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)

cover

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.)

cover2

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.                                                                                                       

Advertisements

Tennessee Williams: “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947)

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a quite amazing play. It contains the maturation of some of Williams’ most central themes, such as the burden of the past, the violence of human institutions (again the family is the most visceral and inescapable of these), and the difficulty of honest relationships. The key point to me is that Blanche DuBois was making an honest attempt to remake herself by moving into her sister’s house after fleeing her ancestral home of Laurel. While she certainly made mistakes, she is not a horrible person and did not deserve the abuse she received by her brother-in-law, which ranged from intrusive interrogations, spying, rape, and ultimately exile and institutionalization. As we learn, Blanche has good reasons for her life falling apart. It is striking that compared to the family, the law and the state is actually quite open about giving people second chances. As difficult as it may be to survive the bureaucratic machine of the state after a mistake or a catastrophe, it at least (through systems of parole and bankruptcy) hold onto the mythology of second chances. Stanley (and more hesitantly Stella Kowalski) exploits Blanche’s weaknesses for his own pleasure and domination in the household.

cover

Stanley is a working class guy and actually has a rather strong relationship with his wife due to their sexual chemistry and regular periods of freedom from each other. Certainly Blanche’s arrival—destitute and homeless although under certain pretensions—disrupts their delicate system. Stanley is eager to defend his little world from what he soon takes to be an intruder. (The hot water bathes seemed quite bothersome.) Class prejudice shapes Blanche’s view of Stanley. She also picks up on his defensive attitude toward his space and his family. “Thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by, and these he is—Stanley Kowalski—survivor of the stone age! Bearing the raw meat home from the kill in the jungle! And you—you here—waiting for him! Maybe he’ll strike you or maybe grunt and kiss you! That is, if kisses have been discovered yet! Night falls and the other apes gather! There in the front of the cave, all grunting like him, and swilling and gnawing and hulking!” (510)

cover2

Blanche may share some of the delusions attitudes of Amanda in A Glass Menagerie, but unlike Amanda, Blanche is really harming no one else with her delusions of grandeur and her promiscuity. If we look at her situation we find much to sympathize with. She was left in the ancestral home with the remnants of a Southern aristocracy (now a gerontocracy). Her job is to bury these elders one at a time. In the end she is left bankrupt and bearing the moral responsibility for being the last member of a decaying dynasty. Her husband killed himself after being exposed as a homosexual. Alone in her hometown she becomes promiscuous and an alcoholic and is eventually kicked out of the hotel she was staying at. She was fired from her job as a teacher around the same time (reportedly for starting a sexual relationship with a student). She certainly could have used some solidarity and support from her surviving relatives. This does not excuse her attitude toward her brother-in-law, which is dreadfully aristocratic.

The tragedy of the play is built on the tyranny of expectations both individual and social. Despite what Blanche says about Stanley, comparing him to an ape, he is as capable as the people of Blanche and Stella’s hometown of using moral expectations as a weapon. It is not clear that he holds them, but he sure does put on the moral outrage when he reports on what his informants tell him about Blanche’s unfortunate past in Laurel.

Of course the play ends with the largely unseen but very ominous threat of the asylum. Stanley arranged for Blanche to be taken in as a ward of a mental institution after her nervous breakdown resulting from Stanley raping her. Signs of her mental deterioration preceded this event and the rape is a tragic addition to her life of suffering. Stanley wanted to get rid of her and likely would have used a similar device to get rid of her. Why is it that in so much art, the police, the prison, the school and other authoritarian institutions are so easily attacked and undermined yet we continue to send our children and our brothers and sisters to these places? Why do not these depictions of institutions do more to undermine their power over our lives?