity is seldom permitted to flag, and even his metaphysical disquisitions, which constitute a striking feature in all Brown's writings, are so naturally interwoven, as to throw a fascination over his pages, even in the estimation of the mere romance reader. But Arthur Mervyn is not to be viewed merely as a work of fiction. Great as its merits are, in this light, they are surpassed, when we consider it as an historical record, affording a faithful and vivid picture of the horrors of the plague, by which Philadelphia was scourged in 1793. We are told that he "mused and wrote amidst the groans of the dying and the rumbling of the hearses." Brown was an uncommonly laborious writer; and his multifarious employment proves that he was endowed with patient industry and great energy of mind. In October, 1803, he commenced the American Magazine, of which he continued to he the editor for several years, and its pages bear ample testimony that his pen was not idle. He was not only prepared to distinguish himself in the region of fancy, but was able to keep even pace with the stately march of history, as appears from the American Annual Register, a work upon a plan similar to that of Dodsley, which our author conducted from the year 1806, until the period of his death. He wrote, besides Jane Talbot and Clara Howard, two novels of inferior merit, three political pamphlets, and several tales and fragments, of which the volumes, purporting to be his memoirs, by Dunlap, are chiefly composed. When it is remembered that Brown committed most of his novels to the press, sheet after sheet, as he wrote them, without having previously digested his plot, the many discrepancies will be accounted for, though on this account, they are not the more entitled to indulgence. This haste and carelessness are to be deplored, for they have affected many of his beauties in such a manner as will, we fear, prove an insurmountable obstacle to the popularity of his writings. The mass of readers have a quick perception of defects, but rather an obtuse vision, when beauties are to he discovered. His language is the language of nature, clear, forcible, terse. He did not employ words as a garb to decorate his thoughts, but as the means of embodying them, relying more upon their beauty and strength, than upon the dress in which he ushered them before the world. The consequence is, that his thoughts are long remembered, and his words soon forgotten. This beauty and simplicity of language are characteristic of the mind of the man, which was wholly devoid of ostentation.

Brown died of consumption on the 22nd of February, 1810. In person he was tall and slender, and he bent forward as he walked. His hair was black and straight; his countenance dark and serious, even to melancholy, which doubtless was occasioned more by the cares of the world, than by his studious habits. His deportment was peculiarly engaging, affectionate and unpresuming. Among strangers, he was silent and embarrassed. Though timid in conversation, like Goldsmith, few were more bold and eloquent, with a pen in his hand. His favorite studies were metaphysics, architecture and geography; and he possessed the peculiar faculty of gleaning from his abstruse studies, embellishments for his works of fancy. The fate of Brown fairly illustrates the position already advanced, that we occasionally meet with men who live half a century before their time, and who, being neglected by their contemporaries, trust to succeeding ages for justice.