The Founding Goth
By Andrew Madigan
Sure, Gothic novelist Charles Brockden Brown dressed in black with a white ruffled shirt, but this wasn’t uncommon in the 18th century. It was a time of white powdered wigs, not white powdered faces. If Brown followed a Robert Smith, it was the English astrologer or perhaps the American bishop, not a fey pop star from Lancashire.
Brown wasn’t the first American to write a novel, but he was the first to write a truly American novel. His work, though influenced by England and the Continent, transcended these influences. Brown wrote unique, sophisticated fiction exploring the historical, political and cultural scene of the young nation. His novels are gripping—works that entertain and delight, rather than mere “interesting examples” of early American literature. Scholars often write, or rather repeat, that Brown was the most talented writer before Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, but he’s clearly superior to both authors. America didn’t produce comparable work until the dark romanticism of Hawthorne, Melville and Poe much later in the century.
In addition, Brown was the first American to support himself writing fiction. In other words, the first successful novelist.
Brown was born in Philadelphia, the center of colonial intellectual and political life, to a Quaker merchant family in 1771. He studied law, dropped out, moved to New York, and joined the cerebral Friendly Club. At age 18 Brown began publishing, anonymously, a series of essays entitled “The Rhapsodist” in The Columbian Magazine. He also became increasingly intrigued by the Gothic fiction and progressive ideas of England, which inspired his early fiction.
Brown wrote eight novels in a three-year frenzy between 1798 and 1801. The first, Alcuin, concerns the role of women in society and politics. He argued that women were in many respects treated like slaves and should be granted more independence. Progressive doesn’t begin to describe Brown, who was more forward thinking and rational, 200 years ago, than many public figures today.
The Browns, because of their faith, were often at odds with the prevailing mood of the day. In fact, Brown’s father was arrested, jailed and his stores looted during the Revolution because he refused to swear allegiance to the newly formed government—Quakers are pacifists who don’t take oaths of any kind. Charles took his family’s nonconformity to heart. After quitting school and refusing to become a lawyer or work in the family business, he became a novelist, which wasn’t yet an actual job in the Colonies. He was eventually disowned by the local meetinghouse for marrying a non-Quaker, and his parents didn’t attend the wedding.
Brown’s work is nothing like you’d imagine. It’s not staid, boring, old-fashioned or genteel. It’s politically radical, avant-garde and downright weird. Jane Austen may have been a contemporary, but with regard to style, tone and subject matter she belongs to an entirely different age. Brown’s first novel, Sky-Walk, is centered around sleepwalking. Wieland, the second, is a classic of Gothic horror. It’s also an early example of the psychological novel, predating Dostoyevsky, Poe and other “pioneers” of the form by several decades. Wieland involves rape, murder, religious mania, biloquism (voice-throwing) and, naturally, spontaneous combustion. The plot was inspired by sensational murders in 1781, making Brown an architect of the nonfiction novel.
His other novels are equally peculiar, addressing topics as varied and bizarre as: teleporting; more sleep-walking; forgery and false identity; prostitution; human equality; the reputed “savagery” of Native Americans; the primacy of Reason; law and legal morality; social reform; and doppelgangers. The Memoirs of Stephen Calvert is most notable for taking, as a central theme, homosexuality. It was the first American novel to do so, and Brown should be commended for tackling a subject that, 150 years later, would still cause censure and scandal.
In addition to novels, Brown wrote essays, reviews, short fiction and monographs as well as editing and founding magazines. His nonfiction was more popular than his fiction and perhaps even more diverse. Brown’s articles touched on slavery, geography, prison reform, the art of fiction, medicine, organized religion, women’s rights, history, economics and especially politics. He espoused radical-democratic ideals based on his reading of Enlightenment political philosophy and his own egalitarian, pacifistic background.
In 1803 Brown wrote two formidable pamphlets, regarding the Louisiana Territory, as open letters to Jefferson. “An Address to the Government of the United States, on the Cession of Louisiana to the French” weighed in at 92 pages while “Monroe’s Embassy, or the Conduct of the Government, in Relation to Our Claims to the Navigation of the Mississippi” was a slim 52. In these screeds, Brown’s ideals transformed, like one of his own supernatural characters, into a warmongering, imperialistic, xenophobe. Strange, but he was a strange man. Perhaps he recognized a disparity between the abstract sphere of political thought and the concrete realm of government action. In any event, I’m fairly certain that neither Stephen King nor Stephenie Meyer has written a book-length tract slamming the president.
Brown died from Tuberculosis at age 39. His legacy is complex and multi-textured. On the one hand, his books are no longer read, except by scholars and teleportation enthusiasts. On the other hand, he founded America’s national literature and, as such, must be remembered. Brown took elements from the German schauerromantik (shudder-romantic) tradition, the novel-of-ideas—largely of French, German and English ancestry—and contemporaneous progressive thought, all of which was refracted through the lens of his unique vision and the nation’s brief history.
Brown was a master of the unreliable narrator, which he used with great subtlety and purpose. His novels feature convoluted, implausible, ingenious and exasperating plots that prefigure postmodern fiction and are preoccupied with philosophy, politics, theology and the mystical—Thomas Pynchon, if you will. Brown explored race, gender and sexuality with shocking frankness for an 18th-century man. He was America's first alternative artist—back when there was no mainstream to be alternative to. He was ahead of his time, and ours.