Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker

Edgar Huntly: Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker Study Guide

Edgar Huntly: or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, published in 1799 by Charles Brockden Brown, is one of the earliest work of American fiction, and the first to depict the tense relationship between Americans and Indians on the frontier. Adopting but then adapting some of the European Gothic literary tradition, Brown replaced castles and crypts with the jagged mountains, deep vales, and echoing caverns of the hostile American wilderness.

Although the novel is in some ways a detective story, it is also very complex in its examination of gender relations, frontier violence, religious and ethnic clashes, and the complicated psychology of its titular character. One of the most famous literary critics, Leslie Fieldler, wrote that the novel is "the account of a young man who begins by looking for guilt in others and ends up finding it in himself; who starts out in search of answers but is finally satisfied with having defined a deeper riddle than those he attempted to solve."

Edgar Huntly came in the middle of an explosive literary output from Brown. The first volume was published in August/September, and was the fourth volume of Brown's to be published within the year. By 1801, two more books would be published.

Like his main character, Brown was a Quaker. He was intimately familiar with rebellions (the American Revolution, Haiti, Ireland), frontier violence, commerce and trade, and disputed land claims. Waldegrave was based off his close friend Elihu Hubbard Smith, a deist and an abolitionist who died prematurely.

Brown's writing took place in the context of his involvement with the New York group of The Friendly Club, comprised of males and females who valued progressive intellectual exchange and friendship. There, Brown was exposed to Enlightenment thought, but his novels always remained firmly rooted in the American experience. In the 1790s, the country was in upheaval over the Alien and Sedition Acts, as well as concomitant counter-subversive fears and fantasies about conspiratorial groups like the Illuminati. Gender tensions and issues over the extension of democracy created a threatening atmosphere in the new republic that was reflected in the text of Edgar Huntly.

One of the most discussed elements of Brown's book is its focus on sleepwalking. Brown read a great deal on the subject, collecting information through Smith's help, and then using it in several works. He also addressed the contemporary issues of imperialism, expansion of the frontier and the extermination of the Delaware, and Quaker involvement with the Irish and the Indians.

Like Brown's other novels, Edgar Huntly did not make much money when it was published. It was only a moderate critical success. It has attracted a great deal of critical interest and writing since, however, and is often included in college and university courses about the American novel and American history.