Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810)
Contributing Editor: Carla Mulford
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Undergraduates find Brown peculiar when compared to other writers of the era, and they tend to say, "He reminds me of Poe," without realizing that Poe wrote a generation after C. B. Brown. They are unused to first-person narratives of Brown's order if they have been in a chronologically-arranged survey course. They have been used to first-person narratives that explore particular models of behavior, like the spiritual autobiography. Brown, writing in the absence of particular religious ideologies or political agendas, puzzles them. Some students like him immensely; others find him obtuse and irrational.
I play upon students' surprise at Brown's narrative, and I stress that if Brown's narratives seem irrational, then perhaps that was part of Brown's point, that life itself is unpredictable according to rational plans. I show them that at the time when most writers were attempting to find ways to model the Federalist political agenda, Brown was questioning the assumptions of the model--that life could be organized like a coherent machine and that people could be taught "moral" behavior. If students can't quite see it this way, then I talk with them about various means by which authors more familiar to them (Poe, Conrad, Hawthorne) have represented the unconscious and seemingly irrational behavior.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
If students want to explore Brown's life, they find ample interesting material in his letters about authorship. Most biographies on Brown--there are a few readily available--quote from letters.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Two key issues are raised by Brown's writing:
Brown's first-person narratives differ from those most students will be accustomed to from earlier writers. Brown's narrators, like Althorpe, the narrator of this story, are often unreliable. Students are intrigued by the exploration of psychology that Brown offers them. (They have been trained to think such complexity available only in twentieth-century authors, or in Poe.)
Second, because of the first-person narrative form, the intense psychological issues Brown renders often take on a motif of "the double." In this narrative, young Althorpe, the narrator, has his double in both the unnamed man to whom Constantia Davis is engaged and in the anticipated intruder, Nick Handyside. This is a minor sample of Brown's often-central motif of the double. (See Wieland, Edgar Huntly.)
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
We talk about the Federalist audience that would have liked Foster and Rowson, in order to put Brown's work in a relief of "conscious" narrative. This enables students to see just how extraordinary Brown's narrative attempts were.
We then, later on (in covering Poe and Hawthorne), discuss the extent to which later authors used some of Brown's interests and techniques. Hawthorne considered Brown one of the best American writers, and he regretted Brown's inability to find an appreciative audience.
Many students then like to make comparisons between Brown and recent authors.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
There are many, many studies on Brown. Recent articles have played upon the issues of family and disintegration. Teachers should pursue those articles that might interest them, after reading discussions of books and articles in the entries (well-indexed) in each annual volume of American Literary Scholarship.