Monday, October 5, 2009

Concluding Unscientific Postscript on Charles Brockden Brown

In my last post on Charles Brockden Brown, I complained that while, in the words of one critic, he may have been the first American novelist of ideas, he lacked the philosophical courage and the literary talent to follow those ideas through to interesting conclusions. This impression has been slightly lessened upon my reading of his later novel Edgar Huntly, which is more willing than its more famous predecessor to interrogate humanity’s inner being but which still betrays a reluctance to see the heart of darkness lurking behind Enlightenment thought.

Edgar Huntly
is for its first third or so a detective knowledge (decades, you will note, before “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), in which the titular protagonist tries to find out who has committed the savage murder of his best friend. The subtitle of the novel informs us that Huntly is a sleepwalker (a practice which no doubt signified the same sort of mystical pseudo-science as ventriloquism and hypnotism in the early days of this nation), and so the reader is led to believe that he will himself have murdered his friend in his sleep and be unwittingly hunting himself, seeking punishment.

Brown encourages us to scoff at Huntly; as we know before he does that he sleepwalks, we are able to notice how hypocritical he’s being when he says of another suspect that
The incapacity of sound sleep denotes a mind sorely wounded. It is thus that atrocious criminals denote the possession of some deadly secret. The thoughts, which considerations of safety enables [sic] them to suppress or disguise during wakefulness, operate without impediment, and exhibit their genuine effects, when the notices of sense are are shut out from a knowledge of their intire [sic] condition.
The double self he sets up for Clithero could, no doubt, apply to himself as well, and indeed, he is remarkably double-minded. For example, he remarks at one point that “Curiosity is vicious, if undisciplined by reason, and inconducive to benefit,” then turns around, just two sentences later, and says that “Curiosity, like virtue is its own reward.” He is in possession of a remarkably sunny attitude toward human nature, prizing a self-righteous benevolence in the face of Clithero’s supposed sin, setting himself in the position of a judgmental but forgiving God.

So yes, we’re expecting that he will receive his come-uppance in the form of the revelation of his own double self, a shadow-side that takes over at night and murders those closest to him. But that doesn’t happen. The detective story drops out 100 pages in, and we’re left with a Cooper-esque wilderness adventure. Clithero confesses that, yes, he is a sleepwalker, and yes, he accidentally killed someone, but that was a long ago and has nothing to do with Huntly’s friend. Then he disappears into a deep cave, presumably to starve himself to death in penance.

Huntly himself has become a sleepwalker by this point, however—apparently it’s contagious—and he wakes up in that same deep, dark cave. These actions, both the sleepwalking and the cave, set Clithero up as Huntly’s shadow-self, a prefiguring of the döppelganger trope that would prove so popular half a century later in the American Renaissance. But Clithero is nowhere to be found; instead, Huntly runs into a panther, which he kills with a tomahawk and eats raw, and a tribe of American Indians in the midst of raping a young white woman. He kills them, too. He has become a savage, a shadow-self.

Problem is, we’re not encouraged to condemn him for his slaughter of the Indians. They are, after all, “savages” and are committing a terrible crime against an innocent woman, and besides that, they would probably have killed him if he hadn’t gotten them first. Huntly is disgusted at himself for eating the panther, but the reader is inclined to let him off the hook; he was starving, after all.

So Huntly manages to rise above the “savagery” around him, even when he is in the dark, sinister cave, the site of amorality and license. (Think of the woods in Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.”) Indeed, by the end of the novel (and after a series of increasingly mystifying and poorly conceived adventures), he is proven to be nearly completely innocent.

The small exception is that his sunny view of humanity has been disproven. Clithero, it turns out, is a madman who did not actually kill the woman he said he did all those years ago. In fact, she has arrived on American shores, a fact which Huntly relates to him in an attempt to ease his conscience. The result is that Clithero attempts to kill her again and then drowns himself en route to prison. Huntly is safe, free, and relatively innocent, but he has learned something about human nature.

It’s true that this sequence of events is more philosophically interesting—if less well-written—than those of Wieland, but they are not what they could be. The Enlightenment mind is now aware of the presence of evil in the world, and, unlike Clara Wieland, is aware of slippery morality. But this evil remains a presence outside of the mind itself; it exists in the savages and in the madman, even if that madman is a döppelganger of the hero. Evil is therefore made “safe” for the observer; the hero is kept pure, and we will have to wait for Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville to show us where the darkness really lies: in the heart of every human being.

I’ve now read a third of Brown’s novels—his two best, by popular opinion—and I can declare with some certainty that his place in the American canon is primarily chronological. He’s not that good of a literary stylist (though he is better than all but the best of Poe), and his philosophy is thin and, in the end, flaccid. It’s been an interesting experience reading him, but what will stick with me is the questions I had to pose to myself—not the ones he attempted to pose to me.

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