Peter Kafer. Charles Brockden Brown's Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic

Eric Daffron
Peter Kafer. Charles Brockden Brown's Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic. Philadelpia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. 272 $39.95

1 Peter Kafer's Charles Brockden Brown's Revolution and the Birth of American Gothic seeks to answer one central question: What forces conspired to give rise to Brown's gothic novel Wieland in the new American Republic, a world that promoted democracy over arbitrary rule and enlightened debate over dark irrationality? Kafer begins to answer this question in his introduction. Instead of making the customary link between Brown's novel and the so-called Godwinian novel, Kafer points to Thomas Jefferson, to whom Brown sent a copy of Wieland, provocatively suggesting that the author of the Declaration of Independence had a dark side and that this division within the Republican leader provides a clue to the birth of the American gothic on otherwise ungothic soil. Kafer unravels part of the mystery behind the first American gothic novel in his prologue, which records the history of the apparently false arrest and brief exile of several Philadelphia men, most of whom were Quakers, by the Continental Congress's Committee on Spies in 1777. The prologue implies that this dramatic episode, which implicated Brown's father, among others, made a strong impression on young Charles that the enlightenment narrative of Revolutionary America had a dark underside.

2 Part One of the book, "Facts and Fictions, 1650–1798," begins with a chapter that backs up to retell the story of Brown's Quaker origins from England to Pennsylvania, returning once again to the mysterious reasons for the arrest and exile of Brown's father. The second chapter, "From Terror to Terror to Terror, 1777–93," turns to the post-Revolution period in an attempt to account for Charles's budding literary interest. From his father's interest in Wollstonecraft and Godwin to Charles's participation in a Belles Lettres Club and his quasi-fictional epistolary sequence in the manner of Rousseau's The New Eloisa, Brown developed a visionary imagination that, like that of his contemporaries Wordsworth and Coleridge, was fueled by the ideas and the realities of revolution. These "Revolutionary Reverberations" (the main title of Part One's closing chapter) included William Godwin, whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice became at once Brown's "Oracle" (66) for the virtues of sincerity and truth and an ironic springboard for Brown's developing romantic, even sensationalist, imagination.

3 After a short historical interlude, Part Two, "Fictions and Facts, 1798–1800," connects the historical material of the previous chapters to Brown's fiction. The first chapter in the part, "Sins of Fathers," convincingly places Wieland in the context of eighteenth-century Pennsylvania Quaker history and suggestively argues that the exile of Brown's father was the traumatic event that set into motion the issues explored imaginatively in Wieland. Perhaps the most successful chapter in the entire book, the second chapter on "The Anti-Godwin," demonstrates how, with Arthur Mervyn, Brown imitates Godwin's Caleb Williams and how, with "Memoirs of Carwin" and Ormond, he launches a critique of Godwinian rationalism. Part Two closes with "The Return of the Present ... and Past," which places Edgar Huntly, Brown's last gothic novel, in relation to the Pennsylvania Revolution of the 1750s and 1760s.

4 Kafer's book ends with a conclusion on Brown's post-1800 Federalist politics, which forsook his gothic vision, and with an epilogue on Brown's influence on Poe and Hawthorne. Perhaps the epilogue could have brought the book to a more satisfactory close if it had explored Brown's influence on the American gothic tradition in more depth. Instead, the epilogue returns to the points with which the book began: Jefferson and the events in Brown's early life that incited his gothic vision. Undoubtedly, Kafer makes an excellent case for examining the author's Quaker roots for clues to the meaning behind Brown's fiction. Yet the point of individual chapters in relation to the book's overall thesis often gets lost in a thicket of historical detail, causing the book to lose momentum, especially early on. Nevertheless, the book is worth careful attention because, if nothing else, it reminds us of the importance of Charles Brockden Brown, the novelty of his literary production, and the power of the gothic vision to lay bear the dark corners of the past.