Charles Brockden Brown

August 24, 2006


American novelist, historian, magazine editor
Regarded as the most ambitious and accomplished US novelist before Cooper: wrote 7 novels in 2 years
Writing covers multiple genres: novel, short story, essay, historiography, reviews
Touchstone for understanding the Early Republic
Born to a Quaker family, initially intended for a legal career
Died of tuberculosis at 39

Wieland (1798)

“Wieland or The Transformation: An American Tale”
Gothic novel
Novel of authority misrepresented and imagined, a terrifying account of the fallibility of the human mind and of democracy
Set in rural Pennsylvania before the American Revolution; relates how a small community is disturbed by the intrusion of the mysterious Carwin whose extraordinary verbal gifts cast doubt among them
Narrator Clara is intended for the private- novel in letter form, journals, notes- but forced into the public by both Carwin and Pleyel
Brockden states in the “Advertisement” section about his intentions for writing the book:

“His purpose is neither selfish nor temporary, but aims at the illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man.”

Ideas to Explore:

The use of eyes in the novel
The transformation of private to public
The “family” as a representation of early America
The fault of the victim
Issues of trusting evidence


“I feel little reluctance in complying with your request. You know not fully the cause of my sorrows. You are a stranger to the depth of my distress. Hence your efforts at consolation must necessarily fail. Yet the tale that I am going to tell is not intended as a claim upon your sympathy. In the midst of my despair, I do not disdain to contribute what little I can to the benefit of mankind. I acknowledge your right to be informed of the events that have lately happened in my family. Make what use of the tale you shall think proper. If it be communicated to the world, it will inculcate the duty of avoiding deceit. It will exemplify the force of early impressions, and show, the immeasurable evils that flow from an erroneous or imperfect discipline.”

“His morals, which had never been loose, were now modelled by a stricter standard. The empire of religious duty extended itself to his looks, gestures, and phrases. All levities of speech, and negligences of behaviours, were proscribed. His air was mournful and contemplative. He laboured to keep alive a sentiment of fear, and a belief of the awe-creating presence of the Deity. ideas foreign to this were sedulously excluded. To suffer their intrusion was a crime against the Divine Majesty inexpiable but by days and weeks of the keenest agonies.
No material variation had occured in the lapse of two years. Every day confirmed him in his present modes of thinking and acting. it was to be expected that the tide of his emotions would sometimes recede, that intervals of despondency and doubt would occur; but these gradually were more rare, and of shorter duration; and he, at last, arrived at a state considerably uniform in this respect.”

“Was this the penalty of disobedience? this the stroke of a vindictive and invisible hand? Is it a fresh proof that the Divine Ruler interferes in human affairs, meditates an end, selects, and commissions his agents, and enforces by unequivocal sanctions, submission to his will? Or, was it merely the irregular expansion of the fluid that imparts warmth to our heart and our blood, caused by the fatigue of the preceding day, or flowing, by established laws, from the condition of his thoughts?”

“We were frequently reminded how much happiness depends on society.”

“The sound of war had been heard, but it was at such a distance as to enhance our enjoyment by affording objects of comparison.”

“He urged, that to rely on the exaggerations of an advocate, or to make the picture of a single family a model from which to sketch the condition of a nation, was absurd.”

“The will is the tool of the understanding, which must fashion its conclusions on the notices of the sense. If the senses be depraved, it is impossible to calculate the evils that may flow from the consequent deductions of the understanding.”

“So flexible, and yet so stubborn, is the human mind. So obedient to impulses the most transient and brief, and yet so unalterably observant of the direction which is given to it!”

“Something whispered that the happiness we at present enjoyed was set on mutable foundations. Death must happen to all. Whether our felicity was to be subverted by it to-morrow, or whether it was ordained that we should lay down our heads full of years and of honor, was a question that no human being could solve.”

“I have not lived so as to fear death, yet to perish by an unseen and secret stroke, to be mangled by the knife of an assassin, was a thought at which I shuddered; what had I done to deserve to be made the victim of malignant passions?”

“My brother was a much more sanguine reasoner than our guest. Even in some of the facts which were related by Carwin, he maintained the probability of celestial interference, when the latter was disposed to deny it, and had found, as he imagined, footsteps of a human agent. Pleyel was by no means equally credulous. He scrupled not to deny faith to any testimony but that of his senses, and allowed the facts which had been supported by this testimony, not to mould his belief, but merely to give birth to doubts.”

“My errors have taught me thus much wisdom; that those sentiments which we ought not to disclose, it is criminal to harbour.”

“Ideas exist in our minds that can be accounted for by no established laws.”

“I used to suppose that certain evils could never befall a being in possession of a sound mind; that true virtue supplies us with energy which vice can never resist; that it was always in our power to obstruct, by his own death, the designs of an enemy who aimed at less than our life. How was it that a sentiment like despair had now invaded me, and that I trusted to the protection of chance, or to the pity of my persecutor?”

“Are human faculties adequate to receive stronger proofs of the existence of unfettered and beneficent intelligences than I have received?”

“‘Surely,’ said I, ‘there is omnipotence in the cause that changed the views of a man like Carwin. The divinity that shielded me from his attempts will take suitable care of my future safety. Thus to yield to my fears is to deserve that they should be real.'”

“I have lost all faith in the stedfastness of human resolves. It was thus that in periods of calm I had determined to act. No cowardice had been held by me in greater abhorrence than that which prompted an injured female to destroy, not her injurer ere the injury was perpetrated, but herself when it was without remedy. Yet now this penknife appeared to me of no other use than to baffle my assailant, and prevent the crime by destroying myself. To deliberate at shuch a time was impossible; but among the tumultuous suggestions of the moment, I do not recollect that it once occurred to me to use it as an instrument of direct defense.”

“Should I confide in the testimony of my ears?”

“Surprize is an emotion that enfeebles, not invigorates.”

“Carwin’s plot owed its success to a coincidence of events scarcely credible. The balance was swayed from its equipoise by a hair.”

“Have I not reason on my side, and the power of imparting conviction?”

“Reputation and life might be wrested from me by another, but my rectitude and honor were in my own keeping, and were safe.”

“Alas! my heart droops, and my fingers are enervated; my ideas are vivid, but my language is faint; now know I what it is to entertain incommunicable sentiments. The chain of subsequent incidents is drawn through my mind, and being linked with those which forewent, by turns rouse up agonies and sink me into hopelessness.
Yet I will persist to the end. My narrative may be invaded by inaccuracy and confusion; but if I live no longer, I will, at least, live to complete it. What but ambiguities, abruptnesses, an dark transitions, can be expected from the historian who is, at the same time, the sufferer of these disasters?”

“‘Madness, say you? Are you sure? Were not these sights, and these sounds, really seen and heard?'”

“Was I not likewise transformed from rational and human into a creature of nameless and fearful attributes? Was I not transported to the brink of the same abyss? Ere a new day should come, my hands might be embrued in blood, and my remaining life be consigned to a dungeon and chains.
With moral sensibility like mine, no wonder that this new dread was more insupportable than the anguish I had lately endured. Grief carries its own antidote along with it. When thought becomes merely a vehicle of pain, its progress must be stopped. Death is a cure which nature or ourselves must administer: to this cure I now looked forward with gloomy satisfaction.”

“Presently, I considered, that whether Wieland was a maniac, a faithful servant of his God, the vistim of hellish illusions, or the dupe of human imposture, was by no means crtain.”

“‘Catharine was dead by violence. Surely my malignant stars had not made me the cause of her death; yet had I not rashly set in motion a machine, over whose progress I had no controul, and which experience had shewn me was infinite in power? Every day might add to the catalog of horrors of which this was the source, and a seasonable disclosure of the truth might prevent numberless ills.'” -Carwin

“Were views so vivid and faith so strenuous thus liable to fading and to change? Was there not reason to doubt the accuracy of my perceptions?”

“Alas! nothing but subjection to danger, and exposure to temptation, can show us what we are.”

“I listen to my own pleas, and find them empty and false: yes, I acknowledge that my guilt surpasses that of all mankind: I confess that the curses of a world, and the frowns of a deity, are inadequate to my demerits. Is there a thing in the world worth of infinite abhorrence? It is I.”

“‘Sister,’ said he, in an accent mournful and mild, ‘I have acted poorly my part in this world. What thinkest thou? Shall I not do better in the next?'” -Weiland

“Such was my weakness, that even in the midst of these thoughts, my mind glided into abhorrence of Carwin, and I uttered in a low voice, O! Carwin! Carwin! What hast thou to answer for?”

“Such is man. Time will obliterate the deepest impressions. Grief the most vehement and hopeless, will gradually decay and wear itself out. Arguments may be employed in vain: every moral prescription may be ineffectually tried: remonstrances, however cogent or pathetic, shall have no power over the attention, or shall be repelled with disdain; yet, as day follows day, the turbulence of our emotions shall subside, and our fluctuations be finally succeeded by a calm.”

“I leave you to moralize on this tale. That virtue should become the victim of treachery is, no doubt, a mournful consideration; but it will not escape your notice, that the evils of which Carwin and Maxwell were the authors, owed their existence to the errors of the sufferers. All efforts would have been ineffectual to subvert the happiness or shorten the existence of the Stuarts, if their own frailty had not seconded these efforts. If the lady had crushed her disastrous passion in the bud, and driven the seducer from her presence, when the tendency of his artifices was seen; if Stuart had not admitted the spirit of absurd revenge, we should not have had to deplore this catastrophe. If Wieland had framed juster notions of moral duty, and of the divine attributes; or if I had been gifted with ordinary equanimity or foresight, the double-toungued deceiver would have been baffled and repelled.”


One Response to “Charles Brockden Brown”

  1. Sean M. Gordon Says:

    In your analysis of Wieland’s feminism, you failed to explain the central analogy (or perhaps symmetry) between Clara and the very new United States, as well as the important role played in the melodrama by the notion of political utopia. If America is a woman, the highly rhetorical Godwin-European-type Carwin represents great danger to the “jolly virginity” described by Ben Franklin, as an analysis of America’s foreign policy. Carwin’s influence drives Pleyel to leave America in order to return to the classic European conventions, and he abandons the utopia he loved so well. The theme of the isolated, semi-independent woman as a metaphor for America itself seems to me to be more important to the novel than femininity itself; and in a short while Hester appears with her strange daughter.

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