1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Brockden Brown

John Neal, in "American Writers" Blackwood's Magazine 16 (October 1824) 421-26.



CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN. — This was a good fellow; a sound, hearty specimen of Trans-Atlantic stuff. Brown was an American to the back-bone — without knowing it. He was a novelist; an imitator of Godwin, whose Caleb Williams made him. He had no poetry; no pathos; no wit; no humour; no pleasantry; no playfulness; no passion; little or no eloquence; no imagination — and, except where panthers were concerned, a most penurious and bony invention — meagre as death, — and yet — lacking all these natural powers — and working away, in a style with nothing remarkable in it — except a sort of absolute sincerity, like that of a man, who is altogether in earnest, and believes every word of his own story — he was able to secure the attention of extraordinary men, as other people (who write better) would that of children; — to impress his pictures upon the human heart, with such unexampled vivacity, that no time can obliterate them: and, withal, to fasten himself, with such tremendous power, upon a common incident, as to hold the spectator breathless.

His language was downright prose — the natural diction of the man himself — earnest — full of substantial good sense, clearness, and simplicity; — very sober and very plain, so as to leave only the meaning upon the mind. Nobody ever remembered the words of Charles Brockden Brown; nobody ever thought of the arrangement; yet nobody ever forgot what they conveyed. You feel, after he has described a thing — and you have just been poring over the description, not as if you had been reading about it; but, as if you, yourself, had seen it; or, at least, — as if you had just parted with a man who had seen it — a man, whose word had never been doubted; and who had been telling you of it — with his face flushed. He wrote in this peculiar style, not from choice; not because he understood the value or beauty of it, when seriously and wisely employed — but from necessity. He wrote after his peculiar fashion, because he was unable to write otherwise. There was no self-denial in it; no strong judgment; no sense of propriety; no perception of what is the true source of dramatic power (distinctness — vividness.) While hunting for a subject, he had the good luck to stumble upon one or two (having had the good luck before, to have the yellow fever) that suited his turn of expression, while he was imbued, heart and soul, with Godwin's thoughtful and exploring manner: and these one or two, he wore to death. The very incidents, which were often common-place, are tossed up, over and over again — with a tiresome circumstantiality, when he is not upon these particular subjects. — He discovered, at last perhaps, as many wiser men have done — when there was no use in the discovery — that it is much easier to suit the subject to the style, than the style to the subject; — no easy matter to change your language, or east off your identity — your individuality — but "mighty easy," as a Virginian would say, to change your theme.

BROWN was one of the only three or four professional authors, that America has ever produced. He was the first. He began, as all do, by writing for the newspapers — where that splendour of diction, for which the Southern Americans are so famous — is always in blast: He was thought little or nothing of, by his countrymen; rose, gradually, from the newspapers to the magazines, and circulating libraries; lived miserably poor; died, as he lived, miserably poor; and went into his grave with a broken heart.

He was born in Philadelphia; lived in Philadelphia — or — as his countrymen would say, with more propriety, "put up" — (as he did — with everything — literal starvation — and a bad neighbourhood, in the dirtiest and least respectable part of the town) — "tarried" — lingered in Philadelphia; and had the good luck — God help him — to die in Philadelphia, while it was the "ATHENS OF AMERICA" — the capital city, in truth, of the whole United States.

He was there, during the yellow fever of 1798 — (Hence the terrible reality of his descriptions, in ARTHUR MERVYN, and ORMOND) — a pestilence, that, like the plague of London, turned a city into a solitude — a place of sepulture — till the grass grew in the streets. — He had no means of escape — he had a large family — a wife (to whom he was greatly indebted for the accomplishment of his works — a very superior and interesting woman) and several children — daughters. — Yet — yet — he had no means of escape. The fever raged with especial malignity in his neighbourhood — he, himself, and several of his family, were taken down, with it — but, whither were they to fly? — how? — in dead carts, with a yellow flag steaming over them — to the hospitals, where the "detestable matter," of which he speaks, was accumulating by cartloads. — No, it was better to die at home — with his own family — dissolve in his own house, at least; — and keep out everything — even to the very sunshine and air of heaven, both of which were smoking with pestilence — by barring the windows — securing the doors — and making the whole house dark.

He lived in "Eleventh Street" — (we mention this for the information of his townsmen — not one in a thousand of whom know it: of his countrymen — not one in a million of whom, out of ATHENS, ever would know it, but for us) — between 'walnut' and 'chesnut' — on the eastern side — in a low, dirty, two-story brick house; standing a little in from the street — with never a tree nor a shrub near it — lately in the occupation of — or, as a Yankee would say, "improved" by, an actor-man, whose name was Darling.

By great good luck, surprising perseverance, and munificent patronage — for America — poor Brown succeeded — (much, as the Poly-glott Bible maker succeeded, whose preface always brings the tears into our eyes — in burying all his friends — outliving all confidence in himself — wasting fortune after fortune — breaking his legs, and wearing out his life, in deplorable slavery, without even knowing it.) — Even so, poor Brown succeeded — in getting out — by piece-meal, a small, miserable, first edition — on miserable paper (even for that country) — a first volume of one or two of his works — the second volume following, at an interval — perhaps of years — the second edition never — never, even to this hour. — Yet will these people talk of their native literature.

There has never been; or, as the QUARTERLY would have it — there has not ever been, any second edition, of anything that Brown ever wrote — in America, we mean. We say this, with some positiveness (notwithstanding the most unprofitable uproar lately made about him there, — for which we shall give the reasons, before we have done with Brother Jonathan — cut where it may — hit or miss) — because we know, that, very lately, it was impossible to find, even in the circulating libraries of his native city (Philadelphia) any complete edition of his works: — Because we know, that, when they are found, anywhere (in America) they are odd volumes — of the same edition, so far as we can judge — printed "all of a heap" — or samples of some English edition: — Because a young Maryland lawyer told OURSELF, not long ago, that he had been offered an armful of Brown's novels — (by a relation of Brown's family) — which were lying about in a garret, and had been lying about, in the same place, the Lord knows how long — if he would carry them away — or, as he said, "tote 'em off, ye see." But, being a shrewd young fellow — not easily "cotch;" having heard about an executor "de son tort," for meddling with a dead man's goods — and suspecting some trick (like the people, to whom crowns were offered, on a wager, at sixpence a-piece,) he cocked his eye — pulled his hat over one ear — screwed up his mouth, and walked off, whistling "Tain't the truck for trowsers, tho'"—

Some years ago, WE took up CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN; disinterred him; embalmed him; did him up, decently; and put him back again — (that is — one of us did so.) — Since then, poor Brown has had no peace, for his countrymen. We opened upon the North American creature — making him break cover; and riding after him, as if he were worth our while. Then — but never till then — (we were the first) — did they give tongue, on the other side of the Atlantic. — We puffed him a little. They have blown him up — "sky-high." — We went up to him, reverently — they, head-over-heels. We flattered him somewhat — for he deserved it; and was atrociously neglected. But they have laid it on with a trowel. — He would never have been heard of, but for us. — They are determined, now, that we shall never hear of anything else. — We licked him into shape: they have slobbered him — as the anaconda would a buffaloe (if she could find one) — till one cannot bear to look at him. We pawed him over, till he was able to stand alone — in his own woods — they — till he can neither stand nor go; till we should not know our own cub, if we saw him.

The talking about him began, clumsily enough — and, as usual, with a most absurd circumspection, in the North American Review: All the newspapers followed — of course — all the magazines — tag, rag, and bob-tail: And then, just in the nick of time, came out proposals from a New-Yorker, to publish a handsome edition of BROWN'S NOVELS; at less, we believe, than one dollar (4s. 6d.) avolume — "worthy of him — worthy of the age — and — worthy of America," — by subscription.

There the matter ended. Nothing more was done — of course. The family were scattered — very likely to the four winds of heaven; — and what if there was a niece living in Philadelphia — that was no business of theirs. They talked about his books; but nobody thought of subscribing. They called him the "Scott" of America — and there the matter ended.

It was one thing to make a noise; another to pay money. His countrymen had kicked up a dust, about his grave — talked of the "star-spangled banner" — and what more would ye expect of his countrymen? The whole community were up in arms — people were ready to go a pilgrimage to his birth-place — if there were no toll to pay — but not one in a million can tell, to this hour, where he was born — where he lived — where he died — or what he has written. They had ransacked the circulating libraries, anew; looked into such of his novels, as they could find, most of them for the first time, and the "balance," for the last time; dried out the grease — righted the leaves — wrote over the margins — dog-eared what was agreeable — hurried through a part — skipped the rest — smuttied their fingers — paid a "fippenny bit" a-head — and what more would you have?

They had bragged of their national spirit, as being unexampled — (they were right — it is unexampled): of their national genius, which had been able to "extort" praise from us — in spite of our teeth; — they had made a plenty of noise about poor Brown; hurraed, like fine fellows, for American literature — and what more would any reasonable man — who knows them thoroughly — desire?

BROWN wrote ARTHUR MERVYN; EDGAR HUNTLY; CLARA HOWARD; WIELAND; JANE TALBOT; ORMOND; and some papers, which have since been collected, and called the BIBLIOQUEST.

CLARA HOWARD and JANE TALBOT are mere newspaper novels; sleepy, dull commonsense — very absolute prose — nothing more.

ARTHUR MERVYN is remarkably well managed, on many accounts; and miserably in others. It was the first, the germ of all his future productions. Walbeck was himself — he never equalled him, afterwards — though he did play him off, with a new name and a new dress, in every new piece. Explanations were designed — half-given, but never finished: machinery, half disclosed — and then forgotten, or abandoned. — Brown intended, at some future day, to explain the schoolmaster, that seduced the sister of Mervyn, into Walbeck: — Incidents are introduced, with great emphasis, which lead nowhere — to nothing; and, yet, are repeated in successive works. — Thus — (we speak only from recollection — and have not seen one of the books for many a year) — in Arthur Mervyn, Edgar Huntly, and, perhaps, in Jane Talbot, a sum of money comes into the possession of "another person" — who converts it, under strong temptation, to his own use. — Let us pass on.

EDGAR HUNTLY was the second essay — ORMOND, the last. About WIELAND we are not very certain. These three are unfinished, irregular, surprising affairs. All are remarkable for vividness, circumstantiality, and startling disclosures, here and there: yet all are full of perplexity — incoherence — and contradiction. Sometimes, you are ready to believe that Brown had made up the whole stories, in his own mind, before he had put his pen to the paper; at others, you would swear that he had either never seen, or forgotten, the beginning, before he came to the end, of his own story. You never know, for example, in Edgar Huntly, whether an Irishman, whose name we forget — a principal character, is, or is not, a murderer. Brown, himself; seems never to have made up his own mind on that point. So — in Wieland — you never know whether Brown is, or is not, in earnest — whether Wieland was, or was not, supernaturally made away with. So — in Ormond — who was the secret witness? — to what purpose? — What a miserable catastrophe it is — Quite enough to make anybody sick of puling explanations. — Now, all this mystery is well enough, when you understand the author's intention. Byron leaves a broken chain — for us to guess by — when his Corsair is gone. We see that he scorns to explain. Byron is mysterious — Brown only perplexing. Why? — Because Brown undertakes to explain; and fails. Brown might have refused as Byron did. We should have liked him, if he had, all the better for it; as we do Byron. But we shall never forgive him, or any other man, dead or alive, who skulks out of any undertaking, with an air — as if not he, but other people are to he pitied. — We have our eye on a case, in point; but — no matter now.

Brown wanted material. What little he found, though it had all the tenuity of pure gold, he drew out, by one contrivance and another, till it disappeared in his own hands. So long as it would bear its own weight, he would never let go of it; and, when it broke — he would leave off spinning for a time, as if his heart had broken with it. He would seem to have always taken up a new piece before he had thrown off the old one (we do not mean that Old One, whom it is rather difficult for any author to throw off, after he has once given himself up to, the harlotry of the imagination) — to have clung, always, to one or two favourite ideas — the Ventriloquist — and the yellow fever — as if they were his nest-eggs: one might have written, with as much propriety, at the end of any story that he ever wrote, as in almost any part of it — after the fashion of Magazines — "TO BE CONTINUED." This grew, of course, out of a system which prevailed, then — and is now taking a new shape in the twopenny publication of costly works, by the number. He was a storyteller by profession. Like ****** He knew, very well — as did Hajji Baba — that nobody will pay for a joke, if he can help it; that, lunging point foremost, with an epigram — is like running hilt first with a small sword; that no man likes working for a dead horse; that, if you want your pay for a fat story, you must go round with your hat, before you have come to the knob. He was a magazine writer; and rather 'cute. There was no stealing his bait. If you nibbled, you were in, for the whole — like a woman in love — hook, trap, and all. Money-lenders; gamblers; and subscribers to a story — which is "to be continued," nobody knows how long, are all in the same pickle. They must lend more; play higher; and shell out, again — or all that has been done, goes for nothing. You must have the last part of a story — or the first, is of no use to you: (this very article, now, is a pretty illustration) — our author knew this. He never let go of more than one end of a story, at a time — even when he had sold out. It is amusing to see how entirely he would forget where his own traps lay — while he was forging bait; his own hooks, while he was counterfeiting the flies. The curious box — broken to pieces, at night, so mysteriously (in the SLEEPWALKER), is in point. We could cite fifty more cases. The SECRET WITNESS is hardly anything else, but a similar box — knocked apart, in a mysterious manner — the Lord knows wherefore. So with WIELAND: In every case, you leave off, in a tease — a sort of uncomfortable, fidgetting, angry perplexity — ashamed of the concern, that you have shewn — and quite in a huff with him — very much as if you had been running yourself to death — in a hot wind — after a catastrophe — with the tail soaped.

Yet, our conclusion respecting CHARLES BROCKDEN BROWN, is this. He was the Godwin of America. Had he lived here — or anywhere, but in America — he would have been one of the most capital story-tellers — in a serious way, that ever lived. As it is, there is no one story of his, which will be remembered or read, after his countrymen shall have done justice to the genius that is really among them. They have enough of it — and of the right sort — if they will only give it fair play. Let them remember that no man will be great, unless he work bard; that no man will, work hard, unless he is obliged — and that those who do so work, cannot afford to work for nothing, and find themselves. Is would be well for his countrymen to profit by — not imitate — we despise imitation even of what is excellent — it would be well for them to profit by his example. We want once more, before we die, to look upon the face of a real North American. God send that we may!

Brown's personal appearance was remarkable. He was a tall man — with a powerful frame — and little or no flesh. It was impossible to pass him, in the street, without stopping to look at him. His pale, sallow, strange complexion; straight black hair — "black as death;" the melancholy, broken-hearted look of his eyes; his altogether extraordinary face — if seen once, was never to be forgotten. He would be met, week after week — month after month — before be died, walking to and fro, in some unfrequented street of his native town, for hours and hours together — generally at a very early time in the morning — lost in thought, and looking like a ship-wrecked man. Nobody knew him — nobody cared for him — (till WE took up his cause) — he was only an author — yet, when we have described him, everybody in Philadelphia will recollect him. After having walked, in this way, for several hours, he would return to his desolate, miserable, wretched family, and fall to writing, as if he had not another hour to live. We do not know his age — nor the time of his death, precisely. But it must have been about 1813 — and he was not far from 35. He went off in a lingering consumption, with a broken heart — and a spirit absolutely crushed.

I saw him, said Mr. SULLY, the painter, whom we have given a sketch of, in our August number — I saw him, a little time 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.

IRVING, in his "TALES," has purloined a head, and a scene, from Brown — probably, without knowing it; as Brown purloined from Godwin — if so — why, so much the better for all parties. It has been the rage of late. In WIELAND, there is a description of a murderer's face, appearing in a deserted house — at night. Irving makes direct use of this head, in the negro, looking over the rock; and, indirectly, in his account of the picture, which, in its frightful distinctness, is not only very like Brown, but wholly unlike Irving. Yet, what are we to expect of a "traveller" who does not even pretend to know his own property; whose "trunk," as he says himself, is full only of odds and ends — belonging to other people? Geoffrey used once, to remind us, in his veneration for the antique, of the man who had an old jack-knife, which he held in such veneration — that, in progress of time, he put — first a handle to it — and then a blade: Now, he reminds us of a very dear friend, who complains, that he never says a good thing, but he is in doubt, immediately, about its being his own; is always fancying that he must have read it, or seen it, or heard of it, before — and what is harder yet — he says, "whenever I whisper the thing, to my particular friends — they always appear to think so, too." It is a deplorable case, to be sure.