Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker

Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker Summary and Analysis of Preface


In his short preface, Charles Brockden Brown explains his method and approach. Noting that his previous novel Arthur Mervyn had received a "flattering reception," he now hopes to equally please his audience with Edgar Huntly.

Brown believes that the "moral" nature of America has yet to be explored, especially in terms of what makes it distinct from the moral nature of Europe. He believes that America has "sources of amusement" that are "numerous and inexhaustible," as well as being unique to this continent's civilization. He hopes that his novel will take advantage of those unique qualities to tell a universal story.

He then suggests that he will engage his readers in ways that previous writers have not done. Where earlier Gothic writers employed "superstition," "exploded manners," and "Gothic castles," Brown intends to feature qualities more applicable to America, such as Indian attacks.

He ends by noting that only the reader can judge whether he has proven successful in accomplishing all these aims.


Brown is often considered the first professional writer that America produced, and he is certainly aware of the potential for a new tradition here in this Preface. He focuses primarily on what distinguishes America from Europe, suggesting that its landscape and "moral" sense are markedly distinct. It is an important distinction to make, especially considering how new the country was. Certainly, artists of any kind would have to contend with expectations of an audience that was used to European art. Not only did Brown feel obligated to defend his right to write of America, but he also felt compelled to suggest that this distinction offered him license to a new type of story.

And indeed, this emphasis is useful in understanding Edgar Huntly as a particularly American tale. The landscape descriptions in the novel could certainly be criticized as over-long, but are easier to understand when one realizes Brown intentionally wanted to write of them. For over a century, one of America's primary assets was its frontier, its vast amount of untapped land. In Edgar Huntly, Brown explores the frontier for both its promise and its implicit terror.

Similarly, Brown suggests that his novel will tap into a psychological quality that is uniquely American. Though his preface is relatively light in tone, giving almost no glimpse of the dark impulses he will explore throughout the novel, it does give the reader some direction towards understanding that Brown wants us to see Edgar Huntly as a product of his time and place. That Edgar's psychological torment, his split between rational interest and deep-seeded desire, is universal does not detract from the fact that Brown presents it via the metaphor of a country deeply divided between its own contradictions. Because the country had been founded on Enlightenment ideals but was currently in the midst of a xenophobic fury, it was the perfect place for exploring that type of disconnect within an individual.

Finally, Brown does acknowledge the influence of the Gothic literary tradition, which was at this time distinctly European. In other words, he is not averse to European influence, a fact even more clear when one learns of his associations with other disciplines of the Enlightenment while in New York. However, he insists that he can exploit that tradition in a manner that is uniquely both his own and his country's. All told, Brown wants to be understood not only as a great author, but as a great American author. He is aware that he is on the forefront of a new tradition, and wants to pay credence to that.