Teaching Resources
     About the Archive

Charles Brockden Brown was born in 1771, five years before the start of the American Revolution, in Philadelphia, the thirteen colonies' intellectual and political center and the city that later became the infant nation's capital. His childhood therefore coincided with some of the most traumatic years in the history of America. His father was a liberal merchant who, like other colonists, opposed the Stamp Act and supported the goals of the Revolution. However, because Brown's father was a Quaker pacifist, he would not bear arms and refused to take the patriotic oath; as a consequence, he was interned for eight months and the family business was pillaged by patriots during the Revolution.

One could argue that because of his family's experience as pacifist supporters of a revolution that was, by definition, violent, Charles Brockden Brown, from an early age, occupied a contrarian relationship to his culture. At the Philadelphia Friends Latin School, which Brown attended from age eleven, the pro-Revolution Brown was taught by Tory sympathizer Robert Proud, who stimulated and challenged Brown's convictions in the Quaker tradition of intellectual dialogue. When he was 15, he founded the Belles Lettres club with eight male friends including William Wood Wilkins and Joseph Bringhurst, who met regularly, sometimes at the home of statesman Benjamin Franklin, to debate issues such as the morality of suicide, the imperfections of government, the limits of liberty and possible rationalizations for lying. When Brown completed his schooling in 1787, the same year the Federal Convention met in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution, he began apprenticing at the law offices of Alexander Wilcocks at the urging of his parents and older brothers.1

While apprenticing for the law, Brown also pursued literary interests, noting in his journals ideas for epic poems on the discovery of America or the conquests of Mexico and Peru, and composing imitations of the Book of Psalms, the Book of Job, and the Ossian poems.2 On the eve of the French Revolution, when Brown was 18, he published his first literary works: the "Rhapsodist" sketches, which appeared anonymously in the Columbian Magazine, a distinguished literary journal, and a poem entitled "An Inscription for General Washington's Tomb Stone", published in the State Gazette of North Carolina. In these and other early writings, Brown debated the merits of organized religion, gender equality, political utopias and self-interest, all issues of central concern to the early republic.

Love of debate may have prompted Brown's initial interest in the law, but the young intellectual soon became disillusioned. "[I] was perpetually encumbered with the rubbish of the law," he wrote to a friend, "and waded with laborious steps through its endless tautologies, its impertinent circuities, its lying assertions and hateful artifices".3 As representations of the law in his later fiction indicate, Brown viewed the law as a "tissue of shreds and remnants of a barbarous antiquity patched by the stupidity of modern workmen into new deformity" (Ormond 16). He was especially critical of the ways in which, even after the Revolution had attempted to dismantle the American class system, the Constitution had through its restricted franchise continued to limit women's, non-whites' and the poor's access to power and wealth. In 1793, the same year the French monarchy was abolished and political stability replaced by the Reign of Terror, Brown abandoned the law to attempt a life of letters.

Between 1793 and 1798, Brown wrote prodigiously but published little. Robert Ferguson has described his output during this period as a "series of vague, incoherent projects easily abandoned or interrupted by long periods of malaise".4 However, this time was crucial for Brown's development as a writer, primarily because of the friendships he made with encouraging intellectual men, particularly Elihu Hubbard Smith, whom Brown met in Philadelphia in 1790. Trained as a medical doctor with noted Philadelphian physician Dr. Benjamin Rush, Smith was also a man of letters, an opera librettist, author of a biography of the Connecticut Wits and editor of an anthology of American poetry. Although he was a staunch Federalist and Brown was more persuaded at this time by continental writers, philosophes whose writings had inspired the French Revolution, and by the radical positions of English Jacobin writers such as William Godwin, Smith became Brown's closest friend and patron. It was Smith who gave Brown the confidence he needed to evade the pleas of his family to abandon his literary projects and join the family business. When Smith established a medical practice in New York City upon his graduation, Brown left Philadelphia frequently for extended visits with him. There he became involved in the Friendly Club, a society of letters founded by Smith which included a number of Federalist intellectuals such as James Kent (later Chancellor of New York), William Dunlap (playwright and later Brown's first biographer), lawyer William Johnson and Timothy Dwight (later a conservative minister and Yale College president), who also encouraged Brown to take his writing seriously. Like the Belles Lettres club to which Brown had belonged as a teenager, the Friendly Club met regularly to discuss recent philosophical writings and literature. During 1796 and 1797, the Club's members also listened to Brown read aloud from his works in progress. Early in 1798, Brown began to publish a number of works in quick succession: "The Man At Home", a story published serially in the Weekly Magazine beginning in February 1798; Alcuin, a dialogue on women's rights published in book form in March 1798 and in revised form, as "The Rights of Women" in the Weekly Magazine in March and April 1798. He also published a brief excerpt from a novel Skywalk, now lost, in the Weekly Magazine in March 1798. In April 1799, when the Friendly Club founded the Monthly Magazine and American Review, whose aim was to "extract the quintessence of European wisdom; to review and estimate the labours of all writers, domestic and foreign"5 Brown became the editor and a frequent contributor of essays, criticism and short works of fiction.6

After travelling back and forth between Philadelphia and New York for several years, Brown officially moved to New York City in July 1798 to share an apartment with Smith and Johnson, just when a yellow fever epidemic was breaking out there. While tending patients, Smith contracted the disease and died suddenly in September 1798; Brown, who was also dangerously ill, however, recovered. Biographers speculate that this was probably the turning point in Brown's career: Motivated by the loss of the man who had been his close friend, peer and patron, and struck by the parallel vulnerability of the infant nation during its second experience of yellow fever outbreak, Brown began a frantic period of writing novels, each of which is haunted by violent threats to the personal and political body. Robert A. Ferguson estimates that Brown was at work on all four of the major novels between September (when Smith died) and November 1798.7 Wieland (1798), Ormond (1799), Arthur Mervyn (Part One, 1799; Part Two, 1800) and Edgar Huntly (1799) were all written within an eighteen-month period in 1798 and 1799, during which time Brown reflected on the young Republic's anxious response to the aftermath of the French Revolution--the Reign of Terror in France and the violent slave rebellion on the Caribbean island of St. Domingue (now Haiti). This quartet of novels can be read as revisiting the drama of the American revolution from a vantage point twenty years later.

Late in 1800, after publishing Part Two of Arthur Mervyn, Brown returned to Philadelphia to work for the family business, ceased publication of the Monthly Magazine, and decided abruptly not to write any more novels. In one issue of a periodical he edited later, he confessed: "I should enjoy a larger share of my own respect at the present moment if nothing had ever flowed from my pen, the production of which could be traced to me".8 Although he did continue to write novels for a few more months--he published two sentimental novels Clara Howard and Jane Talbot, in 1801--and he continued to publish fiction and essays anonymously in The Portfolio and the magazines he continued to edit, this period, beginning when he returned to Philadelphia to work for the family business and culminating in his happy marriage to Elizabeth Linn, sister of Presbyterian minister John Linn, in 1803, marks a shift in his career from novelist to editor and journalist. It also marks a change in his philosophical outlook from religious questioner to orthodox Christian. After a turbulent adolescence in which he questioned and appeared to disavow his religious upbringing, (reflected in works such as Wieland) in 1803, Brown began to edit The Literary Magazine and American Register, a semi-annual of book reviews, fiction, government reports and essays which he vowed would embrace the cause of religion.

Where as a young man, Brown had probably been pro-Jeffersonian in his leanings and had served as a sort of devil's advocate within the Federalist-identified Friendly Club, during the final decade of his career, after Jefferson had been elected President in 1800, Brown wrote four unsigned or pseudonymously published political pamphlets critical of Jefferson's administration: "An Address to the Government of the United States, on the Cession of Louisiana to the French" (1803), a work whose author claims to have found evidence of a French plan to expand in North America, thereby promoting American paranoia of French duplicity; "Monroe's Embassy, or, The Conduct of the Government in Relation to Our Claims to the Navigation of the Mississippi" (1803), a dialogic piece, part of which is presented as authored by Jefferson, the other by a merchant impatient with what he perceives to be Jefferson's conciliatory diplomacy vis a vis French belligerence; "The British Treaty of Commerce and Navigation" (1807), which continues to criticize Jefferson's government's attempt to avoid war with Britain through trade restrictions and negotiations; and "An Address to the Congress of the United States on the Utility and Justice of Restrictions upon Foreign Commerce" (1809), which questions the effectiveness of Jefferson's controversial Embargo policy.

During this time, Brown also translated and annotated a geographical study of the United States by French author Comte de Volney. When The Literary Magazine and Register ceased publication in 1807, and Brown's family business also dissolved, Brown continued his own small retail business and started a new magazine called The American Register, or General Repository of History, Politics and Science, which published only five issues before his health began to decline. When he died of tuberculosis on February 22, 1810, he was at work on A Complete System of Geography.9

This biography is reprinted with the permission of Broadview Press from Mary Chapman's edition of Ormond; or, the Secret Witness (Peterbough, Ontario), 1999.

1. On Brown's legal career, see Robert A. Ferguson, Law and Letters in American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984, 129-149.

2. Emory Elliott, Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic 1725-1810. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. 214.

3. qu. Harry R. Warfel, Charles Brockden Brown: American Gothic Novelist. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1949. 29.

4. Robert A. Ferguson, "Yellow Fever and Charles Brockden Brown: The Context of the Emerging Novelist" Early American Literature 14 (1980): 295.

5. qu. in Clark intro to Charles Brockden Brown,Edgar Huntly, New York, 1928, x.

6. For information on Brown's short fiction, see Alfred Weber, ed. Somnambulism and Other Stories. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1987.

7. Ferguson, "Yellow Fever" 302.

8. Alan Axelrod, Charles Brockden Brown: An American Tale. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983. 126

9. For a detailed discussion of the continuities between Brown's interest in geography, particularly in statistics about American demographics in the 1790's, and his encyclopedic attention to the heterogeneity of American identity in his fiction, see Martin Bruckner, "Literacy, Geography and Domestic Politics in the Writings of Charles Brockden Brown", an unpublished paper delivered at the "Revising Charles Brockden Brown" conference.

This page was last updated on Tuesday, 11/18/2014
Funding and support provided by the Center for Humanities and Digital Research at the University of Central Florida