Charles Brockden Brown's Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic

By Shiflet, E. Stone | Journal of the Early Republic, April 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Charles Brockden Brown's Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic


Shiflet, E. Stone, Journal of the Early Republic


Charles Brockden Brown's Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic. By Peter Kafer. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. xxi, 249. Illustrations. Cloth, $39.95.)

In an America where the gothic stories of U.S. troop abuse in Iraq dominate media coverage, revisiting the form of America's rhetorical gothic history certainly seems pertinent. Peter Kafer offers readers a reexamination of America's gothic form in his new text, an addition to the University of Pennsylvania Press's lengthy catalogue of individual author studies.

Many New Critical schools of literary criticism, including New Historicism, are grounded in archiving materials about a writer and a text to preserve not only great literary work, but also the political and social information surrounding acclaimed authors. In this critical context, Kafer's study of Charles Brockden Brown seems particularly worthy of academic attention. Offering a fresh new angle on an important early republic intellectual, Kafer builds on the historical archives gathered about Brown over the last 200-plus years. As encompassing and fresh as Stephen Watts's The Romance of Real Life: Charles Brockden Brown and the Origins of American Culture (1994), Kafer's compilation of archival history links Brown to a diverse and interesting new arena of academic arguments. Kafer advances the potential of studying Brown's position in American identity construction with his well-written understanding of the Quaker oppression to which Brown is exposed in Philadelphia. Under Kafer's lens, this oppression at the hands of America's revolutionary leaders informs Brown's penning of early American gothic and charts Brown's diverse and prolific writing career.

Kafer's stance on Brown's politics is direct and clear from the beginning. In his introduction, noting that Brown sent a copy of Wieland to then Vice President Thomas Jefferson, Kafer conjectures, "It's a safe bet that Jefferson had never read any of Wieland's English precursors, or at least had never read one through" (xi). Instead, Kafer suggests that Brown shared his novel with Jefferson for political reasons, feeling that Jefferson might be the most receptive to his message. In a scenario similar to the popular understanding of Brown's descendant, Nathaniel Hawthorne-attempting to right an American injustice against a particular religious group-Kafer reads Brown's gothic Wieland as "a story in which a father dies by spontaneous combustion and the son, a onetime deist, goes crazy and strangles his wife and five children, seeks to murder (and perhaps rape) his sister, and commits suicide" (xi). Kafer then devotes six chapters, a conclusion, and an epilogue to documenting exactly how Brown's gothic imagination serves as an archive concerned "not with the haunting sins of the past, but with American society of the 1790s" (132).

In Part I, "Facts and Fictions, 1650-1798," Kafer charts the relationship of Quaker Americans with New World government injustices. …

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