Biography of Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810)
Charles Brockden Brown
Charles Brockden Brown was one of the most accomplished early American writers and a man of letters; he is often considered the first professional American novelist and the most important novelist preceding James Fenimore Cooper. His work is in the intellectual tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Washington Irving and was very influential to those writers as well as Percy and Mary Shelley, John Keats, and William Hazlitt, among others. Brown often wrote about the historical pressures of the era, such as religion, women’s rights, Lockean theories of knowledge and the senses, and political tensions. Most of his fiction was in the gothic tradition with supernatural mysteries, romantic heroes, and emphases on madness and the sublime.
Brown was born on January 17, 1771 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Elijah Brown, a prosperous Quaker merchant, and Mary Armitt Brown. Brown sent his son to Friends' Public Latin School in Philadelphia; upon graduation Brown spent six years in an apprenticeship in the law office of Alexander Wilcocks as his parents wished, but ultimately decided this was not the career he wished to pursue. Between 1796 and 1800 Brown spent time in New York as well as Philadelphia. As a member of the literary and artistic circle the Friendly Club, which was concerned with social reform and admired the work of British political philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, he associated with likeminded intellectuals. Brown published four novels during this fertile period. In 1799-1800 he cofounded and edited The Monthly Magazine and American Review. He was in New York when a yellow fever epidemic struck; one of his closest friends was killed and his subsequent work reflected his ruminations on moral choice in the face of plague and death.
In 1800 Brown returned to Philadelphia and kept up his writing. This did not prove financially stable and he began working in his brother’s mercantile importing firm. In 1803 he founded another magazine, The Literary Magazine and American Register. Brown married Elizabeth Linn and had four children in five years. He was turned out of his Quaker faith for marrying outside of it. In the last years of his life, he edited his magazines in relative obscurity. He died on February 10, 1810 at the age of 39 from pulmonary consumption.
His oeuvre contains seven major novels published between 1798-1801, a 1798 pamphlet on women’s rights (Alcuin: A Dialogue), numerous short stories, and novels: Wieland, Ormond, Edgar Huntly, Arthur Mervyn, Stephen Calvert, Clara Howard, and Jane Talbot. Fragments of his first novel, Sky-Walk; or, the Man Unknown to Himself were found but never published. In terms of his political writing, Brown published a pamphlet advocating the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and against Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807. He contributed a historical narrative of Napoleonic geopolitics in The American Register and General Repository of History, Politics, and Science. He also wrote Historical Sketches, which were multiple historical fictions at the end of the revolutionary era and published posthumously.