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Brown published both Arthur Mervyn and Edgar Huntly in 1799. Judging from the prefaces to these novels, what does he seem to think should be the role of the novel in the still emerging nation? Why do you think he offers these prefaces in the first place? “Somnambulism” is a story, not a novel, but does it seem consistent with his thinking about the novel in the two prefaces?

10 Responses to “Charles Brockden Brown”

  1. Lawrence Dolan says:

    Brown writes in a period where contemporary authors are beginning to hew an American literary tradition from the English one: Americans have “opened new themes to the…politician,” i.e. supplanted their monarch with democratic representatives; it is only fitting that they would do the same for the artistic. The embodiment of this distinction — the author or “moral painter,” whom Brown describes in the preface to Edgar Huntly — ought to “exhibit a series of series of adventures, growing out of the condition of our country, and connected with one of the most common and most wonderful diseases or affections of the human frame,” with the key phrase being “our country.” To fulfill this duty, the “moral painter” must adopt a new vocabulary. No longer the stuff of “Gothic castles and chimeras,” American literature must have images distinct to our country, and riff on our own history, all the while “inculcating on mankind the lessons of justice and humanity.” In this sense, perhaps, many of my classmates write that Somnambulism: A Fragment is inconsistent with the ideals Brown lays out in the prefaces — there is hardly much in the way of “justice and humanity” in the story and nothing that distinguishes as an American piece of writing. I suppose I agree with this sentiment, insofar as the narrative resembles more H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man” than any of James Fennimore Cooper’s ardently American tales of Natty Bumpa.

  2. Ameya Biradavolu says:

    As others have stated before me, the emergence of Brown and other novels and stories represented a desire to further develop American culture by breaking away from Europe. Much of early American fiction focused of the “culture of sentiment,”which was a break from Europe’s emphasis on reason. However, while there was a distinction between American fiction and European writing, for instance Brown drew upon the captivity narrative, we can also see the importance of Europe in shaping American literature. Additionally, early American fiction also asserted individualism, which we can see emphasized earlier in the settlement of the United States. Thus it is evident that much of the distinction between both forms of writing drew upon American contexts.

  3. Melissa Ortega says:

    As many others have stated, not only does Brown believe that a great emphasis should be placed on morals, but also that American culture needs to be embraced in order for this to occur. To successfully teach Americans about “the lessons of justice and humanity,” a writer must stray away from European influence and focus on American history. Addressing topics that highlight “distress” causes man’s “compassion and their charity to be awakened.” A writer capable of inciting these feelings within a man “performs an eminent service to the sufferers, by calling forth benevolence in those who are able to afford relief.” The power to illustrate situations that capture the importance of morals lies within the novel.

  4. Emily Luan says:

    As mentioned before, Brown believes his writing will aid in the realigning of America’s moral center. He appeals to the individual to recover from the “evils of pestilence” (“it is every one’s duty…”), but he also places great importance on both his own role as writer and America’s capacity for exceptionalism. He “offer[s] to the world a new performance” through Edgar Huntly; marks potential reformation of the country as “an era in its history”; and claims his writing as “unemployed by preceding authors” (therefore placing an American stake in a global literary tradition).
    Brown also believes in the reporting of and commentary on current events and asks the reader to consider the novel as a reflection of its historical moment. In his preface to Arthur Mevyn, he specifically cites the trials “which took place in this city in the autumn of 1793” (perhaps the episode of yellow fever deaths in Philadelphia?) and his attempt “to deliver to posterity a brief but faithful sketch of the condition of this metropolis during that calamitous period.” The novel becomes not only a manual of instruction but also an artifact or document of the time.

  5. Paul Donnelly says:

    Brown wants the American novels to embrace the new American culture and stories that this nation has to offer. He says it is the purpose of American novels “to exhibit a series of adventures, growing out of the condition of our country.” No longer should American novels be about European subjects like “gothic castles.” While covering American themes, the novelist must also be a moral leader and inculcate “on mankind the matters of justice and humanity.”
    While Somnambulism was a short story and not a novel, it is curious that Brown would go on to write it. It is a captivating story, but does not have any real unique American themes in it nor do any of its characters provide true moral guidance to the reader. In many ways it seems the aspects of an ideal American novel that he provides and what is actually in Somnambulism are contradictory to each other. One possible explanation for this could be Somnambulism’s format as a short story. It might have been that Brown would possibly view a short story more as a form of entertainment instead of a vehicle of moral teaching that he expected novels to be.

  6. Chelsea Montello says:

    Brown’s intent seems to be to influence American society to cycle back to a moralistic culture from the political and consumerist culture we’ve observed in the past couple of weeks. He uses words such as “moral” and “merit” repeatedly, emphasizing the need for compassion, though he notes “Men only require to be made acquainted with distress for their compassion and their charity to be awakened.” Just as Cole’s painting depicted the Romanesque culture rising and falling, Brown refers to the “Gothic castles” of Europe, and encourages Americans to focus on their side of the ocean; “incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of Western wilderness, are far more suitable” for American attention. Europe is no longer an American concern, and European obsession will only take Americans down the same, destructive route of Cole’s paintings.
    His novels portray characters with these moral and ‘American’ attributes, presenting an example for readers to follow in hopes of a more wholesome society.

  7. Leah Lavigne says:

    In both prefaces, Brown refers to the writer as “the moral painter” and the “moral” observer, emphasizing that within his narratives are “incidents as appeared to him most instructive and remarkable” that could benefit readers by “inculcating on mankind the lessons of justice and humanity.” Brown’s view of literature is as a vessel through which to communicate moral lessons. To do this, he creates fictional representations of the issues he sees as most pressing in the calamity of the new nation, using his characters to offer solutions to real-life problems as well as to warn of consequences faced by those who disobey law or act immorally. Particularly, Brown is concerned with a literature that departs from the English concerns of Gothic castles and superstitions and represents new American concerns such as Indian skirmishes and the unknown of the West. In this way, Somnambulism could be read as an example of American fears of the wilderness, but mostly the story departs from the literary purposes proposed in Brown’s prefaces, instead appealing to a sensationalizing of a true event. The story is purely entertainment for the reader – in fact, the narrator lusts after Mr. Davis’ daughter, follows her and kills her (albeit while sleepwalking), yet faces no retribution because the actions can be blamed on the innocent, if mischievous, Nick Handyside. Brown created a story of thrilling suspense and adventure instead of a tale with a moral judgement of Althorpe’s actions.

  8. Anne Entwisle says:

    As the previous posts have noted, Brown believe stories should be instructive and inform morality. However, these messages must take on an American identity, for previous authors drew from mythology and European structures. However, “the incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the Western wilderness” are more suited for the American audience. American issues allow the emerging society to relate to the fears they read to those that they are actually experiencing.
    Although Somnambulism does not communicate a clear moral or lesson, it nonetheless speaks to American apprehension of the West. The woods in which the Davis’s venture is an unknown territory, though they have heard stories of the perils that might await them. The fear they feel for the woods represents the same fear of the West and uninhabited territory that Americans were just starting to explore. Although Somnambulism may not adhere fully to Brown’s vision of a novel, it nonetheless encompasses American sentiments of the time.

  9. Max Greenwald says:

    Through his prefaces, the role of the novel speaks to a series of events the reader should learn about and investigate in his/her life. In America, there are numerous sources of amusement, and it is the goal of the novels to have their reader “profit by some of these sources…to exhibit a series of adventures.” The author speaks to “the trails of fortitude and constancy” and “the influences of hope and fear” by “calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader.” Brown offers these prefaces to show that the author writes his own “humble narrative” based upon his observations. The reader must know it is his/her role to “profit by all opportunities of inculcating on mankind” and carry a “spirit of salutary emulation” into society.

  10. Toby Aicher says:

    In the prefaces of Arthur Mervyn and Edgar Huntly Brown writes that stories should be instructive. They have a moral purpose and should inspire readers to emulate the virtues of their characters. Brown wants to awaken the minds of his readers from selfish solicitude, and motivate actions of kindness of charity.
    In addition to the role of “moral painter,” Brown thinks American writers should study America and the people that live there. He believes Americans have “new springs of action and new motives to curiosity [that]…differ essentially from those which exist in Europe”, and that America needs bards to interpret and document its people. Brown thinks writers must develop a new form of expression tailored to America’s peculiarities.
    Brown’s short story “Somnambulism” has very few elements that are either distinctly American or moral. He diverges from the task he laid out in the earlier prefaces, and he indulges in suspense and gratuitous drama. The only moral lesson from the story is Miss Davis’s admonition of the folly and puerility of youth, which feels unnaturally tacked in. Instead, Brown reveled in the story’s dramatic elements, such as the description of the Davis’s journey, or the physical appearance and actions of Nick Handyside. The story feels like it could take place in the privileged class of any Western country. The only time America is mentioned is when Brown writes that the presence of Handyside elevates the prosaic “American road” to be a setting of “the wildest romance.”
    The main theme of the story is the primacy of feeling over reason, and its main purpose is to amuse. There is a discrepancy between Brown’s prefaces in Arthur Mervyn and Edgar Huntly and this story.

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