1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Brockden Brown

Gulian C. Verplanck, in Review of Dunlap, Life of Charles Brockden Brown; North American Review [Boston] 9 (June 1819) 74-77.



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 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 his absence: there is rapture as well as awe in our contemplations, and more of devotion than alarm in our fear.

Brown's mind is distinguished for strong, intense conception. If his thoughts are vast, he is still always master of them. He works with the greatest ease, as if his mind were fully possessed of his subject, and could not but suggest thoughts with freedom and rapidity. In the most monstrous and shocking narrative, he writes with the utmost sincerity, as if he laboured under a delusion which acted with a mischievous but uncontrollable power. He never, indeed, shews a desire to complete a story, nor draws a character so much for what it is to effect in the end, as for the development of mind. The present incident is perhaps fine in itself, and answers the author's purpose, and gives room for the display of great strength; but it has little or no connexion with others. With the greatest solicitude to tell us every thing that passes in the mind before a purpose is formed, he is very careless as to any continuity or dependence in the events which lead to or flow from that purpose. He sometimes crowds more into one day than we should have expected in many, and at others leaps over so large an interval as to make the narrative improbable to all who are not in the secret. His characters cannot be relied upon notwithstanding their strength and apparently stubborn singularities, they accommodate themselves readily to the author, sometimes losing all the importance with which they were at first invested, and at others accomplishing something beyond or opposite to what was expected, and almost what we can believe to be within the compass of human power in the agent or weakness in the sufferer. This incompleteness of views and inconsistency of characters is not owing to carelessness or haste in the writer; he had never determined how things should end, nor proposed to himself any prevailing object when he began, nor discovered one as he advanced. We generally close a story with a belief that as much more might be said. He was engrossed by single, separate scenes, such as invention suggested from time to time; and while we can account from this fact for our feeling little solicitude about the story as a whole, we must at the same time form a high estimate of an author's power, who can carry us through almost disconnected scenes without any considerable failure of interest. He seems fond of exciting and vexing curiosity, but when he fails of satisfying it, it is more, we believe, from forgetfulness than design.

There is very little variety in his writings; at least in those where his genius is most clearly discerned. He loves unusual, lawless characters, and extraordinary and tragic incident. There should not be a moment of calm brightness in the world, unless as it may serve to heighten the effect of approaching gloom and tempest. The innocent are doomed to suffer, as if virtue were best capable of enduring and shone most conspicuously in trial, or at least drew the largest sympathy. This suffering is of the mind; bodily pain and death appear but moderate and vulgar evils, and rather a refuge than punishment for the triumphant criminal, who has rioted in mischief till he is weary, and willing to die for repose since his work is ended. In these sad views of life, which make society worse than the wilderness and men's sympathy and promises little better than a mockery, there is no apparent design to mislead the world, or covertly condemn its opinions and awards, but merely to take a firm hold of the heart, by appeals to its pity, terror, indignation or wonder. He wants the universality and justice of a fair observer of the world. He thinks too much in one way, and that a narrow one. His views are of one kind, and shew that he thought more than he observed.

His style is clear, simple and nervous, with very little peculiarity, and not the slightest affectation or even consciousness of manner; rarely varying to suit the subject, or to distinguish conversation from narrative or description. It uniformly bears marks of a serious, thoughtful mind, remembering its excitement and suffering rather than experiencing them. There are, now and then, some attempts at playfulness and humour, but they are wholly unsuccessful, and sometimes ludicrous and offensive. There are few striking sentences which the reader would unconsciously retain for the beauty of their structure, or any peculiar terms; we have the thought without the expression. We should not pronounce Brown a man of genius, nor deny him that distinction, from his style. It might have been acquired by care and study, but it is the result only and never betrays the process. There is no attempt at what is too vaguely called fine writing; no needless ornament, no sacrifice of spirit and energy from a weak ambition of harmony or finish, no use of a strictly poetical term to excite the imagination, when another and a simpler one will convey the meaning more definitely. He uses words merely to express his own thoughts, and not to multiply our associations. He never allows them to outstrip, or, which is nearly the same thing, to take the place of feeling and truth. He appears to be above the common temptation to exhibit tokens of more passion than is felt, merely on account of "the imaginary gracefulness of passion," or to decorate scenes with borrowed beauties till they have lost every thing which could distinguish them, or even persuade us that we were in our own world.