Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)

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Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)

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Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

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Herman Melville, “Israel Potter: His Fifty Years in Exile” (1855)

“In view of this battle one may well ask—What separates the enlightened man from the savage? Is civilization a thing distinct, or is it an advanced stage of barbarism?” (573)

After the failure of Pierre, or the Ambiguities, Herman Melville entered a troubled period in his life. Most of his works had been commercial failures. He faced depression and poverty. His family tried to get him appointed a consul without any luck. He published works in magazines over the next few years, including the serialization of Israel Potter and the works that would be included in the Piazza Tales. Melville, by the way, is 36 at this time. Melville was not a fan of Israel Potter and deemed it a money-making effort.

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The book is apparently based on a real story from a pamphlet that Melville acquired about a Revolutionary War soldier, captured at sea, and exiled to Europe for fifty years. The novel that results is full of clichés and dubious encounters. In the course of his travels Potter meets King George III, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones. Apparently some of these encounters were real, according to the original autobiography. Dramatized, they take on the character of American jingoism, hitting home—again and again—the belief that America was young, free, and practical while Europe was corrupted by excess, wealth, privilege, and aristocratic hierarchies. Just a few of these examples include Potter working for a knight who accepts that he will never get the American to address him as “Sir,” Benjamin Franklin praising Potter’s wisdom at not knowing what cologne is and reciting some of his maxims on thrift, and the King of England learning he will be unable to defeat the United States just by looking at the rebel Potter. Much of it seems wasted coming from the pen of Melville.

Potter engages in various schemes pushed forward by Franklin and Jones. He even serves under Jones for a while, giving the tale a some of the feel of the sea fiction that Melville is known for. Most of the later half of the novel is spent at sea, with Potter serving under Jones.Through this, he is able to play pivotal roles in the Revolution despite being far from the frontline battles that he started with (and even farther from the fields he left to engage the British at Bunker Hill). He even meets Ethan Allen during Allen’s imprisonment in England, which turns into another attempt by Melville to juxtapose the solidarity, patriotism, and equality of America with the pretension of England. The period after the Revolution is rushed. Most of Potter’s life is crammed into one chapter titled “Forty-Five Years.” He spends that wandering about London, pining for home and dwelling on the decadence of the world he was stuck in. “And so, Israel, now an old man, was bewitched by the mirage of vapors; he had dreamed himself home into the mists of the Housatonic mountains; the flat, apathetic, dead, London fog had not seemed from those agile mists, which goat-like, climbed the purple peaks, or in routed armies of phantoms, broke down, pell-mell, dispersed in flight upon the plain. . . . all kinds of labor were overstocked. Beggars, too, lighted on the walls like locusts.” (610) The first chapter foreshadows the mists of London as a sharp contrast to the mists of New England. Eventually he returns home to die.

One message is that Potter was able to sustain his American patriotism and, more importantly, his American identity remains despite his long period of exile. Melville is also revisiting some of his ideas from Omoo about the relationship between wandering and freedom. While Potter would was nothing better than to return home, making him quite different from the deserting soldiers who seem to not have a clear goal in their wanderings except to avoid cruel masters or poor conditions, he becomes a wanderer. His name is highlighted here. While born of Puritan stock and named out of Puritan religious commitments, he ends his life closer to the Wandering Jew (right from the text, page 610). Was it this wandering and rootlessness that was the true reason he was able to hold onto his Americanism. Had he been settled onto land, married into an English family, and raised English children would he have remained the patriot to his death? It does not seem likely to me. Is this a tragic component of American identity? They are constantly on the move, constantly discontent, but always longing for a home.

If this was the fate of Americans at the time of Melville’s writing, the entire world has been Americanized now. Not in the silly cultural symbols—indeed universal around the world now—but in the frustrating liquidity of life. The most tragic part of the tale comes when Potter returns to his beloved home to find everything different and decayed. It is not a Rip Van Winkle story. He does not return to a world of industry. He finds instead a burnt out homestead. “Ere long, on the mountain side, he passed into an ancient natural wood, which seemed some way familiar, and midway in it, paused to contemplate a strange mouldy pile, resting at one end against a sturdy beech. Though wherever touched by his staff, however lightly, this pile would crumble, yet here and there, even in powder, it preserved the exact look, each irregularly defined line, of what it has originally been.” (614) The conclusion is not how things have changed or how boldly America progressed. It was the much more pathetic “[f]ew things remain.” With this, Melville predicted the real horror of late capitalism’s endless projections into the future as it clamors for immortality. It can no longer leave much of value behind.

George Washington, “Presidency, 1789-1797

I found Washington quite a bit more interesting and even likable as I read over some of the documents produced during his presidency.  Perhaps the position forced him to ponder (or at least to write down with more detail) his feelings on governance.  Where I need to remain critical of Washington is that while he was actively establishing the U.S. Empire in the West, as revealed through his Indian policies and his response to the Whiskey Rebellion, he stressed non-interventionism in European affairs.  Clearly he wanted the U.S. to be an equal with the Europeans and to do so he continued the imperial claims (if not the policies) of the British.  This is not a new observation, but it is notable how clearly stated it is in even this brief selection of documents.  Some of the highlights in the final part of the Library of American collection of Washington’s writings are his inaugural addresses, his diplomatic letters to some Indian tribes, his letters to ambassadors and cabinet members, and his yearly addresses to Congress.  Washington continued his correspondence with the Marquis de Lafayette, which provide one window into the French Revolution (as do his letters to Jefferson in the same period).  These are included as well in the collection.

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First, to carry on from the previous post, Washington says even less about the slavery during his presidency than he did in the run-up to the drafting of the Constitution.  This may be due to politics, but I cannot help but think that Washington clearly saw slavery as domestic affair.  It only comes up in his private writings about the management of Mount Vernon or his plans for his estate.  He did free all of his slaves in his will and provided for the care of the young or elderly.  In a letter to the French ambassador to the United States, Jean Baptiste Ternant, Washington offered support to help put down the slave revolt in Saint Domingue.  “I am happy in the opportunity of testifying how well disposed the United States are to render every aid in their power to our good friends and Allies the French to quell ‘the alarming insurrection of the Negroes in Hispaniola’ and of the ready disposition to effect it.” (785)  Otherwise, as I suggested, the issue of slavery is simply not there in Washington’s public eye, either due to political savvy or an odd blindness (given the large slave population in his home).

Washington also addresses the question of religious liberty, only in passing.  In a letter to the United Baptist Churches he strove to convince them that the Bill of Rights (still being debated and implemented at the time) and the Constitution would not undermined religious societies.  It seems clear to me that Washington saw little role for religion in government outside of a defense of liberty.   (I know that is an obvious point, but I never actually read Washington to any significant degree before so some of this is confirmation of textbook knowledge.)  “If I could not conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to established effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” (739)  Notice that he asserted the need for positive barriers to religious tyranny, not simply the absence of an established religion.

Let me get to my main point, Washington not only envisioned a U.S. empire in the West, but he worked hard to establish it.  Evidence of this comes from his view of the people living on the frontier.  Many of his official documents such as his yearly messages to Congress call for a stronger military, more respectable foreign affairs, and unity across regions (that is bringing the West into the national fold).  In his second message, the need for a stronger military is tied directly to maintaining power on the frontier.  The most earnest of these reports to Congress on the difficulties on the frontier was his fourth, delivered in 1792.  Controlling the ambitions of frontiersmen, which might undermine the U.S. relations with Indians, was a core concern of his when drafting the message.  The central event of his Presidency, in regards to the frontier, was the 1794 Whiskey tax rebellion, which can be seen as the culmination of many 18th century anti-state movements by people in the American frontier.  However it was looked upon by the people who participated in the rebellion, Washington saw it as an anti-statist movement.  In his call to mobilize the militia he listed their crimes as including “intercepting the public officials on the highways” and tormenting private citizens who supported the whiskey tax and its collection.  We can learn a bit from his language.  One is that it was not the tax itself that was seen as odious, but rather its implementation and enforcement.  (This may be a moot point for what is a law that is not enforced, but most of us do not feel conscious of how disgusting the state is until its laws inconvenience us.  It is the moment of truth.  Many who admit to the justness of the law will cheat on their taxes to the extend they get away with it, complain about bureaucratic regulations, or even perform acts of everyday civil disobedience, while never being conscious that they are undermining the very foundation of state authority.)  Washington was also worried about the emergence of armed bands on the frontier at the very time he was mobilizing the formal militia for action.  In classic state-making, there can be only one authority. (See 870–873 and 882-884 for documents on the Whiskey Rebellion).

The Whiskey Rebellion

The Whiskey Rebellion

To the conquered Seneca, forced into the American empire through the treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain opens the door to the continued exploitation of Seneca lands.  Most of 1790 letter to the Seneca dealt with the proper approach to selling more land to citizens of the U.S.  He insists that “in the future you cannot be defrauded of your lands.” (774)  Of course the resolution of claims of being defrauded would be handled by U.S. courts.  He seems authentically interested in the problem of land speculation, but his approach is that of a valiant elder brother.  Much of the rest of the document details his “brotherly” advice for the Seneca, including staying away from a rowdy neighbor (the Miamee), to support the leadership of Cornplaneter, and apprehending criminals.  All in all, Washington wants to sustain the rhetoric of Indian independence but certainly acts as if the U.S. is in charge of their affairs.  Washington often complained in his letters about the lack of a “pacific disposition” among the tribes the U.S. had dealings with along their frontier as well as the machinations of the Spanish.  Long before the Monroe Doctrine, Washington was defending an imperial policy in North America reflecting a dream of hegemony.

The classic history of this period from the Seneca perspective.

The classic history of this period from the Seneca perspective.

So, Washington was overseeing the establishing of the U.S. empire.  The “Farewell Address” contains some summation of his desires for a united American people (“frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest.” (965))  At the same time that he calls for nation unity and a strong central state, he does deliver an small dissertation on the equality of peoples and the dangers of loyalty to one nation.  “The Nation, which indulges toward another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slaves.” (973)  Of course, his main concern here is against international entanglements,  I doubt he would have extended that same logic to the U.S. itself, but we certainly can do that.  Foreign entanglements may be dangerous, but so are internal entanglements and perverted loyalties to institutions.

George Washington, “Continental Army” 1775-1783

Despite his role in helping establish a democratic republic, George Washington’s time as commander of the Continental Army does reveal his continued commitment to a hierarchical society.  I do not think there is any inauthenticity here.  He does not seem to be interested in fighting for a democratic society.  In his 1775 letter to Thomas Gage, he complained that “the Officers engaged in the Cause of Liberty, and their Country, who by Fortune of war, have fallen into your Hands have been thrown indiscriminately, into a common Gaol appropriated for Felons—That no Consideration has been had for those of the most respectable Rank.” (181)  However, he is in some ways working toward a revolutionary army and was forced to come to terms with the democratic longings of the people he commanded.  Perhaps some of Washington’s importance comes from his ability to make that transition from an aristocratic leader to one at least in dialog with a democratic people.  In another letter to Thomas Gage, written just days, Washington begins to describe the difference between the American army and the British. “You affect, Sir, to despise all Rank not derived from the same Source with your own.  I cannot conceive any more honourable, than that which flows from the uncorrupted Choice of a brave a free Poeple [sic] – The purest Source & original Fountain of all Power.  Far from making it a Plea for Cruelty, an Mind of true Magnanimity, & enlarged Ideas would comprehend & respect it.” (183)

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As any college freshman knows, Washington’s major achievement as commander of the Army was his sustaining of a regular, professional military at a time when the tendency for many American farmers was to join militias to defend their communities. I suspect that Washington’s difficulties were not just products of a frontier society lacking a traditional of military discipline.  An emerging democratic society, engaged in a revolution was hostile to the very idea of a standing military.  To his credit, Washington was aware of this and willing to work with it, even as he complained about discipline in many of his letters from the war period.  “To bring Men well acquainted with the Duties of a Soldier, requires time – to bring them under proper discipline & Subordination, not only requires time, but is a Work of great difficulty; and in this Army, where there is so little distinction between the Officers and Soldiers, requires an uncommon degree of attention. . . . Three things prompt Men to a regular discharge of their Duty in time of Action, Nature bravery – hope of reward – and fear of punishment – The two first are common to the untutor’d, and the Disciplin’d Soldier; but the latter, most obviously distinguished the one from the other.” (210)  Washington goes on to warn about the danger of too much freedom in the military.  The high turn-over, mutiny late in the war, and lack of discipline seem to be the problems inherent in a revolutionary army that emerges from a democratic society.  Even in his farewell address to the Army, he had issues of discipline firmly in his mind.  At that point, he could look at it more optimistically praising the soldiers for overcoming local prejudices and replacing them with patriotism.
We do see the roots of Washington’s federalism in some of these documents.  To John Parke Custis, he wrote: “It must be a settled plan, founded on System, order and economy that is to carry us triumphantly through the war.  Supiness, and indifference to the distresses and cries of a sister State when danger is far of [sic], and a general but momentary resort to arms when it comes to our doors, are equally impolitic and dangerous, and proves the necessity of a controlling power in Congress to regular and direct all matters of general concern.” (418—419) During the demobilization of the Continental Army, Washington strongly supported a replacement with a “Militia of the Union,” which would have uniform discipline.  In one of his last, wartime letters to his brother he again calls for a “Government of his Country” to avoid the evils of “Anarchy and Confusion,” which he thought would lead to tyranny.
Most of the letters and general orders and other documents collected in this section are tedious and of little interest to me personally.  I admit to skimming through many of them.  Most are concerned with provisioning the army and reports on military activities (mostly mundane).  Some of the more interesting documents look at the attempts by Washington to find Indian allies, his quite liberal policy toward loyalists, preventing the activities of spies, his begging to state governments for funding, and his political concerns about currency policy.  I shutter to think about the letters that the editor did not include.  Ultimately, I am not finding George Washington to be all that interesting of a figure, but given his enormous task, he likely did not have much to perfect his writing or explore the deeper political and philosophical ramifications of the revolution he was integral in making successful.  We leave that to Thomas Paine, who I wrote on early in the history of this blog. In the end, I think I am more interested in the common men and women who won the war.  Looking through the commander’s eyes does not seem to take us very far.   For Washington, these men seem to have been a problem to solve more often than they were heroes.

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