Teaching Resources

The resources supplied here include plot summaries of Brown’s novels and related works, contact information for an existing relative, and access to the Charles Brockden Brown Electronic Archive and Scholarly Edition, with its primary works and secondary bibliography.

» Plot and Publication Abstracts

Plot and Publication Abstracts

1798 Alcuin: A Dialogue

Alcuin is a dialogue between Alcuin, a school master, and Mrs. Carter, a widow and “bluestocking,” which examines the status of women in society and the “natural rights” argument for emancipating women. The initial dialogue begins with Alcuin defending the role of women in society and Mrs. Carter arguing that they are subject to inadequate education and excluded from meaningful professions. She also observes how women are prevented from participating fully as citizens, and that the Constitution makes no distinction between women and animals and wrongly excludes the former from political rights. While Alcuin observes that he cannot sympathize with women’s interests or rights in regard to business or politics, he admits that women are the superior sex in other respects. In a subsequent conversation one week later, Alcuin describes a utopian society—“the paradise of women”—where men and women are treated equally and, for example, receive identical educations. It is also a society where marriage is non-existent. Mrs. Carter responds by defending the institution of marriage, but also acknowledges that the existing marriage laws are inadequate and unjust and that under the circumstances divorce can serve a useful purpose. The dialogue ends with Mrs. Carter asserting that in order for marriage to survive as an institution it must be founded on the free and mutual consent of the willing.

1798 Wieland; or The Transformation. An American Tale

Written in epistolary format, Wieland uses actual events—a murder in New York of a wife and children in 1781 by religious fanatic James Yates—as the basis of its story The novel begins by recounting the lives of Clara Wieland and her brother Theodore, whose own father is a religious enthusiast and dies mysteriously. Raised by their aunt, the sister and brother develop close relationships with Catherine Pleyel and Henry, her brother. Theodore eventually marries Catherine and has four children, while Clara and Henry also develop a close relationship that promises marriage. Theodore, however, eventually begins to hear voices, which test the rationalist assumptions and beliefs of the group. As they try to sort out sensory impressions and their own reasoning processes, another character, Carwin arrives on the scene. An Irish immigrant who has the ability to mimic other voices, he makes Clara uneasy. A series of events occur which, in gothic tradition, ultimately lead to Carwin being found in Clara’s bedroom closet. Henry concludes that Clara and Carwin are having an affair, but then the group hears a series of mysterious voices, which leads to further confusion and anxiety. It is Theodore, however who—like his father—hears “divine” voices urging him to kill his wife and children. As his sister Clara attempts to reason with him and he, in turn, prepares to stab her, Carwin intervenes and saves her by using his abilities as a ventriloquist. The novel ends with Theodore killing himself and Clara reflecting, years later, on the processes of human reasoning and morality.

1799 Ormond; or The Secret Witness

Narrated by Sophia Courtland, Ormond opens in post-revolutionary New York, sketching how Thomas Craig swindled Dudley out of his stock and property and forced him and his family into bankruptcy. Dudley then moves to Philadelphia, where his wife dies and he develops cataracts and blindness. His daughter, Constantia, takes care of him and lives frugally, sharing “domestic duties” with Lucy, an adopted girl, and pursuing intellectual interests in her spare moments. Amidst the spread of yellow fever, fear, and poverty, Constantia bravely helps the diseased of the city, provides for her father, and shuns marriage to Balfour and others in an attempt to hold on to her independence. With the return of Craig, however, she meets Ormond whose indulgent manner, rationalist distaste of marriage, and infatuation with Constantia lead to the suicide of his mistress, Helena Cleves. Constantia’s meeting with and erotic interest in Martinette de Beauvais, Ormond’s radical cross-dressing sister, engages her momentarily in the actions of women during the French Revolution. Sophia Courtland confesses how her life as an orphan with the Dudleys led to a “romantic passion” for Constantia. Ormond learns of Constantia’s plans to leave for Europe with Sophia and, after using Craig to murder Constantia’s father and then killing Craig himself, confronts Constantia in a jealous rage and attempts to kill her. Using a penknife, Constantia defends herself, killing Ormond, and then relocates, with Sophia’s help, to Europe.

1799 Arthur Mervyn or Memoirs of the Year 1793

In Part One, the novel’s plot and subplots focus on Arthur’s struggle to make his way in the yellow fever and crime infested city of Philadelphia in 1793. Dr. Stevens relates how he found the afflicted Arthur and nursed him back to health. Arthur’s own tale is a story about his sad boyhood in rural Pennsylvania, his coming to Philadelphia for a better life, and how upon his arrival he falls prey to a swindler, losing his clothing and money, before meeting the apparently rich Thomas Welbeck, a confidence man. While Welbeck hires Arthur to copy a stolen manuscript, Arthur eventually learns that Clemenza Lodi, Welbeck’s “daughter,” is really a woman Welbeck had taken advantage of financially and then kept, against her will, as a mistress. Arthur later observes Welbeck’s murder of Amos Watson, and participates in burying the body and starts to realize that Welbeck is a criminal. But Welbeck disappears in the Delaware River, prompting Arthur to flee the city for fear of his own demise. He returns to the countryside and finds work with the Hadwins, a Quaker family, where he falls in love with Eliza Hadwin and discovers $20,000 of embezzled monies. Arthur decides to go back to Philadelphia in order to return the money and to locate Wallace, Susan Hadwin’s fiancé. Arthur, however, contracts yellow fever, is almost buried alive, and again encounters Welbeck, who is in search of the banknotes. Arthur, deathly ill yet desiring to be virtuous, confronts Welbeck, burns the notes, and travels to Medlicote’s house where he collapses and the novel’s narrator, Doctor Stevens, finds him.

Part Two of Arthur Mervyn begins with Arthur stepping forth “upon the stage,” eager to demonstrate “benevolence” and concern about Wallace and the Hadwins. Stevens relates various facts as they pertain to his experiences and the history of the Mervyns. Hadwin, we learn, died from yellow fever when returning to Philadelphia to help Wallace. Susan also dies shortly after Mervyn visits the farm, and Mervyn feels compelled to help Eliza, whose abusive uncle takes her inheritance. Returning to Philadelphia, Mervyn searches for and locates Welbeck’s mistress Clemenza Lodi at Mrs. Villars’s brothel, where she was left by Welbeck, and witnesses Welbeck’s suffering and death in debtor’s prison. After Welbeck’s demise, Mervyn finds new homes for Clemenza with his friend Mrs. Wentworth and for Eliza with newfound friend Mrs. Achsa Fielding. Mervyn meets Achsa at Villars’s brothel and learns that she is the wealthy Jewish widow of an Englishman who died fighting for the Girondin faction in the French revolution. The novel concludes as Mervyn falls in love with Achsa and looks forward to marrying her, reaffirming his friendship and medical apprenticeship with Dr. Stevens and looking forward to the future.

1799 Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-walker

In an attempt to transplant gothic elements on to American soil, the plot of Edgar Huntly revolves around “incidents of Indian hostility” and Edgar’s perceptions—often misguided, though sometimes accurate—of other people and the proper role of benevolence. Edgar, writing to his former fiancé, Mary Waldegrave, recalls seeing a distraught man, Clithero Edny, digging at the foot of an elm tree one night, the place where Edgar’s friend Waldegrave had been murdered. Edgar confronts Clithero about his actions and learns about Clithero’s past in Ireland, his patroness Mrs. Lorimer and Clithero’s engagement to her daughter Clarice, and his accidental murder of Mrs. Lorimer’s brother, Wiatte. Clithero disappears, and Edgar pursues him through the wilderness in an effort to convince Clithero that because of his momentary insanity he is blameless in Wiatte’s death and in his benevolent belief that killing Mrs. Lorimar is a reasonable way to rescue her from the torment of her brother Waitte. The novels’ plot takes a turn when letters of the “freethinking” Waldegrave are missing. Highly critical of religious belief and espousing atheism, the missing letters are a major source of anxiety for Edgar. Weymouth’s appearance and his claim that Waldegrave’s estate belongs to him sends Edgar into his own delusional journey into the wilderness where he gets lost and wakes up in a dark cave, encounters Indians, and is shot at by whites in pursuit of renegade Indians. In making his way back from the frontier to civilization, Edgar himself increasing resembles “the savage” until he meets Sarsefield, his former instructor and mentor. Clithero, wounded and rescued from Indian captivity, encounters Edgar and Sarsefield, but Clithero escapes after Sarsefield denies him medical help. The novel ends with a series of letters indicating Edgar’s attempts to inform Clithero that he had not killed Mrs.Lorimer; Sarsefield’s indictment of Edgar’s actions and resistance to paternal authority; and Clithero’s suicide while en route, with Sarsefield, to an asylum.

1799-1800 The Monthly Magazine, and American Review

Established while Brown was a member of the Friendly Club with William Dunlap and Elihu Hubbard Smith and published in New York from April 1799 through December 1800, the magazine was printed by and sold by T & J. Swords. As editor, Brown selected a range of materials for his readers, including reviews of books by Benjamin Trumbull and Ezra Stiles, and articles on authorship, periodical publications, political economy, agriculture, doctrinal differences, the death of George Washington, poetry, the liberty of the press, and the accomplishments of women such as Hannah More, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Hannah Adams. Urged to avoid controversial political matter, Brown focused his attention on “scientific and literary topics” of interest to his readers. In addition to reprinting transactions of the American Philosophical society, he himself contributed a large amount of material on almanacs, historical writing, American newspapers, literary taste, theater, and other topics. Moreover, along with a fragment from his novel Edgar Huntly and “Thessalonica—a Roman Story,” he also serially published his novel fragment Memoirs of Stephen Calvert in the magazine. His most important fiction written for the magazine was the novella “A Lesson on Concealment; or, Memoirs of Selwyn” (March 1800). While few contributions came from Friendly Club members, Brown actively sought contributions from his contemporaries.

1801 Clara Howard; In a Series of Letters

The first of Brown’s novels with a woman in the title and written more openly in the sentimental mode of the day, the story is derived from a real love triangle in Brown’s experience. In contrast to conventional seduction themes of the day and sentimental moralizing, Brown’s epistolary novel takes a different tack. It opens with Edward Hartley, a penniless boy from the country, going to the city to become an apprentice of a watchmaker, and meeting Mary Wilmot, a plain woman older than he, who supports herself and her brother by sewing. She falls in love with Hartley, who agrees to marry her despite the absence of similar feelings. When her brother dies, Mary inherits $5000, which a fellow named Morton claims is his. Meanwhile, Edward is taken in by Mr. E. Howard and his attractive and resourceful step-daughter Clara. Mary then disappears with a man named Sedley, a development Edward doesn’t learn about for several months due to a misplaced letter. Thinking his engagement is broken, Edward expresses an interest in Clara who benevolently reasons that he has to find and marry Mary. Faced with an ethical and emotional dilemma, he attempts to find Mary but becomes sick with a fever when he rescues a girl from drowning. Both Edward and Clara think Mary is alone and unhappy, but she has instead fallen in love with Sedley. Brown reverses traditional republican gender expectations by having Clara rely on reason and Edward on sentiment, and Edward eventually becomes distraught because it appears neither woman wants him. The novel concludes with Mary marrying Sedley and with Edward finally free to marry Clara. A British edition of the novel appeared in 1807 under the title Philip Stanley.

1801 Jane Talbot, A Novel

Young and widowed, Jane Talbot falls in love with Henry Colden, a follower of Godwin, but the marriage is opposed by Mrs. Fielder, Jane’s aunt and guardian, on the grounds that Colden has written letters that espouse radical ideas about suicide, revelation, marriage, and sexual liberalism derived from Godwin’s Political Justice. Mrs. Fielder is disgusted by Henry’s moral rationalism and dissenting beliefs. She also believes, on the basis of a letter, that earlier on Colden had seduced Jane one night during a storm while Jane’s husband Talbot was away, and urges her to stay away from Colden. The letter, we later learn, was forged by a Miss Jessup who was in love with Talbot and sought to separate the pair. Throughout this epistolary novel and amidst an ever changing backdrop of social instability, the reader encounters a series of moral, philosophical, and epistemological questions concerning faith, wealth, intellect, and human sensibility. Colden eventually goes to sea and Miss Jessup confesses her efforts to secure Talbot’s love. Although influenced by sentiment and sensibility, Jane attempts to exercise independent judgment throughout the story. When Colden returns, he and Jane, who has since learned not to “hold in scorn or abhorrence those who differ from [her],” are finally in a position to marry. Jane Talbot is the only first edition of Brown’s novels to be illustrated.

1803 The Literary Magazine and American Register

Published from 1803 to 1807 in Philadelphia by John Conrad, Brown’s monthly miscellany covered an array of topics. As editor and a chief contributor, Brown sought in “The Editor’s Address to the Public” to communicate “[u]seful information and rationale amusement” in the form of news, reviews, and reprinted pieces from other periodicals.

He also promised to “ransack the newest foreign publications” and to extract from domestic materials anything “serviceable to the public.” Further, in addition to giving a “critical account” of domestic publications, he paid particular attention to the “history of passing events.” Although he himself contributed nearly half of the political and literary essays, essays on geography and science, representative government, the Constitution, biography, travelogues, history, historical fiction, poetry, native sculpture and art, and various “imported vices,” contributors also explored such topics as civic responsibility, military history, education, state government and civil concerns, friendship and marriage, commerce and manners, and the role of taste in literature and art. The magazine’s range of materials also included “Notices of American Writers and Publications,” “On Literary Biography,” and “Modes of Historical Writing,” to name but a few. As Frank Luther Mott has noted of Brown, “no man ever worked harder than he to raise the level of American literature with his magazines, and no one was ever more unsparing of himself or his time.”

1803 An Address to the Government of the United States on the Cession of Louisiana to the French

Published in January 1803, this pamphlet was written in direct response to news that Spain had secretly ceded control of Louisiana to the French. It uses the framing device of a “compiler” who has obtained papers from a wily French counselor of state to

imaginatively examines the threat of having a nation like France in control of the Mississippi River and potentially curtailing trade. As the compiler explains the “performance” at hand, it becomes clear from the papers that the French counselor has advised Napoleon to turn his attention from the slave uprisings in St. Domingo in order to more securely possess and control Louisiana. The practical effect, however, of the pamphlet’s rhetoric is to alert the American citizenry to Spanish and French imperial plots and to inspire Americans to take hold of the western territories—a position that was also held by some Federalists, though not the majority, which saw the region, especially early on, as “a great waste unpeopled with any beings except wolves and wondering Indians.” Betraying impatience with Jefferson’s peaceful polices, Brown argues that eliminating the threat is in America’s interests. However, at the same time Brown’s pamphlet pursues nationalist ends and records the rationale and rhetoric of American empire, it simultaneously engages, often ironically, issues of race and region, depicting, for example, the blacks of St. Domingo as being equally interested in liberating themselves from French domination, and the American Indian —courtesy of “gin” — as being an “oppressed and defrauded race.” As such, Brown’s pamphlet, like his novels, registers competing, and sometimes conflicting, ideas about American purpose and national identity.

1803 Monroe’s Embassy; or, The Conduct of the Government in Relation to Our Claims to the Navigation of the Mississippi

Published in March, two months after his Louisiana pamphlet, under the pseudonym “Poplicola,” this pamphlet argues more openly for immediate military action in order to preserve American interests along the Mississippi River and in western territories. Motivated by a belief in western expansion, patriotic enthusiasm, and an impatience with James Monroe’s attempts to negotiate a peaceful solution in Paris and Madrid, Brown argues for a more politically aggressive handling of the situation. Specifically, he says that while Jefferson’s hand is well qualified to adjust “quadrants and telescopes,” there are those who think it is “too feeble and unsteady for managing the helm of government.” Brown accounts for Jefferson’s conduct by observing how the Constitution limits presidential actions and saying: “His character . . . disposes him to lean upon the aid and counsel of those who surround him; to study the interest and pleasure of his party, and to do, not what is intrinsically right to be done, but what upholders of his throne will approve.” In seeking to be impartial and to account for the “motives” and “conduct” of government, Brown imagines, in the form of a dialogue, Monroe’s reasons for complaining to Spain, and then goes on to rebut them by commenting on the impact of foreign commercial restrictions on western traders and merchants. While he also speculates momentarily on French and Spanish responses and the cost-effectiveness of purchasing the territory as opposed to seizing it with force, the pamphlet closes by arguing that it is desirable to occupy the territory as quickly as possible and to place France in the position of selling title to land it knows it can’t afford to defend.

1803-1807 The Historical Sketches

The Historical Sketches is the collective title scholars have given to a novel-length, fragmentary, pseudo-historical narrative that Brown composed between 1803 and 1807. The two largest sections first appeared in the 1815 biography of Brown that William Dunlap and Paul Allen published after Brown’s death in 1810, while Brown himself printed four shorter segments in The Literary Magazine in 1805. For the longer, posthumously-published segments, Dunlap and Allen used the titles “Sketches of a History of Carsol” and “Sketches of a History of the Carrils and Ormes.” The overall fictional narrative in all the segments explores the history of the powerful dynastic Carril family, whose main property is the English “lordship of Orme” and who claim a fraudulent genealogy extending back to the 2nd century C.E. The narrative is written in the critical and ironic, anti-clerical style of Gibbon and provides many examples of religious and secular political corruption and hypocrisy, along with occasional examples of “enlightened” sociopolitical reforms. The fictional history features spectacular examples of totalitarian violence that criticize the countersubversive extremism of the Alien and Sedition Acts and Illuminati hysteria, as well as many episodes that focus on imperialist expansionism and the political manipulation of religion. Many episodes also depict the politicized use of artistic prestige associated with dominant neo-classical forms of art, notably literature and architecture, thereby criticizing the counterrevolutionary neo-Augustanism of many of Brown’s contemporaries.

1804 Translation of C. F. Volney, Tableau du Climat et du Sol des Etats-Unis (A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States of America)

C.F. Volney (1757-1820) was an influential intellectual of the late Enlightenment whose writings are primarily political and scientific. His best-known work, The Ruins: or, A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (1791) promotes a radical-progressive vision of social history and encourages religious skepticism, and was repeatedly reprinted in the 1790s in France, England, and the United States. He was allied with the Girondin faction in the French Revolution and fled to the United States in1795, only to flee the U.S. in turn in 1798 as a result of the anti-French, counter-revolutionary atmosphere of the Alien and Sedition Acts. While in the U.S., Volney associated with Jefferson and other Republican-democratic leaders, was inducted in 1797 into the American Philosophical Society, and traveled extensively, collecting the geological, meteorological and other information he used to compose A View of the Soil and Climate of the United States in Paris in 1803. This book is the first comprehensive geological and climatic description of the trans-Appalachian U.S. and Volney’s collection of geological specimens from the region was the best in the world at this time. Brown’s translation was completed and published very quickly after the appearance of the original. The translation indicates Brown’s high level of competence in French and is notable for its extensive translator’s footnotes, which argue with and correct Volney in areas where Brown had information that challenges or contradicts Volney’s conclusions. Commentary in these footnotes connects this translation with the wide range of remarks in his magazine and historical writings on geography and other scientific fields, geopolitics, expansionism, nationalism and empire, and the cultural ramifications of science.

1807-1809 The American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics, and Science

Edited by Brown from 1807 and 1809 shortly before his death, the five semi-annual volumes are dominated by his “Annals of Europe and America” and the republication of various reports and laws. The preface in each volume charts the difficulties and successes of the magazine in regard to subscription, publication, and other processes. The historical annals cover a range of events, including Napoleonic aggression in Europe; English colonialism and military action in the Mediterranean, South America, India, and Denmark; the slave uprising in Santo Domingo; the aims and impact of political “liberators” in Spanish America; the Aaron Burr conspiracy; and Jefferson’s Embargo. Brown also emphasized the importance of reprinting and circulating “[p]ublic documents” in the early republic and most likely contributed the annual “Review of Literature” each year. Reports, laws, and speeches that he selected and published are numerous and include Congressional debates about moving the capitol, a proposal to amend the Constitution, and a controversial memo concerning Republican caucus and democratic nomination procedures in 1808.

1809 An Address to the Congress of the United States on the Utility and Justice of Restrictions upon Foreign Commerce

Brown’s last political pamphlet, and perhaps his most intense, appeals to Congress and argues against the Embargo Act of 1807, citing the negative repercussions of Jefferson’s actions on the domestic economy. Claiming that he belongs to no party and that he expects to be “renounced by both parties,” Brown admits that his earlier notions of free trade and international relations were “mistaken,” and instead recounts the injustice and suffering that Americans—farmers, merchants, and artisans—have had to endure as a result of commercial restrictions and a foreign policy that is isolationist. As historian Steven Watts has pointed out, “issues of political rights, territorial integrity, and national survival” figured prominently in this pamphlet against the geopolitical backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and a turbulent Atlantic world.