Charles Brockden Brown: “Arthur Mervyn” (1799)

He knew how to value the thoughts of other people, but he could not part with the privilege of observing and thinking for himself. He wanted business which would suffer at least nine tenths of his attention to go free. If it afforded agreeable employment that that part of his attention which it applied to its own use, so much the better; but if it did not, he should not repine. He should be content with a life whose pleasures were to its pains as nine are to one. He had tried the trade of a copyist, and in circumstances more favourable than it was likely he should ever again have opportunity of trying it, and he had found that it did not fulfil the requisite conditions. Whereas the trade of plowman was friendly to health, liberty, and pleasure. (238)

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I have just noticed, looking at the dates of Charles Brockden Brown’s major works, that he published his three most well-known works—the three collected in the Library of America anthology—within two years. One of these, Arthur Mervyn, is a complex and elaborate tale that alone would have made Brown part of the American canon of literature. It comes quite close to make Brown the American William Godwin. Like Wieland, Arthur Mervyn takes on the “contrast” (to borrow from Royall Tyler’s play exposing the division between European/urban society and America/rural, republican, virtuous. In Wieland the ominous urban civilization is imported from Europe through characters. In Arthur Mervyn the city is looked at as a dark corner of American civilization. It is almost as if the cancer hinted at in the earlier work had taken root in America.

What struck me most of all when reading the first half of Arthur Mervyn was how psychological traumatic the protagonist’s wanderings between these two worlds was. He was really thrust into a world where there was no solid foundation to his life. His searching for work brought him into a position where he was completely alienated from what he was doing—forging documents as it turns out. Much of the anxiety and dark suggestion of the story is rooted in the bizarre relationship between the boss and the employee, starting from the arbitrary way he was hired to the ambiguous nature of the wealth he is producing. To be specific, one common theme in the story is rooted in the profession of forgery and counterfeiting money, which both appears to have real wealth, but certainly does not. So, what we have in this novel is a curious exploration of the nature of urban capitalism to disturb our comfortable categories. In the background of all of this is an ominous yellow fever epidemic that hits everyone regardless of class and status, yet another ambiguity of urban civilization. Long before Philip K. Dick mastered this theme, Brown laid it out with amazing clarity.

The novel tracks the adventures of Arthur Mervyn as he arrives destitute in the city. He begs for some money only to be hired by a strange man with an unclear profession. At first, Mervyn is not even clear on what he is to do. He knows only that he has a job. (How common is this feeling in late industrial society?) He discovers that the man—Welbeck—is a quite odious character all around. He makes his living by counterfeiting and forging documents. Welbeck apparently dies in a boating accident and Mervyn eventually gets sick with yellow fever when trying to transport Wallace, a man who robbed him earlier in the novel, to a farm for recuperation. Wallace tries to apologize for his earlier wrongs against Mervyn. The protagonist returns to Welbeck’s mansion. He begins to consider what to do with the money he got from Welbeck, who he thinks is dead. He decides whether to put it to public use or give it to Clemenza—a woman Welbeck claimed was his daughter, but whom Welbeck seduced and impregnated. Welbeck appears, apparently having faked his own death. When confronted on the money, Welbeck claims they are forged, so Mervyn burns them. This horrifies Welbeck, who confesses that they were real. He only claimed they were forged to get Mervyn to hand them over. All of this story is told in flashback to a Dr. Stevens, who had saved his life after Welbeck in anger turned out on the streets to die on the streets.

There is a hint in the first part of the novel of solutions to these disruptions. One that Arthur Meryvn is constantly struggling for is a return to the more stable life of the countryside. A braver response comes to him in the context of the yellow fever epidemic.

It is vain to hope to escape the malady by which my mother and my brothers have died. We are a race, whose existence some inherent property has limited to the short space of twenty years. We are exposed, in common with the rest of mankind, to innumerable casualties; but if these be shunned, we are unalterably fated to perish by consumption. Why then should I scruple to lay fown my life in the cause of virtue and humanity? It is better to die, in consciousness of having offered an heroic sacrifice; to die by a speedy stroke, than by the perverseness of nature, in ignominious inactivity, and lingering agonics. (351)

It seems to me that this is a suggestion that we should work in the terrible world we live in, and not incessantly seek escape to some idyllic paradise that may in actuality be a figment of our imagination. The disease of yellow fever, like the urban capitalist civilization, will spread regardless of our will. As it was for Caleb Williams (William Godwin), escape is not an option. Goodwill and solidarity, however, do offer a form of solidity in a liquid world.

Next time I will look at the rest of the novel.

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Lynd Ward, “Gods’ Man” (1929)

Lynd Ward wrote graphic novels that did not require any words.  He learned the technique from reading German attempts at constructing narratives from wood block prints.  He introduced this method to the United States and created astoundingly expressive novels.  This methods did not seem to evolve from the comics that might be the ancestors of contemporary graphic novels.  Ward never read those early comic, having been forbidden by his strict, yet politically progressive, minister father.  His six graphic novels were rooted in the tradition of 1930s populism.  The “proletrianization of American culture” that historian Micheal Denning called the left-ward turn of 1930s culture is strongly expressed in these six novels.  According to Denning, the strong Communist and socialist movements, the government investment in the arts, and the trauma of the Great Depression informed an entire generation of culture.  (Indeed, we might add, it was the cultural milieu of the “greatest generation” if we want to participate in that generational hero-worship.)  Gods’ Man is the first of Ward’s novels, published in the same week of the Stock Market crash of 1929.

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Ward’s suspicion of the artistic merit of comics is laid out in a short essay he wrote on Gods’ Man (included in Library of America collection and completely unnecessary for understanding his tale).  “It [pictorial narrative] has a long history and includes visual sequences in a variety of media.  It ranges in time from the wall decorations in Egyptian tombs to contemporary comic stripes.  The measuring stick, if anyone is making a list of what is or is not a pictorial narrative, is whether the communication of what is and what is happening is accomplished entirely or predominately in visual terms.” (779)  Most comic books fail this test.

Gods' Man

Gods’ Man is put together into five parts and contains 139 wood block images.  Part one (“The Brush”) starts with an artist on a ship.  He lands and observes a city in the distance.  It is a modern city that reminds us of New York, with tall skyscrapers.  He meets a beggar and gives him his last coin.  When he arrives an a suburban village, he is taken in by an innkeeper but lacks the money to pay the innkeeper.  He tries to pay with a painting but the innkeeper laughs.  Apparently he is not such a good artist.  A strange man pays his bill and looks at his work.  He tells the artist that he owns a special brush, previously owned by the greatest artists in history.  The artist can have it if he signs a Faustian contract.  (The terms are not spelled out.)  The artist signs it.  He is like the proletariat.  Not without skills, but hardly exceptional.  Lacking any wealth but his mental and physical capacities.  The Faustian bargain that all workers engage in is their willingness to sell their precious labor for mere survival.

Part two (“The Mistress”) explores the alienation from labor introduced by capitalism and helps explain why we so often accept that alienation.  The artist enters the city and is overwhelmed by its power.  He starts painting which the new brush.  The people of the city are instantly amazed at his prowess and rich man offers to be his agent.  The rich man immediately sells the painting he is working on to the eager public.  He procures for the artist a penthouse studio, an apartment, and introduces him to the social elite, including “the mistress.” The artist is out of place among these people, but eventually finds his place among then, aided by alcohol.  Bedding the beautiful woman incorporates him into that elite culture even more.  The artist is there for the money he can make other people.  Too naive to understand this now, he will come to learn that his alienation from his artistic work comes at too high a price.

Richman

Part three (“The Brand”) explores the broader alienation and atomization of modern urban life.  “The mistress” admits she is only sleeping with the artist for money.  He flees the apartment and wanders the city.  Ward describes the loneliness and horror of urban life brilliantly in a few images of the artist wandering.  He sees couples on the street, but always imagines the woman is “the mistress.”  He imagines her laughing at his foolishness.  This obsessions leads to an altercation with a policeman, who puts him in jail.  He is able to escape by killing the man bringing his food.  The artist is forced to flee the city.

Part four (“The Wife”) finds the artist escaping from the city to a pastoral paradise.  Ward seems to dislike cities.  This will not be the only time his characters flee the city for nature.  A woman there nurses him back to health and shows him the beauty of nature by taking him to observe the night sky, far from the city.  He falls in love with this woman and they have a child.  He creates something of worth for himself, not for the rich man, and without the aid of the brush.

Part five (“The Portrait”) is set a few years later.  The artist is training his son how to paint.  The man who sold him the brush returns and asks for a portrait.  The artist eagerly takes him up the mountain, thinking this will complete the contract he signed at the beginning.  When the painting is near complete, the man exposes his face and revealed himself as a demon.  The artist dies and the brush returns to its owner.

Gods’ Man explores several themes of importance to this blog.  The first is the relationship between poverty/want and our alienation from our abilities.  A second theme is the corruption of urban life and Ward’s clear preference for the countryside.  Here I am more skeptical.  Urban life provides a great number of alternatives for individual tastes and is inherently more flexible than rural communities.    As I explored way back in the early days of this blog, intentional communities in rural areas can often be more internally oppressive than modern urban environments.  Ward’s image of rural areas as single farmers or women in a cottage is simply silly.

If I were to interpret the entire story it is that the artist resemble the modern industrial working class.  They sold themselves to capital for the possibility or success in urban environments.  Even those who make it, like our artist, are being used and will be discard when no longer necessary for profit.  The deal the proletariat made is Faustian.  He cannot escape it horrors.  The flight to the countryside is a mad fantasy.  Ward will re-explore this theme in Wild Pilgrimage with a character who comes back from his time in the countryside with a desire to destroy capitalism.  For Ward, this seems the more mature option.  Both characters will die, but one will die as a victim and the other as a revolutionary.