Rhapsodist in the Wilderness: Brown's Romantic Quest in 'Edgar Huntly.' (Charles Brockden Brown)

By Hamelman, Steve | Studies in American Fiction, Autumn 1993 | Go to article overview

Rhapsodist in the Wilderness: Brown's Romantic Quest in 'Edgar Huntly.' (Charles Brockden Brown)


Hamelman, Steve, Studies in American Fiction


More than a century before Charles Brockden Brown conceived a novel based on "incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness,"(1) Mary Rowlandson had survived her three month captivity with "savages" warring against settlers in New England. Early in A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, she says she "cannot express to man the affliction that lay upon my spirit"(2) yet she proceeds to describe in vivid detail not merely her spiritual, but her physical affliction too. Rowlandson's chronicle has been read as an allegory of the New World Christian seeking salvation after being abducted into the wilderness by what the Northern colonists considered unregenerate heathen. Her prose resembles her model, the Bible; her setting is filled with richly symbolic rivers, depressions, hills, and woods; and as she reflects on her misfortune, she quotes frequently from the Old Testament. In short, her account glorifies, in archetypal Puritan fashion, the "sovereignty and goodness of God"(3) by typifying the Indians as "scourges" of colonial sinners such as herself. Her trials are those every Christian must undergo in order to be worthy of God.(4)

Over the next century, religious didacticism like Rowlandson's evolved--first in Europe, of course--into the moral earnestness of sentimental fiction. During Brown's brief career, the imaginative basis of the growing romantic movement inspired him to transcend the bondage of utilitarianism in its Puritanic and sentimental forms. Coming of age during the literary transition from colonial and revolutionary functionalism to more "creative" artistic expression, Brown's canonical texts reflect his alliance with the spirit of innovation which in England meant Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Godwin, and in Germany Goethe and Schiller. Though Brown was not as gifted, perhaps, as these giants, in the forewords to the novels written between 1798 and 1800 he was quick to point out his intention to take American fiction to new places, mainly by relating strange and even grotesque motifs to the American experience. For instance, he uses biloquism in Wieland as he "aims at the illustration of some important branches of the moral constitution of man,"(5) and in the magnum opus Arthur Mervyn he focuses on the literal and figurative evils of yellow fever which have been "fertile of instruction to the moral observer, to whom they have furnished new displays of the influence of human passions and motives."(6) The foreword to Edgar Huntly reveals a similar ambition to probe new realms through imaginative prose:

America has opened new views to the naturalist and politician,

but has seldom furnished themes to the moral painter. That new

springs of action, and new motives to curiosity should operate[,]

may be readily conceived. The sources of amusement to the fancy

and instruction to the heart, that are peculiar to [Americans], are

equally numerous and inexhaustible. It is the purpose of this work

to profit by some of these sources; to exhibit a 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 [i.e., somnambulism] (p. 3). But Brown does not stop at the not particularly American theme of sleepwalking (although it is sufficiently brilliant as a Gothic device to probe the psychologies of his two main characters). He adds to it a subject which is irrefutably germane to the new Republic, promising through it to call

forth the passions and engag[e] the sympathy of the reader, by

means hitherto unemployed by preceding authors. Puerile

superstition and exploded manners; Gothic castles and chimeras,

are the materials usually employed for this end. The incidents of

Indian hostility and the perils of the western wilderness are far

more suitable; and for a native of America to overlook these, would

admit of no apology (p.

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