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Charles Brockden Brown, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

As one of the first recognized authors in American history, Charles Brockden Brown’s fiction offers a dynamic and often challenging set of perspectives regarding the American cultural and political identity and , also, regarding the role and influence of nature in human experience. Brown’s perspective on nature informs his literary themes in a profound way and operates at multiple, often seemingly contradictory, levels. Douglas E. Winter in his essay “”The Man Who Invented American Gothic” (1999) points out that, for Brown, literature functioned not only as a populist media, but as a method for exploring ethical and philosophical themes. Winter writes that “Brown saw fiction as a moral force […] a medium meant to entertain while provoking philosophical inquiry and debate.”1 As such, Brown’s commentaries and depictions of nature in his literary works are best understood as functioning as symbolic motifs and textures meant to express his concern with political and moral concepts.

One way that Brown expresses his view of nature is through the way he grapples with some of the “darker” themes of human experience. Winter observes that Brown followed the basic motifs of the Gothic Romance in his fiction, but that he “twisted its impulses into a darker complexity that prefigured the insistent themes of American literature: murder, insanity, corruption, conspiracy, religious fervor, familial strife, distrust of institutions, distrust of self.”2 These themes are tied to nature, in Brown’s fiction, both through his philosophical vision and his literary aesthetic. Stated simply, Brown’s depiction of nature in his fiction functions allegorically, most often symbolizing the mysterious and unknown reaches of both the human mind and collective society.

One of the most basic dichotomies that is revealed in Brown’s vision of nature is that which pertains to whether or not human-beings are basically rational and social or whether human-beings are innately irrational and selfish. These two visions can be associated with the philosophical ideas of Locke and Hobbes respectively. What makes Brown interesting in this regard is the fact that many literary critics have viewed Brown’s work as epitomizing both ideals at the same time. In other words, Brown’s depiction of nature is meant to represent the “battleground” on which these two opposing viewpoints vie for supremacy. Rather than merely suggesting that the individual must choose between a romantic or cynical vision of nature, Brown suggests that the ultimate connotations of nature are continuously revealed through human experience. This idea fosters a certain degree of ambiguity in Brown’s depiction of nature which leads to a kind of dark Romanticism.

One of the critical components of understanding Brown’s vision of nature is the historical context in which Brown’s fiction was created and expressed. In his article “The Awe-Creating Presence of the Deity”: Some Religious Sources for Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Wieland'” (1997), Marshall N. Surratt mentions that Brown’s literary works are strongly associated with the religious and political issue of his age. Surratt writes: “Perhaps the most satisfying interpretations of Wieland have recognized the eclectic influences on the text, stemming from Brown’s struggles with the cultural and epistemological crises affecting the late eighteenth century.” 3 In order to understand the way that Brown viewed nature, it is therefore necessary to frame his vision in the context of these cultural, religious, and political issues.

Surrat goes on to say that, for Brown, the essential question about not only the basis of nature, but the core basis of human nature rests on a central dichotomy between the historical view of man as irrational and immoral, and the emerging world view that human rationality as an outgrowth of nature, provides for a moral basis in collective society. Surrat notes that the two opposing visions that are an essential part of Brown’s depiction of nature “might be simplistically described as a contest between the old worldview of man’s depravity and utter dependence on God and the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and human capability.”4 With this framework firmly in mind, the possibility of understanding Brown’s depiction of nature is increased. Basically, Brown views nature as the arena in which discovery about not only the objective world but subjective human experience is carried out.

The same duplicity that is found in nature is, according to Brown’s fiction, an important function of human existence. Brown’s fiction is intensely affirmative in that it functions as “”the allegorical scheme of Brown’s rhapsodic journey toward a visionary new American literature.”5 However, Brown’s optimism is often tempered by a kind of sub textual admission that darker, less rational aspects of both nature and human existence are forces which shape history and human society. This dynamic relates to Brown’s vision of nature because Brown essentially views nature and the human mind as co-existent on a rational and material plane. For Brown, the supernatural of mysterious tones of nature relate purely to the need for human rationality to “light the darkness” of the American frontier and wilderness. In this sense, Brown’s vision of nature is affirmative because he, like Locke, embraces the idea that humanity’s natural capacity for rational thought and discourse is sufficient enough to understand the mysteries of material existence, thereby granting ethical and moral insight as well.

In fact, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that, for Brown, human rationality is the power that holds the greatest potential for understanding the natural world. Simultaneously, it is the rational function of the human mind that allows for collective society to function in harmony with nature and with innate emotional, psychological, and physical human needs. Norman S. Grabo offers an insightful description of the way that Brown conceived of nature. He writes that, for Brown, nature held two profound capacities: one for beauty and harmony, the other for terror and chaos. Grabo asserts that, for Brown “nature bears a grand and sublime aspect,”6 but that, simultaneously, “nature without form is tearing and bloody, a primal energy.”7 Brown embraced each of these visions with equal zeal in his literary works. The consequence of his doing so is that his literary works represent nature as a ground for struggle and revelation. The key to understanding Brown’s particular take on nature is to understand that the “key” he saw for permeating nature was human rationality.

This is the reason that David Lee Clark, in his book, Charles Brockden Brown, Pioneer Voice of America (1952), stresses Brown’s emphasis on materialism. He observes that Brown’s conception of nature and human rationality meant that “that mind could never be considered except in conjunction with matter; that the science of mind in its essence is metaphysics.” 8 This observation suggests a degree of empiricism in brown’s vision of nature. This insistence on the objectivity of the material world, however, in no way diminishes the possibility of mystery or even primal danger that is associated with nature in Brown’s fiction. The connection between the mysteries of nature and the mysteries of the human mind are brought together by Brown in his interpretation of human rationality. In some ways, it is Brown’s elevation of human rationality that actually defines his vision of nature just as it is the experience of nature which helps to divulge and define human rationality.

For this reason Clark insists that, for Brown, “our minds are continually employed in the exercise of apprehension, reason, and will.”9 I t is through these apprehensions that nature can be best understood in relation to human existence. This, of course, begs the question of social cohesion and the way in which human beings cohabitate as social creatures. If the relationship of humanity and nature is one best based on rationality, does the same conviction hold true for the relationship of the individual and society?  The answer to that question lies in Brown’s overall conception of nature. The logic behind his conclusion that rationality is the primary method of interface between people and between nature and humanity extends to the way in which Brown believes people should life together in social communities. According to Brown, human-beings are naturally social creatures. Additionally, because human rationality allows us, as human beings, to rise above the primal savagery of nature by rational communication and organization, Brown views society as a “check” on the more destructive impulses in human nature.

Any final conclusion regarding Brown’s depiction of nature in his literary works necessarily must embrace a degree of ambiguity. This is because, as previously mentioned, Brown views nature as being simultaneously the measure of human rationality and also as a symbol for unknown frontiers of both empirical reality and the human mind. For this reason, Clark insists that Brown’s high regard for the social function of literature emerges from his conception of nature itself. Clark writes that, from Brown’s perspective, “”The book of nature, like every other volume, is useful to the reader exactly in proportion to his sagacity and to the attention with which he peruses it” 10. This connection between the perceiver and the perceived stands fully apart from solipsism in Brown’s depiction of nature because the world outside of the individual persists despite the rational limitations of the observer.

Brown’s depiction of nature is one which closely mirrors the intellectual, religious, and ethical paradigms of the late eighteenth century. His observation that nature, like human rationality, both instructs and “hides” the solutions to social and individual challenges prepared groundwork for the development of American Gothicism and American Romanticism. One of the unique aspects of Brown’s literary legacy is that he merges the often contradictory impulses in Romantic ficiotn to elevate the experience of nature to a moral or ethical perspective with the idea that human rationality provides the best method by which to define and understand nature and humanity itself.

Notes

Douglas E. Winter, “The Man Who Invented American Gothic,” Insight on the News, January 11, 1999, 36.

Ibid.

Marshall N. Surratt, “”The Awe-Creating Presence of the Deity”: Some Religious Sources for Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Wieland.'” Papers on Language & Literature 33, no. 3 (1997).

Ibid.

Steve Hamelman, “Rhapsodist in the Wilderness: Brown’s Romantic Quest in ‘Edgar Huntly.’ (Charles Brockden Brown),” Studies in American Fiction 21, no. 2 (1993).

Norman S. Grabo, The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 66.

Ibid.

David Lee Clark, Charles Brockden Brown, Pioneer Voice of America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1952), 43.

Ibid.

David Lee Clark, Charles Brockden Brown, Pioneer Voice of America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1952), 98.

Bibliography

Clark, David Lee. Charles Brockden Brown, Pioneer Voice of America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1952.

Grabo, Norman S. The Coincidental Art of Charles Brockden Brown. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Hamelman, Steve. “Rhapsodist in the Wilderness: Brown’s Romantic Quest in ‘Edgar Huntly.’ (Charles Brockden Brown).” Studies in American Fiction 21, no. 2 (1993): 171+.

Surratt, Marshall N. “”The Awe-Creating Presence of the Deity”: Some Religious Sources for Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Wieland.'” Papers on Language & Literature 33, no. 3 (1997): 310+.

Winter, Douglas E. “The Man Who Invented American Gothic.” Insight on the News, January 11, 1999, 36.

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