Nation’s founding novelist was a Philadelphian

With spring in full swing, replenished queues of tourists along Independence Mall newly attest to Philadelphia as a city of history.

But Philadelphia stakes an equal claim as a city of fiction. Consider the story of Charles Brockden Brown, arguably America’s first professional writer and the man who brought Gothic literature stateside.

Born in 1771 to devout Quakers, the often-sickly Brown “preferred maps to marbles” and penned a poem titled “In Praise of Solitude” in his early teens.

Brown 1

Undated engraved portrait of Charles Brockden Brown by L. B. Forrest from a miniature by William Dunlap. From the HSP portrait collection (Collection V88)

When he was 16, Brown’s parents – like many then and now – wished for their son to pursue a respectable and secure profession. With an eye on aiding the family’s mercantile business, his parents ushered Brown into a law career.

A dutiful son, he complied – at first.

He apprenticed under Philadelphian Alexander Wilcocks during the day and wrote feverishly at night.

After six years of reading law, Brown abandoned his apprenticeship to pursue a “career” as a writer.

This would be a dubious decision today. It was even more so in the final decade of 18th-century America. At the time, “professional writer” was an oxymoron.

Not only did Brown desire to be a literary writer – far from a “gentlemanly” occupation in those days – but he had an early interest in writing novels, a much-mocked form.

For a sense of how Brown’s parents likely reacted, consider your college-age child abruptly shifting her major to musical theater, but with Broadway never having existed.

One thing is for sure: Brown did not suffer from writer’s block. In four years, he churned out nine novels.

His first, Wieland, is a thriller narrated by a self-professed neurotic, tying together homicide, ventriloquism, and red-hot religiosity.

Or, as author Peter Kafer put it, “At the age of 27, Charles Brockden Brown invented the American Gothic novel with a story in which a father dies by spontaneous combustion and the son, a onetime deist, goes crazy and strangles his wife and five children, seeks to murder (and perhaps rape) his sister, and commits suicide.”

Brown’s talent did much to sunder British stereotypes of American authors, earning praise from the likes of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Mary Shelley considered Wieland an influence on Frankenstein.

Little more than a year later, Arthur Mervyn appeared, taking place during Philadelphia’s 1793 yellow fever epidemic.

Brown painted a bleak picture of the early American republic, one riddled by anxiety, aimlessness, and slavery, not to mention the outbreak of a disease that would claim one in nine Philadelphians (including Brown’s best friend).

Such American authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe would come to praise Brown’s style, and shamelessly crib from it.

Brown did not consign himself to Gothic novels. Alcuin: A Dialogue explores women’s rights and divorce without overtones of horror and mystery. In addition to his novels, Brown founded two magazines, wrote numerous essays and political pamphlets, and squeezed in time for short fiction.

Still, he struggled to make ends meet. With a family of four to support, Brown worked in later life as an importer with his brother.

However, he never put down his pen.

“I saw him, a little time before his death,” painter Thomas Sully remarked. “I had never known him – never heard of him – never read any of his works. He was in a deep decline. 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 shown directly upon his head. I shall never forget it. The dead leaves were falling then – it was Charles Brockden Brown.”

Brown died of tuberculosis in 1810 at age 39, yet his legacy lives on.

As preparations began for the publication of the Letters of Charles Brockden Brown in 2010, Oberlin professor Anne Trubek noted he is “our founding novelist.”


During the Founder’s Award ceremony on May 3, HSP will honor James McBride, author of the National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. The ceremony will include a performance by McBride’s gospel/jazz quintet and the unveiling of a new exhibition of historical treasures, including the only handwritten working drafts of the U.S. Constitution.

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