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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810)

[7265] Anonymous, Charles Brockden Brown (c. 1925), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124378].

Born in Philadelphia to wealthy Quaker parents, Charles Brockden Brown was initially pressured by his family to study law. However, he had no real interest in the profession and would write in the evenings while studying law by day. After he finally admitted to his parents that he felt unable to appear before the bar, he began his writing career in earnest. Brown felt guilty for disappointing his family, but was rewarded with positive responses to his writing from Philadelphia literary circles.

Moving to New York in 1798 (and contracting and surviving yellow fever, an event which later found its way into his writing), Brown cultivated friends who were engaged in the fine arts and read widely. He was prolific in the following years, publishing the novels Wieland (1798), Ormond (1799), Edgar Huntly (1799), and the first part of Arthur Mervyn (1799). Supplementing these projects with work in journalism, Brown founded three different periodicals and became increasingly interested in politics and history.

Brown’s gothic romances, which delve into the uncertainties and contradictions of human nature, were among the first important novels published in the United States. Fascinated by states of altered consciousness, such as sleep-walking and religious enthusiasm, he influenced the later psychic excavations of Edgar Allan Poe. He died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine.

Teaching Tips

  • Allow a free-ranging discussion of the metaphorical resonance of “hearing voices.” You might begin by asking your students if any of them believe in ghosts and then expand the question to have them reflect on the idea of “ghosts” as one that stands for anything that haunts us (our past, our conscience, our conflicting values).

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: In Chapter IX of Wieland, we are privy to the complexities and subtleties of the thoughts of the narrator, Clara. How would you describe her state of mind?
  2. Context: In what sense is Clara, as she says, “tormented by phantoms of [her] own creation”? How might Clara’s words be applied to the interaction of spiritualism and gender described in the Core Context “The Spirit Is Willing: The Occult and Women in the Nineteenth Century”?
  3. Exploration: How might the image of pausing at a closed door, debating whether or not to open it for fear of what might reveal itself, invite allegorical interpretations? Can you think of an experience in which a dilemma between knowledge and comfort presented itself? That is, are there ever times in real life when not knowing the truth seems preferable to knowing it?

Selected Archive Items

[7053] A. J. Dewey, There’s a Charm about the Old Love Still (1901), 
courtesy of Duke University and the Library of Congress. 
Sheet-music illustration of a man and woman using a Ouija board. The nineteenth century witnessed a growing interest in spiritualism and the occult.

[7265] Anonymous, Charles Brockden Brown (1900-1950), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-124378]. 
Portrait of Brown, whose novel Wieland is a precursor to the psychological novels of the Victorian era.

[8645] Emory Elliott, Interview: “The Gothic in Literature” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Emory Elliott, professor of English at University of California, Riverside, discusses the gothic in nineteenth-century American literature.

[9007] Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland; or, The Transformation, an American Tale (1799), 
courtesy of Project Gutenberg. 
Wieland, along with Brown’s other novels Edgar Huntly and Arthur Mervyn, helped bring the gothic style to American literature.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6