1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Brockden Brown

Anonymous, in "Charles Brockden Brown and Washington Irving" Blackwood's Magazine 6 (February 1820) 554-56.



If we may judge from an article in the twenty-fifth Number of the North American Review, which has just come into our hands, a great deal of wrath has been very needlessly and absurdly excited among our readers on the other side of the Atlantic, by two articles "on the state of Education and Learning in the United States," which appeared some time ago in this Miscellany. The critic who has honoured us so far as to make these papers the subject of a very elaborate review, has not, we think, succeeded in pointing out any very important inaccuracies in the facts we mentioned; and if the conclusions at which he has arrived be rather more favourable than ours, we can only say, that we most heartily hope he is in the right, and we in the wrong. To prevent mistakes, however, we must inform him, that his suspicions concerning "British Manufacture" are entirely unfounded. The papers on which he has commented were altogether written by a countryman of his own — a young gentleman of very extraordinary talents, whose attainments, when he first reached Europe, did great honour to the transatlantic seminaries in which he had received his education — and who has now, we believe, returned to America, improved by several well-spent years of travel and of study, in a condition to render important services to the common literature of his own country, and of ours.

Our American critic complains, that the productions of American genius are never received as they ought to be by the people of England, — that a certain strange mixture of haughtiness, jealousy, and indifference, is manifested. on every occasion when any American author forms the subject of professional criticism in Britain, — while, to our reading public at large, even the names of some men whose writings do the highest honour to the language in which they are written, remain at this moment entirely unknown. In so far, we are free to confess, that we think our countrymen do lie open to this last reproach. The great names of which we are ignorant, cannot indeed be numerous, for few American writers are ever talked of, even by Mr. Walsh or the North American Review itself, with whom we think people on this side the water are less acquainted than they ought to be. In truth, so far as we know, there are two American authors only whose genius has reason to complain of British neglect — and with a very great deal of reason both unquestionably may do so — namely, CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN and WASHINGTON IRVING.

The first of these has been dead for several years; and the periodical works, by his contributions to which he was best known in America during his lifetime, have long since followed him: but his name yet lives, although not as it ought to do, in his novels. The earliest and the best of them, Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Mervyn, and Edgar Huntly, are to be found in every circulating library, both in America and England; but notwithstanding the numbers who must thus have read them, and the commendations they have received from some judges of the highest authority, (above all from Godwin, whose manner their author imitated in a noble style of imitation) — they are never mentioned among the classical or standard works of that species of composition. It is wonderful how much of thought, power, invention, and genius, are for ever travelling their cold unworthy rounds between the shelves of circulating libraries, and the tables or pillows of habitual novel-readers. The works of Brown, and of many other writers, scarcely his inferiors, are perused day after day, and year after year, by boys and girls, and persons of all ages, whose minds are incapable of discriminating the nature or merits of the food they devour, without being read once in many years by any one who has either judgment or imagination to understand while he is reading them, or memory to retain the smallest impression of their contents after he has laid them aside; while some fortunate accident not unfrequently elevates, for a considerable length of time, into every thing but the highest order of celebrity and favour, writings of the same species, entirely their inferiors in every quality that ought to command the public approbation. We earnestly recommend these novels of Brown to the attention of our readers. In all of them, but especially in Wieland, they will discern the traces of a very masterly hand. Brown was not indeed a Godwin; but he possessed much, very much, of the same dark, mysterious power of imagination which is displayed in Caleb Williams, St. Leon, and Mandeville; much also of the same great author's deep and pathetic knowledge of the human heart; and much of his bold sweeping flood of impassioned eloquence. There are scenes in Wieland which he that has read them and understood them once, can never forget — touches which enter into the very core of the spirit, and leave their glowing traces there for ever behind them. Wild and visionary in his general views of human society, and reasoning and declaiming like a madman whenever the abuses of human power are the subjects on which he enlarges — in his perceptions of the beauty and fitness of all domestic virtues — in his fine sense of the delicacies of love, friendship, and all the tenderness, and all the heroism of individual souls, — he exhibits a strange example of the inconsistency of the human mind, and a signal lesson how easily persons naturally virtuous may, if they indulge in vague bottomless dreamings about things they neither know nor understand, become blind to many of the true interests of their species and be the enemies of social peace and happiness, under the mask of universal reformers. The life of this strange man was a restless and unhappy one. The thoughts in which he delighted were all dark and gloomy: and in reading his works, we cannot help pausing every now and then, amidst the stirring and kindling excitements they afford, to reflect of what sleepless midnights of voluntary misery the impression is borne by pages, which few ever turn over, except for the purpose of amusing a few hours of listless or vicious indolence. It is thus that one of his own countrymen has lately spoken of his works:—

"A writer so engrossed with the character of men, and the ways in which they may be influenced chiefly occupied with the mind, turning every thing into thought, and refining upon it till it almost vanishes; might not be expected to give much time to descriptions of outward objects. But in all his tales, he shews great closeness and minuteness of observation. He describes as if he told only what he had seen, in a highly excited state of feeling, and in connection with the events and characters. He discovers every where a strong sense of the presence of objects. Most of his descriptions are simple, and many might appear bald. He knew, perhaps, that some minds could be 'awakened by the mere mention of a waterfall, or of full orchards and corn-fields,' or of the peculiar sound of the wind among the pines. We have alluded to the distinctiveness and particularity with which he describes the city visited with pestilence: — the dwelling-house, the hospital, the dying, the healed, all appear before our eyes — The imagination has nothing to do but perceive, though it never fails to multiply and enlarge circumstances of horror, and to fasten us to the picture more strongly, by increasing terror and sympathy till mere disgust ceases.

"The most formal and protracted description is in Edgar Huntly, of a scene in our western wilderness. We become acquainted with it by following the hero night and day, in a cold, drenching, rain storm, or under the clear sky — through its dark caverns, recesses and woods — along its ridges and the river side. It produces throughout the liveliest sense of danger, and oppresses the spirits with an almost inexplicable sadness. Connected with it are incidents of savage warfare; the disturbed life of the frontier settler; the attack of the half-famished panther; the hero's lonely pursuit of a sleep-walker; and his own adventures when suffering under the same calamity. The question is not, how much of this has happened, or is likely to happen; but, is it felt? Are we, for the time, at the disposal of the writer, and can we never lose the impression that he leaves? Does it appear in its first freshness, when any thing occurs which a busy fancy can associate with it? Does it go with us into other deserts, and quicken our feelings and observation, till a familiar air is, given to strange prospects? If so, the author is satisfied. To object that he is wild and improbable in his story is not enough, unless we can shew that his intention failed, or was a bad one.

"Brown delights in solitude of all kinds. He loves to represent the heart as desolate — to impress you with the self-dependence of characters, plotting, loving, suspecting evil, devising good, in perfect secrecy. Sometimes, when he would exhibit strength of mind and purpose to most advantage, he takes away all external succour, even the presence of a friend, who might offer at least the support of his notice and sympathy. He surrounds a person with circumstances precisely fitted to weaken resolution, by raising vague apprehensions of danger, but incapable of producing so strong an excitement as to inspire desperate and inflexible energy. The mind must then fortify itself, calmly estimate the evil that seems to be approaching, and contemplate it in its worst forms and consequences, in order to counteract it effectually. He is peculiarly successful in describing a deserted house, silent and dark in the day time, while a faint ray streams through the crevices of the closed doors and shutters, discovering, in a peculiar twilight, that it had been once occupied and that every thing remained undisturbed since its sudden desertion. The sentiment of fear and melancholy is perhaps never more lively, nor the disturbed fancy more active, than in such a place, even when we are strangers to it; but how much more if we have passed there through happiness and suffering, if the robber has alarmed our security, or if a friend has died there, and been carried over its threshold to the grave. The solemnity of our minds is not unlike that which we feel when walking alone on the sea shore at night, or through dark forests by day; for here there is no decay, nothing that man had created, and which seems to mourn in his absence; there is rapture as well as awe in our contemplations, and more of devotion than alarm in our fear."