Home  »  The American Novel  »  Section 1. Arguments and Experiments

Carl Van Doren (1885–1950). The American Novel. 1921.

Chapter 1. The Beginnings of Fiction

Section 1. Arguments and Experiments

PROSE fiction, by the outbreak of the American Revolution one of the most popular forms of literature in Europe, had as yet a small and insecure reputation in the British colonies which subsequently became the United States. Not only were there still no native novels, but the great English masters of the art had little vogue. Richardson’s Pamela, indeed, a book read everywhere as much for its piety as for its power to entertain, had been printed in 1744 at Philadelphia by that shrewd judge of public taste and private profits, Benjamin Franklin, and there were editions the same year at New York and Boston. But Richardson’s later novels, like Fielding’s Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, did not appear for more than forty years, when all of them were brought out in abridged editions in 1786. Even Robinson Crusoe had to wait nearly fifty years for an American printer, while Rasselas and The Vicar of Wakefield only tardily crossed the Atlantic. English editions, of course, had a moderate circulation, but it could not have been great or a keener rivalry would have been awakened in such towns as Boston and Philadelphia in spite of the coldness of utilitarians and Puritans. Probably the Southern and Middle colonies read more novels than New England. William Byrd of Virginia, owner of one of the largest private libraries in America, possessed novels by Defoe, Fielding, Smollett, Le Sage, and Cervantes (who as satirist and moralist was widely admired), as well as more trivial performances. There was at least one copy of Joseph Andrews in Philadelphia in 1744, for Dr. Alexander Hamilton of Maryland, then on a leisurely vacation, read it there and thought it the best work of the kind he had ever seen. And New England was by no means innocent of novels. Jonathan Edwards himself, conspicuous among the saints, read Sir Charles Grandison, and with such interest that he resolved to correct his own hitherto neglected style upon the example of Richardson; while Stephen Burroughs, as conspicuous among the sinners, later charged many of his offenses to his early reading of such books as Guy, Earl of Warwick, which he read about the time of the Revolution.

In part this apathy to fiction was due to the common colonial tendency to lag behind in matters of taste and culture. Pope in poetry and Addison in prose long sufficed for models among the Americans, and theological and political discussion proceeded with little reference to prevailing modes in imaginative literature. But even more important than mere apathy was the positive antipathy which showed itself when, soon after the Revolution, novel reading began to increase with great rapidity, and native novelists appeared in respectable numbers. The moralists were aroused and exclaimed against the change—their cries appearing in the magazines of the day side by side with moral tales. Nearly every grade of sophistication applied itself to the problem. The dullest critics contended that novels were lies; the pious, that they served no virtuous purpose; the strenuous, that they softened sturdy minds; the utilitarian, that they crowded out more useful books; the realistic, that they painted adventure too romantic and love too vehement; the patriotic, that, dealing with European manners, they tended to confuse and dissatisfy republican youth. In the face of such censure American novelists came forward late and apologetically, armed for the most part with the plea that they told the truth, pointed to heaven, or devoutly believed in the new republic. Before 1800 the sweeping abuse of the older school had been forced to share the field of criticism with occasional efforts to distinguish good novels from bad. The relative merits of Fielding and Smollett were discussed almost as frequently as, fifty years later, were those of Dickens and Thackeray, and in much the same confusion of ethical and æsthetic considerations. Fielding was of course preferred by the enlightened, Smollett by the robustious, Sterne by the “sensible,” and Richardson, most popular of all it will be seen, by the domestic and sentimental. Indeed, to the influence of Richardson, with something from Sterne, must be credited the first regular American novel, The Power of Sympathy, a poor and stilted narrative in epistolary form which was published by Sarah Wentworth Morton at Boston in 1789.

Political allegory, however, had already begun to prepare the way for invented narratives. The eighteenth century would have been less than itself had it brought forth in America only sentimental romances. Franklin is but one of many evidences that humor and satire were not silent. Francis Hopkinson, also of Philadelphia, produced an allegory which lies nearly as close to fiction as to history. In A Pretty Story (1774) he set forth, after the fashion earlier established by Dr. Arbuthnot, the history of a certain nobleman (the king) who had an old farm (England) and a new farm (the colonies) in the management of which his wife. (Parliament) and his steward (the ministry) constantly interfered to the annoyance of his sons (the colonists) and to the great derangement of his own affairs. The story breaks off abruptly with Jack (Boston) shut up in his farm and turning for help to his brothers. The satire was without much bitterness or indignation, and perhaps for that reason all the more effective through its shrewd and amusing narrative. Jeremy Belknap, the learned historian of New Hampshire, likewise tried his hand at allegory in The Foresters (1792, enlarged 1796). His foresters are the colonists, whose career he follows in a mild comic history, consistently allegorized, from the days of settlement, through the colonial wars, the Revolution, the Confederation, the Constitution, the establishment of the Republic, and the polemic episode of Citizen Genêt.

Neither Hopkinson nor Belknap is to be compared, for comic force and satirical point and power of observation, to the Pennsylvanian Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816), who between 1792 and 1805 published the various parts of his satirical novel Modern Chivalry. It is indicative of the changing taste of his time that he began his book in 1787 in the meter of Hudibras, recently employed with such success in Trumbull’s McFingal, but later changed to prose. By his own confession, he followed the style of Hume, Swift, and Fielding—like Swift in A Tale of a Tub alternating chapters of narrative with ironical essays on all manner of subjects. Captain Farrago, the hero, is a new Don Quixote, who whimsically takes it into his head to leave his farm in western Pennsylvania “and ride about the world a little, with his man Teague at his heels, to see how things were going on here and there, and to observe human nature.” As a description of manners in the early days of the Republic the book is unapproached by any other. Races, elections, rural conjurors, village “philosophers” or pseudo-scientists, inns, duels and challenges, treaties with Indians, the Society of the Cincinnati, hedge parsons, brothels, colleges, Congress, Quakers, lawyers, theaters, law courts, Presidential levees, dancing masters, excise officers, tar and feathers, insurrections—all these are displayed in the first part of the book with obvious verisimilitude and unflagging spirit. Much of the action of this part is furnished by the doings of Teague, a grotesque and witless Sancho Panza, whose impudent ambition survives the most ludicrous and painful misadventures. Brackenridge regards him as typical of the political upstarts of the period, and his triumphs as an accusation properly to be brought against the public which followed such sorry leaders. In Part II Captain Farrago, after a brief hiatus spent on his farm, resumes his travels, which at first do not take him beyond the limits of the nearest village, with its newspaper, academy, lunatic asylum, and fair, but which eventually bring him to a settlement in the back country of which he becomes governor. The remainder of the book, ostensibly a chronicle of the new settlement, is practically a burlesque of the history of civilization in America. The settlers war with the Indians and make a constitution. They legislate like madmen, under the guidance of a visionary from Washington who holds that beasts should have the vote as well as men, and actually persuades his fellows to commission a monkey clerk and admit a hound to the bar. Brackenridge aimed his satire primarily at doctrinaires and demagogues, but he whipped as well almost all the current follies and affectations, revising his book from time to time to keep pace with new absurdities. For half a century Modern Chivalry was widely popular, and nowhere more so than along the very frontier which it satirized and which read it as more or less a true history. It was among the earliest books printed west of the Alleghanies.

Satire had to be helped by sentiment, however, before fiction could win the largest audience. Indeed, until Scott had definitely established a new mode of fiction for the world, the potent influence in American fiction was Richardson. The amiable ladies who produced most of the early sentimental novels commonly held, like Mrs. Rowson, that their knowledge of life had been “simply gleaned from pure nature,” because they dealt with facts which had come under their own observation; but like other amateurs they saw in nature what art had assured them would be there. Nature and Richardson they found the same. Whatever bias they gave this Richardsonian universe was due to a pervading consciousness that their narratives would be followed chiefly by women. The result was a highly domestic world, limited in outlook, where the talk was of careless husbands, of grief for dead children, of the peril of many childbirths, of the sentiment and the religion without which it used to be thought women could not endure their sex’s destiny. Over all hangs the unceasing menace of the seducer, who appears in such multitudes that modern readers might think that age one of the most illicit on record if they did not understand that Richardson’s Lovelace is merely being repeated in different colors and proportions. It is true, however, that the two most important novels of this sort, as well as The Power of Sympathy, were based on actual happenings. Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797) recorded the tragic and widely known career of Elizabeth Whitman of Hartford, who, having coquetted with the Reverend Joseph Buckminster, was seduced by a mysterious rake generally identified with Jonathan Edwards’s son Pierrepont, and died in misery at the Old Bell Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts, in 1788. The Coquette saw thirty editions in forty years, and was known in almost every household of the Connecticut Valley. It has not survived as has Susannah Haswell Rowson’s Charlotte (1794), one of the most popular novels ever published in the United States. Mrs. Rowson, an American only by immigration, had probably written the novel in England (where it seems to have been published in 1790), but Charlotte Temple, to call it by its later title, was thoroughly naturalized and has had its largest circulation here. It has persuaded an increasingly naïve underworld of fiction readers—housemaids and shopgirls—to buy more than a hundred editions and has built up a legend about a not too authentic tomb in Trinity Churchyard, New York, which at least since about 1845 has borne the name “Charlotte Temple” in concession to the legend but which probably contains the ashes of a certain Charlotte Stanley whom a British officer named Montrésor seduced from her home in England and deserted in New York, much as in the novel. This simple story Mrs. Rowson embroidered with every device known to the romancer—sentimentalism, bathos, easy tears, high-flying language, melodrama, moralizings without stint or number; and yet something universal in the theme has kept it, in its way, still alive without the concurrence of critics or historians of literature.

The tradition that Abigail Stanley, mother of Elizabeth Whitman, was a cousin of Charlotte, serves to illustrate the process by which Charlotte Temple and The Coquette won a hearing from a community which winced at fiction: like sagas they stole upon their readers in the company of facts. A similar companionship appears in Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive (1797). The hero, Updike Underhill, after an account of his youth and education in the backwoods of New England, and of his experiences as a schoolmaster there, goes on to Boston, begins the practice of medicine, proceeds to Philadelphia, where he meets Franklin, and to Virginia, where he is shocked at encountering a figure quite unknown to New England, a sporting parson; later he goes to sea, visits London, tells of Tom Paine, observes the horrors of a slave ship, and is captured by the Algerines, among whom he spends the six years recounted in the second volume. The value of the book lies largely in its report of facts, which it gives clearly and freshly. That Tyler thought of the traveler and the novelist as about equally his models appears from his preface, upon which the fame of The Algerine Captive principally depends. In 1787, it should be remembered, he had produced our earliest comedy, The Contrast, opposing to foreign affectations the rustic worth of the first “stage Yankee.” Now ten years later he renewed his demand for nativism, while pointing out that the status of fiction had greatly changed in the interim. Formerly, he says, “books of Biography, Travels, Novels, and modern Romances, were confined to our sea ports; or, if known in the country, were read only in the families of Clergymen, Physicians, and Lawyers; while certain funeral discourses, the last words and dying speeches of Bryan Shakeen, and Levi Ames, and some dreary somebody’s Day of Doom, formed the most diverting part of the farmer’s library.” But “no sooner was a taste for amusing literature diffused than all orders of country life, with one accord, forsook the sober sermons and Practical Pieties of the fathers, for the gay stories and splendid impieties of the Traveller and the Novelist. The worthy farmer no longer fatigued himself with Bunyan’s Pilgrim up the ‘hill of difficulty’ or through the ‘slough of despond’; but quaffed wine with Brydone in the hermitage of Vesuvius, sported with Bruce on the fairy land of Abyssinia: while Dolly, the diary [sic] maid, and Jonathan, the hired man, threw aside the ballad of the cruel stepmother, over which they had so often wept in concert, and now amused themselves into so agreeable a terrour, with the haunted houses and hobgoblins of Mrs. Ratcliffe [sic], that they were both afraid to sleep alone.” Such addiction to romance, Tyler argued, was too exciting for plain Americans; their novels like their clothes ought to be homespun.

It was in the very year of Royall Tyler’s preface that the first American to make authorship his sole profession decided upon fiction as the form he should undertake. Charles Brockden Brown (1770–1810) of Philadelphia as a schoolboy aspired to be an epic poet, and contemplated epics on Columbus, Pizarro, and Cortez, possibly desiring to rival Timothy Dwight, whose Conquest of Canaan appeared in 1785, or Joel Barlow, whose Vision of Columbus followed two years later. But after reading William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794) Brown acquired a new ambition. He would patriotically try for reality as some others were trying; and of course he would lay stress on the moral tendency of his performances, as all had done. In addition he hoped “to enchain the attention and ravish the souls of those who study and reflect.” At the same time, he was too good a democrat to write for geniuses alone, and he believed that while they were being stirred by the ideas of a novel the plain people could be captured by its plot.

Brown’s important books were written in a few vivid months, spent mostly in New York. His specific indebtedness to Godwin appears chiefly in a fondness for the central situation of Caleb Williams: an innocent and somewhat helpless youth in the grasp of a patron turned enemy. The parallel is exact in Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800), which brings a young man of that name to Philadelphia, makes him blunder into the secret of a murder, and subjects him to elaborate persecutions from the murderer. A surviving fragment of the lost Sky-Walk (written in 1797) shows that Brown there varied the Godwin situation by making the patron a woman. In Ormond (1799) by still another variation a woman is the victim, Constantia Dudley, pursued by the enthusiast and revolutionary Ormond until in self-defense she is obliged to kill him. Constantia won the passionate regard of a greater among Godwin’s disciples, Shelley, to whom she was the type of virtuous humanity oppressed by evil custom. But Brown’s victims do not have to undergo the cumulative agony of Godwin’s, for the reason that Brown worked too violently to be able to organize a scheme of circumstances all converging upon any single victim. And more than his vehement methods of work handicapped him in his rivalry with Godwin: to be a master of the art of calm and deliberate narrative he must have had Godwin’s cold and consistent philosophy of life. As a matter of fact, while the leaven of revolutionary rationalism stirs in his work, it does not, as with Godwin’s, pervade the mass.

The Godwinian elements in Brown now seem less impressive than certain effects which he was able to produce by the use of native material. In 1793 he had fled with his family to the country to escape the epidemic of yellow fever which then visited Philadelphia; five years later he had gone through a similar invasion of the plague at New York. His letters show how deeply he was moved by the only personal contact he ever had with such affairs of danger and terror as he chose to write about. Composing Ormond almost before the pestilence had receded, Brown transferred his impressions from the New York of 1798 to the Philadelphia of 1793, as he did in Arthur Mervyn, perhaps for some gain in perspective; but in both he wrote with an eye on the fact as nowhere else in his books. With unsparing, not to say sickening, veracity, he reproduced the physical horrors of the plague—its loathsome symptoms and its fearful stenches; he was even more veracious in his account of the mental and spiritual horrors which accompanied it: the superstitious dread and foolhardy courage which sprang in different people from the current ignorance with regard to infection; the pusillanimous flight of many who were deeply needed; the brutal callousness of certain wretches who stayed to nurse the sick and then neglected them; the general moral collapse. Less successful than these experiments was that in Edgar Huntly (1799), wherein he turned to the material which beyond any other was to be celebrated in American fiction for half a century: frontier adventure. Brown claimed for this book the merit “of calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader by means hitherto unemployed by preceding authors. Puerile superstition and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras, are the materials usually employed for this end. The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the Western wilderness, are far more suitable; and for a native of America to overlook these would admit of no apology.” As far as his knowledge and his prepossessions allowed him, Brown succeeded in his experiment. But he knew little of the frontier, either its scenery or its customs, and no more of the Indians than he could have picked up from books or casual meetings in the towns. What he did was to substitute new devices for calling forth much the same passions and sympathies as had been addressed by the older Gothic romances. His wild regions and his wild adventures are all seen through an intensely romantic temperament with only occasional intervals for realism. As in his handling of the yellow fever, Brown shows power to set forth grisly details of blood and suffering, and he treats his Indians without the glamor with which they were already invested by certain sentimentalists. But so far as reality of impression is concerned, the visible Indians are none of them so memorable as the old woman called Queen Mab, who never appears in person and who exists chiefly as a symbol of a race vanquished and yet still clinging to its old domains with a tenacity that is poetic. Vivid, too, is the impression of the feverish, nocturnal wanderings, without much aim or sequence, to which Huntly devotes his time. Here again Brown’s shambling narrative methods dull the edge of his story: like most of the romancers of his age, he moved forward through a cloud.

As a rationalist he tried to solve the mystery of the cloud about Edgar Huntly by explaining that both Clithero, the suspected villain who is really innocent, and Huntly are addicted to sleep-walking, a subject which was just then, as contemporary journals show, under discussion and much debated. Also illustrative of Brown’s attempt to fuse mystery with science, and in itself more effective than this sleep-walking, is the ventriloquism which plays a prominent part in his best—that is, his most compact, most psychological, and most powerful—novel, Wieland (1798). Its plot was primarily founded upon the deed of an actual religious fanatic of Tomhannock, New York, who in a mad vision had heard himself commanded to destroy all his idols, and had murdered his wife and children with ferocious brutality. With this theme Brown involved the story of Carwin, the “biloquist,” to make the “voices” seem less incredible than in the original. It may be assumed that ventriloquism did not seem a pinchbeck solution in 1798, when it was a trick little known or practised; and Brown, too much an artist to make his ventriloquist a mere instigator to murder, makes him out a hero-villain whose tragedy it is that he has to sin, not as the old morality had it, because of mere wickedness, but because of the driving power of the spirit of evil which no man can resist and from which only the weak are immune. Yet though Carwin by his irresponsible acts of ventriloquism in and out of season actually sets going in Theodore Wieland’s mind the train of thought which terminates in the crimes, he does no more than to arouse from unsuspected depths a frenzy already sleeping in Wieland’s nature. These were cases of speculative pathology which Brown had met in his Godwinian twilights, beings who had for him the reality he knew best, that of dream and passion; from them comes the fever in the climate which gives the book its shuddering power. To a notable extent Wieland fulfills the rules Brown had laid down in his announcement of Sky-Walk. Ventriloquism, religious murder, and a case of spontaneous combustion make up the “contexture of facts capable of suspending the faculties of every soul in curiosity.” These were for the unlearned. The apparent scene of action is laid upon the banks of the Schuylkill; this was patriotic realism. But for those of his readers who might have “soaring passions and intellectual energy,” as Brown had, the absorbing thing was the clash of mighty forces, the din of good and evil, which resound through the story, and which in spite of awkward narrative, strained probabilities, and a premature solution, lift it above the ephemeral—the earliest American romance of distinction.