Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Humanitarianism and Uncertainty in 'Arthur Mervyn.'

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Humanitarianism and Uncertainty in 'Arthur Mervyn.'

Article excerpt

In the Second Part of Arthur Mervyn (hereafter AM), Mervyn returns to Philadelphia to rescue Clemenza Lodi from Mrs. Villars's house of prostitution. (Clemenza is a young Italian woman whose fortune has been stolen and reputation ruined by Thomas Welbeck, Mervyn's former employer.) Confident about his mission, Mervyn breathes in the brisk morning air and begins his trek to the city. He tells his most recent patron, Dr. Stevens:

My spirits were high, and I saw nothing in the world before me but sunshine and prosperity. I was conscious that my happiness depended not on the revolutions of nature or the caprice of man. All without was, indeed, vicissitude and uncertainty; but within my bosom was a centre not to be shaken or removed. My purposes were honest and steadfast. (312)

Despite his optimism and certainty, despite his declared good intentions, Mervyn enters Villars's house without knocking, passes into private rooms without asking, and encounters a number of obstacles, not least of which is Villars's "torrent of opprobrious epithets" (322). After she calls him "a villain, a calumniator, a thief" (322), Mervyn leaves her room, temporarily set back and a bit confused. "Did I really deserve the imputations of rashness and insolence?" (322), he asks himself. But the question is rhetorical, because Mervyn knows that he is fundamentally and thoroughly upright in his purpose. No question about it. He reasons with himself, quickly justifies his actions, and formulates a maxim out of the affair:

My behaviour, I well know, was ambiguous and hazardous, and perhaps wanting in discretion, but my motives were unquestionably pure. I aimed at nothing but the rescue of an human creature from distress and dishonor.

. . . we must not be unactive because we are ignorant. Our good purposes must hurry to performance, whether our knowledge be greater or lesser. (322-23)

Completely convinced that his motives are "unquestionably pure," Mervyn acts as an unswerving humanitarian: he seeks only to rescue the unfortunate Clemenza.

Throughout this novel, in fact, altruistic Arthur helps all kinds of people. Mervyn and his mother give shelter to a destitute, perhaps insane, young man named Clavering, "though he was unable to pay for it" (29). Hoping to bring happiness to the Hadwin family, Mervyn sets out to locate and recover Susan Hadwin's fiance, Wallace. Mervyn helps Welbeck escape into New Jersey. From the time he meets them, Mervyn is benevolently concerned with the welfare of Clemenza and Eliza Hadwin. And he makes a special trip to Baltimore to return a small fortune to the widow of Watson. Armed with principled justifications for his actions, this humanitarian comes to the aid of widows (Mrs. Watson), orphans (Clemenza and Eliza), the homeless (Clavering), the sick (Wallace), the desperate (Welbeck) and the sorrowful (Susan and the rest of the Hadwin clan).

In his Preface, Charles Brockden Brown talks about AM in terms of its humanitarian work. He chooses Philadelphia in 1793 as his setting because it offers him situations and incidents from which to draw charitable, moral lessons. Brown writes to preserve for history "a brief but faithful sketch" (3) of the city in 1793 and to awaken humanitarian sensibilities by illustrating humanitarians in action. Brown explains:

Men only require to be made acquainted with distress for their compassion and their charity to be awakened. He that depicts, in lively colours, the evils of disease and poverty, performs an eminent service to the sufferers, by calling forth benevolence in those who are able to afford relief, and he who pourtrays examples of disinterestedness and intrepidity, confers on virtue the notoriety and homage that are due to it, and rouses in the spectators, the spirit of salutary emulation. (3)

By offering his characters as "examples of disinterestedness and intrepidity," Brown encourages those qualities in his readers. …

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