Tuesday May 12th, 2009

When Gothic Meant Weird


Wieland: or, The Transformation by Charles Brockden Brown
Modern Library, 412 pp., $23.00

Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland: or, The Transformation may be the most overlooked novel in the American literary canon. I have a simple theory for its neglect: It’s too strange, too freakish for the rigidity of a canon. It upends; it is unbelievable. It perplexes with not just its plot (the supposedly true tales of spontaneous combustion and disembodied voices and fathers killing families that served as inspiration) but with its very existence (an 18th-century American novel, published when John Adams was president). A scholarly brain like mine, trained to categorize literary texts into the rough outlines of curricular periods and genres — American novels are a 19th-century invention, etc. — struggles to find a place for it. Sure, I can decorate it with words and phrases: Gothic, post-Revolutionary, rural, narrated by a slightly unhinged young woman. But these feel unequal to the task. To critically corral Wieland, you need to dial back assumptions about American literature to some murky pre-Fenimore Cooper, captivity-narrative, “Early-American” pen where nothing sits easily or rationally. Which is perfect, since rationalism is debased at every one of the text’s many turns.

Even the covers of my Modern Library paperback create cognitive problems. The front offers this quote from William Hazlitt: “Brown was a man of genius.” William Hazlitt? On an American novel? Turn the book over and you’re confronted with a blurb by John Keats: “Very powerful.” Unnerving, to be sure. Some very amateur sleuthing turns up the fact that Keats was three when Wieland was published. So much for the influence-moving-East-to-West conceit drummed into the brains of English majors. 

I first tried to read the novel years ago, when it was assigned to me in graduate school. The plot synopsis on the syllabus alone provided me with great cocktail chatter. “Did you know that the first American novel — though some dispute its primacy — is a gothic novel about a religious fanatic who kills his family after hearing voices in his head? And there is this weird European guy who wanders in the bushes of what is now Philadelphia who is a ventriloquist — not the dummy kind, but a mimic who can project the voice of someone else through space so that people overhearing the voice think they are hearing that other person? He uses it at one point to have this virginal maid tell another man how fun it was to be ravished by him. Then the upstanding brother of that woman goes and kills his whole family because he hears voices telling him to do so. It’s so Abraham. It’s totally Son of Sam!”

These quips belied my own cowardice: I didn’t read the book. I flipped through the pages with my arms ramrod straight, book far away, one eye shut. I would read a passage and put it down, freaked out. I just read about it, though I couldn’t find much criticism. 

Wieland stayed with me on the periphery of my literary brain. I waited for someone braver to do some nasty analytic, historical and cultural work on it. It’s lit-crit gold, this first novel by America’s first professional novelist. What thicker-skinned critic, less hidebound by the strictures of genre and period would make the strange familiar? 

One or two, it turns out, but they’re outliers — strange, too, as in strangers: both are independent scholars, of which there aren’t many. This may have something to do with the market-driven horror that is dissertating (there are few Early American Literature postings on the MLA job lists). But to Caleb Crain and Peter Kafer: huzzah! In the brilliant opening paragraph of Kafer’s Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic, he writes:

At the age of twenty-seven Charles Brockden Brown invented the American Gothic novel with a story in which a father dies by spontaneous combustion and the son, a onetime deist, goes crazy and strangles his wife and five children, seeks to murder (and perhaps rape) his sister, and commits suicide. Brown then sent a copy of his novel to the vice president of the United States, announcing himself ‘a stranger to the person, though not the character of Thomas Jefferson’ and hoping that Wieland; or the Transformation, an American Tale ‘is capable of affording you pleasure.’ To Thomas Jefferson: a deist who designed his Monticello home as the American epitome of classical proportion, who got a violent headache when he stood atop Virginia’s Natural Bridge and looked down ‘into the abyss,’ who would seek to have David Hume’s History of English purged of its disturbing unrepublican elements, and whose favorite novel was Laurence Sterne’s sentimental Tristram Shandy. What was he thinking?

Kafer says it’s a “safe bet” that Jefferson never read the novel. I understand completely.

Jeffersonian me, too scared to ever see The Shining, finally screwed up the courage to get over the context and give the text a whirl last year. Once again, I kept only one eye open. Late at night, reading alone in the house, I was sure I heard noises downstairs. I burrowed further under the covers. Brockden Brown, two centuries before David Foster Wallace, included footnotes to document the ripped-from-the-headlines terror he fictionalized, and his narrator, Clara, is quite the literary heroine: smart, independent, lustful and quixotic. I read this time to compare Wieland to more recent fare; most especially, the Gothic tale of our moment, Twilight. In other words, to make it less strange. I settled into understanding it as a Castle of Otranto set in well-educated woods and, after reading Crain’s great intro to the Modern Library edition, managed to fold it into some literary narrative that made sense to me. (Though, glittering vampire boyfriends feel tame compared to spontaneously combusting fathers.)

No longer feeling at a loss now, I just feel loss. I guess I want Wieland to stay wild; I guess I want Early American Literature to remain that slightly threatening secret key to our national self.

Anne Trubek is Associate Professor at Oberlin College. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Mother Jones, The Believer, and elsewhere. Her book, The Sweet Sadness of Writers’ Houses, is forthcoming from The University of Pennsylvania Press.

Books mentioned in this review:

Charles Brockden Brown’s Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic