1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Brockden Brown

Anonymous, in Retrospective Review 9 (1824) 317-18.



Charles Brockden Brown was the first writer of prose fiction of which America could boast. In his style, and in his treatment of subjects, he also is unquestionably English. He grounded himself upon the manner of Godwin, and followed the grand and gloomy track of that celebrated writer. Like him, Brown's object was to take a single human heart, and strip and anatomize it nerve by nerve; to cast his victim amongst appalling scenes and stirring passions; and in this he has in a great degree succeeded. But Brown has not power over character: he dealt only with events; that is to say, with sickness, and death, and peril; with hair-breadth escapes from tigers and savages; with depths, and rocks, and the boundless wilderness. The hero of his tale was merely an object set up to connect these things, or make them probable. In himself he was often little better than a phantasma or a madman. Yet, although Brown cast his stories in the same general moulds as those used by the author of Caleb Williams and St. Leon, his details of circumstances are different; and his descriptions of nature are perhaps more vivid and true. Indeed, his talent for stirring the expectation of the reader, and keeping his anxiety alive from first to last, throughout some hazardous encounter, or mysterious event, can scarcely be paralleled in the history of fiction. His portraits also of American life are absolutely alarming: — they are bare, comfortless, uncivilized. We see the rafters, the coarse dress, the little hoard of corn, the poor cottage built hastily of logs; and on the outside we hear the howling of wolves and panthers, the rustling of the rattle-snake, and the quiet tramp of the murderous savages going on their way to execute some hideous revenge. We look for the walls of a town, and the poor-house, as a refuge against violence and want. It is not solely, however, in woods and huts that Brown luxuriates: he takes us often into cities, and makes us amends with fevers and assassinations for the forest wonders which we have left behind. Nothing can be more uninviting than his descriptions of American society: yet we remark that there is little of what is mean or time-serving, little of the fantastic humours, to be found in his stories; and this is so far well, though unassuming. We are told that society in the United States has altered very considerably since the time in which Brown wrote (about thirty years ago); and we can readily suppose the fact. Upon the whole, this author may be considered as one of the best writers of romantic narrative (we give up character) that the present age has produced. There is scarcely any one, indeed, who is so eloquent as he often times is; and not one who can excite such breathless apprehension, or so sublime a solitary fact.