Archive for February, 2010


Feb 23 2010

Spirit Rapping and Unknown Tongues

by at 12:28 pm

I am currently enrolled in Dana Luciano’s Sex and Time in 19th Century America and it’s fabulous–definitely getting my academic juices flowing.  Right now, I’m really beginning to think about my final project–a digital archival research project in which I will be creating a historical scholarly introduction to Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance. Very innovative pedogagy and am excited to be a part of this. We’re also keeping a research blog for this project, but because my research has sparked some ideas about Wieland I decided to blog about it here as well.

At the very opening of Blithedale, the reader (and narrator) encounters this very strange figure: the Veiled Lady who is acquanted in the mesmeric arts. She is essentially a spirit-rapper–one of those 19th century “seers,” those “table movers.” Naturally, I’m incredibley intrigued by this figure and want to find more information about the spiritualist movement, and in my search I came across this really interesting article:

Spirit Rapping and Unknown Tongues

In this example, the spirit rapper, an American, is able to speak in Swedish without knowing the language. After reading this, I wonder if Carwin could be read as a kind of spirit-rapper, or rather, a charlatan who manipulates his voice to dupe to his audience. This would tie in well with the idea that this novel is an early American scientific novel that explores 19th century science. The question of spiritualism and whether or not it could be a real science is expressed out-right in the following article:

Spirit Rapping and Science

Could Brown be including Carwin as just another example of what the possibilites of science could be? And is the revelation of Carwin’s “talents” a way of putting down this kind of psuedoscience or does Wieland allow for a more expansive view of science and the unsolved world. Should we even buy Carwin’s explanation?

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Feb 20 2010

Nina Baym, “A Minority Reading of Wieland”

by at 7:01 pm

I’ve decided to plough through Wieland scholarship chronologically. First, I began with Martin S. Viles and his 1903 publication on Charles Brockden Brown. Now I turn to Nina Baym’s 1981 discussion of Wieland.

Baym begins her essay by attempting to push against a misconception in Brown scholarship. Brown publishes 5 novels in four years (1798-1801) and when these fail to give him the quick popularity he would need to support himself he turns to political pampheteering and magazine editing(Baym 87).

Baym notes how Brown’s lack of success in the literary field has been used to support the assertion of America’s cultural immaturity in the early national stage. “Brown’s lack of financial success as a fiction writer,” she observes, has been interpreted by later generations of scholars as a sign of America’s cultural immaturity: we were not yet ready to support a serious novelist” (Baym 87).  But Baym insists that this conclusion is a wrong one to make. “His lack of success needs to be put in a somewhat wider perspective,” Baym maintains. “No novelist, on either side of the Atlantic, had at that date succeeded in supporting him–or herself solely by writing novels, because authorship as a paying profession in general was then only nascent and because the novel was not yet recognized as a dominant, serious literary form” (87).

Baym takes issue with the assumption that Brown’s literature was somehow more serious than other forms of American writing, particularly the work of American female writers like Rowson (Charlotte Temple), and that Brown was self-consciously writing as a so-called more serious author. Instead, Baym pits Brown as an amateur novelist, whose sloppy production of 5 novels in 4 years calls to question how seriously he actually viewed these literary attempts.

Nina Baym is incredibley smart, cogent, and convincing, although I don’t buy her argument, but it will be a really great way for me to insert myself into Brown scholarship and show where it’s been and where it’s currently going. Because this essay will prove so important to me rhetorically as I begin writing my thesis (one paragraph down, woot!), I’m going to include lots of quotes right now. Yay for interesting criticism!! It feels like it’s starting to all make sense now.

These reminders may help us to avoid the sentimental fallacy of assuming that Brown would have succeeded better had he been a less serious author. E.g., “Americans simply had no great appetite for serious literaturein the early decades of the Republic–certainly nothing of the sort with which they devoured Parson Weems’ notorious cherry-tree biography of the nation’s father…or, say, the ubiquitous melodrams of beset womanhood, ‘tales of truth’ like Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple [1791] and Hannah Foster’s The Coquette [1797].” We need hardly aruge that the absence of seriousness in the two works cited does not speak to its presence in the works of Brown. Although there is scattered testimony to the powerful impression that Brown made on some important later writers, both British and American (Keats, J.F. Cooper), there is no real evidence that his novelistic aims were very high. His letters, as Dunlap presented them, indicate no concern with any aspect of his fiction other than its salability. The “seriousness” of Brown’s work, nontheless–as the quotation above exemplifies–is an article of faith among his twentieth-century critics (Baym 87).

By “serious,” these critics refer to a presumed purpose of utilizing fiction as a means of developing themes and ideas. Thus defined, the quality of seriousness in Brown’s fiction calls for the discovery and exposition of the controlling ideas in his novels; and to these tasks the modest yet enthusiastic Brown revival has devoted itself. A survey of these ideas produces, however, a list of truisms: “universal” banalities and late eighteenth-century conventionalism. In Wieland, for example, Brown is said to be defending–or attacking–rationalism; showing that our senses are liable to err, that we are not always in control of our will; tempering Deism with fate; decrying fanaticism. In his gothicism is discerned a commentary on the darker aspects of the human psyche. Except that an analysis of most fiction for its idea content leads to a similar set of conclusions, one hardly sees a case for Brown’s intellectual distinction in the ideas which the criticism has identified in his work. Perhaps, however, ideas are not what Brown’s fiction […] is really about (Baym 87, 88).

Yet, the intense didactic bias in the Brown scholarship may be attributed in part to a distrust of his literary gift and achievements. At face value, it seems highly unlikely that five novels composed more or less simultaneously by a neophyte with no definite plan for any of them, will possess much literary merit. Indeed, only a genius of the first order could possibly produce good work under such conditions. Brown’s method of composition throws doubt, at the very least, on the seriousness of his commitment; so does the rapidity with which he abandoned fiction for more rewarding forms of writing. And the fact is that although Brown’s novels show command of some segments of the novelistic repertory of his day, they equally evidence carelessness, haste, forgetfulness, and changing intentions. (Baym 88).

Like Viles, Baym here seems to be making  value judgements about Brown as an author (recall how Viles claims Brown has no conception of how the human mind works), but I find these sorts of readings underestimate Brown’s actual abilities. While I in no way, shape, or form endorse any kind of hyperbolic reading of any author (and I don’t intend to do that for Brown), it seems curious to me that early national authors are faced with jugements about their style that their British male counterparts are never subject to. This brings in larger questions about the marginilization of early American literature in general and is particularly relevant for me as I make my way through the world of academia by actively branding myself as an early American scholar. I refuse to be an apologist for early American literature. So there. I said it.

More on Brown’s “flaws” (at least according to Baym):

The flaw in Brown’s Wieland is basic and central: there is a continuous sacrifice of story line and character–hence,  long-term coherence–for the sake of immediate effect. As the narrative progresses, indeed, a second plot, designed to maximize the opportunities for such effects, overtakes and ultimately obliterates the main story. These effects involve the creation of a type of terror which is significantly different from the sort of terror inspired by the main story. In two words, the main story is tragic, the supervening tale is gothic. As the plot advances, the tragedy recedes to the background where its vague presence imparts to the gothic some resonance and power beyond its otherwise trivial and transient impact. Yet this supervening foreground, while drawing strength from the tragedy, prevents access to that tragedy, diverts the reader from it (88-89).

Inheritance of madness in Wieland:

The father and founder of the family, who emigrated from Germany and established himself in America on the banks of the Schuy

More on Brown’s flaws:

But Brown, in defiance (or ignorance?) of story logic, chose to bring Carwin into the novel’s center, where, for much of the action, the ventriloquist replaces Wieland as the object of narrative attention. It seems as if his function becomes precisely to divert the reader from the true center. As in a detective story, we must see everyone except the murderer. Though Clara’s obsession with Carwin–she is certain from the start that he is her family’s evil genius–he effectively usurps the antagonist’s role. Whether he meant to or not, Brown invented a second plot whose action moves from ignorance to discovery. Clara is like a detective protagonist, wanting to know what is happening to the family and who is responsible for it. Carwin, a minor character in Wieland’s story, is truly the antagonist in this one, because his behavior presents the obstacles that prevent Clara from discovering the truth. Fixed on Carwin, she doesn’t see the changes in her brother. She assumes that Carwin is the murderer at the climaz because she has eliminated any other possibility. But fixed on Clara, Brown’s narrative also fails to see Wieland’s change. He is taken off stage a rational man and brought back a demented maniac (93).

So Baym is arguing that Brown’s narrative structure is inherently flawed because he constructs subplots that distract the reader from the central concern of the novel–Wieland’s dissent into madness. Once again, Baym is clearly a skilled rheotaritician, because I’m almost willing to buy her argument. Almost. But then I begin thinking and wonder, “Wait, Wieland is the protagonist of this novel and Carwin’s only a secondary character? What?” What about the ambiguity of the title “Wieland; or the Transformation” and how that transformation can also apply to Carwin. AND, what about the sequal Carwin the Biloquist? If Carwin was such a secondary character, why would Brown create a sequal that tells Carwin’s story. A better question, then, I would say is why Wieland is not called Carwin the Biloquist–Carwin seems to be more of a central character than the titular character.

More on the problem of Carwin as a distracting secondary character that overtakes the plot:

The novel’s change of direction proclaims itself in the opening of Chapter6, when Clara introduces Carwin. “I now come to the mention of a person with whose name the most turbulent sensations are connected. It is with shuddering reluctance that I enter on the province of describing him…my blood is congealed: and my finers are palsied when I call up his image” (p. 49). Let us remember that Clara is not telling her tale as it happens, in the mode of an epistolary novel. She is recollecting it. As a character she now knows that Carwin is not the villaim she mistook him for. Yet she (or the author who manipulates her) brings him to the reader’s attention with a heated vocabulary inconsistent with the narrator’s knowledge at the time she tells the story. Apparently, Brown is not attempting to characterize Clara but simply to use her as a register for melodramatic effects. Reader attention is arrested at those surface events which, though “thrilling,” will prove susceptible of explanation. We have no access to the state of Wieland’s mindl the question is no longer how he becomes a murderer, but who the murderer is. Substituted for the pity and awe of the tragic are the excitement and shock of the early whodunit, the gothic thriller. Ultimately, then, Wieland draws its dynamic neither from its transcendence of gothic nor its expansion of the mode to cover new literary territory, but  just the reverse. Wieland does open such possibilities, but quickly retreats from them. It is gothic and sensational to the core. Like many aspiring writers in the early years of the republic, Brown’s literary purpose seems to be little more than to domesticate currently popular genres (94).

Some more Brown bashing:

 I imply above that, as an inexperience writer, Brown might have found Carwin too difficult a technical problem and allowed him, through ineptness, to take a central role he was not supposed to have. But it might be supposed instead that it was Wieland who posed the insuperable technical difficulties ot a novice (especially given the choice of the first-person narrator), tragedy being so much more difficult to achieve than melodrama, and gothic machinery being so easily imitable (94).

No responses yet | Categories: Uncategorized

Feb 20 2010

Martin S. Vilas, Early 20th Cent. CBB Scholar

by at 2:46 am

Martin S. Vilas publishes Charles Brockden Brown: A Study of Early American Fiction in 1904, definitely the earliest criticism I’ve read on CBB thus far.

Some great quotes from this guys:

The interest in Charles Brockden Brown and his works arises largely from his ranking positioon among American Prose Writers.  Hence, it is not expected that an estimate, somewhat extended and somewhat critical, of his writings is likely to become popular. No other than this, save very brief sketches of Brown and of what he has done is known to the writer. It may be, then, that the student of American literature will find this book, written five years ago, something suggestive, perhaps something usually called original (Vilas 4).

I find it interesting when CBB’s work is “rediscovered.” Cathy Davidson resurrects early national literature in the 80’s; Vilas apparently resurrects it in the early 20th century, although he predicts that critical attention to CBB’s work is unlikely to become popular. In a way he is right and wrong. CBB now is certainly not mainstream in the culture at large, but he’s canonical in early American studies.

But notice how Vilas, as any good scholar would, is sure to point out that this book is perhaps something original because it sheds light on the rarely explored author.

Vilas also speaks about the condition of literature when Brown writes. This is worth including here as well:

Literatures like Constitutions are not made; they grow. Like the growth of the coal mine, they form, harden and mature from the timber of other ages, of times well nigh forgotten, and from materials usually overlooked by the ninety and nine. Literature is the clear lake in which may be seen mirrored the vegetation that grows near it, the animal life that appears above and around it and the movements within its horizon (Vilas 10).

Viles emphasizes how literatures need to grow from material of the ages, and this, therefore, requires time. Viles notes how the beginning of every nation in literature has been in verse, not in prose, but the United States is one rare exception:

In the United States we note the rare exception. The rule has been true because with most nations we mark their rise from a condition of barbarism by long, slow stages to civilization and culture. The people in the early periods of progression have not the intellects capable of carrying on the successive steps in argumentative prose but their fancies are pleased by ballads descriptive of the heroism of themselves and their ancestors. But America received her origin and early development not through an Anchises and an Aeneas carrying their ” sacra patriosque penates” […], but she received them at a stage in the world’s history when the blackness of ten centuries of gloom had but fairly rolled away, when the civilized world, rejoicing anew in its rediscovered strength, was investigating and progressing as never before and had sent some of its best blood across the western seas to colonize and found new nations. The long years of evolution from the uncivilized to the civilized that marked the growth of European nations were absent here. For without the institutions of the Old World, the New yet possessed their training and influence and considered herself as good as her fathers. The United States, though her tuition has been derived from all the world, yet is in language, instituitions and laws, the child of England. To her she has ever turned to draw the inspiration that has set her alive ot the best instincts within herself (Vilas 10).

After his introduction, Vilas goes on to summarize and outline Charles Brockden Brown’s works. For the scope of my thesis, his analysis of Wieland is what is most relevant. Vilas notes how Wieland is influenced by Godwin’s Caleb Williams. I’ll have to take Vilas’s word for it because I’ve never read Godwin.

One of Vilas’s main arguments is, however, that Charles Brockden Brown did not understand the human mind. Huh? Really?

To contextualize, Vilas quotes Griswold who claims that Brown was “a careful anatomist of the mind and familiar with its wonderful phenomena” (22). In response, Vilas argues that while “it is true that he evidently had made a careful study of the mind, but that he ever understood its healthy workings I do not believe” (22). Vilas thus believes that Brown is more concerned with the mind in its most unstable moments. Vilas argues that CBB provides logical explanation to the seemingly supernatural occurances in the text (unlike say Macbeth, etc.) and yet “when we have finished Wieland there seems to be something ‘uncanny’ about it” (Vilas 24).

This leads Vilas to conclude that Charles Brockden Brown did not understand the human mind because the work, even with its explantions seems impossible. “We cannot make ourselves to believe that ordinary mortals would so conduct themselves,” Vilas notes, and so if Brown really understood the human mind “he must be able to show forth its workings as they are so that they seem to us possible” (Vilas 24). I find this whole question to be incredibley inrelevant and, quite honestly, poor criticism. Who cares if Charles Brockden Brown “understood” the human condition! That being said, I still must give credit to Vilas for bringing  Brown to the forefront, despite an obviously dated literary analysis. But Vilas’s argument does raise an interesting point about Brown and our perceptions of him. Was he crazy just like his books? Or was he a man of science and letters and a person that could be considered a source of inspiration the 19th century. Would 19th century Americans read Brown as Vilas reads him, or would they be more open to him as an “anatomist of the mind” and commentator on all things American? I’d venture to say the later.

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,Thesis,Wieland

Feb 17 2010

American Sympathy, Caleb Crain

by at 11:00 pm

In order to get ready for some major thesis writing, I still have to do some more reading on Wieland criticsm. Sigh. I give you my first attempt at summarizing some Wieland criticism:

Informed by Freud and writings on “insanity” or imbalance behavior (as evidenced by his refernce to Dora, etc.),  Caleb Crain emphasizes the importance of the father and what he terms “copyism” in guiding the narrative’s direction. Crain defines copyism as follows: “A copyist is a self whose creative impulse has been destroyed as a sacrifice to authority. The sacrifice is in a sense a gift of love. The copyist would rather not be himself or herself than lose the approval of the one he or she copies” (Crain 107).

Crain cites a letter CBB writes to a friend of his in which he rails against the entrance of copying into the realm of art. In a discussion on music, Brown writes, “low, indeed must be the ambition, which is satisfied with pleasing by mere mimicry, but putting off every distinctive property, everything that constitutes themselves; and warbling the words of others, and running through unmeaning, unappropriate, unintelligent notes.”

Not coincidently, Brown was preoccupied with the idea of copying and imposture. His father, Elijah Brown,was a conveyancer and copied over legal documents but he often copied over documents on his own time as a kind of therapeutic technique of relaxation. Brown was also involved in lots of shady business transactions, and here is where Crain ties in issues of copyism, and issues of father figures. Brown attempts to do things differently–not to imitate his father’s shady ways, but Brown cannot help but see the links between the literary art and its “combination of imposture and projection,” which like Carwin, can “speak where he is not” (108). The idea that the novel itself is suspicious with its disembodied voice, just as Carwin’s ability to project his voice as if it is detached from his own body, is an interesting idea to think about.

No responses yet | Categories: Charles Brockden Brown,genre,Thesis,Wieland