The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 10. Edgar Huntly
Passion, not hard conviction, gives Brown his positive qualities. He had a power in keeping up suspense which no clumsiness could destroy. In presenting the physical emotions of danger and terror he had a kind of ghoulish force. Without the deftness to get full value from his material, he had still a sharp eye for what was picturesque or dramatic. In Edgar Huntly, for which Brown was considerably indebted to the memory of Sky-Walk, he made notable use of that pioneer life which was to bulk so large in American fiction for half a century. His preface repeats his earlier plea, as “Speratus,” for native matter in native fiction. From that ideal he never swerved. The plague, Wieland’s frenzy, Queen Mab in Edgar Huntly,—these he had studied from the facts as he knew them. That his books are not more realistic proves merely that he was a romancer interested primarily in ideas and abstruse mental states which he saw with his eyes closed. “Sir,” he told prying John Davis, “good pens, thick paper, and ink well diluted, would facilitate my compostion more than the prospect of the broadest expanse of clouds, water, or mountains rising above the clouds.” But when Brown opened his eyes he always saw Pennsylvania. His strangest supernaturalisms, too, turn out in the end to have rested on acts of nature which science can explain. It was his characters he romanticized. He saw in man a dignity which only the days of hopeful revolution can bestow, and he was thus urged to study souls with a passion which took him past the outward facts of humanity to a certain essential truth which given him, among his contemporaries, his special virtue.
In April, 1799, Brown began to edit The Monthly Magazine in New York and so entered the decade of journalism which closed his life. He wrote, indeed, besides fragments of fiction, two other novels, Clara Howard (1801) and Jane Talbot (1801), but they lack his old vigour. In Jane Talbot he seemed to renounce Godwin; gradually he became subdued to humanity and lost his concern with romance. He returned to Philadelphia in 1801, where, two years later, he founded The Literary Magazine. The stolid orthodoxy of his prospectus makes it clear that he was no longer a philosopher of the old stamp, although he did write two acts of a tragedy for John Bernard, and, told the play would not act, burned the work and kept its ashes in a snuff-box. In November, 1804, he married Miss Elizabeth Linn of New York, and was thereafter an exemplary husband, father, and drudge, who produced pamphlets, large parts of his magazine, and practically the whole of the useful American Register (1807–11). The fame of his novels, of which he claimed to think little, became a legend, but new editions were not called for. In 1809 he was elected to honorary membership in the New York Historical Society, with such notables as Lindley Murray, Noah Webster, Benjamin trumbull, Timothy Dwight, Josiah Quincy, and George Clinton. He did of consumption 19 February, 1810. In England he was well known for at least a generation. Blackwood’s praised him with the fiery pen of John Neal; Scott borrowed from him the names of two characters in Guy Mannering; Godwin himself owed to Wieland a hint for Mandeville. In his native country Brown has stood, with occastional flickerings of interest, firmly fixed as a literary ancestor.