Chapter 1
For someone who wants to write original American literature “to exhibit a series
of adventures, growing out of the condition of our country” (Brown, Edgar Huntly 3),
Charles Brockden Brown oddly ends most of his gothic novels with the departure of his
heroes and heroines (Arthur Mervyn, Clara Wieland, and Constantia Dudley) from
America to Europe. This oddity is just one of the difficulties that readers encounter when
reading his novels since Brown always seems to be articulating one belief while
illustrating another. In his four major novels, Edgar Huntly; or, Memoirs of a SleepWalker (1799), Wieland; or the Transformation (1798), Ormond; or the Secret Witness
(1799), and Arthur Mervyn; or, Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1798-1799), Brown both
illustrates and rejects the values of his society. While Brown’s representation of physical
disability as a punishment for failing to embrace the Early Republic’s values of reason,
self-restraint, and common sense show him as potentially upholding his society’s values,
some of his plots depict mental disabilities in ways that blur the lines between the rational
and the irrational. As we will see, disability theory helps to make sense of Brown’s
critical illustration of the values of his time, which then sheds light on the contradictions
that readers feel when they read the novels. In turn, exploring the origin of these internal
contradictions reflects the many paradoxes of the period when Brown wrote his novels:
the years between 1798 and 1801 were a contradictory time when people wanted to
define what it meant to be American by merging pre-Revolutionary ideals with turbulent
world politics, epistemological philosophy, and medicine as a social cure.
The Early Republic of the 1790s inherited a comparable sense of world mission
that Revolutionary America received from the Puritans’ ideal of becoming a shining
example for the world. However, the mission of the 1790s transformed America into a
place of refuge. In Common Sense (1775-76), Thomas Paine articulates one of the ideals
that the new nation would embrace in its Revolutionary rhetoric: America was to be an
“asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of
Europe” (Paine, 24, emphasis in the original). Paine’s document paints America as an
exceptional place with a world mission, which can be found again in the documents such
as “The Declaration of Independence” stating the egalitarian tenet that “all men are
created equal” (Jefferson 8). While echoes of this rhetoric of America as an asylum
continue to shape the concept of Americanness to this day, we can spot a shift in
emphasis just a few years after the Revolution. In “Information to Those Who Would
Remove to America,” published in 1784, Benjamin Franklin qualifies the openness of
Paine’s asylum. While he reiterates that “strangers are welcome… and every one will
enjoy securely the profits of his industry,” Franklin also underlines the fact that only
those who are willing to be industrious and do not expect to enjoy the feudal inequalities
of Europe will be able to make it in the United States (464). The rhetoric of the 1790s,
while still upholding the Revolutionary ideals of America as an exceptional place of civil
liberties and the Franklinian beliefs that America makes people exceptional because it
rewards them for being industrious and independent, was shaped by international turmoil
and the increasing waves of immigrants coming to the United States. Again, the openness
of Paine’s asylum had to be re-qualified. The anxious question became: how can we keep
America and the American people exceptional when so many European radicals and
potential enemies to the Republic are mixing with the Anglo-American population? Even
worse, how can the very idea of America as a place superior to others survive when some
Americans themselves are not the rational, self-restrained, and hard-working people
described by Franklin and therefore fail to uphold the standards of Americanness? While
the belief that America is an exceptional space with exceptional people continued to
shape what it meant to be American in the 1790s, a growing anxiety about foreign and
inner degeneration contributed to the definition of American identity through binaries:
American/alien, rational/irrational, healthy/degenerate.
European turmoil such as the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the French Revolution
(1789-1799) brought fleeing radical Europeans to the United States, which intensified the
fear towards unruly foreigners importing radical ideas from Europe. Indeed, the nativist
crisis of 1798-1801, best illustrated by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 that increased
the President’s power to arrest citizens and deport foreigners with radical political ideas,
was a result of the American anxieties of seeing European radicals – in particular the
Irish – become politically active in the Early Republic (Durey 177, 248). As Michael
Durey demonstrates in Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic,
European radicals were coming to America as a refuge from legal persecution, treason
trials, and as a land of hope where they could implement the radical changes they had
failed to bring to their native countries. However, creating a new life in the United States
did not always pan out, and some radicals became “rogues” who stole or dealt in forgery
(Durey 160). These were certainly not the men Franklin pictured in “Information to
Those Who Would Remove to America,” and nativist propaganda, using the rhetoric of
human perfectibility found in philosophical and medicinal works, depicted them as the
worst threat against the United States.
To believe that America is an asylum for those fleeing less perfect societies and to
fear that immigrants might cause the degeneration of the United States reveal a belief in
human progress since it creates a hierarchy of societies; this worldview goes hand in hand
with the medical discourse of the time. Starting a trend that would endure throughout the
nineteenth century, the eighteenth-century doctors focused on human perfectibility (both
physical and moral) and on a “medicine that offer[ed] the most ambitious programs for
improving the human race” (Winston 265). This belief was to transform the role of
doctors as the social curers infiltrating into the most private affairs of their society. For
example, believing that “defect or deformity in one of the parent’s body parts could result
in the disability being passed on to the offspring,” led doctors to categorize human people
in terms of their reproductive suitability (Winston 267). These categories became
pertinent to nativists worried that unsuitable people (both alien and unideal Americans)
would cause the degeneration of the American population. In fact, doctors became more
and more the dictators of the social norm; during the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Rush,
who was himself a doctor, described the ideal army general being “modest, sober, and
temperate” (qtd. in Stozier 419). Even though George Washington did not approve of a
doctor mingling in army affairs, this example illustrates how medicine was acquiring the
central role it would later have in nineteenth-century politics and social programs. The
decrees of eighteenth-century doctors had real social repercussions for the individuals
they targeted; for example, doctors during the Enlightenment described women as
“inferior or degraded versions of their male counterparts” who should embrace
motherhood as their only natural call (Winston 271). This promoted the idea of separate
spheres, with the natural call of women being to remain in the private sphere. Similarly,
the fact that some doctors described the brain of Africans as having an insufficient
amount of cerebral matter to be able to be independent reinforced the justifications for
slavery (Baynton 40). Therefore, the rhetoric of doctors became more and more
prominent in the debates of citizenship of the Early Republic, which is something that did
not escape Brown’s attention: three of his gothic novels have important characters as
doctors advising and guiding the actions of the heroes and heroines.
The medical concerns about people’s fitness also invaded the field of philosophy
through the means of epistemology. John Locke linked knowledge to sensations, and his
concept of the mind as a tabula rasa stated that “there appear not to be any ideas in the
mind before the senses have conveyed any” (Locke 141). Although at first this does not
seem to be related to medicine, it actually gives a standard to measure people’s apparent
ability to reason. For example, the philosophers debated the epistemological and rational
aptitude of people who were not relying on one of the senses; they debated on questions
such as: was a blind person a whole person able to reason? Locke’s reflection on
Molyneux’s question (could a blind man, cured of his blindness, immediately recognize a
sphere and a cube only by sight?) influenced all of the major philosophers of the
Enlightenment. Indeed, a quick look at the titles of some of the philosophers’ works
reveals the connections they were making between the senses and epistemology and the
central role of the senses in their philosophical debates: Essay Towards a New Theory of
Vision (Berkeley); Traite’ des Sensations (Condillac); Lettres sur les Aveugles (Diderot).
A physical disability was not just a medical concern: it also became a philosophical query
on whether disabled people could experience the world and therefore be able to reason –
thus making the divide between philosophy and medicine harder to draw. This had real
political repercussions. For example, the philosophers of the Enlightenment relied on
science and medicine to argue for the differences in the sexes to keep women out of the
public sphere and to deny them full citizenship rights (Outram 87). These philosophers
were also interested in madness since during the eighteenth century (the heyday of reason
as an epistemological and philosophical basis) madness was reinterpreted as threatening
reason and “disclosed that underlying realm of unreason which threatens man and
envelops… all the forms of his natural existence” (Foucault 83). Even further, philosophy
and medicine intertwined on the subject of madness, since doctors stated that an
unchecked liberty could become a source of madness, and argued that the unprecedented
freedom of liberalism created a perfect opportunity for alienation between the individual
and society’s contrasting interests (Foucault 214). The United States, striving (at least
rhetorically!) to create a nation based on liberty for all, thus also became a medically and
philosophically anxious site regarding potential loss of reason.
The Early Republic’s politicians took advantage both of the philosophical and the
medical rhetoric to categorize the unwelcome. Since American society never was the free
and equal society promised by its revolutionary documents, one way to reconcile the
dissonance between the rhetoric and the reality was to use the vocabulary of disability
and pathology to keep certain groups of people (such as women, African Americans, and
newly-arrived immigrants) disenfranchised (Baynton 33). Brown’s historical period saw
European and American political writers using disability vocabulary and the idea of the
monstrous body against those unwelcome to citizenship rights; indeed, “writers with
opinions as diverse as Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine would rely on often identical
monstrous metaphors to malign those they wished to attack” (Kudlick 275). Timothy
Dwight’s pamphlet contributing to the Illuminati scare by using yellow fever vocabulary
is a case in point. Describing how the secret and foreign society’s members are
infiltrating American society, Dwight uses words such as “polluted,” “pestilential,” and
“plagues” (377-379). Disabilities (and the “degeneracy” vocabulary), then, became
central to the debates on nation-building and citizenship rights. Not only immigrants and
women were re-described through a disability and pathological vocabulary, but all
disabled Americans became a threat to the core national values of self-control and selfreliance; “freighted with anxieties about loss of control and autonomy that the American
ideal repudiates, the ‘disabled’ became a threatening presence” (Garland Thomson 41).
Often ignored in historical studies, disabilities and their appearance in historical texts and
literature can provide an understanding of how the bodies of those unwelcomed to
participate in the national project were translated into a substandard to “true
Americanness.” Using and abusing medical and philosophical rhetoric, the Early
Republic’s politicians disempowered and attacked all those targeted by the nativist
Since the focus of this research is not so much the Early Republic’s nativism per
se, but rather its contradictions, which create a cultural space where Brown wrote his
novels, a New Historicist reading of Brown might be the most suitable for the scope of
this thesis. As Louis Montrose states in “New Historicisms,” “representations of the
world in written discourse participate in the construction of the world: they are engaged
in shaping the modalities of social reality and in accommodating their writers,
performers, readers, and audiences to multiple and shifting subject positions within the
world that they themselves both constitute and inhabit” (396). This concept allows us to
see Brown as a cultural product of his society, which means that he was shaped by his
culture, but also participated as an active agent in shaping it. Because “the possibilities
for action are always socially and historically situated, always limited and limiting”
(Montrose 414), Brown’s response to the anxious American exceptionalism of the 1790s
must be placed in its historical context to understand the forces that shaped his writing
and the responses he directed to these forces. One way to understand this process is by
reading Brown’s novels through the lenses of disability since his representation of
disability both illustrates the rhetoric of his time and yet actively adds to the debate by
contradicting or questioning the rhetoric.
As David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder demonstrate, disabilities have appeared in
literature to cast race and gender in monstrous vocabulary; they call this the “double
bind” of disabilities: while people with disabilities are kept at the margins of society,
disabilities are used to represent other marginal groups in literature (Mitchell and Snyder
“Introduction” 6). As such, “disability pervades literary narrative, first, as a stock feature
of characterization and, second, as an opportunistic metaphorical device” (Mitchell and
Snyder “Narrative Prosthesis” 274). This metaphorical device is used in literature to
illustrate to the readers the evil nature of a character, to make a comment on human errors
by showing characters punished through disability, or to make a larger moral statement
on human frailties and virtues. Indeed, “disability lends a distinctive idiosyncrasy to any
characters that differentiate themselves from the anonymous background of the norm”
(Mitchell 16). Of course, literary works are not the only texts setting norms by describing
the abnormal. Medical works use disabilities as a frustrating opposite to health since
“disabled bodies prove undisciplined because they refuse to conform to the controlling
narratives of medical or rehabilitative science;” in philosophical works, disability is “a
metonym for that which refuses to conform to the disciplinary desire for order and
rationality so apparent in empirical discourses” (Mitchell 16). Inevitably, then, the
metaphorical device also bleeds into the political nativist rhetoric that uses medical and
philosophical values to discern the welcome from the unwelcome body. As an example,
in his “Narrative of the Late Massacres, in Lancaster County,” Benjamin Franklin
accuses the Irish settlers of being “Christian white savages” who will be afflicted by sleep
talk “in the Delirium of a Fever” and unconsciously confess their crimes (206-207).
Whether they appear in literature, medical works, philosophical tracts, or political
pamphlets, disabilities (and the vocabulary of pathology that often accompanies them) are
used to illustrate the problematic abnormal. In an anxious time when politicians felt that
America was attacked both from aliens and from unideal Americans, disabilities took a
prominent place in the political rhetoric.
These anxieties and the rhetoric of the un-American show up in Brown’s novels
and become visible in Brown’s work when explored through the lenses of disability.
There are three main representations of disabilities in his novels: as signifier of evil
Europeans coming to America, as signifier of unmanned Americans who do not fulfill the
expectations of rationality and self-reliance because they have become influenced by evil
Europeans, and as a destroyer of the illusion that seemingly rational Americans are
somehow safe from madness and irrationality. Brown’s villains are (or appear) European
and many of them have either physical or mental disabilities (such as sleep and memory
disorders). They also corrupt or abuse American citizens, which leads the American
characters to develop disabilities as well, ranging from blindness to homicidal madness.
These disabled American characters, then, lose any possibility of matching the ideals of
rationality and self-reliance that shaped the Early Republic’s vision of itself. Even worse,
the European villains seem to excite a dormant mental disability in their American
victims, thus creating doubt over the possibility of ever being safe from madness. Since
these catastrophic turns of events feed on the readers’ already existing fear of population
degeneration, the gothic writer produces thrills with pre-existing, local anxieties, thus
revealing his society’s internal malaise.
While at times Brown seems to espouse the nativist rhetoric in his depiction of
disabled characters, he also deconstructs the binaries of his society. This should not come
as a surprise from someone depicting so many kinds of disabilities since “representations
of disability… allow an interrogation of static beliefs about the body” (Mitchell 17). That
is, by depicting disabled characters, Brown sets in motion a deconstruction of the
signifiers that he seems to be defining, which then shakes the foundations of his society’s
values. For example, rather than upholding the Enlightenment’s binary of
reason/madness, which his anxious society used to differentiate between those degenerate
and those who needed protection from the degenerate, Brown mixes the two opposites in
Wieland to the point where the readers cannot tell them apart anymore. What this
deconstruction of the reason/madness binary allows us to see is that “in a classical
philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis à vis ,
but rather with a violent hierarchy” (Derrida, Positions 41). That is, reason is valued over
madness in Brown’s society, but Brown overturns the binary. In Wieland, the characters’
reason drives them to madness as they insist on explaining everything rationally – to the
point of becoming irrational. By the end of Wieland, the readers are not sure if this
hierarchy holds any essential truth to it, nor if the two terms are actual opposites.
Brown goes even further, though, and he deconstructs the binaries of
American/alien and disabled/able that were at the center of the philosophical, political,
and medical rhetoric of his time and that were used to define the American identity of the
1790s. By blurring the differences between an American (Edgar) and an alien (Clithero)
in Edgar Huntly, and between blindness that disempowers and blindness that enables to
truly see (as in the character of Dudley in Ormond), Brown forces his readers to question
the binaries and to come to the realization that “to deconstruct the opposition, first of all,
is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment” (Derrida, Positions 41). What Brown
seems to articulate is that the binary terms should not be placed in a hierarchy of
opposites, no matter what the nativist rhetoric of the Alien and Sedition Acts states, or
what the medical profession is doing to categorize the population through the
healthy/degenerate terms. To deconstruct these binaries, though, is to deconstruct the
belief in human progress and perfectibility that upholds the concept of American moral
and political superiority over other nations as stated by the nativists. Therefore, Brown
uses and abuses the metaphors of disabilities present in the philosophical, medical, and
political rhetoric of the Early Republic to create gothic thrills feeding on his society’s
anxiety over population degeneration due to newcomers, unideal Americans, and the
inescapable madness that threatens us all – thus describing an American society that is far
more complex than the simplistic vision of the nativists. To explore fully how Brown
achieves this feat by both echoing his society’s rhetoric and yet contradicting it, we must
analyze his work through different lenses.
The Gothic genre got its official start with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of
Otranto (1764), followed by the very successful gothic novels of Ann Radcliff (Botting
49, 63). Even though Radcliffian gothic novels have a reputation of being conservative in
their effort to end with a return to the norm, explain supernatural terrors in a rational
manner, and confirm the status quo, the genre was still a radical one before the end of the
1790s (Kilgour 42). Brown picked a genre whose “main concern is not to depict character
but to create a feeling or effect in its readers by placing them in a state of thrilling
suspense and uncertainty” (Kilgour 6). Through its thrills, the genre has the potential to
wake its readers to their own reality and to give them a new perspective on the status
quo’s allegedly common good. This genre, through extraordinary and supernatural
effects, allows an exploration of the boundaries set by society and of the validity of those
limits. Brown was not the only one to use this genre in this way. William Godwin (whom
Brown admired and imitated) wrote Things as They Are; or The Adventures of Caleb
Williams (1794), in which “the source of gothic terror… is… not a supernatural agent,
but ‘things as they are,” which is the British social structure that impedes the goodness of
individuals rather than promote it (Kilgour 57). Just like Godwin, Brown uses his own
society as the setting for his gothic novels, promoting “the gothic’s critical potential for a
revolutionary attempt to dismantle old systems of oppression and recover a tradition of
freedom;” also just like Godwin, Brown “suggests a way of achieving such a revolution
by running his enemies’ own weapons, mystery and suspense, against them” (Kilgour
57). In his gothic novels, Brown describes very familiar settings to his readers to force
them to come to terms with the terrifying aspects of their own society. Brown’s novels,
then, put forward a social and political critique since, after all, “this is what the hybrid,
bastard form of the Gothic records: the undamming of dark forces that rush into and
insidiously undermine the order of everyday life. This prospect is a terror but also of
course a delightful promise” (Luckhurst xi). Therefore, the gothic genre is both thrilling
and terrifying in showing the dark side of the readers’ own society. What is more, the
romantic strand of gothic genre worked perfectly for Brown’s ambiguous heroes and
heroines, since in this genre “the individual in question stands at the edges of society and
rarely finds a path back into the social fold… usually male, the individual is outcast, part
victim, part villain…. The disturbing and demonic villain, however, retains a darkly
attractive, if ambivalent, allure as defiant rebel against the constraints of social mores”
(Botting 92). As this thesis will show, Brown uses the ambiguity of this liminal genre to
explore and expose his society’s contradictions and dangerous nativist rhetoric.
Chapter Two of this thesis shows how Brown is a gothic writer who takes full
advantage of his readers’ nativist anxieties to create gothic thrills through his
representation of disabled characters. Living in a society whose political propaganda used
disabilities and medical rhetoric to exclude the unwelcome, Brown’s readers would have
quickly recognized the tropes that Brown uses to mimic that rhetoric. In novels such as
Ormond and Arthur Mervyn, Brown represents disability as a metaphor for negative
signifiers that would be easily decodable to his readers, and thus tricks his readers into
stories that seem to confirm every point from the nativists’ anxieties. In Ormond, the
heroine’s father, Dudley, becomes blind, and this disability is a direct consequence of
Dudley’s not upholding the Franklinian values of industriousness. Far from being the
self-made man who matches the national values of self-reliance, Dudley was unmanned
even before his blindness; his disability can therefore be interpreted as underscoring his
nature, but also as a punishment, which is a rhetorical device that is recurrent in
sentimental literature. Dudley, reduced to poverty by his own fault, has become
degenerate, irrational, and unable to take an active part in the national project. Similarly,
Welbeck, the evil European antagonist in Arthur Mervyn, has a physical disability that
should alert the attentive reader to his hidden evilness. This, of course, leads the readers
into experiencing the gothic thrills of recognizing their own society as the setting for
these twisted plots. The fact that Brown uses nativist tropes and recognizable settings
becomes important once we explore in the next chapters how the predictable patterns
deviate and lead the readers into questioning their validity.
Chapter Three analyzes sympathy in Edgar Huntly, a novel rich in mental
instability. In this novel, disability as a metaphor appears as sleepwalking, and it marks
both the degenerate alien and the degenerated American. Edgar, the American hero of the
novel, insists on trying to cure the Irish, insane, murderer Clithero, who contaminates
Edgar’s mind; by sleepwalking, Edgar goes on to lose his self-restraint and to perform
excesses. Brown here uses the rhetoric of nativism, doctors, and the American
exceptionalism of 1790s with all of its anxiety through the common theme of disability as
a metaphor for the degenerate and the unwelcome. Once again, Brown uses the nativist
tropes of sick, evil foreigners and sick, unideal American citizens, and he illustrates an
important Early Republic ideal: sympathy. However, this seemingly nativist tale contains
a transgressive message: the nativist politics of sameness (based on feeling sympathy
towards those we can identify with) is a politic of exclusion towards those who do not fit
the norm. Brown illustrates how the Early Republic’s rhetoric is intolerant of diversity
and he leads the readers into identifying with the Other, thus blurring the differences
between the us/them binary so dear to the nativists.
Chapter Four focuses on Wieland and demonstrates how Brown’s use of
disabilities is not only underscoring and contradicting the rhetoric of its time, but also
deconstructing it. In Wieland, Brown deconstructs the dichotomous worldview of the
nativists, so that madness and reason cannot be easily separated anymore. He goes even
further and debunks the systems of knowledge that lead to one to believe there are clear
difference between ourselves and the Other. This leads to the conclusion that immigrants
are not the real danger to the United States, but rather the Early Republic’s perception of
the world through simplistic and contradictory binary systems that hold America as
superior to other nations. Even worse, Brown hints that American citizens might already
be all contaminated by madness. When Clara states “that this madness, if madness it
were, had affected Pleyel and myself as well as Wieland” (Wieland 137), she insinuates
to the readers that the narrator and themselves might be just as mad as Theodore Wieland.
Instead of creating Enlightened and soothing binaries of rationality and madness, Brown
plays with the tenets that built the Early Republic as a beacon of rationality: he illustrates
how freedom can lead to madness, and he shatters the myth that, as long as the evil
foreigners are kept out, the United States will remain safely self-controlled.
Chapter Five continues the deconstructive analysis of Brown’s novels, by
highlighting how Brown seems to destroy every binary he sets up. The first binary to be
deconstructed is the American/European one: many of the heroes have European origins
(Constantia, Wieland, Arthur); the evil Europeans are not really Europeans (the “British”
Craig is from Portsmouth and the “Irish” Carwin is from Pennsylvania); in fact, the evil
Europeans are not that evil (Welbeck’s American associates are far more depraved than
this forger from Liverpool), and Europe is a place of rest for most of the heroes after their
American gothic terrors. Even further, Brown deconstructs the disabled/able binary, by
showing that disabilities are not disabling: it is only by becoming blind that Dudley really
sees himself and Ormond. Finally, we will demonstrate how Brown brings down the
binaries of the American-Rational-Able-Hero/Alien-Irrational-Disabled-Villain. If reason
and madness are not clearly discernible, if disabilities lose their meaning as negative
signifier, and if both immigrants and upper class American-born citizens seem to switch
back and forth between the opposite terms of all binaries, the anxious belief that keeping
the “bad elements” out will save the nation from physical and mental degeneracy gets
jeopardized. Brown illustrates his society’s failings in values and worldview, he
demonstrates that the us/them binary cannot exist since both concepts are intermingled,
and he calls for an acceptance of the complexity and imperfection of the human
condition. Ambiguity is central to Brown’s work because it helps him to illustrate the
pitfalls of wanting to create clear-cut binaries: if we want to separate the welcome from
the unwelcome, we are all in danger of not meeting the standard.
At the end of the deconstruction of Brown’s works, what one is left with is the
suspicion that Brown’s underlining message is that the binary of disable/able does not
really exist since we are all already disabled. After all, even though Carwin and Clithero
bring out the American characters’ hidden desires, fears, and irrationalities, those desires,
fears, and irrationalities were already present in Wieland’s and Edgar’s psyche before
Carwin’s and Clitheros’ arrival. And, after all, that might be exactly what Brown
illustrates in his work. The idea that the American rational heroes are just as “degenerate”
as the European villains might be the scariest thrill a gothic writer could come up with
during the 1790s’ anxious nativism. This thesis argues that Brown’s representations of
disabilities mimic the tropes of nativist propaganda and rhetoric to tap into the readers’
anxieties created by that propaganda; however, the entertaining thrills of recognizing
their own society leads the readers into the terrifying thrills of witnessing the pitfalls and
intolerance of their society. Through his ambiguous use of disabilities, Brown illustrates
the problems that are central to a society based on binaries set to exclude the Other.
Through a method that is very similar to deconstruction, Brown leads his readers into
considering that they might already be degenerate physically and mentally, that it is
impossible to separate ourselves from the Other, and that refusing to accept human
imperfection means creating a society where we are all at risk of not meeting the norm.
Chapter 2
Charles Brockden Brown consistently upholds and confuses recognizable tropes
of the literature, philosophy, and politics of his times. As this chapter will demonstrate,
one can recognize evil and flawed characters through Brown’s use of disabilities that
reflect the tropes used in other literary works and nativist propaganda. Focusing on the
representation of disability in Arthur Mervyn (1798-1799), readers can read this novel as
a straightforward nativist tale since disabilities show up to unmask the evil European,
which creates thrills of terror as the hero is unaware of the villain’s evilness, while the
readers are warned to it immediately through a telling physical disability. Similarly, in
Ormond (1799), the unideal American character is punished through blindness, which
Brown describes as “eternal dark” (Ormond 15), thus again leading his readers to indulge
in the gothic pleasures of imagining the terrifying punishment that could happen to them
if they ever strayed from the ideal of Americanness set by people such as Benjamin
Franklin and Benjamin Rush. However, even though Brown uses predictable patterns and
tropes to create gothic thrills by tapping into the anxieties of his readers who lived under
the brainwashing propaganda of the nativists, he also leads the patterns in contradictory
and ambiguous directions, thus leaving his readers questioning the validity of said
patterns. While the rest of this thesis will demonstrate how Brown turns the rhetoric
upside down and deconstructs the nativist metaphors he sets up, the main focus of this
chapter is to demonstrate how Brown takes advantage of the rhetoric of his times to make
the novels’ society recognizable as the readers’ own society. The fact that the readers can
recognize the novels’ society and rhetoric as their own becomes important once Brown
deconstructs the patterns and leads the readers into questioning their validity.
The rhetoric of the Early Republic juggled difficult contradictions of both
calling America “the most perfect society now existing in the world” (Crèvecoeur 41)
and of describing America’s perfection as something fragile in need to be protected from
contamination. The overlapping of the belief that America had “a special mission… as a
guiding beacon for the oppressed peoples of the world” (Sharp 70-71) when combined
with the fear that the waves of radicals coming to the United States were posing a threat
to American identity led to anxieties that shaped every aspect of American society. While
Benjamin Franklin’s 1755 infamous lines on German immigrants making “Pennsylvania,
founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens” (The Papers of Benjamin Franklin)
show that fear of foreigners invading the New World had been a recurring Anglo
preoccupation, in the 1790s the United States cloaked their nativist anxiety with medical
discourse of purity and health of the population. Although the late nineteenth century is
often seen as the century giving rise to eugenics and social hygienists, the medical
vocabulary (and the power it conferred upon those who stood on the healthy side of the
socially-constructed binary) started seeping into the political discourse during the
eighteenth century. Eminent doctors like Benjamin Rush listed the defective
characteristics of human life around the globe, such as the “deficiency of ideas” of Native
Americans and Africans having “their understandings and passions… in a torpid state”
(164, 165), and he drew sweeping nationalistic conclusions that “in no part of the human
species, is animal life in a more perfect state than in the inhabitants of Great Britain, and
the United States of America” (167). Of course, not every American lived up to such
elevated standards, which in turn heightened the anxiety about a potential population
In addition, this discourse of pseudo-science with nationalist interests also
targeted unwelcome immigrants perceived as a health concern for the fitness of the
American population. Humphrey Marshall’s 1798 poem, “The Aliens: a Patriotic Poem,”
describes two classes of immigrants, the welcome and the unwelcome type: “of aliens,
there are e’en two; / It is proper to distinguish those, / From the other; a malignant crew”
who is bent on the mission “to poison our minds, with false speeches” (qtd. in Gardner
58-59). The fear of radical foreigners contaminating the minds of Americans and
spreading their diseased desires for anarchy in the United States is a leitmotif of the antiIlluminati pamphlets, a propagandist rhetoric that was very present in Brown’s society. 1
The result of these politico-medical anxieties led to the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798),
which increased the President’s power to arrest citizens and deport foreigners with radical
political ideas, and the language surrounding the acts reflects how, in the late eighteenth
century, political and medical discourses became increasingly harder to untangle. As Eric
Wolfe points out, “one of the crucial words in the Federalist rhetoric of the period, and
one that suggests the Federalists’ obsession with national unity, is purity. The Alien and
Sedition Acts were designed to purify the body of the nation by expelling dangerous
The French Revolution with its reign of Terror only fueled the anti-foreigners’ propaganda with its
extremisms and violence. The anti-foreigners pamphleteers constantly make references to the threat of a
French invasion.
aliens and to purify the voice of the nation by suppressing oppositional speech” (433). To
be a fit American or a welcome immigrant meant to be politically fit (meaning not a
radical), which would then reveal a physical and mental fitness, which in turn was a
condition to achieve civic and moral fitness. Indeed, as demonstrated by the
Naturalization Act of 1798, which increased the years necessary for citizenship, and
which was “an act that wedded the medical discussions of morality with a highly
restrictive residency requirement” (Murison 253), the concepts of political and medical
fitness could not be seen as separate anymore.
Colleen Terrell offers an interesting insight on how doctors and politicians relied
on the same vocabulary through her analysis of how Benjamin Rush and Benjamin
Franklin both used the term “republican machines” to describe human organisms. Rush’s
famous words, “I consider it is possible to convert men into republican machines… to
perform their parts properly, in the great machine of the government of the state” (92), fit
perfectly in the eighteenth century’s vision of the world as a precisely constructed
mechanism. Just like Rush, Franklin declares that “as Man is a Part of this great Machine,
the Universe, his regular Acting is requisite to the regular moving of the whole”
(Autobiography 324). Both men use mechanical vocabulary to articulate a concept that
would be impossible to define as solely medical, political, moral, or civic. Rush’s
medical rhetoric on the term “republican machines” brought together “mechanism and
biology… in the service of the Enlightenment’s belief in the perfectibility of man,
rationalizing methods of pedagogy and moral improvement” (Terrell 102). Similarly, in
his Autobiography, Franklin “aims for a mechanical regularity of behavior, a certain
standard of ethical action, which is measured, even, and predictable” (Terrell 118). Both
men visualized the human body and mind as a mechanical organism that could be
regulated to improve not only the individual’s health, but the individual’s society as well.
That is, even though Rush and Franklin talked about civic duty and morality, their
instructions for political and social improvement took a medical approach on how to lead
one’s life in order to regulate one’s machine (i.e. one’s body). The idea that the body is a
machine that can be regulated, though, sets standards of health that point an accusing
finger towards those who apparently fail to regulate themselves. Thus, bodies lose their
humanity to become objects to be perfected for the individual’s and the common good.
Those who could not regulate their bodies to the standards set by Franklin and Rush
became the irregular machines within society, lacking not only in their health but also in
their moral and civic duty since both Franklin and Rush equated a regulated body with a
regulated citizenship. In this moment of contradictions, when the new nation tried to
define itself, its values, and its citizens, and when it feared that its population was at risk
of degeneration, the vocabulary that the new nation utilized to define what is – or what
should be – an American became increasingly pathological.
Unsurprisingly, this pathological vocabulary created strict binaries where
disability was set as the opposite of ideal Americanness. This seems inevitable for a
country that rested its national identity on the Enlightenment’s values of the perfectibility
of human machines. Indeed, the binary-spouting discourse of the Enlightenment created a
human hierarchy of all human societies moving from the state of nature to a social
contract where proof of this human progression rested just as much on
cultural/economical/social production as on the characteristics of one’s body.2 One does
not have to go any further than the sentence “all men are created equal” from slave owner
Thomas Jefferson to see the Enlightenment binaries at work, setting skin color and
gender as visible body markers of those deserving or underserving of civil rights. Dorinda
Outram argues that “this contradiction between support for supposedly universal rights,
and the actual exclusion of large numbers of human beings from the enjoyment of those
rights, is central to, and characteristic of Enlightenment thought” (121). Therefore, the
values and language of the Enlightenment did nothing to liberate Western thought from
its dependency on binaries, and this dichotomic thinking became crucial for the Early
Republic’s nationalistic project; this, in turn, would have important consequences on the
role of disabilities in the nation’s politico-medical discourse. As Rosemarie GarlandThomson argues in her seminal book Extraordinary Bodies, “constructed as the
embodiment of corporeal insufficiency and deviance, the physically disabled body
becomes a repository for social anxieties about such troubling concerns as vulnerability,
control, and identity” (6). That is, disability becomes a way to funnel the abstract
anxieties of nationalism towards a visible difference from the norm. One of the reasons
why disability became the representation of the unwelcome is because it defiantly
counters some of the American values informed by the philosophers of the Enlightenment
such as self-reliance, self-restraint, and rationality. Indeed, “freighted with anxieties
The concept of the noble savage from Enlightenment philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and
Denis Diderot illustrates the philosophers’ idea that all human societies were moving on the same progress
line towards “civilization,” which ended with European societies. The fact that the noble savages were nonwhite linked physical differences to “civilized” progress. For a hierarchical list of human groups moving
from the apes and ending with – no surprise! – the Europeans, see Charles White’s The Regular Gradation
of Man (1799).
about loss of control and autonomy that the American ideal repudiates, ‘the disabled’
become a threatening presence” (Garland-Thomson 41). Even further, the way GarlandThomson describes how disabilities are perceived resembles the way the political
discourse described unwelcome aliens: “bodies that are disabled can also seem dangerous
because they are perceived as out of control. Not only do they violate physical norms, but
by looking and acting unpredictable they threaten to disrupt the ritualized behavior upon
which social relations turn” (37). Therefore, not only did disability vocabulary become
useful to describe the unwelcome (be they disabled or foreigners), but it also had an
important role in a nation-building society obsessed with defining democracy. Inevitably,
this had important repercussions on the representations of disabilities in literary works.
David Mitchell explains that “disability pervades literary narrative, first, as a stock
feature of characterization and, second, as an opportunistic metaphoric device” that he
coins as “narrative prosthesis” (15). Therefore, when disabilities show up in works of
fiction (and, as we have seen in Chapter One, in the political tracts of the Early Republic)
they are stand-ins for more abstract concepts. For example, as Mitchell illustrates,
“blindness may represent the incapacity of humanity to see into the future; lameness can
designate the crippling effects of social ideologies” (25). Therefore, it is not surprising to
see disabilities show up in Brown’s novels as metaphors; what is surprising is that these
metaphors both mimic and contradict nativist ideals.
This quick overview of the 1790s’ political rhetoric, the anxieties tied to the idea
of immigrants polluting American society, the intermingling of political and medical
discourses, and the use of disabilities as metaphors in literary works is necessary if we
want to place Brown in his social context and use a New Historicist approach to analyze
his novels. In particular, we need to look at how Brown used the paranoia and
propaganda of his society to engage his readers with the thrills of gothic stories. Robert
Levine’s argument in Conspiracy and Romance rests on his analysis of how Brown’s
novels “engage the ‘provincial’ conspiratorial fears of his time” (16). Indeed, as we will
see in Chapter Two and three and through our analysis of Ormond¸ Arthur Mervyn, and
Edgar Huntly, Brown’s novels constantly echo the nativist rhetoric of the Early Republic,
thus bringing the terrors of his novels very close to his readers’ everyday life. Most of
Brown’s villains are Europeans (or appear more European than American). Levine points
out how “Brown’s villains raise dark questions indeed about the futurity of a republic
wherein ‘emigrants’ can, theatrically, fabricate identities as ‘Americans,’ all the while
cloaking their origins, politics, and agendas” (16). Sometimes, though, a physical
disability gives the attentive readers a visible clue signaling the disguised villain’s true
nature, or it highlights the potential degeneration of an American character. This visual
clue is just as useful for Brown’s contemporary readers as it is for his literary scholars.
Toni Morrison argues in Playing in the Dark “that Americans choose to talk about
themselves through and within a sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but
always choked representation of an Africanist presence” (1011). That is, even in works
that seem unconcerned with race, the white characters’ definition of whiteness and
Americanness rests on a binary racial system. Disability Studies scholars have a very
similar approach to the analysis of literary representations of disabilities. Scholars reveal
that even works that seem unconcerned with disability use disabled minor characters or
metaphorical disability vocabulary to create a contrast that will highlight the nondisability of the main characters and help the readers understand a
social/political/philosophical message that is presented as a binary between the positive
non-disabled concept and its negative disabled contrast. We can see this metaphor at play
in Brown’s use of the yellow fever epidemic in his novels.
The pathological vocabulary of the yellow fever in Brown’s two novels Ormond
and Arthur Mervyn often stands in to signify themes that are not immediately concerned
with the fever itself.3 Unsurprisingly for a time that frequently mixed political and
medical concerns, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 launched politicians and doctors on
debates on the sources of the disease, and the different sides of the debate revealed
different political affiliations. While Jeffersonian doctors like Benjamin Rush argued that
the yellow fever was a result of the filthy conditions of the city, the Federalist doctors
insisted that the fever was brought by French immigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution
(Waterman 219). Both sides are as political as they are medical, since their medical
solutions deal with stricter immigration laws or internal social reforms. Elizabeth Lamont
demonstrates how the novels reveal Brown’s side of the debate: Brown did not believe
that the French immigrants were at fault; instead, he believed that the real cause of the
epidemic was tied to the individual lack of diet and healthy habits of Americans and
French alike (108). However, the fever in the two novels does not just appear to allow
Brown to express his politico-medical views. It also has a metaphorical significance that
Fever as a metaphor in Brown’s novels has already been addressed in different ways by scholars. For
example, some scholars argue that Brown uses the epidemic as a metaphor for the selfishness of capitalism
and the corruption of the mercantile class. For more on the epidemic as a metaphor for economic and social
corruption, see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s This Violent Empire.
is linked with the heroes’ and heroines’ internal states. In both novels, the yellow fever
appears around the time of the encounter of the hero or heroine with the villainous
European, thus paralleling their turmoil and potential degeneration. The novel Arthur
Mervyn starts with Dr. Stephen’s narrative about finding a sick young man in the streets
of Philadelphia during the epidemic of the yellow fever. Stephen takes him home, and
learns that the youth, Arthur Mervyn, left his father’s house in the country to start a new
life in Philadelphia. Even though his neighbors warn Stephen of the danger of harboring
the unknown young man and point to “the dangerous condition of [the] patient, and the
dubiousness of his character” (Arthur Mervyn 8), the doctor does not feel that Arthur is a
threat to him. However, he starts to have doubts when one of Stephen’s friends, Wortley,
recognizes Arthur as connected to the man who ruined him – a European named Thomas
Welbeck. Wortley calls Arthur a “young villain” (Arthur Mervyn 12), and pushes Stephen
to find more information on his guest. The fact that Arthur refuses to break the promise
of secrecy he made to Welbeck and to give any information of his whereabouts makes
him in Wortley’s and the readers’ mind into an accomplice to the evil actions of
Welbeck. Thus, with a hero infected by the fever and, possibly, infected by the depravity
of Welbeck, starts a complicated novel of intrigues as Arthur retells his side of the story
to Dr. Stephen. While Arthur recovers quickly from the fever, the readers will ponder for
the rest of the novel if Welbeck’s evil influence has infected the hero, leading him astray
beyond the possibility of recovery.
In Ormond, another novel with the same setting of the yellow fever epidemic in
Philadelphia, the fever strikes at the worst possible time: when Dudley and his daughter
Constantia, reduced to ruin by the intrigues of the evil Craig and Ormond, are left without
any possible protection and with limited survival options. The plot of the novel then
slows down to allow Brown to illustrate his medical opinions on how to treat the fever
(Constantia gets sick but her healthy habits save her; the French are accused of spreading
the fever, but the obviously biased rumor disproves the accusation) to then bring
Constantia into the vicinity of the evil European Ormond. Just as she was not immune to
the fever, Constantia almost becomes infected by Ormond’s fascinating ways; she
befriends the mysterious European and leaves the readers wondering about her potential
fall until the end of the novel, where she kills Ormond to escape his attempted rape.
Brown calls Constantia’s yellow fever infection a “trial” and he also describes Ormond’s
attempt to rape her as a “trial” (Ormond 46, 216), underlining the similarities between
the two experiences. Ormond’s infection is not only acting on Constantia’s mind but
acting on her physical health as well. The rape is described in pathological vocabulary,
paralleling the fever vocabulary; Ormond describes to Constantia the “contamination of
thy purity” when he will rape her and warns her of the impossibility “of prevention or
cure” to the violence that is about to happen (Ormond 216). However, because she was
healthy, rational, and virtuous, Constantia does not succumb to either fever or a villainous
seducer. While the fever was a real historical event during Brown’s life, and while it
served Brown’s purposes to expound on his politico-medical ideas, it also served the
gothic writer as a metaphor to lead the readers into an exploration of the hero’s mental
and moral state, and of the heroine’s ability to withstand the perversion of the evil
seducer. Brown’s linking of the fever with the evil European creates a recognizable
pattern to his readers: the metaphor of the yellow fever and the evil Europeans’ immoral
infection taps right into the readers’ anxieties since they are the same rhetorical devices
that nativist propagandists used to terrify their audience. This leads the readers into
recognizing their own society in the novels and into feeling the thrills of terrors of seeing
the worst nativist nightmares comes alive.
The fever, however, is only one of the metaphors from the medical rhetoric used
by Brown in these two novels; both novels also deal with physical disabilities as
metaphors. In Arthur Mervyn, Brown uses a physical disability to highlight the evil
nature of Thomas Welbeck, thus giving a clear message to his readers of the faults of that
character. Thomas Welbeck, the novel’s antagonist, is an evil European who will stop at
nothing to increase his fortune. He has gathered his fortune illegally, since “his wealth
was the fruit of illicit practices. He was opulent, and the sources of his wealth unknown”
(Arthur Mervyn 61). Brown immediately introduces Welbeck, who is from Liverpool, as
having a face with “a foreign mould” (Arthur Mervyn 67, 41). Not only his face, but
everything is foreign around him: his house is decorated in the French style, and he lives
with a woman, Clemenza, who does not speak English (Arthur Mervyn 41). Beside his
foreignness, which for the Early Republic readers might awaken the fears spread by
nativist propaganda4, Welbeck is also distinguished by a physical disability – a disfigured
hand – which is a literary signal that something is not quite as it should be with this
The anti-Illuminati propaganda, especially, spread fear of foreigners. Timothy Dwight’s The Duty of
Americans, at the Present Crisis is a perfect example of alarmist propaganda against mysterious foreigners
(especially French) invading America with the sole goal of destroying its values and morals. Both Ormond
and Arthur Mervyn have hints of Illuminati, even though Brown never explicitly mentions the secret
society. For more on Brown’s use of the anti-Illuminati panic in his novels, see Robert S. Levine’s
Conspiracy and Romance.
character. Because “disability lends a distinctive idiosyncrasy to any characters that
differentiate themselves from the anonymous background of the norm” (Mitchell 16),
attentive readers will not ignore this small imperfection on Welbeck’s Byronian beauty.
Welbeck explains to Arthur that “my maimed hand, so saying he shewed me his right
hand, the forefinger of which was wanting, will not allow me to write accurately or
copiously. For this reason I have required your aid” (Arthur Mervyn 44). While Brown
uses this physical disability as a novelistic strategy to advance the plot and link Arthur to
the villain, it also alerts his readers that there is something wrong with Welbeck’s
morality. Indeed, a disability in a character “seeks to lure the reader/viewer into the
mystery of whether discernible defects reveal the presence of an equally defective moral
and civil character” (Mitchell and Snyder, “Introduction” 13). Since Welbeck’s
immorality has already been announced by Wortley at the beginning of the novel, his
disability serves to certify Wortley’s judgment. Welbeck’s maimed hand underlines the
true nature of this evil European character as a forger, a thief, and a seducer, which
Arthur does not immediately see as he is himself seduced by Welbeck’s cosmopolitan
savoir-faire and elegance. Unlike Arthur, however, the readers can easily spot the list of
things that work in Welbeck’s disfavor (his foreignness, his disability, his mysterious
wealth, and the negative stories against him) and experience the gothic thrills of having
the naïve hero trust the villain and unknowingly assist him in his immoral adventures. As
the rest of the thesis demonstrates, though, this sense of security of knowing who is evil
and who is good never last for long in the novels since Brown constantly blurs the clear
distinctions that his use of disabilities seem to make. Therefore, the recognizable pattern
becomes a trap, luring the readers into a sense of security that will shatter once the
establish patterns deviate from the expected path.
Physical disability also shows up in the novel Ormond, where Brown uses
blindness as a typical metaphorical device to illustrate the consequences of being an
unideal American. The novel starts with the description of Dudley, the father of the
heroine Constantia, who seems to be the personification of Benjamin Franklin’s most
horrifying nightmare. Dudley does not uphold the Franklinian values of industriousness,
and he spends his youth in Europe training to be a painter (Ormond 5). Forced to take
over his father’s business, Dudley hires Craig – an American thief posing as a newly
arrived European immigrant in search for work – to take over the business duties. Dudley
trusts Craig immediately: “Mr. Dudley did not require much time to deliberate. In a few
days, the youth was established as a member of his family, and as a coadjutor in his
shop… he was able to relieve his master of most of the toils of his profession… [and
Dudley] placed more absolute reliance on the fidelity of his dependant [sic]” (Ormond 8).
Of course, this naïve trust, guided by a desire to avoid work, leads to the inevitable
demise of Dudley: Craig steals his money and leaves him penniless. As if poverty were
not enough to highlight the error of Dudley’s ways, Brown punishes the character even
further with blindness. Dudley’s unideal manhood is represented physically through a
disability. The description of Dudley’s situation after he becomes blind shows how
Brown illustrates blindness as a terrible disempowering condition – and therefore a
terrible punishment to inflict on a character:
He was now disabled from pursuing his usual occupation. He was shut
from the light of heaven, and debarred of every human comfort.
Condemned to eternal dark, and worse than the helplessness of infancy, he
was dependant for the meanest offices on the kindness of others, and he
who had formerly abounded in the gifts of fortune, through only of ending
his days in a gaol or an alms-house. (Ormond 15)
Described as helpless as an infant and completely dependent on others, Dudley has only
two options: jail or charity. Following this discernible pattern of unideal Americanness
being punished, the message to the readers seems obvious: for not wanting to work,
Dudley is punished by not being able to do anything.5 The contrast between father and
daughter only further underscores this moral, leading the readers more and more into a
seemingly straight nativist tale. Constantia is a model of self-restraint and independence:
“she had learned to square her conduct, in a considerable degree, not by the hasty
impulses of inclination, but by the dictates of truth. She yielded nothing to caprice or
passion” (Ormond 16). Even though Constantia will also go through some terrible
adventures and almost get raped by the novel’s villain, her self-reliance and industry do
not present these terrible adventures as punishments but as challenges that she is able to
surpass and thus highlight her qualities. Once again, Brown echoes the values and beliefs
The choice of blindness as punishment, though, might reveal that Brown felt more sympathetic than
vengeful towards Dudley. At the end of the eighteenth century, blindness was recast in sentimental
literature “as an indication of inevitable suffering and misery” that was supposed to elicit sympathy from
the reader (Klages 20). The moral of the story might be harsh, but it does not mean that Dudley does not
deserve our sympathy. One of the reasons why Brown might not have felt so vengeful towards a failed
businessman like Dudley might be that Brown trained in the law, only to disappoint his family and become
a novelist.
of the nativists through metaphors of disability, thus using his society’s own rhetoric as a
source for gothic terrors.
The metaphorical use that Brown makes of blindness follows predictable
philosophical and literary patterns, and was therefore easily recognizable to his
contemporary readers. After he goes blind, Dudley virtually disappears from the story as
a character. This use of a blind man as having no real experience of the outside world,
and who only exists to serve the author’s needs, is very similar to the use of the “the
Hypothetical Blind Man” of the European philosophers arguing on the role of sensation
on epistemology (Kleege 522). In particular, John Locke, with his concept that “there
appear not to be any ideas in the mind before the senses have conveyed any” (Locke
141), uses disabilities to ponder on philosophical questions.6 In Ormond, Brown’s use of
blindness to incapacitate Dudley and to cut him off from the world parallels Locke’s
ideas that the absence of sight gives a man no real experience of the world, leaving him
unable to comprehend what is happening around him—that is, unable to reason. Once
blind, Dudley’s physical degeneration represents his inability to take an active part in his
survival, his civic duty, or his daughter’s life. In both novels, Brown also follows
predictable literary expectations as to his use of disabilities. David Mitchell lists the steps
that usually happen in literary use of disability as a metaphorical device. It is worth
looking in detail since this schema is used in both Ormond and Arthur Mervyn:
In particular, Locke’s reflection on Molyneux’s question (could a blind man, cured of his blindness,
immediately recognize a sphere and a cube only by sight?) influenced all of the major philosophers of the
Enlightenment. William Paulson’s Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Blind in France describes how
philosophers such as Voltaire, Berkeley, and Diderot grappled with this question since the various answers
to it helped the philosophers articulate their positions on sensory epistemology and Locke’s concept of
tabula rasa.
First, a deviance or morphed difference is exposed to a reader; second, a
narrative consolidates the need for its own existence by calling for an
explanation of the deviation’s origins and formative consequences; third,
the deviance is brought from the periphery of concerns to the center stage
of the story to come; and fourth, the remainder of the story seeks to
rehabilitate or fix the deviance in some manner. This fourth move toward
the repair of deviance may involve an obliteration of the difference
through a cure, the rescue of the despised object from social censure, the
extermination of the deviant as a purification of the social body, or the
revaluation of an alternative mode of experience. (Mitchell 20)
In Ormond, Dudley’s blindness is the “morphed difference… exposed to a reader,” and,
following a classical pattern of disability as punishment, the readers interpret it as
Dudley’s punishment for being an unideal American and for having lost the wealth that
would have paid for a cure. While the character of Dudley is not center-stage after he
becomes blind, his blindness is a major problem for the heroine since Constantia finds
herself alone in dealing with both poverty and the villainous Ormond. The deviance is
fixed once Dudley has learned the error of his ways; Constantia’s industriousness and
reason become a model for Dudley, and “he resigned himself with pleasure to her
guidance” (Ormond 129). He is rewarded by getting his wealth and his vision back.7 In
The surgeon who performs the operation to cure Dudley’s cataract is worth analyzing with some attention.
He is described as “one of the numerous agents and dependants [sic] of Ormond and had been engaged to
abdicate [Europe] for purposes widely remote from his profession” (Ormond 129). This is quite a shady
description of an eye surgeon, but a description that fits the beliefs of its historical period. The literature
and drama between 1760 to 1830 staged many blind characters in need of a cure. Most often, the cure came
from an oculist who was “an ambiguous figure in this literature, sometimes a virtuous hero of enlightened
Arthur Mervyn, Welbeck’s maimed hand is exposed to the reader almost as soon as the
hero meets the villain; the origins of this disability are never explained, and it never takes
center stage in the story. However, if we interpret the disability as a metaphor for
Welbeck’s corrupt soul, the link between soul and maimed hand follows a predictable
pattern. Welbeck has a corrupt soul from the beginning of his existence, starting with his
father’s trade in Liverpool, a city with an economy centered on the slave trade (Arthur
Mervyn note 8). Welbeck’s on-and-off contact with Arthur has an important role in
Arthur’s coming of age novel. The readers and Arthur find out that, besides being a
seducer, Welbeck stole large sums of money and is a forger. While Welbeck never
appears to be who he really is, his maimed hand is a signal to the readers (and to Arthur,
even though he is much slower to understand it) of Welbeck’s real character. Welbeck’s
corrupt soul, represented by his maimed hand, cannot be cured, rescued, or revaluated in
any ways; the only choice left to Brown is to erase it from the novel through Welbeck’s
These easily-recognizable patterns are there to trick readers, though, since in both
novels, Brown is not so much concerned with the physical disability he gives his
characters, but rather with tapping into his readers’ fears through predicable patterns of
representing disabilities. Brown’s readers lived in a society obsessed with medicopolitical rhetoric that used the vocabulary of disabilities to mark the unwelcome.
Therefore, the evil European’s maimed hand and the unideal blind American become
science, sometimes a vain old schemer, sometimes an out-and-out charlatan” (Paulson 73). Dudley’s oculist
does not quite fit any of these descriptions perfectly since he is a successful surgeon, but also a fugitive
from the law. His ties with Ormond, however, could make the readers lean more towards identifying him as
a “vain old schemer.”
stock characters that resonate with nativists’ warnings about population degeneration.
Thus, Brown’s fairly predicable use of literary patterns and of the political rhetoric of his
time works well in creating gothic thrills for his readers and in making them recognize
the novels’ society as their own. Brown achieves that both through echoing the medicopolitical rhetoric of the Early Republic and positioning his tales in recognizable American
settings. As Ezra Tawil argues, Brown’s use of recognizable American settings gave his
readers “a front-row seat for the manifold and wondrous ‘disorders’ and ‘diseases’
paraded before them,” and this proximity both heightened their terrors and their readerly
pleasure (119). One of the reason for illustrating the readers’ worst nativist fears is to
thrill them into the terrors of gothic novels: these fictitious nightmares are not so distant
from the readers’ reality and thus lead them to imagine themselves in the same situation.
Thus, the predicable patterns become a tool of the gothic writer: the readers can predict
who are the evil characters even before the heroes can identify them as villains and they
can feel their prejudices against sketchy foreigners vindicated. However, Brown’s novels
echo recognizable literary, philosophical, and political rhetorical patterns to trick the
readers: the more one tries to stick to the nativist rhetorical patterns in Brown’s novels,
the more one gets lost as the patterns lead to contradictions. At the end of each novel,
Brown’s readers are left to decide for themselves if a character was really evil or virtuous
– whether that character had a disability or not. As we shall demonstrate in the rest of this
thesis, Brown’s use of disabilities in a nativist fashion is deceptive since it is meant to
trick his readers and plunge them into a much more ambiguous and complex worldview
than that of the nativists.
As an example of Brown’s ambiguous use of disabilities, one should look no
further than Arthur Mervyn, a novel where both minor characters and the hero present
unclear disabilities or health issues, thus scrambling the medico-political message
carefully articulated in nativist propaganda. Besides Welbeck, there is another character
in Arthur Mervyn who has a visible physical disability, but this metaphor is much harder
to decode than the villain’s. During the yellow fever epidemic, Arthur comes back to
Philadelphia from the countryside, looking to rescue a young man named Wallace, and
walks through a scene of death and abandonment. During his search in an empty house,
Arthur finds a dying man and sees himself in a mirror. Suddenly, behind him, appears the
figure of a black man described as having “one eye, a scar upon his cheek, a tawny skin,
a form grotesquely misproportioned, brawny as Hercules, and habited in livery” (Arthur
Mervyn 113). The man hits Arthur and leaves him for dead, and the novel never reveals
with certainty if the black servant acted to protect the dying man thinking that Arthur was
a robber, or if he was himself robbing his dying master and hit Arthur so as to not get
caught.8 Again, here Brown makes a direct reference to the heated debates going on in his
society. Like the French, African Americans were believed by some to be immune to the
fever and, as they stayed behind while the city’s population fled during the epidemic, the
debates raged and depicted them as either selfless caregivers or as monstrous grave
robbers (Lynch 781). Even further into the day’s debates, the scar on his cheek connects
the man to slavery, indicating that he might be a runaway slave or a runaways catcher
Even though Mr. Estwick, the man who almost buried Arthur alive on finding him unconscious in the
room, explains that the servant was robbing his master, Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro point out that
this explanation has more to do with the racial prejudices at the time of the fever than a valid testimony
(Arthur Mervyn 115, note 5).
(Barnard and Shapiro, “Introduction” Arthur Mervyn xliii). Since Brown does not
elucidate the reasons behind the man’s violence towards Arthur, the readers (and
scholars) have only his physical description to try to make sense of him. Carroll SmithRosenberg interprets this mirror scene with Toni Morrison in mind, explaining that
“European Americans had built their identities around a racist dyad that contrasted
whiteness, virtue, civility, and productivity to blackness, savagery, licentiousness, and
sloth” (Smith-Rosenberg 442). What is left out of this list of binaries between Arthur and
the black man is the able/disabled one, since the black man only has “one eye.” 9
Frustratingly, Brown gives us too little information about this character to be able to
interpret his disability as either a sentimental representation of black slaves’ suffering
(popular in abolitionist propaganda) or as a proof of the character’s wickedness as
robbing his dying master (popular in pro-slavery propaganda). Therefore, the predictable
patterns of associating race, disabilities, and criminality do not help in any way the
readers (or scholarly critics!) identify the true nature of this character. This ambiguity
might be too quickly attributed to a fault in the novel, if it did not also show up for the
novel’s hero.
Arthur, with his self-appointed rescuing missions that only bring more problems
to everyone and his apparent inability to distinguish evil characters from virtuous ones, is
a very difficult character to interpret. Similarly as with all of Brown’s narrators, the
Failure to analyze what the physical disabilities might show about a character means potentially
misreading the character. Sean X. Goudie, like Smith-Rosenberg, does not pay close attention to the black
character’s disability. In “On the Origin of American Specie(s): The West Indies, Classification, and the
Emergence of Supremacist Consciousness in Arthur Mervyn,” he contrasts Arthur’s unblemished face with
“the monstrously scarred visage of the West Indian mulatto” (64), which means that he has already decided
the origin and meaning of this character before he looked at what the scars might represent.
readers can never completely shake off the doubt that Arthur Mervyn is an unreliable
narrator, whose self-narrated life story could be both an example of total naiveté of a
country youth lost in the corruption of Philadelphia, or the story of a much darker
character who is well aware of how to improve his own situation in life by pretending to
be naive. 10 Contemporaneously to his ambiguous sense of morality, Arthur also has
ambiguous health. He describes his family as sickly: “some defect in the constitution of
[their] mother has been fatal to all” of Arthur’s siblings (Arthur Mervyn 14). This
character, with a “constitution [that] has always been frail” (Arthur Mervyn 14) is
however able to survive the yellow fever. The ambiguity of the character’s morality is
underlined by his health issues since he is potentially sentenced to a “premature fate”
(Arthur Mervyn 14) but ends up being strong enough to go on numerous adventures. Are
the health issues indicating that Arthur’s virtuous nature keeps him safe through the many
challenges he encounters, or are they a ticking bomb showing that the hero may
degenerate physically as well as morally at any time? Brown leaves the readers to make
up their own mind about many of his characters’ health and morality, even after he has
set deceptively clear nativist tropes. Thus, the recognizable patterns only lead the readers
into more ambiguity when they meet representations of disabilities that defy any definite
reading or coded moral message. Therefore, Brown creates gothic thrills both by having
his readers recognize the rhetoric they heard from nativists and leading them into
The romantic gothic genre of Brown also plays a part in Arthur’s ambiguous morality, since the hero of
the romantic gothic “stands at the edges of society and rarely finds a path back into the social fold…
usually male, the individual is outcast, part victim, part villain… the disturbing and demonic villain,
however, retains a darkly attractive, if ambivalent, allure as defiant rebel against the constraints of social
mores” (Botting 92).
ambiguous directions to show that the patterns do not necessarily have any validity to
Brown lived in a political period of binaries reinforced by Enlightenment ideas,
and a literary and philosophical period where disabilities always meant something more
than just disabilities. He uses the fear of his time about non-ideal Americans and evil
immigrants to create gothic thrills, and his society’s anxieties shaped some of the
representations of Europeans and disabilities in his novels. Thus, by tapping into their
preexisting fears and anxiety, Brown leads his readers into recognizing their society,
which creates both enjoyable and terrifying gothic thrills as they imagine themselves in
the twisted plots. However, his novels are far from being works of propaganda offering
an overly simplistic and nativist description of the Early Republic. In Ormond and Arthur
Mervyn, disabilities and pathologies (such as the yellow fever epidemic) show up as a
physical manifestation to represent corrupt Europeans and unideal Americans, but they
also represent other more slippery signifiers that are much harder to decode in any
simplistic nativist reading. In the next two novels we will analyze, Edgar Huntly and
Wieland, Brown keeps creating gothic thrills through both predictable and contradictory
representation of disabilities, but he creates the thrills through madness and the fear that
no one is ever safe from mental degeneration – no matter the personal values, quantity of
reason, years spent in a democratic society, or amount of Americanness.
Chapter 3
Neither a doctor nor a politician, but interested in these two fields through his
personal connections and readings, Charles Brockden Brown takes part in the citizenship
debates through his gothic novels. He argues in the preface of Edgar Huntly (1799) that
the new national literature must focus on “the sources of amusement to the fancy and
instruction to the heart, that are peculiar to ourselves” and which are “growing out of the
condition of our country” (Edgar Huntly 3). What “grow[s] out of the condition” of the
United States, though, is a mix of politics and medicine since the introduction to Edgar
Huntly immediately links the nationalistic concerns for a new literature with
sleepwalking, which Brown describes as “one of the most common and most wonderful
diseases or affections of the human frame” (3). While this mixing of discourses might
appear as peculiar to today’s readers, Brown’s novels are echoing the same mixed
language of the political and medical tracts of the Early Republic. That is, Brown’s gothic
novels are cultural products responding to, and created by, a specific culture. What is
more, this exploration of their society’s inner workings gives Brown’s readers “a frontrow seat for the manifold and wondrous ‘disorders’ and ‘diseases’ paraded before them.
If on the one hand this implied that American readers were symbolically susceptible to
these disorders and subject to their terrors, they also—by virtue of the epistemological
alchemy of the sublime—had a unique kind of proximity to its pleasures” (Tawil 119).
The new American literature created gothic thrills by echoing the specific fears of its
readers to make them feel both scared and excited about their proximity to danger – and
also to make them think about the contradictions and oversimplifications of the rhetoric
that politicians and doctors were feeding them. Edgar Huntly looks like a conservative
nativist tale, but it actually leads the readers into transgressing the ideals and standards
set by the nativists. Transgression is central to the aims of gothic novels, which are “a
play of ambivalence, a dynamic of limit and transgression that both restores and contests
boundaries. This play of terms, of oppositions, indeed, characterizes the ambivalence of
Gothic fiction: good depends on evil, light on dark, reason on irrationality, in order to
define limits” (Botting 8-9). By using their own society as a gothic theatre, Brown forces
his readers to plunge head first into the contradictions that arise from reductive nativist
politics, the anxiety towards diversity that came out of nativist politico-medical rhetoric,
and the intolerance towards non-normative the Other.
The Early Republic was in the unusual position of having to form a nation made
of immigrants from different parts of the world (at the time, the world meant chiefly
Europe); one way to create a bond between these diverse people was through sympathy.
In Letters From an American Farmer, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur illustrates how
sympathy translated into bonding between different people when he describes Scottish
immigrants arriving in Philadelphia. They looked lost and without friends, but soon
“several citizens, impelled either by spontaneous attachments, or motives of humanity,
took many of them to their houses” (Crèvecoeur 74). Sympathy served as the glue among
all of these different people forming a new nation as “the idea of the American people as
a single unified body [was] made possible by imagining diverse individuals connected in
a sympathetic chain” (Barnes 2). As the example from Crèvecoeur’s demonstrates,
literature played an important instructive role on how “to participate in a fantasy of
democracy that would fulfill its promise of equality by negotiating diversity in the cause
of union” (Barnes 2). Sympathy appeared in all aspects of society, and in a society that
did not differentiate between national and individual health, sympathy even showed up in
medical works that had the dual goal of reinforcing the health of the population and of
inspiring civic duty. In “The Influence of Physical Causes Upon the Moral Faculty,”
Benjamin Rush urges people to promote morality (which he identifies as a synonym for
Adam Smith’s “sympathy”) through the action of seeing others’ suffering. He explains
that the hospital in Philadelphia is a place where we can see these “scenes of distress
from poverty and disease” and where “the flame of sympathy, instead of being
extinguished in taxes, or expiring in a solitary blaze by a single contribution, may be kept
alive by constant exercise” (Rush 206). Similarly to Rush, in a letter to a friend, Charles
Brockden Brown gives a definition of sympathy that depends on seeing: “pity or
compassion is a sympathy or fellow-feeling with those that are afflicted. It is that emotion
which is excited by the contemplation of Misery” (Collected Writings 151). Clearly,
sympathy was perceived as the bond between citizens, and it depended on seeing other
people’s suffering.
While Rush and Brown explain how sympathy works through the vision of
others’ suffering, they do not expound on the sine qua non condition for sympathy to
happen: identification with the person suffering. Sympathy requires that we put ourselves
into other people’s shoes, which can only happen if we can perceive a similarity with
other people; therefore, “sympathy converts otherness into sameness, organizing
sentiments around the perception of familiarity and constructing a community of likeminded individuals” (Barnes 115). This in turn creates a paradox: sympathy in the Early
Republic was used as a bond between different people, but it could only be successful if
the different people were not too different from one another. Consequently, “sympathy
can as easily become a method of exclusion… While an individual may be taught to see
others as her– or himself, what she learns is that difference is to be negated rather than
understood. A sense of self is created through identification with others, but only those
others who can be proven in some way related to us” (Barnes 22). This situation is most
problematic to the people who are routinely identified as different: immigrants and
people with disabilities. This paradox of nationalism built on equality through conformity
has not escaped Disability Studies scholars.
The politics of sameness do not just result from sympathy but are a central
concept for nationalism and the idea of the creation of a democratic society of equal
citizens. The abstract notions of equality and nation depend on standards to define equal
citizens since “the ideology of equality encourages sameness of condition and expression
among democratic citizens” (Garland-Thomson 68). That is, equal citizens are those who
conform to the norm – thus leaving out those who are abnormal in terms of gender, race,
physical or mental difference, and country of origin. These are the very issues that the
Early Republic was dealing with, and thus it is not surprising to see that the political and
medical languages became unified in the nationalistic project. This led to the mixing of
definitions between physical fitness and moral and civic fitness. As Lennard Davis states,
“the emphasis on nation and national fitness obviously plays into the metaphor of the
body. If individual citizens are not fit, if they do not fit into the nation, then the national
body will not be fit” (10). Throughout the national project of the Early Republic, the
politico-medical discourse used the vocabulary of disabilities to attack what threatened
the stability of the new nation: the non-conformist, the foreigner, the unwelcome. The
Early Republic’s construction of a democratic society rested on binaries of those who
could participate in the democratic process and those that were barred from it. After all,
“democracy needs the illusion of equality, and equality needs the fiction of the equal and
average citizen. So with the creation of representative democracy comes the need for an
ideology that will support and generate the aims of normalcy” (Davis 104). The idea that
“the person with disabilities is singled out as a dramatic case of not belonging” (Davis
105) is important in Brown’s novels. Disabilities, whether physical or mental, keep
showing up in his plots to mark those who do not conform to the expected standards. The
links between disability, nationalism, the politico-medical rhetoric of the time, and
nativism’s politics of sameness are all at work in Charles Brockden Brown’s novel Edgar
Edgar Huntly is a novel that, like Ormond and Arthur Mervyn, can be read in a
nativist light with disabilities used to signify the evil European corrupting American
society and the unideal American who lets himself get corrupted. Once again, Brown
follows easily-identifiable nativist tropes of the medico-political rhetoric to represent the
unwelcome as disease and non-American, thus tapping directly into the nativist anxieties
of his readers. The main character, Edgar Huntly, investigates the murder of his friend
Waldegrave and believes that a sleepwalking Irish servant has committed the crime.
From the very beginning of the novel, Clithero is identified repeatedly as a foreigner, and
this characteristic is immediately highlighted by Edgar as a proof of Clithero’s murder of
Waldegrave. Listing the servants of Inglefield, Edgar separates them in term of
nationality: “Inglefield has two servants, one of whom was a native of this district,
simple, guileless and incapable of any act of violence. He was, moreover devoutly
attached to his sect. He could not be the criminal. The other was a person of a very
different cast. He was an emigrant from Ireland, and had been six months in the family of
my friend” (Edgar Huntly 11). Edgar creates a binary between the native servant who
“could not be the criminal” and the Irishman who – by the process of elimination – has to
be the criminal. Looking for further proof of Clithero’s foreign identity, Edgar checks the
catalogue listing the community’s members. As Martin Bruckner perceptively points out,
Edgar’s perusal of the catalogue illustrates the Early Republic’s obsession with knowing
the identity of its citizens (282). Going over the catalogue, Edgar insists again on
Clithero’s foreignness and links this foreignness to the evidence of his criminality: “As I
conned over the catalogue, I perceived that the only foreigner among us was Clithero.
Our scheme was, for the most part, a patriarchal one. Each farmer was surrounded by his
sons and kinsmen. This was an exception to the rule. Clithero was a stranger, whose
adventures and character, previously to his coming hither, were unknown to us” (Edgar
Huntly 12). Because he is unknown, non-native, and without family ties, Clithero is
identified as the personification of everything that terrified the nativists as they saw the
waves of European radicals emigrating and mixing with the American population. While
Edgar is wrong in designating Clithero as the murderer of Waldegrave, Clithero is not an
innocent character since he came to the United States after having killed Wiatte, the evil
brother of his benefactress, Mrs. Lorimer, and after having unsuccessfully tried to kill
her. Edgar might have gone too quickly to impute the murder of Waldegrave to Clithero,
but the seemingly straightforward nativist premise set by Brown leads the readers into
considering that Edgar’s instinctive reaction to call the Irishman a murderer was not off
base. Clithero might not be as villainous as Ormond, but there is something definitely
suspicious about this character.
Another trait that identifies Clithero as a murderer is that he is sick: a sure sign of
a perturbed soul in the eighteenth century. Clithero has a mental disability that leads him
into irrational and criminal acts, and this disability’s most noticeable symptom is
sleepwalking. Both by the witness of others and by his own admission, Clithero “was
considerably disturbed by restlessness and talking in his sleep” (Edgar Huntly 19). Edgar
immediately connects this disability with criminality: “the incapacity of sound sleep
denotes a mind sorely wounded. It is thus that atrocious criminals denote the possession
of some dreadful secret” (Edgar Huntly 11). His sleepwalking reveals that Clithero is
deeply deranged. When he attempts to kill his benefactress, Mrs. Lorimer, Clithero
admits: “all within me was tempestuous and dark… I was haunted to despair by images
of death, imaginary clamorous, and the train of funeral pageantry. … I paused on the
brink of the precipice, as if to survey the depth of that phrensy that invaded me” (Edgar
Huntly 55). All of this leads to the conclusion, as Clithero admits it himself, that he
suffers from “madness” (Edgar 57). Michel Foucault explains in Madness and
Civilization that the concept of madness assumed its modern meaning during the
eighteenth century: perceived as going against bourgeois values, madness was viewed as
a public scandal that “showed men how close to animality their Fall could bring them”
(68, 81). Undermining the Enlightenment’s belief of people’s ability to be self-reliant and
self-controlled, madness was threatening because it “disclosed that underlying realm of
unreason which threatens man and envelops –at a tremendous distance—all the forms of
his natural existence” (Foucault 83). As a mental disability, madness shows up frequently
in Brown’s novels, and its appearance inevitably leads to social chaos since Brown’s mad
characters end up killing people. Clithero is sick because he is a murderer and he is a
murderer because he is sick: in the eighteenth-century logic of the politico-medical
discourse, this made perfect sense to Brown’s readers.
Following the logic of a nativist reading of the tale, the disabled evil European
corrupts the soul and mental state of the American hero since Edgar degenerates into
sleepwalking and loses control of his self-restraint. However, Edgar’s degeneration is
made possible by his own unidealness as an American. Instead of realizing that Clithero’s
madness signifies a deranged soul, Edgar wants to help Clithero, which is what leads him
into his own sleepwalking disturbances. Edgar, feeling pity and compassion for Clithero,
keeps following the Irishman into the woods, obsessively trying to restore him to sanity –
to the point where Edgar becomes deranged as well. As Caleb Crain points out, there is a
connection between Edgar’s feeling sympathy and his descent into madness since “it was
commonplace in the eighteenth century to compare the spread of sympathy to the spread
of disease” (121). Edgar’s fault, from a nativist point of view, is that he becomes
obsessed in his sympathy for the dangerous foreigner, thus transforming this nationbuilding tool into a disease against the American population. The concept of sympathy as
disease also brings up another metaphorical layer to the yellow epidemic novels of
Ormond and Arthur Mervyn. Both Constantia and Arthur show too much sympathy for
the villains and get infected; what saves them is that they do not fall into such obsessive
sympathy as Edgar does: they recognize in time that the foreigner is too unsalvageable to
become identifiable as an American citizen. In these three novels, Brown uses the nativist
rhetoric to lead his readers into experiencing the thrills of seeing their worst nationalistic
fears coming to life. In Edgar Huntly, the foreigner infects the mind of the unideal
American character, and Edgar soon starts to sleepwalk and becomes mad and agitated
“with the misguided fury of a maniac” (Edgar Huntly 124). Even his friend and fatherfigure Sarsefield notices the change in him when he sees him sleepwalking, arguing that
“none but a man, insane or asleep, would wander forth so slightly dressed” (Edgar Huntly
166). Edgar wakes up in a cave, kills and devours panthers, and brutally murders Native
Americans. Then, Edgar comes back home where he finds Sarsefield who is back from
Ireland as the new husband of Mrs. Lorimer. Against Sarsefield’s advice, Edgar insists on
trying to cure Clithero, only to push him into a last insane killing attempt against Mrs.
Lorimer, who miscarries. Clithero finally dies and releases Edgar from his illusion of
curing the Irishman. Of course, the problem is not that Edgar feels sympathy for Clithero,
but that his identification with him goes too far: he cannot stop following Clithero, thus
losing his selfhood, which leads him into a primitive devolution and madness (Sugar 39).
Even further, Caleb Crain argues that Edgar is obsessed with the death of Waldegrave,
whose “haunting” becomes a “deformation of sympathy” (135-136). Clearly, Edgar’s
misguided sympathy has gone wrong even before Clithero’s arrival; the theme of the
American hero being deranged well before the arrival of the European is a recurring –
and terrifying! – theme in Brown’s novels.
Edgar Huntly has all the ingredients of a classic nativist tale: an evil, insane,
European villain; a naïve American hero who becomes degenerated as punishment for his
trust towards the villain; the dramatic ending of a miscarriage to illustrate the
consequences for the new nation’s population if European unruly immigrants are not
treated with the necessary firmness (or, in unsalvageable cases such as Clithero’s,
excluded outright). Each of these elements mixes political and medical concepts:
madness to represent the evilness of the immigrant, sleep disorders to highlight the
degeneration of the American youth, and a miscarriage to illustrate a nativist political
message. Therefore, it is not surprising that many critics have read Edgar Huntly as a
nationalistic tale in tune with the anxiety and the rhetoric of the Alien and Sedition Acts
and as a novel that uses the medical vocabulary of the time to make a political comment.
In particular, Jared Gardner’s Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American
Literature focuses on Edgar Huntly as a national novel reflecting the same rhetoric as the
Alien and Sedition Acts. Gardner explains that “Edgar Huntly describes how the act of
exorcising the alien (be he Indian or, as we shall see, Irish) from the land allows
American identity to come into existence” (54). Gardner’s analysis of the novel
demonstrates how the action and characters follow closely the political rhetoric of
Brown’s society; for example, he argues that the fact that Edgar and Clithero are doubles
reveals the anxiety hiding behind the Acts of having aliens disguising themselves among
the American population (63). Gardner highlights the mixing of political and medical
discourses that happens in the novel since he describes Edgar’s mistake in trusting the
alien in medical terms:
Edgar’s belief in his ability to transform the degenerate European into an
American has been belied again and again. It is this belief that leads to all
his dilemmas, making him vulnerable to the contagion of both the alien
and the Indian, as he inherits Clithero’s disease … Edgar remains
infected… he remains sufficiently contaminated to fulfill, unconsciously,
the hostile aims of both the Indian and the alien in his unwitting murder of
Sarsefield’s child. (Gardner 77)
By using the same medical terms to describe political failings as the medical terms
present in the novel, Gardner parallels the politico-medical discourse of the time. He
argues that Brown wrote a nativist novel since its conclusion is that “hunting the alien
from the nation” becomes “the machinery of citizenship” for American citizens (Gardner
80). As a nativist novel, Edgar Huntly is a thrilling gothic adventure in the American
wilderness that warns its readers of the dangers lurking all around them. However, and
this is where Brown’s notoriously ambiguous messages on the rhetoric and values of his
time complicate simple nativist readings of his novels, what makes Clithero insane in the
first place, and what exacerbates his mental instability, is the same thing that was used to
build the Early Republic into a nation: sympathy.
The traumatic events that triggered Clithero’s madness happened in Ireland
because of the sympathy of Mrs. Lorimer. Clithero comes from a peasant Irish family,
and he is taken under the protection of Mrs. Lorimer, a lady who lives “in the manor of
which [Clithero’s] father was a vassal” (Edgar Huntly 27). Clithero becomes her steward,
and Mrs. Lorimer is such an ideal benefactress that she wants Clithero “to become a
member of her own family” (Edgar Huntly 29). Mrs. Lorimer does all this for Clithero
because “of her candour, her cheerfulness, and her benevolence” (Edgar Huntly 29) –
that is, her sympathy. She does not see class differences between herself and Clithero,
and thus she can identify with him, going so far as to promise her niece Clarice in
marriage to him. However, there are two characters who are unable to forget about class
differences: Clithero and Mrs. Lorimer’s twin brother Arthur Wiatte. Even though Mrs.
Lorimer insists on making Clithero’s her equal, he never sees himself as such. When he
falls in love with Mrs. Lorimer’s niece Clarice, Clithero views their marriage as
impossible, calling the difference between their social ranks as “the barrier that existed in
the present case,” which he finds “insurmountable” (Edgar Huntly 37). Similarly,
Wiatte, is far from being as liberal-minded as his sister: he forbids Mrs. Lorimer from
marrying the non-aristocratic Sarsefield because Wiatte “set no value on any thing [sic]
but the means of luxury and power” (Edgar Huntly 33); therefore, he would never accept
to let Clithero marry his daughter Clarice. Wiatte stays true to the feudal and classist
ideas of society, and he is the symbolic reminder that Clithero will never be an equal
among this aristocratic family. Even though Clithero recognizes the evilness in Wiatte’s
character, he fundamentally agrees with Wiatte’s feudal worldview. Clithero never lets
go of classicist language to describe his worldview: he knows “the essential distinctions
that subsist” between him and his “lady” (Edgar Huntly 37). After he kills Wiatte in selfdefense, Clithero decides to kill Mrs. Lorimer so that his benefactress will not “awake but
only to perish at the spectacle of my ingratitude” (Edgar Huntly 58). As Justine Murison
claims in her article “The Tyranny of Sleep: Somnambulism, Moral Citizenship, and
Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly” Clithero’s madness “is fundamentally that of a
colonial Irish subject in the British Empire” (264). Clithero’s aristocratic ideology is too
ingrained for him to allow him to let go of his vassal role and to identify with the likes of
Mrs. Lorimer. Try as he may, he does not have Mrs. Lorimer’s ability to let go of the
feudal ideology, and Mrs. Lorimer’s failing in recognizing his inability to feel as an equal
drives him to insanity. Brown here may allude to a common fear of his society that too
much freedom may lead to mental issues. Benjamin Rush, for example, stated that in
“despotic countries… where life and property are secured only by the extinction of the
domestic affections, madness is a rare disease” (qtd. In Murison 254). Therefore, Mrs.
Lorimer’s egalitarian spirit in a despotic feudal country led to too much freedom, which
in turn led to insanity. Mrs. Lorimer’s insistence that Clithero be her equal is a sort of
violence towards Clithero’s psyche since it refuses his worldview and his sense of
identity. Unfortunately for Clithero, when he goes to the United States, his sense of
identity is threatened once more by Edgar, who wants Clithero to feel and act as an
American citizen would.
Edgar’s obsessive sympathy towards Clithero means that not only does he identity
with Clithero but that he refuses to see any difference between himself and the Irishman.
Against Clithero’s will, Edgar goes into a self-appointed mission to rescue the Irishman
from his insanity. Edgar is an American citizen, and therefore does not share Clithero’s
feudal worldview. He wants to cure Clithero “to restore him to those vocations for which
his talents, and that rank in society for which his education had qualified him” (Edgar
Huntly 190). Just like Mrs. Lorimer, Edgar does not see class differences as an issue to
individual advancement and thus wants Clithero cured and raised again over the rank of a
servant. Sympathy is Edgar’s motivating force in this mission, perhaps because Edgar, in
a difficult social and economic position that prevents him from marrying the woman he
loves, identifies with the Irishman’s troubles. When Edgar finds Clithero in the
wilderness, he leaves food unannounced, thinking that “the magic of sympathy, the
perseverance of benevolence, though silent, might work a gradual and secret revolution,
and better thoughts might insensibly displace those desperate suggestions which now
governed him” (Edgar Huntly 76). However, Edgar’s sympathy pushes him further, as he
wants to reason with Clithero and show him he should not let guilt drive him mad.
Illustrating the way madness was treated in the eighteenth century, Edgar wants to talk to
Clithero “to persuade the madman of his madness in order to release him from it”
(Foucault 264). Edgar wonders: “Could I not restore a mind thus vigorous, to tranquil and
wholesome existence? Could I not subdue his perverse disdain and immeasurable
abhorrence of himself?… Reason was no less an antidote to the illusions of insanity like
his, than to the illusions of error” (Edgar Huntly 66). Edgar thinks he can cure insanity
with reason, and that he can use conversation to solve the errors of Clithero’s mind. The
reason why Edgar thinks this is that he feels sympathy for the Irishman; that is, he thinks
Clithero would react to reason in the same way Edgar would in the same situation.
Throughout the novel, Edgar refuses to admit that Clithero is mad beyond a cure or that
he might not want a cure. That is, he continuously refuses to accept Clithero’s difference,
perceiving him more as a reflection of himself that needs fixing than as a different
individual. Through the example of sympathy from Mrs. Lorimer and Edgar, Brown
illustrates some of the issues with sympathy and the politics of sameness: they can lead to
an intolerance of difference even all the while preaching equality among people.
After having illustrated the pitfalls of sympathy, Brown gives us an example of
the extreme opposite of sympathy through the character of Sarsefield, who does not show
any sympathy for Clithero. Looking like an embodiment of both Rush and Franklin,
Sarsefield shows up towards the end of the novel as a father-figure for both Edgar and the
rest of society. Sarsefield is a side character that shows up for most of the novel through
the descriptions given by Edgar and Clithero, but he has the last word and stands as a
positive healthy contrast to both Edgar and Clithero. Clithero immediately points out the
difference between Sarsefield and himself through their different reactions to the return
of the evil Wiatte. While Clithero is “harassed by anxieties [and] could procure no sleep
that night… Sarsefield probably enjoyed his usual slumber” (Edgar Huntly 49). Not only
does Sarsefield have a sound – healthy – sleep that sets him apart from both Edgar and
Clithero, he also stands as a contrast with Edgar in his manner to treat Clithero. Sarsefield
never identifies with the Irish murderer and he never hesitates to treat Clithero with
harshness or to call him out for the “madman” and “the lunatic” he is (Edgar Huntly 175,
194). He never catches Clithero’s disease, and offers the sound advice that Edgar should
have followed: lock Clithero up in the Pennsylvania hospital since he is “a madman
whose liberty is dangerous, and who requires to be fettered and imprisoned as the most
atrocious criminal” (Edgar Huntly 193). Because he does not see Clithero as similar to
himself and because he does not become contaminated by the madman, Sarsefield is a
much less ambiguous character than Edgar. Sarsefield’s distrust of Clithero, along with
his self-control and health, makes him a more classic hero than Edgar. After all, “if
disability appears in a novel, it is rarely centrally represented. It is unusual for a main
character to be a person with disabilities” (Davis 13). This leads to a reading of the novel
where the non-disabled Sarsefield, not Edgar, is the hero. Even further, since “in the
classical period, the man of tragedy and the man of madness confront each other, without
a possible dialogue, without a common language” (Foucault 111), one could see
Sarsefield – the rational man who cannot marry the woman he loves, shows up to help his
friend, loses his unborn baby, and never trusts Clithero – as the real man of tragedy in
Edgar Huntly. Unsurprisingly, the doctor-as-hero takes an important role at the end of
this novel that uses pathological vocabulary to talk about nation building.
Sarsefield’s solution to lock Clithero into the hospital does not only conclude the
novel, but also highlights his character’s important social role since “the asylum as it was
constituted at the end of the eighteenth century [led to] the apotheosis of the medical
personage” (Foucault 269). Michel Foucault points out that as madness became identified
as a mental disease in the eighteenth century, the asylum became a medical space, where
the “Physician… was Father and Judge, Family and Law” (270, 272). This sheds light on
why Sarsefield seems so harsh to modern readers towards the sad figure of the diseased
Clithero: his role is not to cure the madman, but to socially punish him; that is, to lock
him in an asylum to protect society. There is no intention of curing Clithero from
Sarsefield since he only wants him confined, stating: “I will not occupy the same land,
the same world with him” (Edgar Huntly 176). Sarsefield constantly points out to Edgar
what should have been evident: Clithero is dangerous and should not be given any pity.
Only at the end of the novel does Edgar realize his error, as he admits to Sarsefield: “I
have erred, not through sinister or malignant intentions, but from the impulse of
misguided, indeed, but powerful benevolence” (Edgar Huntly 192). Sarsefield’s absence
of sympathy towards Clithero is also a characteristic of his profession as a doctor; in a
letter he wrote to his wife during the yellow epidemic in Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush
explains: “I even strive to subdue my sympathy for my patients, otherwise I should sink
under the accumulated loads of misery I am obliged to contemplate” (406). Sympathy is
not a good virtue for doctors since it is only by being separated from the dangers of
sympathy that they can be the true protectors of society—be it in medical or national
terms. Therefore, Sarsefield’s advice to Edgar to stay away from Clithero showcases him
as not just a doctor but also as a social reformer concerned with the well-being of a
society that shows too much compassion towards unruly foreigners. Clearly, through the
dramatic miscarriage of Mrs. Lorimer, Edgar Huntly shows how naïve and wrong
Edgar’s attempted cure and sympathy for the foreigner has been. And the readers,
confronted with Sarsefield’s last words scolding Edgar, can only agree.
Edgar is not the only one of Brown’s heroes not to listen to the doctor’s advice, as
the figure of the doctor as the social protector appears repeatedly in Brown’s gothic
novels. In Wieland, Mr. Cambridge sheds light on the reasons behind Theodore’s insane
actions: he “imputed to maniacal illusion the conduct of Wieland, though he conceived
the previous and unseen agency of Carwin, to have indirectly but powerfully predisposed
to this deplorable perversion of mind” (Wieland 179). Not only does he give the readers a
rational and medical explanation for Theodore’s erratic and murderous behavior, but he
also steps in as the protector of the heroine, telling Clara to leave for Europe for her own
safety. Medicine, as depicted in Brown’s novels, never appears as solely concerned with
physical health: it pervades every aspect of society and constantly strives to improve not
just the health of bodies, but also of minds, institutions, and civic and moral duties. As a
mix between a lawyer and a doctor, Cambridge “is responsible for the apprehension of
Wieland [as] he both prepares a diagnosis of his case and offers a balanced judgment”
(Paryz 36). If only Clara had listened to Cambridge’s advice to immediately leave for
Europe, she would not have found herself face to face with the madman. Arthur is
another of Brown’s heroes who does not follow the advice of the wise doctor. In Arthur
Mervyn, Dr. Stephen attempts to stirs Arthur in the right direction to rescue the young
man from his wrong start in the city. Even though Stephen takes Arthur under his
protection, Caleb Crain points out that he does not fall into Edgar’s impulsive sympathy;
he carefully discusses the situation with his wife, and does not obsessively follow Arthur
like Edgar does with Clithero (120). Since his association with the evil foreigner Welbeck
has made Arthur an accomplice in the eyes of those tricked by Welbeck, Stephen tries to
convince Arthur to study medicine and to become useful to society. Wanting to “render
that life profitable to himself and to mankind,” Stephen concludes that Arthur will, “in a
few years, be fitted for the practice of physic. A science, whose truths are so conducive to
the welfare of mankind, and which comprehends the whole system of nature, could not
but gratify a mind so beneficent and strenuous as his” (Arthur Mervyn 167). Not only will
Arthur have a profession, but this profession is depicted as a mission to save and better
mankind, which was the role of doctors in the Early Republic. Unfortunately, just like
Clara and Edgar, Arthur will not follow Stephen’s advice, but will become the example
of a degenerated American youth in the eyes of the 1790s nativists: married to a Jewish
woman, he will lead a life of leisure and European travels, and he abandons his noble
pursuit to become a doctor.
There is a running theme in Brown’s novels: doctors give sound personal and
social advice that the heroes and heroines do not follow, which leads them unto a
dangerous or degenerate path that is a boon to the gothic writer. That is, Brown uses the
gothic genre to create a “reaction against the optimistic rationalism of its founding era,
which allowed for a rethinking of the prohibitions and sanctions that had previously
seemed divinely ordained but now appeared to be simply social agreements in the interest
of progress and civic stability” (Lloyd-Smith 5). More than the heroes and heroines, the
doctors are the healthy, rational, American characters who are worthy of admiration in
their contained sympathy that takes care of the American heroes and heroines but never
gets wasted on unsalvageable foreigners. Therefore, these rational-sympathetic characters
helping the American youths who have momentarily lost their way are the ideal citizens
of the politics of sameness. However, the advice that the doctors give may sound wise,
but the gothic writer transgresses the norm by having the heroes do the opposite, which
leads to both the thrilling pleasures of going against the authoritative and normative
figure of the doctors and to question their authority and standards. After all, even though
the heroes and heroines do not follow the advice, they do so because they are moved by
virtuous intentions of helping others – even the unsalvageable European villains who are
contributing to their degeneration. This leads the readers to question the advice of the
doctors; for example, the fact that Sarsefield has no qualms about leaving the mentally
disturbed Clithero alone in the wilderness makes the doctor look so concerned with the
preservation of the status quo that he forgets his duty of helping those in need. The
seemingly unambiguous doctor characters, then, are both models fit for imitation and
social reformers who seem to lack a heart. Sarsefield might be the protector of society,
the man of tragedy, and the classical hero of the novel, but he remains an unlikable
character in his refusal to help Clithero. Even though Sarsefield is often described as the
father figure and the symbol of authority in the novel, it is not uncommon for scholars of
Edgar Huntly to interpret Sarsefield in a negative light. In the introduction to Edgar
Huntly, Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro describe Sarsefield’s refusal to help Clithero
as “a stunning denial of human compassion and betrayal of medical ethics”
(“Introduction” Edgar Huntly xxix); they also argue that the novel’s anti-imperialistic
message shows that imperialism will “create new forms of destructive behavior, typified
by Sarsefield’s inhumanity” (xxxi). Similarly, Kate Sugar, in “’A Wonderful Disease’:
Edgar Huntly, Erasmus Darwin, and Revolutionary American Masculinity,” argues that
Sarsefield’s lack of sympathy and negative example of American masculinity is punished
through Mrs. Lorimer’s miscarriage. Therefore, Sarsefield’s total lack of sympathy does
not offer a satisfactory opposite to Edgar’s exaggerated sympathy. Indeed, both Edgar’s
sympathy and Sarsefield’s lack of sympathy lead to problematic results because they are
both extreme in their intolerance towards those who are different from them.
Brown goes even further in the transgression of norms, though, as he prevents
readers from identifying with the social reformer. What sparks sympathy is tied to the
ability to identify with others, but one must hear their point of view in order to identify
with them. Sarsefield never listens to Clithero, so he does not hear his side of the story.
Just as Sarsefield does not hear Clithero, the readers do not hear Sarsefield’s story: the
brief anecdotes from Sarsefield’s past are overshadowed by Clithero’s long tale and do
not create the same sympathetic impact. So, as Sarsefield is unable to sympathize with
Clithero, the readers cannot truly identify with Sarsefield. On the other hand, since Edgar
hears Clithero’s story, he sympathizes with him and, because the readers read Edgar’s
letter explaining both Edgar’s and Clithero’s stories, they identify with the sufferings of
both men. Creating a sympathetic effect through storytelling is typical of the gothic style,
which “produces emotional effects on its readers rather than developing a rational or
properly cultivated response” (Botting 4). Therefore, in Edgar Huntly, the readers end up
identifying with the people who are the opposite of the ideal from the politics of
sameness: foreigners and deranged people. Even though the novel seems to show the
dangers of sympathizing with those who are not salvageable, the readers end up doing the
exact opposite of the apparently obvious nativist’s message: they sympathize with those
who are different from them and who have no chance of becoming ideal citizens.
Consequently, through his novel, Brown tricks his readers into feeling sympathy for the
very same people the politics of sameness warns against. Thus, with Edgar Huntly,
Brown writes a seemingly conservative nativist tale revealing the dangers of
sympathizing with the degenerate, only to use storytelling as a way to make readers
sympathize with the degenerate. Brown’s trick of leading his readers into sympathizing
with what the nativists viewed as the Other, though, blurs the differences between the two
groups (us versus them). If the readers cannot identify with Sarsefield, it means they do
not recognize themselves in this normative character; if they identify with the Other, it
means they might be as mentally unstable as the characters they feel sympathy for: Edgar
and Clithero. This leads the readers to have to consider the terrifying possibility that they
might be just as degenerate as these two unideal, diseased, and foreign characters.
It might be an understatement to claim that Brown has an ambiguous stance on
sympathy. Caleb Crain argues that Brown invented stories in the letters to his friend as a
way to preserve his selfhood and not to lose it through other people’s sympathy towards
his true self (Crain 129). However, these inventions created problems for Brown, since he
“experienced his romantic impulse and his urge to tell stories as imposture: as a deceitful
manipulation of others, which their credulity and his powerful imagination seduced him
into, almost against his will” (Crain 64). As Crain concludes, Brown is “a novelist of
impostors,” and he is the master impostor, never making his stance clear and thriving in
ambiguity (66). But one thing is made clear through Brown’s distrust of sympathy: his
questioning the validity of the politics of sameness as a viable ideal for a society. Sian
Silyn Roberts argues that “what can really destroy a community, Brown suggests, is the
assumption of sameness among its members” (316). Roberts makes this argument about
Arthur Mervyn, who always thinks others would have acted exactly as he does if they
were put in his situation, but we can apply this argument to Edgar Huntly: Edgar’s (and
Mrs. Lorimers’s) sympathy towards Clithero failed to alert them of Clithero’s difference
from them. Rather than accepting this difference, both characters insisted on viewing
Clithero as similar to them, which led to Clithero’s increasingly loss of sanity. Even
though both characters acted for Clithero’s well-being, their failure to notice and accept
his difference became Clithero’s undoing. Brown argues that this method of imagining
the Other as the same as oneself cannot lead to a true community where the diversity of
the Other or different worldviews are respected. It is important to note, though, that
Brown’s stance on sympathy, even though not particularly positive, is not extremist. He
illustrates how the complete opposite of Edgar and Mrs. Lorimer, Sarsefield in his total
lack of sympathy for the Other, is not a particularly more appealing venue. Therefore,
both the politics of sameness, which uses sympathy to reinforce normative standards, and
a lack of sympathy towards those who are different are problematic because they are both
extreme in their intolerance of differences. Thus, Brown is a gothic writer who narrates
terrifying plots with insane murderers as a way to advocate – paradoxically! – for a
middle ground that avoids all extremist passions.
On a surface reading, what is terrifying in Brown’s gothic novels is tied to what is
terrifying to his society: sick foreigners degenerating the American people, and an
American population that ignores the social/medical/political advice of doctors who try to
save the United States from this degeneration. However, Brown turns the anxious
warnings of the politics of sameness upside down, and points out the oversimplification
and paradoxes of using sympathy as a national bonding tool. Those contemporary readers
who bought into the nativist propaganda might only have seen a cautionary tale in Edgar
Huntly, but any reader with a complex position on the politics of diversity and
immigration can sense that Brown’s ambiguity constantly takes away the straightforward
stance it seems to take. In Chapter Four and Five, we will push the exploration of
ambiguity to the point of deconstruction in Wieland and the other novels, to see that
Brown is not only interested in creating gothic thrills through contemporary anxieties and
the contradictions inherent in the nativist propaganda, but that he also encourages his
readers to rethink completely the ideals of the Early Republic, as well as their own values
and beliefs.
Chapter 4
During an analysis of the representation of madness in the works of Charles
Brockden Brown, it becomes very tempting to snicker at the double meaning of the word
“asylum” (as meaning both a haven and a hospital for the insane). Of course, Brown
never uses the word to mean something else than a place of refuge or haven, much like
Thomas Paine uses it to describe America as an “asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil
and religious liberty from every part of Europe” (Paine, 24, emphasis in the original).11
However, analyzing novels such as Wieland (1798) brings readers into an inevitable
deconstruction of the word “asylum” since Brown deconstructs and overturns the binaries
of reason/madness and knowledge/ignorance. Because this novel sets its characters in an
utopian intellectual community only to destroy it by pushing all systems of knowledge,
be they John Locke’s epistemology or religious faith, to their irrational conclusions, the
readers are deprived of the reassuring idea that the world can always be comprehended in
any way – and what was a haven before turns into a madhouse. What makes this
Brown’s use of the term “asylum” to mean “haven” rather than “mental asylum” mirrors his society’s use
of the term. Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word took the secondary meaning of mental
institution during the mid-nineteenth century (OED). As Carla Yanni explains in her book The Architecture
of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States, during the eighteenth century “doctors preferred the term
‘hospital for the insane’ to describe the buildings that housed the mentally ill, because the word ‘hospital’
suggested that mental illness was a disease. The buildings were called ‘madhouses’ in the eighteenth
century and at the start of the nineteenth century, but this usage declined as the nineteenth century wore on.
‘Asylum’ was widely used throughout the nineteenth century, and it suggested a refuge from the pressures
of civilization” (161). In Brown’s work, the word “asylum” never shows up to mean a hospital for the
insane. When Sarsefield takes Clithero to what we would call today an asylum, he refers to it as “the
Pennsylvania Hospital” (Edgar Huntly 193).
transformation possible is the fact that these systems of knowing the world rest solidly on
binaries, which is one of the recurring themes in a nativist’s worldview. To be able to set
norms, to distinguish between the welcome and the unwelcome, and to believe that there
is such a thing as an essential us/them difference, nativists must have a strong faith in
their dichotomous understanding of the world. Nativists view, on one side, the United
States as a nation superior to others and on the other side everyone else who does not
meet the standard. However, this interpretation of the world leads one to overly simplistic
understandings of the self and the Other. In Wieland, through the representation of
madness as a mental disability, Brown deconstructs the binaries of knowledge/ignorance
and rationality/irrationality to illustrate some of the pitfalls of dichotomous thinking.
What is more, he debunks the idea of an essential American superiority by highlighting
the dangers of an unbridled freedom and hinting at the fact that the American population
may have gone insane long before the arrival of evil Europeans. The dangers in Wieland
do not all come from the evil foreigner, but rather from an internal weakness caused by
the contradictions of the Early Republic’s political and philosophical rhetoric – that is, in
its values and its worldview. Indeed, the novel sheds doubt on reason, faith, and even on
the value of freedom, and it debunks the Early Republic’s systems of understanding the
world, starting with John Locke’s philosophy.
In Wieland, Brown puts Locke’s epistemological philosophy (i.e. there are no
innate ideas, and knowledge comes from sensory perceptions) to a somewhat unfair test;
but, however improbable the plot seems, it is effective in showing the pitfalls of an
unquestionable faith in the senses. Brown’s novel tells the story of Clara and Theodore
Wieland, a brother and sister living a pastoral life rich in intellectual debate with their
friends Catherine and Henry Pleyel. Theodore marries Catherine, and Clara and Pleyel
seem destined to follow suit shortly. However, two dark clouds hover over this bucolic
image of landed American gentry: first, Clara and Theodore’s father, a German religious
fanatic who came to America as a missionary to convert Native Americans, dies
dramatically in a spontaneous combustion; second, a newcomer to the group, Carwin,
uses ventriloquism to trick the group, sending Theodore into a murderous madness that
leads him into killing his wife and children thinking he is doing the command of God.
Brown is counting a lot on his readers’ ability to suspend disbelief in this gothic novel
since they must accept two extraordinary premises: spontaneous combustion as a
probable cause for death and a ventriloquism act so perfect that it can imitate all sorts of
different voices and give the illusion that they are coming from different directions. 12
These extraordinary premises, though, as incredible as they are, help Brown take a direct
stab at Locke’s epistemological philosophy. Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding, linked human knowledge to physical sensations, stating that “there
appear not to be any ideas in the mind before the senses have conveyed any” (Locke
141). He adds: “it is about these impressions made on our senses by outward objects that
the mind seems first to employ itself, in such operations as we call perception,
remembering, consideration, reasoning, &c.” (Locke 141, emphasis in the original). That
is, our knowledge and understanding of the world comes from the information we receive
Both of these premises would have been more acceptable to Brown’s readers than they are today.
Brown’s footnote on spontaneous combustion refers the readers to a case studied and published in
European medical journals (Wieland 19) and he adds a footnote to explain ventriloquism (he refers to it as
“Biloquium”) by listing cases that appeared in European treatises of the time (Wieland 150).
from our senses, which we can analyze rationally. However, as Brown’s novel illustrates,
sometimes the information provided by the senses, such as in the case of the mysterious
death of Clara and Theodore’s father, makes it very difficult to understand the world
rationally. Clara explains that, while her father was praying in his temple, her mother
witnessed “a light proceeding from the edifice…and instantly a loud report, like the
explosion of a mine” (Wieland 16). Clara’s father is brought to bed and attended by a
doctor, but his flesh rots away, and he dies in “fever and delirium” (Wieland 18). Trying
to figure out what caused such an inexplicable death, Clara eliminates lightening as a
possible cause and wonders “what are the conclusions that we must form” to explain this
death (Wieland 18). The conclusion they form is that their father died of spontaneous
combustion, which might seem like a strange solution to explain the mysterious death,
especially since no one witnessed it. But the light and the explosion made no mark other
than on their father’s body, so the inexplicable is explained by stretching reason to its
most outlandish probability to give meaning to the strange information received by the
senses. Similarly, in the case of Carwin’s ventriloquism, an attempt to follow a
Lockean’s faith in the senses to explain the mysterious voices leads the ultra-rational
Pleyel into error and into a complete misread of Clara’s character. Pleyel is a
personification of Enlightenment rationality: he trusts the information his senses give him
and accepts no possibility of supernatural explanations for the voices that are tricking
him. When he hears the voices of Clara and Carwin talking like lovers, nothing Clara
says or does (not even dramatically fainting in Pleyel’s room while trying to clear her
reputation) can persuade him out of his rational falsehood: he heard her voice: therefore
Clara is guilty. He tells Clara “‘that voice was familiar to my senses. It was yours’”
(Wieland 105), and this concludes any debate on the matter even though Pleyel’s
conclusion is wrong since the voices were part of Carwin’s trick. Pleyel is so rational, he
becomes irrational in his obstinacy in only trusting his mistaken conclusion.13 Thus, the
“epistemological incertitude explored in Wieland is a straightforward refutation of the
then prevailing Lockean philosophical frame, which defines the processes of perception
and cognition” (Paryz 40). If we get our knowledge of the world from the senses, we
must then come to terms with the seemingly impossible information the senses give to us
sometimes, and trying to find a rational reason for everything leads to an
oversimplification of the issue and, potentially, to irrationality. The idea that our senses
can be trusted to understand the world and those around us is thus debunked as a valid
epistemological system.
Theodore uses another method to find an explanation for the voices: faith. He
hears disembodied voices and argues that they must be from God since only a miraculous
explanation can explain the existence of the impossible. His mistaken explanation is fully
revealed when he goes to kill Clara and exclaims: “’Father! I thank thee. This is thy
guidance. Hither thou hast led me, that I might perform thy will: yet let me not err: let me
hear again thy messenger!’” (Wieland 163).14 Even though this explanation may seem
In this sense, Pleyel resembles Arthur Mervyn in his Lockean obstinacy: “Mervyn has a sympathetic
heart and a passion for justice but no moral code and no clear way of determining what goodness is…
Mervyn is hardly a ringing endorsement for empiricism in morality” (Hedges 307).
It is interesting that Theodore uses the word “father” to refer to God since it shows that he might be
haunted by his father’s ghost (literally or subconsciously) and that his madness leads him to mix his own
father’s commands with those of God. This reading of the novel does not take away from the argument that
Theodore finds an irrational explanation to explain mysteries at all cost, but it adds the idea that the
European tyrannical patriarchy is still corrupting the minds of the American-born generation.
farfetched (especially in a society that was toying with the idea of deism), it reassures
Theodore of his own sanity and, since the readers do not know the source of the voice
either, it offers a somewhat plausible explanation for the fictional plot. After all, not only
Theodore, but Clara and Pleyel heard the voices as well, so no one can deny their
existence even though no one can explain where they come from until Carwin’s
confession. Even though Clara does not embrace the religious conclusion like her brother,
she considers it a possibility since she heard the voices and cannot explain them in other
ways. Technically, then, Theodore is not insane, and Clara explains this to her uncle:
“’Madness, say you? Are you sure? Were not these sights, and these sounds, really seen
and heard?” (Wieland 135). However, in trying to find out an explanation at all costs,
Theodore’s conviction that they are the voice of God leads him into irrationality; his
religious enthusiasm takes him far from the truth and misleads him just as much as
Pleyel’s rationality did. Elizabeth Lamont explains that Theodore wants to be more than
human in his search for the truth since he wants to be incapable of being deceived (78),
which might be the inevitable conclusion when attempting to interpret the world through
a religious enthusiasm so fervent that it leads to homicidal insanity. Thus, in Wieland,
Brown discredits all systems of knowing the world: religious, sensorial, rational; he
invites his readers to consider that there are no sure ways to simplistically explain,
identify, and classify the world or those around us. While Fred Botting argues that
“Wieland refuses the dichotomy of religious mysticism and enlightened rationalism”
(117), Brown goes even further than just pitting one system of knowledge against the
other: he illustrates how both opposites rest on premises that lead to an incomplete
understanding of the world. When the ventriloquism act is revealed, Theodore’s religious
explanation seems wholly irrational, but Pleyel ultra-rational explanation does not fare
better. Even though Theodore is the most overtly madman of the novel, Pleyel’s
obstinacy to cling to error turns out to be just as mad.
Locke addresses madness in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and
his description of madmen is a perfect illustration of what happened to Theodore and
Pleyel. Locke explains that madmen are not deprived of reason, “but having joined
together some ideas very wrongly, they mistake them for truths; and they err as men do
that argue right from wrong principles. For, by the violence of their imaginations, having
taken their fancies for realities, they make right deductions from them” (209). Theodore,
and even more so Pleyel, illustrate the madmen’s propensity to “put wrong ideas
together, and so make wrong propositions, but argue and reason right from them” (Locke
210). The rational thinking that supports Pleyel’s belief that Clara and Carwin are lovers
started from a wrong proposition and leads Pleyel into error, but his thinking process
rests on rationality. However, even though Locke gives credit to madmen’s ability to
reason, he sets madness as the “opposition to reason [which] deserves that name, and is
really madness; and there is scarce a man so free from it” (Locke 528). While Locke
shows awareness that the terms are slippery since they coexist in everyone, he sets them
as opposite of good versus evil. Madness is something that needs to be cured and striven
against, while reason is the term that is positive and sought after. Describing madness,
Locke says “if this be a weakness to which all men are so liable, if this be a taint which
so universally infects mankind, the greater care should be taken to lay it open under its
due name, thereby to excite the greater care in its prevention and cure” (528-529). Locke
uses pathological vocabulary to describe madness, depicting madness as a disease that
needs eradication and setting it as a negative opposition to reason. However, by setting
reason and madness as polar opposites in terms of positive and negative attributes, this
creation of a binary, instead of reinforcing the differences between the two terms, pushes
Locke’s logic right into deconstruction. Indeed, Locke’s setting of madness and reason as
complete opposites becomes a perfect example of Jacques Derrida’s différance, where
“the play of differences supposes, in effect, syntheses and referrals which forbid at any
moment, or in any sense, that a simple element be present in and of itself, referring only
to itself… no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which
itself is not simply present” (Derrida Positions 26). That is, reason and madness exist as
concepts because they define each other through opposition; we cannot know one without
the other. As Derrida explains, “the signified concept is never present in and of itself, in a
sufficient presence that would refer only to itself. Essentially and lawfully, every concept
is inscribed in a chain or in a system within which it refers to the other, to other concepts,
by means of the systematic play of differences” (Derrida, Margins 11). Locke’s
insistence that reason and madness are opposites clearly reveals how the two concepts are
related in his philosophy and can never have meaning if separated from each other.
The fact that madness and reason are constantly referring to each other in a binary
of oppositions does not mean that the two terms are equal, though. Madness is the
negative opposite of reason, and therefore it is used to define positively and value reason.
As Derrida explains it, “in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with
the peaceful coexistence of a vis à vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy” that must be
“overturn[ed]” (Derrida Positions 41). Brown overturns the unequal binary in Wieland by
blurring the differences between reason and madness, showing that one can lead to the
other because they are two faces of the same coin. While Theodore is the madman in the
novel, the other main characters, who should stand as the opposite of the madman, appear
mad as well. As Elizabeth Lamont argues, Pleyel’s ultra Enlightenment-type reason leads
him as much into error as Theodore in trying to explain the voices while Clara’s selfdeception in not accepting Theodore’s madness leads her into an irrational belief that the
voices could be from God after all (74-75). Clara tries to cling to rationality, but since the
voices cannot be explained rationally, she also starts to think that the voice are
“unquestionably super-human” (Wieland 41). Here Clara demonstrates the last option of
rationality: since the voices do exist and do not seem a trick of the imagination, she
considers a supernatural explanation to – paradoxically – explain things rationally.
Therefore, Clara shows some signs of Locke’s definition of madness and she reveals
herself as an unreliable narrator because of her insistence on Theodore’s mental sanity
against all odds. Even after Theodore has been tried and after he confessed his crimes,
Clara continues to insist that “whether Wieland was a maniac, a faithful servant of his
God, the victim of hellish illusions, or the dupe of human imposture, was by no means
certain” (Wieland 142). There is nothing her uncle, Mr. Cambridge, who is a doctor and
assures her that Theodore is insane without hope of recovery, can do to stop her from
hoping the impossible. Even though readers are just as unaware as Clara of where the
voices come from, it becomes increasingly difficult to follow her in her insistence that
Theodore is not insane, which makes her sound irrational. And this leads readers into not
knowing how to separate the sane from the insane in this novel, and to wonder, just like
Clara, if that difference even exists anymore. After all, Clara confesses to her uncle: “this
madness, if madness it were, had affected Pleyel and myself as well as Wieland…Was I
not likewise transformed from rational and human into a creature of nameless and fearful
attributes? Was I not transported to the brink of the same abyss?” (Wieland 137). In this
novel, it would seem that all the characters are either completely sane in their unflinching
rationality and religious beliefs or completely insane, but it becomes harder to set the two
concepts of sanity and insanity as opposites. Even worse, when Clara finally has to accept
Theodore’s madness, she does not see it as the negative term in the binary anymore.
When Theodore realizes that he has murdered his family, he suffers more than when he
was insane, leading Clara to say: “Oh that thy phrenzy had never been cured! That thy
madness, with its blissful visions, would return!” (Wieland 173). Theodore was better off
before he knew Carwin tricked him: he felt righteous in his mission, while now he knows
he is the one whom “faith has changed into paricide [sic] and savage!” (Wieland 173). In
Wieland, we lose track of what is better: ignorance or knowledge? Madness or reason? Is
the difference so well established between them after all? And what happens to the
welcome/unwelcome nativist binary when the hierarchy between these concepts is turned
upside down?
Not only does Brown deconstruct binaries, but he also plays with the
Enlightenment’s contradiction that freedom is valued, but too much freedom can lead to
madness; the utopian community in Wieland is almost deprived of adults and authority
figures, which makes Carwin’s job of playing with his victims’ minds all the more easy.
While the United States were based on a rhetoric of superiority to other nations because
of their freedom, the Early Republic’s lovers of liberty had to come to terms with the idea
that “liberty, far from putting man in possession of himself, ceaselessly alienates him
from his essence and his world” (Foucault 214). Indeed, in “Influence of the American
Revolution,” Benjamin Rush has an unusual conclusion on what the United States
achieved through their gain of freedom. He argues:
The minds of the citizens of the United States were wholly unprepared for
their new situation. The excess of the passion for liberty, inflamed by the
successful issue of the war, produced, in many people, opinions and
conduct which could not be removed by reason nor restrained by
government. For a while, they threatened to render abortive the goodness
of heaven to the United States, in delivering them from the evils of slavery
and war. The extensive influence which these opinions had upon the
understandings, passions and morals of many of the citizens of the United
States, constituted a species of insanity, which I shall take the liberty of
distinguishing by the name of Anarchia.. (Rush 333)
Rush here argues that the American victory enabled Americans to have the freedom to
do, be, and think whatever they wanted – even if it led to insanity. This might be what the
Wielands are experiencing in their ideal community devoid of authority figures. In fact,
many critics have interpreted Wieland as a microcosm for the new nation: the old
European generation dies off while the new generation of Americans experience freedom
in a heaven-like place. Interestingly, while many scholars see the world of Wieland as a
metaphor for the new nation, they also agree in reading it as a negative metaphor. Colleen
Terrell argues that Wieland shows a “profound distrust of both the republican machinery
set in motion by the Revolution and its Lockean foundations” (127-128). Peter Schneck
claims that Wieland “presents a devastating critique of, if not a demolition of, the very
ideals that formed the foundation of the American republic: declaring the individual unfit
for building a society on the principles of reason, and severely questioning the
Enlightenment’s empirical trust in the reliability of factual perception and its hope for the
rational control of the passions and imagination” (180). Finally, Peter Kafer argues that
Brown “turns the philosopher John Locke, and the Enlightenment itself, on their side by
highlighting the disturbing implications of the optimistic epistemology that had
influenced so many of the Revolutionaries [who] maintained that the corruptions of the
past could be purged from society and that a new political order, grounded entirely upon
right reason, could be erected from a fresh foundation, a tabula rasa” (125-126). These
scholarly critics focus on Wieland’s critique of the Lockean basis of the Early Republic’s
philosophical and political ideals, but one could extend their metaphors of the new nation
to include a critique on the religious ideals that supported the rhetoric of the Early
If Wieland is a metaphor for the Early Republic, though, the characters seem to
squander the freedom their society offers them. They are not productive in any way and
Nativist propaganda found its way into sermons, translating the intolerance against unwelcome foreigners
into a religious mission for the new nation. For an example of this religiously-oriented propaganda, see
Timothy Dwight’s 1798 sermon “The Duty of Americans, at the Present Crisis.”
at times even dream of going back to feudal Europe, with Pleyel trying to convince
Theodore to claim his inheritance rights in Saxony and use “the privileges of wealth and
rank” to be an enlightened lord over “his vassals” (Wieland 35-36). We are far from the
Franklinian values of industry and of “a general happy mediocrity” setting America as
the opposite of feudal Europe (Franklin, “Information” 463). When an outsider comes to
this already fragile microcosm of un-Franklinian Americans, he can easily set it into
complete turmoil through his tricks. One could almost read the novel as another nativist
tale admonishing unideal Americans and warning against the evil foreigner. After all,
even though Carwin is American, he is believed to be Irish by the narrator and the readers
for most of the novel, and his trip to Spain may have left him more European than
American. Indeed, Carwin’s stay in Spain has led to his “transformation into a Spaniard”
(Wieland 59, emphasis in the original), thus highlighting his loss of Americanness, and
Pleyel’s description of the body of the “’mysterious visitant’” as an “‘aukward [sic] and
disproportionate form’” (Wieland 102) seems to point to all the stereotypical signs of an
evil foreigner. However, the American characters representing the Early Republic are just
as problematic as the foreigner, which debunks a straightforward nativist reading of this
novel. What is more, they are driven to madness not by Carwin’s voices, but what they
choose to make of them. That is, their freedom, which allows them to think, believe, and
argue freely, is a much bigger problem than Carwin could ever be. Theodore, in
particular, indulged too much in the freedom that America gave him: not only freedom
from work (which he would have had in Europe as well), but also religious and
intellectual freedom that dragged him increasingly away from rationality. Theodore’s
obsessive faith and, prior to it, his fanatical studies, made him a prime target of madness;
as Michel Foucault explains, “Civilization, in a general way, constitutes a milieu
favorable to the development of madness,” which can be found in the “mania for study,
the life of the library, abstract speculation, the perpetual agitation of the mind without the
exercise of the body,” and “too strict a devotion, too strong a belief” (Foucault 217, 215).
Theodore’s freedom to speculate without any sort of restraint made him a religious
fanatic and robbed him of his rationality. Once his faith turned into madness, he lost his
freedom since he became a slave to an apparently fictitious command of God. Similarly,
free to reason and apply an unbendable Lockean rationality to explain the world around
him, Pleyel became the prisoner of a very wrong speculation and became an automaton
that could not listen to reason anymore. This leads to an even stronger deconstruction of
the madness/reason and the liberty/slavery binaries since readers of Wieland have to
constantly decipher which is which in this novel and which is better; therefore, “it
becomes well-nigh impossible to distinguish between reality and imagination, sleep and
wakefulness, between truth and falsehood, sanity and madness” (Hagenbuchle 128). And
this might be exactly the point Brown wants to share with his readers through his
microcosm of the Early Republic.
This deconstruction of binaries in Wieland forces the readers to consider that the
unwelcome might already be in the country, that the unwelcome might not be aliens at all
since the murderer in the novel is an American who has become insane through his faith,
and that even the most rational Americans may carry as much madness as reason inside
them. Brown sets up an utopian American family only to desecrate this haven through the
mere circus trick of ventriloquism; if this American family stands as a metaphor for the
United States, Brown’s view on his society is not very encouraging. What is worse, the
readers cannot give all the fault to Carwin-the-foreigner since the Wielands might already
have been mentally corrupted before his arrival. A scene, in particular, shows that Clara’s
mind might not be as sane as she makes it seem. Falling asleep next to the river bank, she
dreams of her brother trying to lure her to plunge to her death into an abyss. Not only
that, but she sleepwalks while she dreams. As Brown points out in Edgar Huntly: “the
incapacity of sound sleep denotes a mind sorely wounded” (11), which means that Clara
is dealing with unresolved issues that go beyond Carwin’s tricks. One of these unresolved
issues might be the same one that disturbs Theodore’s mind: the mysterious death of their
religiously obsessed father. Scholarly critics have not been kind in describing the mental
health of the Wielands. Ralph Bauer argues that Carwin brings out the secret desires and
anxieties of the Wielands, which only needed a little nudge to reveal themselves (320).
This would help explain why Theodore murders his wife, and why Clara seems so selfdeluded on her brother’s mental sanity: their suppressed incestuous desires are awakened
by the troubling voices. Marek Paryz goes even further, calling the Wielands “mental
freaks” (38), while Peter Kafer argues that the death of their father disturbs their minds.
He declares that “the Wielands are haunted all right, and nothing—not enlightenment, not
Cicero, not classical music—is going to make it go away” (131). Whether the Wielands
are rendered insane by having inherited their father’s insanity, by his tormenting haunting
presence, by their incestuous desires, or by being too free and rational, they were doomed
well before the foreigner’s arrival. What is more, the death of their father is never
satisfactorily explained to the readers, which means that they are haunted as well as the
ghost haunts the recognizable American setting of the novel. Once again, Brown offers a
terrifying thrill to his readers who must consider the possibility that they too, like the
Wielands, might be mentally unstable.
Carwin’s tricks have only precipitated a fall that was destined to happen: the
seemingly ideal American youth can cover itself with the mantel of superiority through
rationality, faith, and freedom, but it carries within itself the same self-destructing
madness of its European forefathers. This, of course, contributes to the destruction of the
illusion of the us/them binary so dear to the Early Republic nativists since “the perversion
of filial love, exemplified in Wieland’s murder of his family, signifies that threats to
American society may lie not in foreign bodies but in its own” (Barnes 55). Thus, the
safety of the American/outsider binary that solidly supported nativist policies such as the
Alien and Sedition Acts crumbles away. The alien in Wieland is not more insane than the
American characters: he cannot be held totally responsible for the destruction of the
utopian Early Republic, and living in the land of freedom did not help safeguard
Theodore’s sanity. Even worse, Wieland warns its readers that trusting systems of
knowledge based on binaries as a way to know the world, such as reason
(rationality/irrationality) and faith (belief/disbelief), is dangerous and simplistic since it
pushes people to become irrational in the hope of explaining the impossible.
Consequently, it does not really matter that foreigners may threaten the Early Republic’s
stability since American society has to deal with the contradictions it has created for
itself: be rational at all costs even if it leads to irrationality, have an unbridled religious
faith that leads one to think they are the messenger of God, and embrace the freedom that
sets the United States apart from the rest of the world, even if it may lead to insanity.
These paradoxes burst the binaries set as moral and social compass by the Early Republic
and their deconstruction makes one realize the inability to really know the world based on
our senses or faith; “the lesson readers learn is not only that one cannot trust strangers,
but that one cannot trust oneself” (Barnes 53-54). But how, then, can America be a
haven, an “asylum” in Thomas Paine’s words, when it proves itself as unstable as
everyone else? After all, “if some post-Revolutionary America saw themselves as the
superior citizens of a new land, Wieland calls into question any nobility they might like to
assume and undermines any Edenic discourse invoked” (Harris 200). If the Americans
are as mad as anyone else (and maybe a little more than others if we factor in Rush’s fear
that more freedom leads to more insanity), what kind of an “asylum for the persecuted
lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe” (Paine, 24, emphasis in
the original) are they offering to the world? The fact that Clara leaves the United States to
start a new life free of murderous madness in Europe seems to answer this question.
The utopian community in Wieland brutally shifts from being a haven of
intellectual debate held in a pastoral setting to being an asylum for the insane. This
chapter has demonstrated how Brown does not just complicate the debates of his time by
using nativist rhetoric or trending philosophical values: he also shows the pitfalls present
in those debates. By pushing the ideals and values of the Early Republic to their breaking
point, he reveals what happens when a society places too much trust in its ability to
reason, its inherent superiority to other nations, and the unshakable sanity of its citizens.
The American population may already be degenerate beyond repair; reason, freedom, and
religion only exacerbate the population’s self-denial of its mental instability. Instead of
reinforcing the Enlightenment’s soothing binaries of rationality and madness, Brown
destroys the tenets that built the Early Republic as a beacon of rationality and liberty and
shatters the myth that, as long as the evil foreigners are kept out, the United States will
remain safely self-controlled. In Wieland, Brown’s use of mental disabilities pushes the
readers to rethink the political and philosophical values, as well as the nativist beliefs, of
their society, and to contemplate the terrifying idea that we all might already be insane.
Chapter 5
Charles Brockden Brown’s scholarly critics have always grappled with the
difficulty of his novels, and their frustration with his ambiguity has led some of them to
describe him unfairly as “a flawed writer;” critical works during the New Critical wave of
the 1950s, such as Alexander Cowie The Rise of the American Novel and Richard Chase
The American Novel and Its Tradition, were particularly harsh towards Brown’s novels
(Barnard, Kamrath, Shapiro xix). But Brown’s ambiguity is essential to his work since he
systematically deconstructs every binary he sets up. This, in turn, forces his readers to
rethink and reevaluate personal values and beliefs, and to distrust reductive dichotomous
propaganda. To achieve this didactic goal, Brown uses the gothic genre, which is itself a
genre that defies any essentiality. In her review of the recent scholarship on the gothic
and, in particular, of Jacques Derrida’s essay “The Law of Genre,” Teresa Goddu argues
that the gothic has been perceived as a problematically hybrid genre; “associated with the
hackneyed, the feminine, and the popular, the gothic lacks respectability and hence must
be quarantined from other literary forms” (Goddu 4-5). But Brown does not appear to be
a big proponent of quarantines, be they literary, medical, or political. He never presents
one clear side to an issue or one unambiguous character that can be easily interpreted;
instead, Brown’s novels constantly mix the boundaries and categories so dear to nativists.
The American-Rational-Able-Hero/Alien-Irrational-Disabled-Villain binaries do not
survive Brown’s multiple twists in his complicated plots, thus calling attention to the
reductive pitfalls of defining ourselves and the Other through binaries. In doing so, he
plays with his readers’ anxieties but he also debunks the paranoia of political propaganda,
suggesting that imperfections and ambiguities are not only inevitable but necessary to any
human society. Through his use of the gothic genre, Brown “unsettles the idea of
America” (Goddu 4) and puts forward a non-conservative, contradictory, and complex
image of the Early Republic that seems to warn us that the real danger does not rest
within the alien and the different, but within the intolerant need to classify the world
through dichotomies.
In his 1782 publication, Letters From an American Farmer, Hector St. John de
Crèvecoeur calls America “the most perfect society now existing in the world” (41), and
this idea of the United States’ perfection remained an important aspect of the 1790s
political discourse, even though Crèvecoeur’s optimism went through a nativist anxiety
translation over the potential loss of perfection. The purity of this perfect nation, in
particular, became a recurring nativist weapon against the unwelcome. As an illustration,
Humphrey Marshall’s “A Patriotic Poem” denounces the dangers of radical influences
from Europe and urges Americans to protect their identity: “it is to the defense of the
purity of this identity—an identity founded on the purgation of aliens—that all must rally,
bringing to bear an artillery of laws, surveillance, and vigilance” (qtd. in Gardner 60).
The medico-political rhetoric’s reference of purging the country from foreign bodies
illustrates the importance of the us-versus-them binary in the nativist rhetoric and the fact
that aliens were scapegoated as diseases attacking the country. But purging was not
enough: the nativists wanted a clear separation between America and Europe. In his 1798
sermon “The Duty of Americans, at the Present Crisis,” Timothy Dwight explains how to
keep the country safe from French degeneration: “Would you wholly escape, you must be
wholly separated. I do not recommend that you must not buy or sell, or exhibit the
common offices of justice and good will; but you are bound by the voice of reason, of
duty, of safety, and of God, to shun all such connection with them, as will interweave
your sentiments or your friendship, your religion or your policy, with theirs” (qtd. in
Silverman 100). Although the nativists quoted here are targeting aliens, the concepts of
perfection, purity, and clear separation between people are not new terms in the history of
disabilities. While the “eighteenth century [was] a transitional moment in the history of
representations of disability, a period suspended between religious wonder at monstrous
forms and unawed scientific classification of natural difference” (Deutsch 198), the
transition did not bring a positive change to social perspectives on disabilities. The
variety of human physical and mental difference was perceived negatively since it was a
difference against the norm. In fact, throughout modern Western history, people with
disabilities have repeatedly been the victims of national purges, from the rhetorical to the
genocidal. Brown’s deconstruction of the perfection/imperfection binary, then, flies in the
face of the medico-political discourse of exclusion and of the nativists’ desire to define
clearly the perfect from the imperfect. In fact, it seems that Brown constantly works
towards blurring the lines of the us-versus-them binary, thus destroying the idea that
perfection and purity even exist.
One of the most puzzling deconstructed binaries in the works of this new
American literature “growing out of the condition of our own country” (Edgar Huntly 3)
is that, while some of the main villains are clearly Europeans, the American heroes and
heroines are not so clearly American, and most novels end with a departure for Europe.
Even though the Atlantic world was one of great movement of population, American
identity rested on binaries since the colonial period, classifying people along strict
dichotomous lines of: “saved and damned, Christian and heathen, civilized and savage,
white and black” (Zuckerman 143). However, most of Brown’s heroes and heroines do
not have a solidly American identity since they have strong European ties. Constantia is
part French; we learn at the end of Ormond that “Constantia’s mother was stolen by Mr.
Dudley from a Convent at Amiens” (Ormond 180). In Wieland, Theodore and Clara’s
parents are Germans, and their “ancestor may be considered as the founder of the German
Theatre” (7). Arthur Mervyn’s father “had been a Scottish emigrant” (Arthur Mervyn 17).
This European first-generation characteristic for so many of the main characters
represents the mixed world of a country founded on immigration, and it shows that
Timothy Dwight’s desire for complete separation between Europe and the United States
might not have been in tune with the reality of the population living in the Early
Republic. But it also complicates a strict nativist reading of the novels. What is even
more perplexing is that Europe is not consistently represented as a wicked place in
Brown’s novels. To be fair, there are plenty of gothic and medieval descriptions of
Europe throughout the novels. In Edgar Huntly, Weymouth’s gothic shipwreck in
Portugal and sojourn at a convent sound like a classic gothic novel (97). In Wieland,
Europe is depicted as tyrannical and feudal, with Pleyel trying to convince Theodore to
take advantage of his primogeniture rights and become a lord (35). But, even after giving
such images of Europe, many of Brown’s characters go there to rest after their gothic
adventures in the United States. Sophia convinces Constantia to go to Europe for “the
prospect of her ultimate restoration to tranquility,” and she comments that “since her
arrival in England, the life of my friend has experienced little variation” (Ormond 221).
Similarly, in Wieland, Clara goes to France to get some rest after her terrifying
adventures. Like Ormond, Wieland ends with the heroine living in a very calm Europe,
since Clara describes: “here I am, a thousand leagues from my native soil, in full
possession of life and of health, and not destitute of happiness” (176).16 Arthur will
probably leave the United States too, since he declares that “in a year or two we hie to
Europe” (Arthur Mervyn 330). In these three novels, Brown ends his gothic tales with the
American deserting America.
The American hero/European villain binary is further deconstructed, though,
since some of the European villains who make the heroes and heroines’ lives miserable
are not really Europeans. The case that stands out the most is Craig’s in Ormond. To be
hired by Dudley, he pretends to be from England, telling an elaborate tale of poverty and
misery: “a native of Wakefield, in Yorkshire… he had… come to America, in search of
the means of independent subsistence… he had just arrived in a ship” (Ormond 7). In
reality, this evil European who ruins the American character is from Portsmouth, New
Clara goes to France, though, which in this period of revolutions was much less calm than England. This
geographical detail might again underscore some potential internal troubles with the mental stability of this
particular heroine.
Hampshire (Ormond 10). The fact that the evil Craig pretended to be a European but is
really an American prevents a simple nativist reading of Ormond, even though the main
antagonist (Ormond) is of mysterious European origins. This fact complicates Robert
Levine’s argument that “Brown’s villains raise dark questions indeed about the futurity of
a republic wherein ‘emigrants’ can theatrically fabricate identities as ‘Americans,’ all the
while cloaking their origins, politics, and agendas” (Levine 16). The exact opposite
happens in Ormond: the American fabricates an identity as a European to mask his evil
plans. But, even further, the real problem here is not so much Craig, but Dudley’s
interested gullibility for Craig’s story. As Michael Drexler and Ed White have
demonstrated, Craig’s fantasy story of describing himself as an immigrant only further
underlines Dudley’s own faults. Craig’s invented immigrant story appeals to Dudley and
convinces him to hire Craig because it satisfies Dudley’s warped ideas about work; that
is, Craig’s story confirms Dudley’s unethical definition of the American Dream as having
immigrants dedicate their lives to work for Americans’ success (Drexler and White 340).
This prevents even further a nativist reading since this novel seems to be arguing that
there is something wrong with the American Dream itself. The fact that European
antagonists turn out to be Americans reveals a problem with the American characters
who believe them to be Europeans. As we have seen in Chapter Four’s analysis of
Wieland, the American Carwin, while appearing as an evil European for most of the
novel but really being a native of Pennsylvania, brings out the fears and desires that are
repressed in other American people. Clearly, the Americans in Brown’s novels do not
need Europeans to degenerate: they seem experts at tricking one another, and they are
already in extremely bad shape in terms of values, perception of the Other, and mental
Carwin is a particularly interesting case because, posing as the evil European for
most of the novel and yet saving Clara from her murderous brother, he leads the readers
into wondering if Brown’s evil Europeans are really all that evil. While Carwin admits of
his ventriloquism tricks against the Wielands, he also defends himself, telling Clara: “I
am innocent. I intended no ill” (Wieland 148). He insists that he should not be held
responsible for Theodore’s descent into madness: “I am not this villain; I have slain no
one; I have prompted none to slay; I have handled a tool of wonderful efficacy without
malignant intentions, but without caution” (Wieland 149). Even though Clara never
forgives him and considers him the cause of Theodore’s madness, the readers understand
that Carwin did not set out to destroy this family. Even further, he saves Clara when
Theodore comes to kill her. To stop Theodore’s murderous rage, Carwin reveals that he
has tricked him with his ventriloquist ability, telling Theodore: “Man of errors! cease to
cherish thy delusion: not heaven or hell, but thy senses have misled thee to commit these
acts. Shake off thy phrenzy, and ascend into rational and human. Be lunatic no longer”
(Wieland 172). Even though this realization eventually leads Theodore to kill himself, it
saves Clara from ending up murdered like Catherine. In the end, Carwin’s criminal
intentions do not appear all that wicked, especially when we compare them to Theodore’s
homicidal actions. Theodore might have resisted the temptation of going to Germany and
to “degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary” (Wieland 36), but he becomes a most
tyrannical despot in the United States, killing his entire family.
Similarly, the European antagonist in Arthur Mervyn, Welbeck, who has a
deformed hand designating him as the villain to the readers, does not seem especially
ruthless when compared to some of the novel’s American businessmen in Philadelphia.
Thetford, an American import-export merchant, not only tricked and ruined Welbeck,
leaving him to die in the debtor prison, but his treatment towards a female servant during
the yellow fever epidemic illustrates his evilness. When she feels sick from a fever that
might not be even related to the yellow fever epidemic, the terrified Thetford forces her
against her will to go to the hospital, which at the time was a place of infection and death;
the girl, exposed to the open air and to her dread of going to such an unsafe place, dies
even before she arrives to the hospital (Arthur Mervyn 121-122). Selfish, panicked, and
heartless, Thetford personifies the American paranoia during the yellow fever epidemic,
which contributed to a lot more senseless deaths than those that European immigrants
may have caused. If nativists thought Europeans brought diseases and destroyed society,
Thetford is there to remind them that Americans can be just as evil and dangerous to their
own society. Teresa Goddu argues that the novel’s use of the yellow fever plague shows
the self-destruction of a society that is becoming dependent on mercantilism and the
corruption that comes with it. She explains that “the novel’s Enlightenment narrative of
progress, stability, and success argues for the benefits and civilizing influence of
commerce. The novel’s gothic counternarrative of disease, degeneracy, and decay warns
of commerce’s corrupting effects… Arthur Mervyn horrifies precisely because it upholds
the paradox that the Enlightenment narrative of good health may finally be
indistinguishable from the gothic narrative of disease” (32). Even through this
perspective, though, Thetford remains worse than Welbeck since, in his successful
conspiracy to ruin Welbeck, he demonstrates that the American is more adept at playing
the corruption game than the foreigner. What Brown depicts in these deconstructed
binaries of American hero/European villain is a very complex America, where evilness
and goodness do not follow nationality lines. This very radical message in an anxious
nativist period becomes even more radicalized when we look at how Brown deconstructs
the perfection/imperfection binary so dear to the political propagandists. Nothing shows
this deconstruction more vividly than Brown’s imperfect heroes. Chapter Four has
demonstrated the deconstruction of the hero in Wieland through the transformation of
Theodore into a murderous madman and through the transformation of the narrator into
an unreliable witness who might be as deranged as the madman she describes.17
However, the ambiguity of the hero appears in the other novels as well, and in particular
in Edgar Huntly and Arthur Mervyn, where the novels’ heroes might be potential villains.
In terms of health, reason, and appealing characteristics, most of Brown’s
American heroes appear deficient, and Arthur Mervyn is a case in point. To begin with,
Arthur comes from a diseased family, which cannot promise anything good to readers
who interpret diseases as a literary device to indicate potential moral failings. As already
discussed in Chapter Two, his unclear health underscores the ambiguity of this character.
What makes it even harder to define and trust this character’s morality is his ethnic
origin. Arthur’s father is “a Scotch peasant” named “Sawny,” which reveals that Arthur is
The word “transformation” only appears once within the novel Wieland; or, the Transformation, and it
refers to Carwin’s “transformation into a Spaniard” during his stay in Spain (Wieland 59, emphasis in the
original). But Carwin is clearly not the only character to go through a transformation. One more
interpretation of this word might be the transformation of the readers from feeling safely secured in their
dichotomous world to realizing that they too could be afflicted with a dormant madness.
Scots-Irish (Arthur Mervyn 179, 176, 176 note 3). Scots-Irish people did not have a good
reputation in the Early Republic since many among them were frontier people who were
associated in savageness with the Native Americans (Brooks 32). This “savage” ethnic
background is not a good attribute of Arthur’s character and it links him to savage Irish
villains such as Clithero. Arthur’s Americanness, then, is in question and, with it, his
“civilized” sense of morality. What also makes Arthur’s coming-of-age adventure
questionable is how unFranklinian the consequences of his adventure are. Very similarly
to the story Benjamin Franklin tells in his Autobiography, Arthur leaves his father’s
home, but, instead of finding a productive job in Philadelphia, he immediately starts
working for a forger. Leaving his father in the hands of an immoral woman, Arthur later
finds out that his penniless and alcoholic father ends up in jail. Even worse, rather than
becoming a productive and valued member of society by studying medicine, Arthur
declares that “books are cold” (Arthur Mervyn 317) and marries a wealthy Jewish
woman. The marriage to Ascha Fielding is most disconcerting to nativist readers
yearning for purity since she is an alien everywhere. She was born in England, but since
Ascha’s father is a Portuguese Jew, British people consider her “the daughter of an
alien;” even worse, her family’s health history is murky since her unstable mother has
“fits” of “frenzy” that necessitated “incessant superintendence, restraint, and even
violence” (Arthur Mervyn 308, 310). Carroll Smith-Rosenberg analyzes Ascha Fielding
in terms of all the binaries she deconstructs: “subverting distinctions between women and
men, Ascha Fielding at the same time subverts distinctions between black and white…we
soon learn that Ascha Fielding is that archetypal liminal figure who spans East and West,
black and white, outsider and insider” (440). This is definitely a nonstandard wife for our
American hero. Smith-Rosenberg describes Arthur’s happy ending by pointing out that
he has become “a fashionable London gentleman. Thus concludes the career of the early
American Adam” (440). We are very far from Benjamin Franklin’s model of
industriousness and civic duty! And yet, because Arthur is the hero of the novel, and
because the novel ends well for him, Brown seems to suggest that we do not all have to
be like Franklin: Arthur is ambiguous, he is not a clear-cut hero, he could be interpreted
as a villain, and many facts about him go counter the ideals of the Early Republic – but
he is a possible alternative to the normative ideal.18 Towards the end of the novel, and in
the midst of his courtship of Ascha Fielding, Arthur experiences a “midnight wandering”
(Arthur Mervyn 324); that is, he sleepwalks. This hero, like many of Brown’s heroes,
does not enjoy “sound sleep,” which indicates that he has “a mind sorely wounded”
(Edgar Huntly 11). If we accept him as a hero, we must accept him in all of his human
flaws and ambiguities: people are not perfect halves of a dichotomy, and an unhealthy
non-industrious hero might be a hero after all.
The same imperfection of a main character’s mental health appears in Edgar
Huntly. The end of this novel is much less happy than Arthur Mervyn’s, and the readers
do not get a good sense of appeasement since they do not know if Edgar is definitely
cured. As Robert Levine points out, the ending of the novel is unsettling since, “although
While in Arthur Mervyn Brown shows an alternative to Franklin’s model, in Ormond he depicts a heroine
who follows a strict Franklinian ideal of industriousness and independence – but does not get rewarded
with a true happy ending. Clearly, Brown has more than one bone to pick with Franklin’s one-size-fits-all
philosophy of industriousness and independence. Maybe the issue is that Franklin seems incapable of
accepting human variety; his Autobiography is a how-to manual for success that views everyone as having
his same physical, social, and mental circumstances: white male without a trace of mental instability, at the
right place at the right moment.
[Edgar] eventually returns to the bounds of civilization, the dichotomy between civilized
self and savage other is never restored… We leave Huntly in a state of disintegration and
confusion, for he can cull from his experience only a dreadful insight into human
fragility” (54). For much of the novel, Edgar is as irrational and uncontrollable as
Clithero, to the point where the distinctions between hero and villain become completely
blurred. If reason and madness are not clearly discernible, and if both Irish immigrants
and upper class American-born citizens seem to switch back and forth between the two,
the anxious belief that keeping the “bad elements” out will save the nation from physical
and mental degeneracy gets jeopardized. This doubling effect is troubling since it can
lead to a reading of the novel with Edgar as a potential villain. For example, Edgar shows
up as a villain in Joanna Brooks’s article “Held Captive by the Irish,” where she argues
that the doubling between the two characters means that they are equally savage, and that
Brown uses the doubling effect to point out the Quakers’ responsibilities in the frontier
atrocities. Rather than admitting that they were just as brutal in their relationship with the
Native Americans, the Quakers wanted to appear blameless, and so scapegoated the Irish
as the violent savages who attacked the Native American population. Edgar illustrates
this phenomenon by refusing to take responsibility for the massacres he perpetrates in the
novel, dumping all the fault on Clithero’s evil influence. Even further, Mark Edelman
Boren, in “Abortographism and the Weapon of Sympathy in Charles Brockden Brown’s
Edgar Huntly,” depicts Edgar has a Machiavellian villain who uses his rhetorical powers
to scare the woman he has seduced, Mary, and thus induce a miscarriage that would
allow him to abandon her and to make an advantageous marriage with Clarice. By
depicting his terrifying adventures in the wilderness, Edgar hopes to frighten Mary to the
point of making her lose their baby. The fact that both the Irish villain and the American
hero are such doubles that we cannot tell them apart makes the nativist scare useless: the
degeneration danger is already present in the American population. Worse, rather than
giving us a normalizing structure, Edgar Huntly raises more questions than it answers. As
Lennard Davis explains, “the very structures on which the novel rests tend to be
normative, ideologically emphasizing the universal quality of the central character whose
normativity encourage us to identify with him or her” (13). However, this does not
happen in Edgar Huntly, and, if the readers identify with him, they must accept their own
potential mental instability. Thus, calling Edgar a hero means embracing his nonnormative ambiguity, mistakes, and mental instability. Once again, Brown seems to
address Benjamin Franklin directly, arguing that “the condemnation and denial of human
imperfection leads not to enlightened, utopian excellence but tragedy, as Brown’s image
of the sleep-walker makes clear” (Lamont 147). Brown’s call for embracing human
imperfection (or at least accepting it as an inevitable aspect of human nature) makes his
novels unique because it clearly goes counter the mainstream beliefs of his time.
The late eighteenth century was still embracing Enlightenment ideas of human
progress, and mixed philosophy with science to create human classifications. While
Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau had less of a negative view towards
the different than the Early Republic nativists, they still reinforced binaries between
“civilized” and “savage” groups of people in their philosophical treatises. For example,
Rousseau sees “solitude as a defining characteristic of the savage, and uses that word to
refer to primitive tribes in Africa and the Americas as well as to the physically isolated.
The feral child and the primitive tribesman may be in different states, but they are both
states of nature, not states of society” (Simpson 566). Thus, Rousseau creates and
reinforces separate categories of people. The philosophical tendencies to categorize
people became a leitmotif of the medical discourse of the late eighteenth century, where
“scientific theories of race had begun to emerge…based on linear hierarchies, but rooted
in the altogether more static idea of the Great Chain of Being – the deistic idea that all
living and inert things occupy a place in an infinitely graduated scale” (Simpson 563).
The eighteenth-century ability to create strict categories of individuals rested on a
worldview divided into easily-discernible groups of people that were either one thing or
another. What is more, these categories were perceived as being on a scale moving from
various degrees of imperfection towards an idealized human perfection. Not surprisingly,
the European and American religious leaders, philosophers, and scientists all agreed to
nominate white males as coming closer to that idealized perfection. Brown, though,
through ambiguous white male heroes such as Arthur and Edgar, illustrates “that calls for
human perfectibility, be they the outcropping of Quakerism or Enlightenment philosophy,
are ignorant of the complex biology of human nature that makes available to each and
every human the capacity to modify beyond the savage primal state but not the ability to
overthrow that primacy once and for all” (Lamont 147). Jacques Derrida might have
articulated a deconstruction of the Enlightenment’s tenets, but Brown’s systematic
ambiguity on any of the value of the Enlightenment (reason, self-restraint, independence,
industriousness, and human progress towards perfection) preceded Derrida’s critique.
Brown’s constant deconstruction of all binaries keeps coming back to the importance of
human imperfection, and he articulates this importance most vividly when he
deconstructs the able/disable binary.
Through the changes taking place within the character of Dudley in Ormond,
Brown appears to praise acceptance of the imperfection of disabilities in order to
facilitate human growth. Even though Dudley’s blindness is a punishment for his unideal
Americanness, it also allows him to grow and, paradoxically, to see. When he is reduced
to poverty by Craig, Dudley contemplates suicide and only desists from this project when
he becomes blind and understands the evilness of this thought: “Mr. Dudley’s blindness
might justly be accounted, even in its immediate effects, a fortunate event. It dissolved
the spell, by which he was bound, and which, it is probable, would never have been
otherwise broken. It restored him to himself and shewed [sic] him, with a distinctness
which made him shudder, the gulf to which he was hastening” (Ormond 21). This is as
deconstructive as it can be: blindness shows Dudley that suicide is the wrong path to take,
and Brown goes as far as calling blindness “a fortunate event” because it saves Dudley
from killing himself. Not only that, but, while blind, Dudley grows as an individual, and
learns not to trust too easily. Contrastingly to his daughter Constantia, Dudley
understands that Ormond is dangerous, and he wants her to go to Europe to be safely
distant from the evil European. Dudley tries to warn Constantia about Ormond: “He
exspatiated [sic] on the dubious character of this man, the wildness of his schemes, and
the magnitude of his errors. What could be expected from a man, half of whose life had
been spent at the head of a band of Cassacks [sic], spreading devastation in the regions of
the Danube, and supporting by flagitious intrigues, the tyranny of Catherine, and the
other half in traversing inhospitable countries, and extinguishing what remained of
clemency and justice, by intercourse with savages?” (Ormond 162). While the novel
started by painting Dudley as a gullible man who goes into ruin because he over-trusted
strangers, he has clearly become a new man by the end of the novel. The roles between
Dudley and Constantia (this solidly non-disabled character) have been reversed:
Constantia’s model of reason and independence begins to falter and sends her right into
the evil European’s trap. Insisting on feeling “more curiosity and wonder, than fear”
towards Ormond (Ormond 201), Constantia does not realize how dangerous he is and,
going alone to her old home, she puts herself in the perfect setting to get attacked by him.
If she had listened to her father and immediately left for Europe, she would have avoided
the attempted rape and Dudley would be alive. Through his blindness, Dudley has
become a new man and has learned to see others’ hidden nature. Thus, his physical
imperfection has brought him personal growth and wisdom.
Dudley, and possibly Arthur at the very end of Arthur Mervyn, are the only
characters who accept the imperfection of the human condition. Edgar in Edgar Huntly
does not accept Clithero’s mental imperfection since he wants to cure him of his disease;
he also does not accept his own imperfection, believing that he can cure it through curing
Clithero. Clara in Wieland never accepts Theodore’s human imperfection, and her brother
does not accept his human condition, striving to become a messenger of God. Constantia
in Ormond leads a life structured by the idea of human progress and perfectibility since
she follows strict tenets of self-reliance and industry. This ideology prevents her from
recognizing Ormond’s dark side and leads her into danger. Because these main characters
refuse human imperfection, they make decisions that lead them into trouble and create the
main plots of Brown’s gothic novels. All of these main characters are moved by virtuous
ideals of helping and only seeing the goodness in others, but their virtue mixed with their
refusal of imperfection leads them into either wanting to fix – cure – other people’s
shortcomings or into being in denial about the dark complexities of the human psyche.
While Brown was certainly not against being virtuous, he illustrated in all of his novels
the dangers of wanting to do good while being intolerant of human diversity and
complexity. All of the acts of kindness of the heroes and heroines turn against them,
leading them into dark and twisted gothic tales. Only Arthur, at the end of Arthur
Mervyn, escapes this fate. While he was as intolerant and in denial of human imperfection
during most of the novel in his constant desire to help others (and in so doing bringing
them to more problems than they had before his intervention), through his marriage with
Ascha Fielding and his distancing himself from the Franklinian ideals of industry and
civic duty, Arthur is the only of Brown’s heroes to get a proper happy ending. Ormond’s
Dudley does not fare as well since he ends up dead, mostly due to his daughter’s
insistence in befriending the murderous Ormond. However, he is the only character who
accepts his imperfection when he becomes blind and understands the value of this
imperfection; this acceptance enables him to come to terms with human complexity and
to recognize the true twisted nature of others, such as Ormond’s.
The idea that becoming disabled could be a positive event in one’s life must have
been a counterintuitive thought for Brown’s readers and as destabilizing as the idea that
the main character can be imperfect, which leads readers to come to the realization of
their own potential imperfection. What is more, flawed American characters like
Theodore and Edgar reveal that disabilities are already a reality of American society
since their dormant madness existed before the arrival of the foreigner. The idea that this
might be the case for the readers as well is a scarier thought than creating mainstream
gothic thrills through evil European characters coming to the United States. Even though
Brown tempers this anxiety (even anxieties are ambiguous in Brown!) with the idea that
disabilities can actually bring positive outcomes to someone’s life, creating gothic thrills
is one of his goals throughout the novels. Indeed, he starts Wieland with a very gothic
advertisement telling readers of “an authentic case, remarkably similar to that of
Wieland,” of a man killing his family (Wieland 3). He also calls on scientific authority,
stating that those who would doubt the plausibility of such a murder should consult
“Physicians and …men conversant with the latent springs and occasional perversions of
the human nature” (Wieland 3). Clearly, Brown wants his readers to experience the
gothic thrills that result from thinking that the tales of terror of a gothic novel could
actually happen to them. Thus, the idea that the American rational heroes are just as
“degenerate” as the European villains, and that the readers might be just as mad, might be
the scariest thrill a gothic writer could come up with during the 1790s’ anxious nativism.
However, Brown’s gothic novels also have a didactic mission, which means that he aims
at teaching something through all of his terrors and deconstructed binaries. Elizabeth
Lamont argues that Brown leads his readers into thinking critically about their society,
“to admit of its brutalities, dangers, and promise, and to appeal to the collective soul of a
people who, he believed, were solely responsible for the decision to embrace or deny the
decencies and obligations that would prove the national adaptation a superior, or inferior,
one” (155). Brown’s didactic message, then, is pointed at the Early Republic’s own
failings, and his decision to share this message through the Gothic genre is not incidental.
As Teresa Goddu argues in her introduction to Gothic America, the Gothic is a genre that
has been erroneously labelled as escapist; rather, she argues, this genre “registers its
culture’s contradictions, presenting a distorted, not a disengaged, version of reality” (23). Brown’s distorted representation of the Early Republic’s mythicized American youth
and demonized European villains forces the readers to come to terms with their society’s
simplified worldview. Goddu goes farther, arguing that “American gothic literature
criticizes America’s national myth of new-world innocence by voicing the cultural
contradictions that undermine the nation’s claim to purity and equality” (10). Brown’s
gothic novels, then, illustrate the contradictions of the nativist propaganda, even all the
while using the propaganda to scare the readers by tapping into their fears. By constantly
blurring the lines between illustrating the worse nativist nightmares and debunking these
nightmares as overly simplistic, Brown forces his readers to contemplate the messy
complexity of human existence and to distrust any nation-building effort based on
intolerance towards the Other. Brown does what Goddu sees as American Gothic’s
primary objective: “in its narrative incoherence, the gothic discloses the instability of
America’s self-representations; its highly wrought form exposes the artificial foundations
of national identity” (10). Through the gothic genre, then, Brown is able to spread radical
ideas, during a conservative political period, on the complexity of American identity.
While the 1790s were a period of revolutions and turmoil in Europe, the Early
Republic was moving towards conservatism, as evidenced by the paranoia of the Alien
and Sedition Acts. This anxious atmosphere was not the best for people like Brown who
viewed human nature as infinitively more complex than the nativists. One way to voice
those ideas in a socially acceptable manner was to use genres that allowed veiled
subversion. For example, in her article “The Love of Plants; or the Cross-Fertilization of
Science and Desire at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” Fredrika Teute describes how
the language of botany allowed the spreading of anti-conventional social ideas without
the repercussions of a conservative censorship (83). Similarly, the gothic genre vehicle of
subversive ideas through its extraordinary tales, and through it American Gothic writers
questioned their society’s values. While British “gothic novels question only the
perversion of class and gender hierarchies from traditional values…some North
American gothics critique the form of the hierarchy itself [and] early North American
gothics frequently resolve their conflicts by creating an alternative order” (Cowell 126).
Brown uses the gothic, then, to explore new social orders and to lead to “open-ended
investigation of social institutions” (Cowell 127). Indeed, one of the main ideas that
Brown puts forward in his novels is “his fictional representation of the ‘impossibility of
absolute certainty’” (Verhoeven 29). Only through absolute certainties can one create
dichotomies between wholly positive and wholly negative items; without absolute
certainty, one is left with ambiguous shades of positive and negative elements and with a
picture of America much more complex than nativist propaganda and politicians tried to
represent. While Wil Verhoeven argues that Brown was not a particularly radical citizen
of his society since he “was exactly where the Republic was at the end of the eighteenth
century: at the nexus of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, colonialism and modernity,
progress and consolidation” (32), a close reading of his novels reveals that any apparent
conservative message he presents becomes deconstructed through ambiguity and
contradiction. His constant ambiguity is what caused Brown to be “construed, as he had
been since his death in 1810, as a flawed writer” (Barnard, Kamrath, Shapiro ix), but
ambiguity is the tool through which the gothic writer expresses his radical views. After
all, “gothic fiction is a destabilizing genre by definition, a genre whose very form
prohibits a secure framework for defining the self. When traditional sources of knowing –
reason and nature – are undermined, the coherence of the self is also subverted. The
epistemological grounding for identity is cut away” (Cowell 128). Brown takes away
epistemological certainty and gives his readers ambiguity as the base for identity
At first, Brown’s deconstruction of all binaries may appear nihilist; after all, if we
have no absolute certainty in anything, there is nothing worth fighting for. However,
Brown is not so much a nihilist as an expert gothic writer illustrating the incoherence and
paradoxes of his society’s anxious debates over nativism, degeneration, and unideal
Americans. To argue that there is a clear way to differentiate the welcome from the
unwelcome leads one on a slippery slope that reveals everyone’s inability to meet a
standard that refuses any difference or human frailty. This intolerant standard, says
If some scholars, especially in the 1950s, have categorized Brown as “a flawed writer,” as Philip
Barnard, Mark Kamrath, and Stephen Shapiro point out in Revising Charles Brockden Brown (ix), these
hostile scholars might have been involuntarily complimenting him, then, since Brown’s work reveals that
perfection is neither graspable, nor desirable.
Brown, is the real danger for the United States because it leads to panic and anxieties
towards all those who do not conform: foreigners, unideal citizens, people with
disabilities. And this means that anyone could be targeted by this panic since Brown
illustrates in his novels that we are all more or less foreigners, unideal citizens, and
visibly or invisibly disabled. Therefore, in his extraordinary and terrifying gothic tales,
Brown comes out as a paradoxically calming voice of acceptance among tyrannical
political acts, vitriolic anti-foreigner propaganda, and the anxious pathologization of the
Other. Brown may not be as widely-known today as other American authors, and he
might be accused of being an imperfect writer, but his mark on American literature is
undeniable – his depiction of a terrifying, imperfect, and complex America echoes
throughout the American canon.
Chapter 6
Analyzing Walt Whitman’s contradictory stance on health and disability in his
poetry, Robert Scholnick points out that Whitman’s poetry uses disabilities to represent
both nativist health concerns and dignified metaphors of sacrifice for the nation. Indeed, a
reading of Whitman’s poetry through Disabilities Studies’ lenses reveals an ambiguous
representation of disabilities. In “Song of the Open Road,” Whitman declares: “Only
those may come who come in sweet and determined bodies, / No diseased person—no
rum-drinker or venereal taint is permitted here” (131). Scholnik argues that, “in
promoting physical health as a means of fostering national stability, control, and
improvement, Whitman excluded those lacking the best blood,” which was in tone with
the phrenologist and eugenic readings that the poet consulted (249, 252). Further, in
“Salut au Monde,” Whitman lumps disabilities with social misfits and criminals: “I see
the prisoners in the prisons, / I see the defective human bodies of the earth, I see the
blind, the deaf and dumb, idiots, hunchbacks and lunatics, / I see pirates, thieves,
betrayers, murderers” (123). This mixing of people with disabilities and criminals
appears often in nineteenth-century rhetoric, where the non-conforming body was
perceived as a danger to the state, and thus criminal. However, in the poem “The WoundDresser” from Drum Taps, Whitman gives a sentimental and sympathetic representation
of disabilities. Whitman graphically describes the wounds of the disabled veterans:
“From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand / I undo the clotted lint…I dress the
perforated shoulder” (261), but these disabilities are not signs of degeneracy. Indeed, the
wounded soldiers, with their “side-falling head,” “the foot with the bullet-wound,” and
their “wound in the abdomen” (261) become types of Christ, inscribed in the master
narrative of the crucifixion, since the poet imagines the death of Christ as replayed in the
Civil War. These wounds symbolize the sacrifice the soldiers made in the war for their
loved ones and their country, and so these visible physical marks become metaphors for
the wounded nation. Analyzing this constant ambiguity of the use of disabilities in
Whitman’s poetry, Scholnick concludes by arguing that Whitman
deployed a discourse of national perfectibility, which carried with it
distinct eugenicist implications about the value of different races and
individuals. But he also drew from a discourse of democratic inclusiveness
in which all people are valued on their own terms. The tension between
these two languages lies at the heart not only of Whitman’s life work but
also of the America whose song Whitman sang. (259)
While this argument sheds light on how nineteenth-century American poets were still
dealing with the same issues of nativism and health as crucial to nation building,
Scholnick’s conclusion also highlights what Charles Brockden Brown is achieving
through his use of Early Republic’s nativist rhetoric and his deconstruction of binaries.
The contradictions Brown sets up while using (and abusing) his society’s rhetoric rest at
the center of his novels’ message. At times echoing the nativist rhetoric to thrill his
readers, at others debunking the rhetoric to terrify and provoke his readers, Brown’s
representation of America’s imperfections and complexity is as all-encompassing as the
representation of America in Whitman’s poetry.
This thesis has focused on Brown’s ambiguous use of disabilities in an attempt to
understand Brown’s stance on the Early Republic’s debates over the welcome and the
unwelcome. Chapter Two’s focus on Ormond and Arthur Mervyn has demonstrated that
Brown is a gothic writer taking full advantage of his readers’ anxieties over foreigners
and disabilities fueled by the nativist politico-medical rhetoric. Tapping into his readers’
anxieties, Brown sets predictable nativist patterns only to debunk them and leave his
readers to question the patterns’ validity. Chapter Three demonstrates through a close
reading of Edgar Huntly that Brown depicts the pitfalls of sympathy as a tool for nation
building since it reinforces the norm and the politics of sameness; he tricks his readers
into sympathizing with the unwelcome and forces them to realize that holding norms and
sameness as goals for the nation leads to exclusion. Chapter Four continues the
exploration of Brown’s illustration of the paradoxes and contradictions at the heart of the
nativist rhetoric and values of his society; in Wieland, showing the similarities between
reason and insanity, Brown depicts the United States as already unstable and degenerate,
and illustrates how a dichotomous worldview leads to a simplistic and incorrect
understanding of the world and those around us. Finally, Chapter Five argues that
ambiguity is central to Brown’s argument: he deconstructs all the binaries he sets up to
give us flawed heroes who are more imperfect and complex than the literary heroes the
nativists would want to see represented in the new American literature. Through his use
of the Gothic, Brown gives a radical depiction of the Early Republic as complex, flawed,
and diverse.
The arguments in these chapters bring forward the idea that Brown’s gothic
novels worked against any reductionist depiction of the United States. All the
perspectives of his society that he gives through his characters (medical, political,
philosophical, moral) debunk any simplistic theory that tries to point an accusing finger
toward the Other. His representation of the Yellow Fever reminds American citizens to
be responsible citizens during the epidemic and to not incriminate immigrants for the
mass infection. Brown reveals complex political views through his representation of
sympathy, where the readers identify with the Other and, as they do so, come to terms
with their own imperfection. He ridicules the fear that foreigners are the cause for
national degeneration and that American citizens are in any way more perfect than others.
Brown removes certainty and the fortress of binaries behind which hide those who have a
simplistic worldview and who want to feel superior to others. Brown’s novels do not
leave one stone unturned as they investigate and question the values and beliefs of the
Early Republic. Disabilities feature prominently in Brown’s work because they are the
ultimate Other that all discourses reject and that the gothic writer constantly reintroduces
in his depiction of America. In Brown’s novels, America is an asylum in both senses of
the word: a haven only for those who conform (but whose conformity is mere illusion)
and a padded cell for those viewed as a threat that needs to be contained, incarcerated,
excluded (and whom Brown depicts as heroes such as Edgar and identifiable villainous
characters such as Clithero).
What comes out of this exploration of Brown is his distrust of any kind of
extremism, even when it is inspired by virtuous ideals. Virtuous acts, in Brown’s novels,
do not get rewarded. This does not mean that Brown does not want people to be virtuous,
but that he questions the validity of virtue that is promoted by the ulterior motives of
getting a reward. The reward sought by Brown’s heroes and heroines is to change human
imperfection into perfection. This desire, taken to its extreme, leads to extremist views
that are not far from those of the nativists. Wanting to cure others of their imperfection
has been a constant theme of those with the power to categorize the substandard Others,
be they people with disabilities, unwelcome foreigners, or unideal citizens. This kind of
virtue through cure, illustrates Brown, is a euphemism for oppression, victimization, and
The fact that Walt Whitman’s poetry still shows themes of health concerns as key
for the nation-building project and, at times, of seemingly eugenic tendencies, may lead
one to think that the nineteenth-century United States ignored Brown’s message and
embraced instead the nativists’ anxiety and desire for perfection, uniformity, and
exclusion. And yet, Whitman’s love declaration to America in all of its imperfections
echoes the America of ambiguities and contradictions that is represented in Brown’s
gothic novels, revealing a continuity between the two authors. Brown is often called the
Father of American literature, but, rather than a question of precedence, his real
contribution is planting the seed that came to characterize American literature. And that
characteristic is American literature’s exploration and celebration of the ambiguities,
imperfections, and contradictions of a country calling itself an “asylum” – and yet being
in denial about the paradoxical double meaning of that word.
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Walker, with Related Texts. By Charles Brockden Brown. Indianapolis:
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Shapiro. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2004. ix-xxi. Print.
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------. Arthur Mervyn, or Memoirs of the Year 1793, with Related Texts. Eds. Philip
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------. Ormond or the Secret Witness, with Related Texts. Eds. Philip Barnard and Stephen
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