Although not the very first, Charles Brockden Brown is likely the most cherished and highly regarded penman of the first generation of Early American writers. Born in Philadelphia in 1771, four years before the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and in the midst of the events that led to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Brown’s politics and worldview directly stemmed from the tumultuous times.
Early in his life (he died at the ripe young age of 39), Brown forsook his parentally determined calling as a lawyer in favor of transforming himself into a man of letters. He undertook an ambitious literary self-education and wrote (or started) various novels and fictional political dialogues, most famously the feminist pamphlet, “Alcuin.” Brown is best known for four gothic novels—Wieland, Ormond, Arthur Merwyn, and Edgar Huntly—written in 18 months and published from 1798 to 1800.
Brown is widely regarded as the father of American Gothic fiction, a form that emerged in Europe during the latter half of the 1700s as a dark, generally melodramatic development of late medieval Romance literature. He used genre conventions, but also fashioned significant and unique innovations, repopulating the gloomy Gothic themes with the elements of the relatively young history of America. Many of America’s most beloved authors, including Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and Fenimore Cooper, considered Brown an important influence.
With his intellectual and Enlightenment interests, Brown invested Gothic fiction for the first time with a higher and more urgent calling than pure sensational entertainment. He used the genre to explore a dark and irrational underside of his life and times—the secret and hidden consequences of the new American political system.
Those explorations feel eerily relevant today, in a nation that seems somehow politically idealogued and atomized at the same time.
Wieland unspools as a dark and mysterious American tale. The plot, complex and intricate, begins with a bit of history concerning the immigration of the Wieland family and the somewhat fantastical rise and fall of the father of the novel’s protagonists, Clara and her brother, Theodore. (Spoiler alert here, too good not to mention: The father dies in one of the first recorded literary episodes of spontaneous combustion.)
Wieland is an epistolary novel. Clara Wieland narrates, presenting the tale as a letter written to a friend. Clara is a comfortably independent and well-educated young woman living in the heart of the American colonies—something of an anomaly for her time. She possesses a sound mind and a strong sense of virtue, but also a flirtatious, playful side. Brother Theodore, a virtuous, extremely knowledgeable colonist, carries an air of “gravity” and harbors a fervent, but rational religious streak. He and his wife, Catherine Pleyel, live near Clara in Mettingen, a rural hamlet of Pennsylvania. Catherine’s brother, Henry Pleyel, is a friend of the group, and it appears that the four have known each other since youth.
Together the four young Americans spend their time in an idyllic independent rural paradise, a plausible working model of Jeffersonian agrarian virtue. They live a utopian and carefree existence. They read the classics. They engage in rational debate and discussion. All characters share equal footing, man and woman. Each harbors different scientific and religious beliefs. Strikingly, in contrast to today’s political climate, these four love each other and respect each other’s opinions despite very different intellectual and religious ideologies.
The honorable, intellectual rustic serenity is soon disrupted as strange happenings begin to plague each character. The first sign comes when Theodore Wieland, while walking along a path, encounters the seemingly disembodied voice of his wife. He quickly returns to his house to find Catherine home, where she’s been all along. A new path—of twists and turns—proliferate from this event. Henry Pleyel next hears his sister’s voice in the woods, this time in the company of Theodore. What first seemed a fantastical “creation of the mind” quickly appears to be supernatural. Things then take a sordid, sexual turn as Clara Wieland hear a voice inside her bedroom—that of a man, not Catherine.
We come to learn that the presence of these voices is the work of Carwin the Biloquist, a mysterious and shadowy figure with gifts of ventriloquism. Carwin has arrived from Spain, but was originally born in America. He’s admitted into the group and revered for his remarkable intellect, and he’s a hot topic of conversation even when not present. His double-sided character represents two primal fears: the unrest of foreign infiltration … and the deliberate wiles and deceit of powerful educated Americans.
Soon after Carwin’s mysterious appearance, Clara again hears voices in her bedroom. She finds Carwin hiding in her closet. Carwin confesses his intention to rape Clara late that night, but claims that a loud and divine voice had interposed, commanding him not to commit the crime … and saving Clara’s life.
That same night, after leaving Clara’s house, Carwin uses his voice-throwing ability to stage an auditory spectacle on a nearby riverbank within earshot of Henry Pleyel. The false revelation leads him to believe Clara and Carwin are having an affair. This suspicion drives him mad, and damages his relationship with Clara. When Henry learns Carwin is on the lam from authorities in Europe for robbery and murder, things spiral out of control. Relationships are demolished, family members betrayed, lives lost, and minds destroyed.
In an “Advertisement” prefacing the text of Wieland , Brown states that “his purpose is neither selfish nor temporary, but aims at the illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man.” He goes on to explain that “it is the business of moral painters to exhibit their subject in its most instructive and memorable forms.”
Brown’s effort to delineate what he calls “the moral constitution of man” is essentially an aim to define the innate nature of humans—what philosophical contemporaries termed natural man. The young American author deliberately aligns the project of his fiction with the larger phenomenon of scientific and philosophical discovery that rose from the Enlightenment. He views himself as a “moral painter” and writes to spark enlightenment debates over the nature of human psychology, in a way that would be “instructive” to his fellow man.
Many Enlightenment thinkers were convinced that apprehending the innate nature of individual man would allow them to design systems of government directed toward promoting the virtue and security of individuals. Those debates mattered in the age when Brown created his fiction, an age that fed his dark thoughts about the country’s political system and made his synthesis of political debate and gothic themes most apt. From 1786-1787, Daniel Shays led a rebellion in rural Massachusetts to protest unreasonably high taxes and rampant foreclosures on the farms of lower-class farmers who had fought for the Revolution. The Whiskey Rebellion occurred in 1794 as a similar uprising of rural, lower-class Americans taxed out of their livelihood by the Federal government, specifically under the influence of Federalist Alexander Hamilton.
In 1798, Congress passed four acts supposedly intended to promote the defense and security of the American people, most famously the Alien and Sedition Acts. Essentially, the Alien act allowed for the deportation of aliens deemed a threat to the safety and good of the American people and government, while the Sedition Act allowed for more or less unrestricted government censorship of press deemed critical of those in power and their actions. In large part, these measures aimed to prevent French political radicalism—another way of referring to democratic fervor—from infecting the minds of citizens of the American republic.
The Federalist Party presided over the fledgling American government in these trying times. Federalists wanted a government insulated from the common man of America—the uneducated rabble, as they perceived them. Anglophile Federalists feared the infiltration of French radicalism, because they worried that average Americans could be incited to the kind of democratic enthusiasm (and bloodshed) associated with the instability of the French revolution. Rather than promoting a deliberative republic in which a diversity of opinions could be synthesized into a common good, the Federalists preferred a less-democratic, more-uniform national front. (Ironically, the language and the fear tactics they employed were eerily reminiscent of those used by the Jacobins leaders of the French Revolution who moved to purify the French nation of anti-revolutionary sentiment. That movement resulted in the Reign of Terror.)
Brown was an educated young man, enlightened beyond many of his contemporaries. He was also a Quaker, a religion endowed with an unflinching sense of equality among genders and races. Brown stands as one of our country’s earliest feminists, and although no full-fledged abolitionist movement existed at the time, his writings strongly suggest he would have been a strong proponent. These beliefs informed his politics and his writing.
It is undeniably clear that one of Brown’s key political influences was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the man after whom Brown modeled his own literary development.
Rousseau remains one of the most influential and controversial political thinkers of all time. “On the Social Contract” ranks among the most important political writings in the philosophical canon and has continued to influence important thinkers, including John Rawls and Hannah Arendt, into modern times
In “the Social Contract,” Rousseau advocated a direct democracy. He envisioned a democracy sustained by a system of public education that would enable all citizens to participate effectively in matters of the state. They would become virtuous and knowledgeable through learning.
Under the Social Contract, each citizen would express individual will or opinion on all decisions, and the sum of all these viewpoints constituted what Rousseau called a “general will”—the only “Sovereign” authority and force. Government would simply be a group of public servants that enacted the general will precisely as expressed by the body politic. Importantly, those in government would never try to represent or forecast the will of the people, and they would never make decisions on their behalf. Why? Rousseau believed that every representation necessarily involved a distortion, that humans were inherently incapable of selflessly representing others’ interests. He held that the condition within the Social Contract was the most perfect state humanity could attain.
Brown believed his mission was to provide this enlightening kind of education to the citizens of America so that they could understand and influence the affairs of their own government. He joined an intellectual group based in New York called the Friendly Club. Composed of prominent physicians, historians, lawyers, artists, and, of course, writers, club members read current and classic texts, and debated ways to participate in politics and influence public opinion. Above all, they wished to disseminate knowledge throughout the new American Republic as the path to direct democracy.
Soon after Wieland published, Brown sent a copy to the newly elected president taking office in 1801, Thomas Jefferson. One can’t help but think that Brown hoped that Jefferson would understand his message and restore America to the principles Brown believed most important, most importantly the direct democracy he believed the Republic was founded upon.
Of course, our contemporary political scene bears no relation to direct democracy or direct participation. The system’s theoretical nature of representation is far from ideal, and the issue of representation in our current structure of government has recently been complicated by the effects of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court and by the influence of special interests and lobbyists. Corporations and the incredibly small percentage of people that control them now find disproportionate representation in our political system, and individuals have little actual representation whatsoever.
In Wieland, the villainous Carwin’s vocal representations not only misrepresent what is good, but they also deliberately seduce and trick characters into various forms of emotional and physical pain and suffering. Brown means for these dynamics to deliberately represent the destructive and seductive nature of political rhetoric.
This issue is not foreign to the modern reader. Political rhetoric in the modern media and lawmaking arenas creates the kind of foggy legislative paralysis that inhibits promotion of the common good. Stasis is not the only issue—people endure pain and suffering while they wait for politicians to act. Modern political language and voice is also employed to mislead people and to obscure truth, just as Carwin does with his vocal trickery in Wieland. We see these tactics on display today in debate over taxes on the rich, the health-care debate, and the budget crisis.
The Tea Party, in fact, results from the anger people feel towards a government they perceive as wholly uninterested in representing their interests or solving their problems. Their cri de Coeur is Brown’s too. They want better representation and a government that will do what people want it to do. Unfortunately, while the Tea Party shares Brown’s affinity for this type of political representation, the movement clearly lacks the intellectual drive and direction that focused Brown and made his efforts both viable and admirable.
Wieland is a remarkable novel, at once both a warning and a lesson for old times and new. For Brown, Rousseau’s “general will” was the only legitimate sovereign voice for the new Republic … or republics to come. The final tragic chapters of Wieland capture Brown’s idealistic anxiety … and should capture our own. It’s a damning view of the consequences of a political system that feels today all to familiar—an increasingly concentrated, disproportionately wealthy and isolated form of representation combined with the unwillingness of able people to express their own free will.
Daniel O’Leary is a senior studying English and Psychology at Northwestern University in Chicago.