Charles Brockden Brown published Wieland in 1798 when he was 27 years old. After quitting a law apprenticeship in 1793, Brown established himself in New York literary circles. His fame rested partly on a pamphlet concerning women’s rights, Alcuin; A Dialogue, and other contributions to Philadelphia’s Weekly Magazine. Wieland is Brown’s most famous work; with this novel he established himself as America’s first professional novelist and inaugurated the genre of American gothic.
Wieland was influenced in its themes and tone by the English gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, Horace Walpole, and William Godwin. Godwin was a particular favorite of Brown, who was also influenced by the radical philosopher’s moral and political writings. Brown based his work off of the true story of James Yates, who murdered his family in 1781 when a hallucination of two angels convinced him it was God’s will.
Wieland was popular with the public but was derided by contemporary critics for its gimmickry and unsatisfying plot. The novel's inclusion of ventriloquism and spontaneous combustion were scorned by critics. However, it was a cult classic amongst Brown’s literary contemporaries during the 19th century; it was read and admired by such literary luminaries as Percy and Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, William Hazlitt, and John Keats. Brown himself was quite proud of his novelistic work; in February 1799 he wrote to his brother, “to be the writer of Wieland and Ormond is a greater recommendation than ever I imagined it would be.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the novel languished in critical and popular esteem but in the 1960s and 70s, Wieland witnessed a revival of critical interest that has continued unabated. Not only is Brown recognized as one of the most significant contributors to the creation of American literature, his work has been lauded for its insight on contemporary events, the tensions present in post-Revolutionary America, religion, and the limitations of Enlightenment thinking and the Lockean emphasis on the senses. As noted by Brown scholar Bryan Waterman in his introduction to the Norton Critical Edition of Wieland, critics became interested in Brown’s nuanced engagement with “the historical pressures of the period, from women’s rights to class and party politics to the place of religion in American life and the formation of the new nation’s public sphere.” Modern-day scholars appreciate Brown as well: his “obsessive attention to the mechanics of cognition and questions of motivation spoke to psychoanalytic critics, and his attention to processes of representation, signification, narratology, and appearances appealed to poststructuralists.”