Charles Brockden Brown (January 17, 1771 - February 22, 1810), American novelist, historian, and magazine editor of the Early National period, is generally regarded by scholars as the most ambitious and accomplished US novelist before Cooper. He is the most frequently studied and republished practitioner of the "early American novel," or the US novel between 1789 and roughly 1820. Although Brown was by no means the first American novelist, as some early criticism claimed, the breadth and complexity of his achievement as a writer in multiple genres (novels, short stories, essays and periodical writings of every sort, poetry, historiography, reviews) makes him a crucial figure in US literature and culture of the 1790s and 1800s, and a significant public intellectual in the wider Atlantic print culture and public sphere of the era of the French Revolution.
Brown was born the youngest of five brothers and seven surviving siblings total into a Philadelphia Quaker merchant family. His father Elijah Brown, originally from Chester County, Pennsylvania, just southwest of Philadelphia, had an up-and-down career primarily as a land-conveyancer or agent in real estate transactions. Brown's older brothers were import-export merchants and bought shares in re-export ventures as early as the 1780s. Brown became a reluctant partner in a short-lived family re-export firm, James Brown and Co., from late 1800 to the firm's dissolution in 1806. The family's mercantile background and experiences in the global trade and trade conflicts of the revolutionary era are relevant to Brown's writings insofar as he often explores issues connected to the period's culture of commerce and the role that commerce plays in the historical transition from eighteenth-century civic republicanism to nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberalism, capitalism, and imperialism.
Although his family intended for him to become a lawyer, Brown gave up law in 1793 after a brief apprenticeship and moved toward a circle of young, New York-based intellectuals who helped launch his literary career. The New York group included a number of young male professionals who called themselves the Friendly Club (including Dr. Elihu Hubbard Smith, Brown's closest friend during this period, and William Dunlap), along with female friends and relatives who were equally invested in progressive intellectual exchange and enlightened models for companionship and cultural-political conversation.
During most of the 1790s, Brown developed his literary ambitions in projects that often remained incomplete (for example the so-called "Henrietta Letters," transcribed in the Clark biography) and frequently used his correspondence with friends as a sort of laboratory for narrative experiments. His first publications appeared in the late 1780s (e.g. "The Rhapsodist" essay series from 1789), but generally he published little during this period. By 1798, however, these formative years gave way to a burst of novel-writing during which Brown published the titles for which he is best known today. In complex ways, these novels and the rest of Brown's career are informed by the progressive ideas he draws on and develops from the period's British radical-democratic writers, most notably Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, and Thomas Holcroft. Brown was influenced by these writers and in turn exerted an influence on them and their younger followers, for example in Godwin's later novels, or in the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley, who reread Brown as she wrote her novels Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) and The Last Man (1826).
During the novelistic phase that lasts from 1798 to late 1801, Brown published the Wollstonecraftian-feminist dialog Alcuin (1798), and eight subsequent novels. The novels, in their order of publication, are: 1) Sky-Walk; or, The Man Unknown to Himself (completed by March 1798, but subsequently lost and never published); 2) Wieland; or, the Transformation (September 1798); 3) Ormond; or, the Secret Witness (January, 1799); 4a) Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793, First Part (May 1799); 5) Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (August 1799); 6) Memoirs of Stephen Calvert (serialized from June 1799 to June 1800); 4b) Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793, Second Part (September 1800); 7) Clara Howard; In a Series of Letters (June 1801); 8) Jane Talbot; A Novel (December 1801).
In addition to this impressive output of novels, Brown also became an editor in this period, and along with his friends in the New York circle published and wrote many short articles and reviews for The Monthly Magazine and American Review from April 1799 to December 1800, as well as its short-lived successor, The American Review and Literary Journal (1801-1802). Finally, besides these two New York periodicals, Brown also published numerous fictional pieces, including the only surviving fragment of his first novel Sky-Walk, in the Philadelphia-based Weekly Magazine of Original Essays, Fugitive Pieces, and Interesting Intelligence (1798-1799).
Brown's novels are often characterized simply as gothic fiction, although the model he develops is far from the Gothic romance mode of writers such as Ann Radcliffe. Brown's novels combine several revolutionary-era fiction subgenres with other types of late-Enlightenment scientific and medical knowledges. Most notably, they develop the British radical-democratic models of Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and Holcroft and combine these with elements of German "Schauer-romantik" gothic from Friedrich Schiller, the enlightened sentimental fictions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Laurence Sterne, women's domestic novels by writers such as Fanny Burney or Hannah Webster Foster, and other genres such as captivity narrative. Brown builds plots around particular motifs such as sleep-walking and religious mania, drawing on Enlightenment medical writings by figures such as Erasmus Darwin.
Brown articulates a well-defined technique and plan for his novel-writing in essays such as "Walstein's School of History" (1799) and "The Difference Between History and Romance" (1800). In these essays, he explains that his novels combine fiction and history to place ordinary individuals (like his novelistic protagonists Arthur Mervyn or Edgar Huntly) into situations of historical stress (like the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 or settler-Indian violence on the Pennsylvania frontier after the Walking Purchase) in such a way as educate his audience about virtuous behaviors and the historical causes and conditions of individual actions. In short, Brown uses his Wollstonecraftian-Godwinian models to develop a theory of political fiction that is intended to educate his readers and to take part in the ideological and cultural debates of his period. Brown's life-long support for women's rights and equality, for example, stems both from his Quaker background, and from his committment to the late-Enlightenment ideals of the revolutionary era.
After 1801 Brown continued to publish prolifically. He authored several important political pamphlets arguing for the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and against the Embargo Act of 1807. He edited and was primary contributor to two more magazines: The Literary Magazine and American Register (1803-1806), a miscellany on cultural and other topics (from geography and medicine to history and aesthetics) and The American Register and General Repository of History, Politics, and Science (1807-09). The latter is notable for the book-length "Annals of Europe and America," Brown's contemporary historical narrative of Napoleonic geopolitics. Brown continued to write fiction and experiment with other literary genres during this period, notably in the Historical Sketches, a group of historical fictions that were published only posthumously. These late experimental narratives show Brown exploring the interface of fiction and history at the end of the revolutionary era, at a moment that both follows the great Enlightenment historians (e.g., David Hume, William Robertson (historian), Edward Gibbon) and prefigures the emergence of the nineteenth-century historical romance form in writers like Walter Scott or James Fenimore Cooper. George Lippard acknowledged a literary debt, and dedicated several books to him. He also published many miscellaneous pieces in other magazines of the 1800s including the Philadelphia Aurora and Joseph Dennie's Port-Folio.
Brown contracted tuberculosis in 1809 and died in February 1810 at the age of 39. While he is still best known for the novels he published from 1798 to 1801, all of his writings, from early correspondence in the 1780s to the late historical "Annals" of 1807-1809, continue to attract new scholarship and readers in the twenty-first century.
The complete, scholarly edition of Brown's novels (minus the lost Sky-Walk) is The Novels and Related Works of Charles Brockden Brown. Bicentennial Edition. 6 volumes. Sydney J. Krause and S.W. Reid, editors. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1977-1987.
Collections of Brown's non-novelistic fiction and essays are:
C.B. Brown. The Literary Essays and Reviews. Alfred Weber and Wolfgang Schaefer, eds. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1972.
_____. Somnambulism and Other Stories. Alfred Weber, ed. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1987.
_____. The Rhapsodist and Other Uncollected Writings. Harry R. Warfel, ed. Delmar NY: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1977.
An ongoing scholarly project to edit and publish Brown's non-novelistic writings is underway as The Charles Brockden Brown Scholarly Edition and Electronic Archive. The project maintains a website listed below under "External Links."
Biographical information on Brown is available in:
Clark, David Lee. Charles Brockden Brown: Pioneer Voice of America. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1952.
Kafer, Peter. Charles Brockden Brown's Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Warfel, Harry R. Charles Brockden Brown: American Gothic Novelist. Gainesville FL: University of Florida Press, 1949.