Martin Samuel Vilas.

Charles Brockden Brown; a study of early American fiction online

. (page 4 of 4)
Online LibraryMartin Samuel VilasCharles Brockden Brown; a study of early American fiction → online text (page 4 of 4)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

bright and beautiful, but the rq)resentation of an infin-
ite and awful power which hangs over and around all
things. This representation is expressive to us and we
should study it by night time when the stars are shinin'g,
in the howl of the tempest when the sky is blackened by
storm clouds, but we should study it with a nameless, in-
definable dread, we should "ruminate ominously" upon
it, goi back to our "habitation" oppressed with mel-
ancholy and spend the night in a vague unrest with an
incomprehensible and indescribable something preying
upon our souls, tO' arise in the morning to new "rumina-
tions." And man is, though perhaps "The proper study
of mankind," yet a part of this terrible and mystic na-


ture, is always incomprehensible and the subject of
strange vagaries, whims and contrivances from on high.
We study these as phenomena of nature and, particularly,
as they relate to us and are "philosophical," but the more
we study, the farther removed are we from ourselves,
the more unfitted do we become to go on with the dull,
prosaic duties that devolve upon us. But we are to
"muse perpetually" upon it all, though never are we satis-
fied, never brightened, never go back with a glad and
cheerful heart to say, — I am of nature and of God. I
exist as a part of it and of Him. If he is great and
wonderful, aye, awful at times in his manifestations, I
rejoice in it, for it exalts me that see in it an expression
of myself. The Almighty is great and powerful, so am
I in a small degree as a manifestation in one form of
Him. Hence, I am glad to be alive, to see these mighty
movements all related to me and I to them. I breathe in
the air — an extraordinary manifestation of his power —
and it becomes a part of my being. I eat and thrive on
the infinite resources of a miraculous Providence and I
am a miracle. Therefore it is glorious to exist in such
greatness and, like Walter Scott, as a boy, to lie upon
the ground in a storm m the mountains and clap my
hands at each thunder peal.

But these optimistic feelings were not akin to the
soul of Brown. His philosophy was the philosophy of
darkness and distortion. He was too sickly and shall
I say too scholarly; not that he knew too much, for
scholarship and knowledge are not synonymous, but his
life was the morbid, introspective life of the study but


little influenced by the greater life outside. He read of
nature and of God from books but never fully realized
that he thus was getting these subjects only from a
meagre secondhand. The full, rich life of manhood, the
joy of living never touched him. He realized vaguely
that in the American Indian there is a creatioii different
from the ordinary and so something that we call "orig-
inal" for treatment, but the thought became a fancy be-
fore it could be fairly comprehended. It slipped from
him ere he could write it down in vivid colors and he
remained sombre and desolate trying to write himself
into a great writer and philosophize himself into a great
philosopher, though he never yet had reached the life
he thought to describe save by fleeting moments and he
existed ever apart from what was and is in the highest
form the true, the beautiful and so the good.

But the fault lay not, I think, with himself, but
that he was by Nature so incomplete a representative of
man, — an illustration that he cannot be a grasper of a
number of great truths that is not well or vigorous in
organization. Brown had not the physical courage nor
the moral force to drop his books like Thoreau and lit-
erally to "take to the woods" for long months that he
might gain vigor and correct conceptions. He was
bound to his desk and only broke loose when necessity
drove him on brief excursions. Within the limits of
his strength, he did a great work. He realized his duty
to his country and to civilization to contribute as much
as within him lay and he never faltered though beset
constantly by weariness and disease. His patience, his


conscientiousness and his unfaltering devotion to the
Hght that came to him led him ever on with a resolute
heart and, even when disease was constantly preying
upon him, his smile of affection always covered the
deep-seated anguish. His pure and upright life was re-
flected in his writings, and if he could not write brilliant
facts so that they would endure, all things of him ex-
hibited the greatest of all truths that the highest virtue
consists in "the perfection of one's self and the happi-
ness of others."

It was then a courageous thing to be an American
writer and especially to attempt to be the first American
novelist, but Brown constantly displayed that courage.
Had he not deserved to be first, the position would not
have been accorded him. If he did not set the pace, he
started the movement. It is with very great respect and
considerable admiration that I have studied this ''brief
but blazing star" that during his short and sickly life
worked with such unfailing earnestness along lines that
to him seemed best and highest.




But what has he done for us? That he was the
head of an American school of fiction cannot be claimed.
He lived in a transitional period in literature between
the stilted, artificial style and what we are fond of de-
nominating the "natural." Scott came soon after and
prose fiction was recreated in him and never has lost his
impress. Soon Brown and authors like him ceased to
be read. Irving, not a romancer or a novelist, but a great
prose writer, followed closely upon Brown. If Brown
was the first American novelist, Irving was the first
great American prose writer and his style tended to les-
sen further the influence of the first American novelist.

Cooper, the "American Scott," improperly so-
called, ere long gave to American literature a right to
look with pride upon its producers of prose fiction, and
again a deep influence was exerted away from Brown.
American novels that appeared soon after Brown were
modeled for the most part after Scott and Cooper, as
"The Buccaneers" (1827), S. B. Judah; "Rachel Dyer"
(1828), John Neal; "The Betrothed of Wyoming"
(1831) and "Meredith or the Mystery of the Mes-
chanza" (1831). That Brown and others of his style
will ever again be popular is exceeding improbable; we
may almost say impossible.


Nevertheless, the influence of our author was con-
siderable and valuable. Above the elements of weak-
ness, we have shown, arose many elements of strength.
The power of a great writer he had at times and we
catch in "Edgar Huntly" shades of description and
passages of strong expression that make us wonder if
Cooper, though so different, may not have caught much
that led him on from Brockden Brown. It is very prob-
able. From the defects of another we see how to correct
ourselves, and Cooper as he heard and read comments
upon Brown could the better judge how he should act.
Cooper, the painter of wild America and wild Ameri-
cans is, indeed, different from Brown, the morbid mind
analyst. Seemingly, then, only the touchstone of fancy
could detect a derivation, but I am not one that think
it necessary to be able to put the finger upon a point or
principle of resemblance in one writer in order to be
qualified to say with moral certainty he obtained assist-
ance from another. It is too much to expect. We have
in Brown a suggestion of Cooper. It is only a sugges-
tion but it is enough.

For purposes of investigation and criticism, how-
ever, it amounts to but little to say that such an one, a
writer, was a contemporary of another writer ; therefore,
the one influenced the other. We have the right to pre-
sume and assume that every man of letters reads the
writings of other writers in his field and time and is
affected by them, unconsciously perhaps and perhaps
imperceptibly, but the influences are there and his debt
to them is something; but I do not think that the spirit


of the Sunday School teacher that would read a moral
and religious lesson into every word of Scripture should
dominate literary criticism. I am at times impatient at
the manifest attempt of many commentators to force
an issue where there is none and reason out an a priori
basis until post hoc propter hoc seems to be the law of
critical study. Generally speaking, give a commentator
an analogy and he is sure to work out a derivation, but
the result is frequently as far-fetched and ludicrously
drawn as some of the various theories as to the origin
of the English manorial system.

Irving, who came next after Brown as a prose
writer, could take courage as the favorable expressions
upon the "New American" came to him, and I think I
detect in a few of Irving's works something in style,
though so different altogether, that reminds me of
Charles Brockden Brown. The debt to Brown was
probably considerable of him who wrote to please and
in so doing tO' instruct, who believed in not taking life
too seriously or intensely, — a diametrical opposite of

How far Brown gave suggestions to Hawthorne, it
is difficult to say. It is common to reason thus : Brown
was a prose writer, morbid and sensitive, and so was
Hawthorne, hence the latter probably was something of
a disciple of his predecessor. But in the first place
Hawthorne never to me seems morbid. He liked espe-
cially to work out a peculiar phase in the human heart,
as the power of conscience in "The Scarlet Letter," but
that does not prove his morbidness. We might as well


call every professor of psychology morbid because his
subject is the human soul. Yet there is a very consid-
erable likeness in conception and treatment between
"The Scarlet Letter" and "Wieland" or between this
and Godwin's "Caleb Williams." Hawthorne was not
a renowned painter like Cooper whose fame rested in
his bold vigorous strokes, yet he was a consummate artist
who delighted in delicate touches, in the subtleties of
his art; but Brown was nothing of this; still even in
"The Marble Faun," I obtain a reminder of Brown.
Here as usual we are unable to say one writer took his
method of treatment absolutely from another. It might
on as good grounds be asserted that Brown derived his
manner of treating "Wieland" directly from Horace
Walpole's "Castle of Otranto." However, if Haw-
thorne was not affected by Brown, he certainly was af-
fected by Brown's mode of conception and unfolding of

Again, we see in Brown a suggestion of Poe, the
only distinctively morbid character in American litera-
ture, but if we think he suggests Poe, because Poe was
morbid, we surely cannot discern much resemblance be-
tween the morbidness of "Wieland" and "Arthur
"Mervyn" and that of "The Black Cat," and "The Pit
and the Pendulum." But there is an actual sentiment
in "Scarlet Letter" and "Marble Faun," one that never
excites our ridicule whether we agree in it or not, while
in the stories of Poe we observe great genius and great
art, but the genius and the art of an intensely morbid
nature taking the word morbid in its true sense of dis-


eased. I cannot be sure that Brown conferred anything
on Poe.

It has been said, — and rightly I think, — that to
study Hterature correctly and determine the value of the
work of each author, he should be studied with reference
to himself alone first, next with reference to his place
in the history of the literature. Then, Charles Brockden
Brown, not what is called a great man, yet deserves the
place of first American novelist and romancer because
he stood forth with enough of ability above the ruling
style of such writings to confer to his productions that
which we denominate genius, such that he was able to
please and instruct his contemporaries, to dignify
America by a new' title and to serve in a respectable
degree as a reference and an instructor for those that
followed him in the hitherto untrodden field of Ameri-
can fiction.



(1) Page 20, instead of Schuykill, read Schuylkill.

(2) Page 21, instead of alter, read altar.

(3) Page 22, reference 4 is omitted with quotation from Prof.


(4) Page 35, in second line of second paragraph, read is instead

of was.

(5) Page 65, in the fourth line, read and in place of or.

(,6) Page 10, in the fourth line of the second paragraph, read
Calvinism instead of Galvanism.

(7) Page 11, in the nineteenth line of the second paragraph,

read pleasure instead of fun, and spectators instead of

(8) Page 13, in the fifteenth line of the second paragraph, read

M. G. Lewis' instead of M. G. Lmiis's, and in the follow-
ing line read Frankenstein instead of Frankestein.

(9) Page 48, in the tenth line of the second paragraph, read led

instead of lead.

(10) Page 55, in the ninth and tenth lines of the first paragraph,

read portentous instead of portentious.

(11) Page 66, in the ninth line of the second paragraph, read

writers instead of writings.

FEB 13 19«?


1 2 4

Online LibraryMartin Samuel VilasCharles Brockden Brown; a study of early American fiction → online text (page 4 of 4)